The Mythology of Atheism
A classic Saturday Night Live sketch features comedian Steve Martin playing the role of a Medieval barber (barbers were the forerunners to modern doctors) providing a medical diagnosis of a sick girl to her mother:
“…Medicine is not an exact science, but we’re learning all the time. Why, just 50 years ago, we would have thought that your daughter’s illness was brought on by demonic possession or witchcraft [mother laughs]. But now days, we know that Isabel is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors perhaps caused by a toad or small dwarf living in her stomach.”
Atheism is sold as “scientific.”
Atheism is frequently promoted as a “scientific” belief system, but atheists would be well advised to abandon this line of propaganda in light of the fact that what constitutes science is in a constant state of flux. Biologist Lynn Margulis, winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science, put it best in her book What Is Life?:
“…Science is asymptotic. [“asymptote” is derived from a Greek word meaning “not falling together.”] It never arrives at but only approaches the tantalizing goal of final knowledge. Astrology gives way to astronomy; alchemy evolves into chemistry. The science of one age becomes the mythology of the next.”
Those with a short-sighted view of the history of science are prone to overlook the fact that alchemy (which believed that metals such as lead could be turned into gold) and astrology were once considered scientifically respectable. In fact, as Margulis alludes to above, the scientific consensus of one age usually becomes the myth or superstition of the next age. Elite physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin cite examples of this trend among scientific theories in their book The Matter Myth:
“A classic example concerns the ‘luminiferous ether.’ When James Clerk Maxwell showed that light is an electromagnetic wave, it seemed obvious that this wave had to have a medium of some sort through which to propagate. After all, other known waves travel through something. Sound waves, for example, travel through the air; water waves travel across the surface of lakes and oceans. Because light, which Maxwell discovered is a form of electromagnetic wave, can reach us from the Sun and stars, across seemingly empty space, it was proposed that space is actually filled with an intangible substance, the ether, in which these waves could travel.
So sure were physicists of the existence of the ether that ambitious experiments were mounted to measure the speed with which the Earth moves through it. Alas, the experiments showed conclusively that the ether does not exist.
…For nineteenth-century physicists, however, the ether was still very real.”
Atheist mythology suggests that, as scientific knowledge grows, the need for theistic belief diminishes. However, in his pivotal work on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn points out how the history of science makes it difficult to justify the characterization of science as “an ever growing stockpile [of] knowledge” (or a “process of accretion”). In part, this is because most scientific theories (or models) which were accepted by the scientific communities of the past are now perceived as pseudo-science or myth.
Kuhn cites the examples of Aristotelian dynamics (which was superseded by Newtonian physics), phlogistic chemistry (which said that a fire-like element called phlogiston is contained within combustible bodies and released during combustion), and caloric thermodynamics (which said that heat is really a self-repellent fluid called caloric that flows from hotter bodies to colder bodies). (Click here for many more examples). If these theories were regarded as “science” in their day, but as “error” and “superstition” today, then why should we not assume that the scientific theories of today will become the error and superstition of tomorrow? Kuhn writes:
“…Historians confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the ‘scientific’ component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled ‘error’ and ‘superstition.’ The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. Given these alternatives, the historian must choose the latter. Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded. That choice, however, makes it difficult to see scientific development as a process of accretion.”
Scientific models shouldn’t be confused with reality.
Commonplace atheist thought would have one believe that science “discovered” the truth of such scientific theories as Darwinian evolution….much as one might discover a lost coin with a metal detector. But in reality, it is misleading to suggest that science is a simple exercise of making “discoveries” through mere observation. Physicists Davies and Gribbin explain how the line between scientific model and reality often becomes “hopelessly blurred” in The Matter Myth:
“At the heart of the scientific method is the construction of theories. Scientific theories are essentially models of the real world (or parts thereof), and a lot of the vocabulary of science concerns the models rather than reality. For example, scientists often use the word ‘discovery’ to refer to some purely theoretical advance. Thus one often hears it said that Stephen Hawking ‘discovered’ that black holes are not black, but emit heat radiation. That statement refers solely to a mathematical investigation. Nobody has yet seen a black hole, much less detected any heat radiation from one.
