I’m seeing this trope a lot these days. “You can’t disprove religion. At least — not my religion.”
“Well, of course,” the trope continues, “many outdated religious beliefs — young-earth creationism, the universe revolving around the earth, the sun being drawn across the sky by Apollo’s chariot — have been shown by science to be mistaken. But modern progressive and moderate beliefs — these, you can’t disprove with science. These are simply matters of faith: things people reasonably choose to believe, based on their personal life experience.”
Then there’s the corollary to this trope: “Therefore, atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. And atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers.”
Which is a pretty good reply, and one I make a lot myself. But today, I want to say something else.
Today, I want to point out that this is simply not the case.
The fact is that many modern progressive and moderate religions do make claims about the observable world. And many of those claims are unsupported by science… and, in fact, are in direct contradiction of it.
I want to talk today about three specific religious beliefs. Not obscure cults or rigid fundamentalist dogmas; not young-earth creationism, or the doctrine that communion wafers literally and physically transform into the human flesh of Christ somewhere in the digestive tract, or the belief that the human mind has been taken over by space aliens. I want to talk about three widely held beliefs of modern progressive and moderate believers: beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect science and don’t think religion should contradict it.
And I want to point out that even these beliefs are in direct contradiction of the vast preponderance of available evidence… almost as much as the obscure cults and the rigid fundamentalist dogma.
So let’s go! Today’s beliefs on the chopping block are:
1: Evolution guided by God.
A belief that is almost as thoroughly contradicted by the evidence as young-earth creationism is.
Nowhere in anatomy, nowhere in genetics, nowhere in the fossil record or the geological record or any of the physical records of evolution, is there even the slightest piece of evidence for divine intervention.
And it’s not just humans. We’d expect to see whales with gills, pandas with real thumbs, ostriches without those stupid useless wings.
We don’t see any of this.
And that isn’t how things designed by a conscious designer, or even things tinkered with by a conscious designer, work.
And if a designer is omnipotent, they’re not even stuck with the outlines of a previous design. They’re not stuck with anything at all. Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of magically altering DNA, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution in the first place?
But the “rapid jumps” thing is very misleading. “Rapid,” in evolutionary terms, means “taking place over a few hundred years instead of a few thousand” (or “a few thousand years instead of a few hundred thousand.”) And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades… and still be an entirely natural process of small changes, incremental alterations in each generation from the previous one. Exactly as we would expect if evolution were an entirely natural, physical process of descent with modification. So even if this “rapid jumps” (or “punctuated equilibrium”) hypothesis is true, it still doesn’t point to theistic evolution. Not even a little bit.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of evolution guided by God. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.
But research is happening. The foundations for our understanding of consciousness are beginning to be laid. There are a few things that we do know about consciousness.
And among the things we know is that, whatever consciousness is, it seems to be an entirely biological process. A massive body of evidence points to this conclusion.
This works vice versa as well. Magnetic resonance imagery has shown that, when people think different thoughts, different parts of their brains light up with activity. Changes in thought show up as changes in the brain…. just as changes in the brain show up as changes in thought.
And, of course, we have the drastic change in consciousness created by the very drastic change in the physical brain known as “death.”
All the available evidence points to the conclusion that, when the brain dies, consciousness disappears. (And by “when the brain dies,” I don’t mean, “when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a short time,” a.k.a. “near death experiences.” I mean when the brain dies, permanently.) The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other supernatural hypothesis — nobody, not even scientists, wants death to be permanent — and it has never, ever been substantiated. Reports of it abound… but when carefully examined, using good, rigorous scientific methodology, these reports fall apart like a house of cards.
And there is not a single scrap of good evidence supporting the hypothesis that consciousness is even partly a supernatural phenomenon. There are many gaps in our understanding of consciousness — that’s a massive understatement — but there is not one piece of solid, rigorously gathered evidence suggesting that any of those gaps can and should be filled with the hypothesis of an immaterial soul. There’s not even a good, testable theory explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to interact with the physical brain. All there is to support this belief is a personal intuitive feeling on the part of believers that the soul has to be non-physical because, well, it just seems like that… plus thousands of years of other believers with a similar intuitive feeling, who have told it to one another, and taught it to their followers, and made up elaborate rationalizations for it, and written it into their holy texts.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of an immaterial soul that animates human consciousness. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
3: A sentient universe.
My answer: I live in Northern California. ‘Nuff said.
So that’s why I want to debunk this belief. And I’m pretty much going to repeat what I said in #2 above:
We don’t yet understand what consciousness is. But we do know that, whatever it is, it seems to be a biological product of the brain.
And the universe does not have a brain.
And stars and planets and so on do not behave like neurons and dendrites and so on. They behave like stars and planets. They behave like objects that, as nifty as they are, are not alive, by any useful definition of the word “life.”
If consciousness is a biological process — as an overwhelming body of evidence suggests, see #2 above — then the universe, not being a biological entity, cannot possibly be conscious. To say that it is would mean radically redefining what we mean by “conscious.” And we have no reason to do so… other than a wishful desire to think of the universe as sentient.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of a sentient universe. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul (again)
Now. I can hear the chorus already. “How can you prove that? You don’t know that with absolute certainty! God could be intervening in evolution — just in ways that are indistinguishable from natural selection! There could be some sort of immaterial soul interacting with the biological process of consciousness, in ways we don’t yet perceive! There could be some weird form of consciousness that we don’t understand, one that’s generated by stars and planets and lifeless astronomical bodies! You can’t prove with absolute certainty that there isn’t! Your non-belief is just an article of faith!”
No. We can’t prove that with 100% certainty.
And it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said many times: 100% unshakeable certainty is not the objective here. Reasonable plausibility, supported by carefully gathered and rigorously tested positive evidence, is the objective. And there is no reason to apply the “Reasonable plausibility supported by evidence” standard to the belief in young-earth creationism… and still apply the “If you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, then it’s still reasonable for me to believe it” standard to the beliefs in theistic evolution, and an immaterial soul, and a sentient universe.
If you’re going to accept that young-earth creationism has been conclusively disproven by a mountain of scientific evidence, even though we acknowledge a .00001% hypothetical possibility that it might be true… then, if you’re going to be consistent, you have to apply that same standard, that same willingness to accept the reasonable conclusions of science about which ideas are and are not plausible, to all religious beliefs.
Including your own.
Especially your own.
These things aren’t true for exactly the same reason that young-earth creationism isn’t true. They aren’t true because the evidence simply doesn’t support them. They aren’t true because the evidence actively contradicts them.
If you’re going to be a moderate or progressive religious believer; if you’re going to be a religious believer who respects and supports science instead of treating it as the enemy; if you’re going to be a religious believer who wants their beliefs to at least not be directly contradictory with the available scientific evidence… then you need to be willing to consider the possibility that your own beliefs are every bit as contradicted by that evidence as the beliefs of the fundamentalist crazies.
And if the answer is “yup, that belief seems to be contradicted by the evidence”… then you need to be willing to let go of that belief.