There’s an interesting article by Alom Shaha over on the Guardian’s blog, on why he’s no longer an “angry atheist”. The gist of it is basically that the “preaching” atheists (those who claim loudly that to believe in God is the act of morons) can be as annoying as religious fanatics.
It’s an interesting comparison, and one which reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago over on Gareth’s blog with Cecile Cristofari. Cecile pointed out an article by Tatiana Chernyshova, which explained that
Only a fraction [of people], however, is actually able to explain what e=mc² stand for; and even fewer can understand the theory and explain precisely why it makes sense. The rest of us simply accept scientific facts in the same way as uneducated people in the 19th century accepted the idea that God existed: because competent authorities have said so, but this knowledge still relies on faith, not proof, in spite of the fact that science is supposed to be about proof, not faith.
To me, there’s a fair amount of similarities between atheism, science and religion: they’re all beliefs. Religious faith is the most obvious one; but faith in science (the idea that science can explain and/or control everything) is also one. So is atheism. Some of those beliefs seem more substantiated than others: science seems to work so far at explaining the world around us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect or even that it’s a good explanation. After all, the medieval Christian mythos also worked pretty well to explain the world ten centuries ago–until it became clear that particular worldview wasn’t equal to the task. At some point, all of those require a leap of faith: that science is an accurate representation of reality, that there is a God and that he spoke through the mouth of prophets or of the Messiah, that there is not and will never be a God.
But as beliefs? They’re not equal. Being a loud atheist is OK; being a loud religious person is… well, generally an embarrassment in most First World nations. Believing in science is reasonable and sensible (in spite of the fact that most people have no idea at all how most of it works or what assumptions it rests on, as Chernyshova points out); believing in God is much less so. As a scientist and a believer, I find it fascinating how some beliefs can end up more valued and/or socially acceptable than others, sometimes to the point of being accepted as gospel truths.
(also, I’m very much fascinated by the idea that faith in science has replaced faith in God, which is worryingly plausible, and possibly explains why I always end up in such acrimonious arguments about the fallibility of science)
PS: I welcome notes and comments on the subject, but could you please try to keep to basic rules of politeness. I have seen the Guardian’s comment thread, and I’m not over-enthusiastic to replicate it here…
Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives and works in France. When not wrestling with Artificial Intelligence problems (aka teaching computers how to analyse what they see), she writes speculative fiction. She is the author of the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld from Angry Robot, and has had short fiction published in Asimov’s, Interzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction.