Links and Comments: Religion and Science

The latest essay by Jeffrey Tayler at Salon, Bill O’Reilly’s nonsense “nihilism”: Now the Fox News host is even lying about God, addresses common misperceptions not just about the abstruse philosophical concept of nihilism, but about the general perception that atheists have no moral compass and so are given “anything goes”. Dangerous nonsense, as Tayler explains. It’s the religious extremists who are most willing to kill (and violate the Constitution, I would add, but that’s another post).

The gist of [O’Reilly’s] wrongheaded “Talking Points” memo is that atheists — or, in his twisted verbiage, nihilists — are self-centered, dangerous and even potentially murderous, because, for them, “anything goes.” This is a blundering, volitional misrepresentation of reality. It goes without saying that the terrorists of, for instance, Al Qaida and Boko Haram very much do not believe that “anything goes,” are among the most devout believers around, and, of course, are most willing to kill. As far as the United States goes, it is high religiosity itself that correlates with bad crime rates, deadbeat tax payers, poverty, rampant teen pregnancy, low education, a dearth of life opportunities, early death, and so on. Faith is, in short, part and parcel of a congeries of nasty ills every society should strive to extirpate.


The central tenets of the three Abrahamic faiths, which amount to statements about the nature of the world we live in, our place in it and how we are to treat one another, stem from no evidence whatsoever. Toss aside the magic books, the hocus-pocus prayer, the supernatural visions and the unverifiable instances of “salvation,” and you are left with a void. The words of the late Christopher Hitchens come to mind: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Rational individuals are not in the least obligated to take seriously, much less respect, (faith-based) propositions advanced without proof. And we may dismiss with especial vigor the solipsistic, quasi-deluded New-Age “My religion is true for me” dodge — which even O’Reilly has used, and in one of his (deeply self-embarrassing) interviews with Richard Dawkins, no less.

And concluding

Morality has arisen as evolutionarily propitious: that is, wherever there are humans, there are prohibitions against murder, rape, theft and so on. We would not have survived our plodding progression from African savannah to everywhere else, including the moon, without such prohibitions, which exist in all societies, Christian or not, and including those far older than our own. (Think India and China.) Now that we have developed enough to see through the sham religious norms we inherited from preceding generations, we can create our own — and we are doing so.


Meanwhile, there’s recently more alarm about scientific studies that aren’t replicated. Here’s a NYT op-ed essay, Psychology Is Not in Crisis, that provides a patient explanation of how science works.

Much of science still assumes that phenomena can be explained with universal laws and therefore context should not matter. But this is not how the world works. Even a simple statement like “the sky is blue” is true only at particular times of day, depending on the mix of molecules in the air as they reflect and scatter light, and on the viewer’s experience of color.

Psychologists are usually well attuned to the importance of context. In our experiments, we take great pains to avoid any irregularities or distractions that might affect the results. But when it comes to replication, psychologists and their critics often seem to forget the powerful and subtle effects of context. They ask simply, “Did the experiment work or not?” rather than considering a failure to replicate as a valuable scientific clue.

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