…So long as scientific models stick closely to direct experience, where common sense remains a reliable guide, we feel confident that we can distinguish between the model and the reality. But in certain branches of physics it is not always so easy. The concept of energy, for example, is a familiar one today, yet it was originally introduced as a purely theoretical quantity in order to simplify the physicists’ description of mechanical and thermodynamical processes. We cannot see or touch energy, yet we accept that it really exists because we are so used to discussing it.
The situation is even worse in the new physics, where the distinction between the model and reality sometimes becomes hopelessly blurred. In quantum field theory, for instance, theorists often refer to abstract entities called ‘virtual’ particles. These ephemeral objects come into existence out of nothing, and almost immediately fade away again. Although a faint trace of their fleeting passage can appear in ordinary matter, the virtual particles themselves can never be directly observed. So to what extent can they be said to really exist?”
Science is an unending discussion of mysteries.
There can be no question that science has been very useful to modern society. Computers, space exploration, and air travel (not to mention nuclear weapons) are all the products of modern science. But as Princeton University quantum physicist Freeman Dyson, one of the most distinguished living scientists, notes in his March, 2011 essay How We Know, the usefulness of scientific theories should not be confused with their truth:
“Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.
The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries….The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.
…Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
Dyson’s above comments highlight one of the fundamental flaws of reasoning which absolutely permeates atheist thought: The belief that science can provide final, or ultimate, explanations which can substitute for theistic belief. This is a confusion of scientific reasoning with ontological reasoning. No less than Albert Einstein (as I cite him in Riddles for Atheists) dispelled the notion that science can produce ultimate explanations:
“You find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world (to the extent that we are authorized to speak of such a comprehensibility) as a miracle or as an eternal mystery. Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way… the kind of order created by Newton’s theory of gravitation, for example, is wholly different. Even if man proposes the axioms of the theory, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. That is the ‘miracle’ which is constantly reinforced as our knowledge expands.”
The fact that this miracle is constantly reinforced (rather than diminished) as our knowledge expands is likely one reason that Einstein commented:
“The more I study science, the more I believe in God.”
Indeed, discussions among elite scientists make it readily apparent that Darwinian evolution is the science of this age, but eventually to become the mythology of the next age (to paraphrase the above words of biologist Lynn Margulis). According to Margulis, in fact, history will ultimately judge neo-Darwinism as “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology.”
Darwinism will be the mythology of tomorrow.
Those inclined to doubt that Darwinism will become the mythology of tomorrow are encouraged to read The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. This book details the discussions of a secretive meeting (the public and media were barred) in Altenburg, Austria, in 2008, at which sixteen elite scientists met to discuss laying the foundation for “post-Darwinian research.” Sam Smith, Editor of Progressive Review, accurately summarizes the reason for the secrecy of this meeting in his commentary which is featured on the back cover: “The scientific establishment has been somewhat scared of dealing rationally and openly with new evolutionary ideas because of its fear of the powerful creationist movement.”
In this book, Margulis discusses the persistence of neo-Darwinian theory, despite its deteriorating plausibility, with journalist Susan Mazur:
Margulis: “If enough favorable mutations occur, was the erroneous extrapolation, a change from one species to another would concurrently occur.”
Mazur: “So a certain dishonesty set in?”
Margulis: “No. It was not dishonesty. I think it was wish-fulfillment and social momentum. Assumptions, made but not verified, were taught as fact.”
Mazur: “But a whole industry grew up.”
Margulis: “Yes, but people are always more loyal to their tribal group than to any abstract notion of ‘truth’ – scientists especially. If not they are unemployable. It is professional suicide to continually contradict one’s teachers or social leaders.”