Obviously, as a religious person myself, I am biased, but I see some value to having tolerant religion alongside science. For one thing, it can teach people that your default theory can be anything, as long as you are willing to hear contrary evidence (eg. absence of proof is not proof of absence, so belief in God isn't unscientific, anymore than the belief that there is no god).
Edward seems to be a nice guy, supportive of science and opposed to religious intolerance (and supportive of this blog, which is of course the most important criterion). But his comment cuts to the heart of one of my main problems with progressive, non-fundamentalist religion… and while I don't have as much of a problem with progressive religion as I do with fundamentalism or other dogmatic religion, I think it is worth talking about.
Which brings me back to Edwards's comment, and the question of holding beliefs that aren't contradicted by evidence but aren't supported by it, either.
I could, in the next fifteen minutes, come up with half a dozen beliefs that aren't contradicted by evidence but that also aren't supported by any. The universe was created by a cosmic graffiti artist, and the Big Bang was the result of her spray can exploding under pressure. Cats talk to each other in Sanskrit — but only when nobody's listening. Gravity is caused by hundreds of tiny invisible demons inside every physical object, pulling towards each other with a magical force field. (Objects with more mass can hold more demons — hence their greater gravitational force.) Etc., etc., etc. Atheists even make something of a game of it: the Flying Spaghetti Monster; the Invisible Pink Unicorn; Bertrand Russell's china teapot orbiting the sun; the incorporeal dragon in Carl Sagan's garage.
The only reason — and I mean the ONLY reason — that the standard God hypotheses have more gravitas than the flying spaghetti monster or my secret talking cats is that lots of other people believe them. And that lots of other people have believed them (or an assortment of evolving versions of them) through history. And that some very smart people have twisted their minds around the problem and come up with some very clever, if rather contorted, defenses of the proposition. If it weren't for the gravitas built up by centuries of belief, we'd have no more reason to take any of the standard God hypotheses seriously than any of the goofy joke religions that atheists make up to entertain themselves.
In other words, if the only thing you have going for your belief is "you can't prove that it isn't true," that isn't enough.
This is actually the point Bertrand Russell was illustrating with his china teapot. The point wasn't so much that "you can't prove that it isn't true" isn't a good enough reason to believe in something. As important as that is, it's actually secondary to his argument. The main point he was making is… well, let me quote the passage in question:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. (Emphasis mine.)
There is, in fact, a very serious problem with holding a belief that isn't supported by any good evidence, even if it isn't contradicted by any. If your belief isn't supported by any evidence, how do you choose among the millions and millions of possible beliefs you could come up with that also aren't supported by evidence but aren't contradicted by it? How do you even choose between the hundreds and hundreds of commonly- held religious beliefs that actually exist?
If your default theory has to keep shifting and slipping and mutating to accommodate new evidence contradicting it… AND if the consistent historical pattern of your default theory has been a long, relentless process of it being chipped away… AND if you don't have any solid evidence to support even the most core part of your default theory… then perhaps you should look at discarding your theory.
It is not the case that your default theory can be anything, as long as you are willing to hear contrary evidence. That's not a logical, rational, or evidence- based way of thinking. In the absence of any good evidence supporting any particular hypothesis, the rational hypothesis is the null hypothesis. And in the case of religion, the null hypothesis is atheism.