“In God We Trust” Is Hot Air…and It Got Us Into this Mess

The advance of the anti-science, anti-democracy barbarians

My shift to atheism got a boost when I was in seminary. Classes in theology especially stirred up doubts—the last thing that was supposed to happen. The Ecclesiastical-Academic Complex (as Hector Avalos puts it) exists to manufacture clergy, those legions of preacher-apologists who can help folks in the pews outmaneuver their doubts.

But in my coursework I discovered that theology was longwinded on what God was like, but short of breath on epistemology: where can we find reliable, verifiable data about God? Well, that was asking too much: “We rely on prayer, revelation, intuition, the holy spirit speaking to us.” Really? You expect to get away with that forever?

Not too long into my seminary career I wrote an essay, not as a course requirement, but just to get a few of my thoughts down on paper. I titled this little slice of heresy, On the Improbability of God. The main thrust of the piece was the hubris of Earth-bound theology—in the face of our total isolation in the Cosmos. There might be thinkers “out there” who have been probing the Cosmos many thousands of years longer than we have been, and probably know a lot more than we do. We take our theology so seriously, but it is based on…what?

I showed my essay to just one of my trusted classmates. He was not amused, and accused me of “scientism.” By no means, however, had I argued that science is so much better than theology; my main point was that we know so little—at this point in the human adventure. Maybe someday science will extend our reach, to find other thinkers “out there.” I also realized that “God has told us” begs far too many questions.

Once away from seminary—and the ministry—I had time and opportunity to indulge my interest in science history. I came to appreciate that, indeed, scientism delivers far more data and truth than theology. Humanity has been on an adventure fueled by curiosity that theology could not smother. This endeavor is summed up so well by Timothy Ferris’ brilliant 1988 book, Coming of Age in the Milky Way. We’ve come a long way, coming of age, by paying less and less attention to theologians.

But theology, the least reliable way to find out anything, is not about to retreat and retire. The Ecclesiastical-Academic Complex is a juggernaut. Nonetheless, Sam Harris’ blunt smack down—i.e., that “theology must now be considered a branch of human ignorance”—is an incontrovertible principle.

And we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the serious thinkers who help outmaneuver theology by communicating the findings of science to the general public. One of these was Victor J. Stenger (1935-2014), whose output can be found here.

One of Stenger’s last essays, “The Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity,” is included in John Loftus’ 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. Stenger’s 2012 book was titled, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, but in the Loftus anthology the subtitle takes more precise aim: The Incompatibility of Science and Christianity. This is an appropriate revision, in light of the intensified hostility from the Christ fanatics who are pushing back with full vigor, as Stenger describes in the last five pages of this essay. More on that shortly.

It’s a favorite face-saving, faith-saving tactic of theists who “accept” evolution, that God uses the mechanism of natural selection to keep his purposeful creation rolling along. But do these 'enlightened' theists really want to argue that the random mutations that drive evolution are God’s handiwork? If God is an interventionist to that degree, he is open to the charge of massive neglect on so many levels. This feint hardly seems worth it.

And Stenger makes the point that theologians flail away at finding a role for God without evidence, lacking sound epistemologies.

“Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies—the contrary assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call natural.”

“By contrast, all major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the natural world—a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural…Religion is a set of practices intended to communicate with that invisible world and entreat it to affect things here in the natural world.”

And this is precisely the challenge we face in evaluating how to live honestly: our hearty desire not to fool ourselves. We’re climbing out on a rotting limb when we are asked to trust that the theologians know so much about the invisible realms. Stenger doesn’t buy it: “We must distinguish faith from trust. Science has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failure.”

He also sums up what I felt, so long ago, about the credibility of prayer, visions, revelations and holy spirit: “So far we see no proof that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads.”

Stenger’s essay offers a handy tour of some of the wedge issues that theists use to defend religion/find a role for God, e.g., Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria; the great scientific pioneers of the past were believers (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton: “…they hardly had a choice in the matter. Open non-belief was nonexistent at the time”); the misuse of quantum mechanics to find God lurking at the most fundamental levels; Near-Death Experiences—which Christians, it seems to me, should not be all that thrilled about. By no means have all those who claim NDEs been born-again Christians—who are supposed to be the only ones entitled to get a glimpse of heaven. But the role of the brain—and the brain alone—is not acknowledged by those who fall for the NDE hype. “NDE researchers,” Stenger points out, “have not been able to find any empirical evidence demonstrating that the experience is not all in the head.”

The essay culminates with a grim assessment. In the section headed, Theocracy in America, Stenger describes the major damage under way in the United States because of the folly of faith—and he died before witnessing the current dreadful climate.

“If the conflict between science and religion were just a matter of intellectual debate, a battle between (scrambled) eggheads in theology and (hardboiled) eggheads in science and philosophy, the stakes would not be very high. But the role of religion in today’s political and social scene is ubiquitous, from Islamic terrorism to attempts by the Christian right in America to replace democracy with theocracy.”

We sometimes draw encouragement from the gradual increase of “nones” in the polls—the people who no longer claim religious affiliation. But forget the optimism. Stenger warns that evangelicals include those radical Christians who are committed to Dominionism; their mission is to eliminate the separation of church and state. By force of law they want Christian theocracy in the U.S. He offers a brief survey of authors who have documented the subversion of democracy by Christian fanatics, e.g., Michelle Goldberg, Chris Hedges, and Jeff Sharlet.

Stenger quotes the 2011 remarks of (then) Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who doesn’t seem to be bothered one bit by theocracy:

“We’ve found that we can’t set up free societies around the world because they don’t have the moral underpinnings that come from biblical faith. I don’t think Christians should cower from this debate, should be told that their views and their values should be separate from government policies, because American doesn’t work without the faith that created it.”

But what does work as a result of faith? Well, the Vatican, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham haven’t done too badly. Perhaps we can acknowledge “all the good that Christians do.” Careful: might I suggest a balance sheet, subtracting from “all the good” all the colossal waste of time and money on church buildings, worship, and bureaucracy? And hoodwinking people into thinking they have to be religious to be and do good? What does it take to turn people off?

“If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it,” Stenger points out. “Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, intolerance, and antiscience. Religion does not work, but we still do it.” And the beat goes on. We are in a mess, thanks in large part to the folks who zealously trust in God.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.