When I talk to new people, and tell them I’m a scientist-in-training (aka. PhD student), one of the first things I often am asked is where I stand on belief and spirituality. Am I religious? Have I heard about the latest zen method?
Well, I’m an atheist. Sure I’ve had times where I’ve questioned the possible presence of an omnipotent God, where I’ve thought the only way to enlightenment is through suffering and even toyed with the idea of new age wish-wash. But at the end of the day, it didn’t add up. Now this was before I had started a PhD, even before I had formed what will most likely a life-long passion for all things science. I don’t make a secret of the fact I’m an atheist and admire people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens and PZ Myers. The problem is that the moment you tell a believer you are an atheist and a scientist the words are uttered “So you must believe in evolution then”.
And that is where I have the beef. This issue is aside from those associated with often not understanding that atheism is not the same as scepticism (though they do go hand in hand, and I’m also a skeptic), that atheists are Nazis/immoralist/nishilists, that an atheist life is void of any meaning, and that low and behold, atheists are not scared of the believer’s hell, nor interested in being saved. Anyway I do digress – my problem with the conclusion that one believes in evolution is just that – the belief in evolution. It’s a non-sequitar, and any individual even mildly knowledgeable about science knows this statement is as incorrect as it is absurd.
Evolution isn’t an alternative dogma or a belief system. Furthermore, atheists don’t have to ascribe to evolution as the alternative to God/s. There are atheists who couldn’t less for science, for Darwin or the latest theories about the origins of human kind. What evolution is, is a scientific theory. A body of work, a culmination of research which shows, that the evidence points to gradual adaptation and mutation. Mind you that is a very simplified version. Evolution is an umbrella term, and whilst it’s generally accepted it exists, the mechanisms, motions and details are up for debate. That’s the beauty of science – a theory might stand, but the nuances are ever being understood, the knowledge ever being increased and the conclusions ever-evolving. Evolution therefore cannot be considered dogma, for it fails on that first count – the underpinning conclusions change. Evolution furthermore isn’t based on faith, it’s based on observation. And whilst philosophical debates exist about the role of observation, rationality and the frameworks of interpretation in science, a theory in science has many, many observations usually from many, many scientists to be called a theory.
Faith on the other hand doesn’t require anything – it can be gut instinct, a simple belief in something with no proof. Whilst I don’t have anything against faith per se, to attempt to denigrate scientific theory from what it is to being a belief system in order to argue it is not valid, especially to people who generally don’t understand the tenets of science, is downright deceitful. I admit that the most hardcore of fundamentalists will never be swayed, but to deny the next generation the opportunity to learn about science, to promote ignorance and to blatantly lie to push the wonders of ‘faith’ is dangerous, and for me, highlights just one of the many reasons why it is so important to share science and promote critical thinking. As the saying goes knowledge is power, truth will set you free and at the end of the day, I think that is what those promoting scientific misinformation in the name of faith are the most terrified of.