Finding “common ground” between religion & science by distorting both

March 17, 2014

I complained a lot in the previous post about religious apologists, without really spelling out exactly who I think they are or why they piss me off. So maybe this post will give a clearer indication of the kind of attitude I was complaining about. 

It’s a post I wrote a couple of years ago but didn’t post it for some reason. Maybe I kinda missed the deadline. Anyway, here’s my post for…um….. Christmas for 2011.


Christmas is that time of year when sophisticated people harass Richard Dawkins without knowing why, and patronize Christians by telling them what to believe.

Here’s a fine example of this pastime from Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, titled

Where there’s faith, so too doubt

–Humility is the mark of the true religious believer. The fundamentalist is corrupted by an assumption of superiority.

The author, sociologist Hugh MacKay, has decided that the best way to find common ground between religion and science is to redefine both in such a way that those who disagree with each other — be they Christian or scientist — are in fact fundamentalists.

Those who inhabit the remaining “common ground” (like Hugh MacKay for example) are humble. Humble believers know that their faith is by definition based on doubt; humble scientists are not certain of anything.

This accommodationist approach is extremely popular among academics at the moment. Although it’s well-intentioned, it is in fact arrogant, stupid, slimy, and condescending towards believers, and patronizing towards everyone else.

McKay’s tactic is to redefine faith by insisting that “true faith” is based on — of all things — doubt. Faith, he argues, is by definition something that we are not certain of, therefore “true” people of faith are also people of doubt.

Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith, not into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine, the oxygen, the essence of faith.

Without stopping to ask any Christians themselves if this is true, he barges on to insist that doubt is also the basis of science. Plowing on further he insists that fundamentalists are those whose beliefs – scientific or religious – are not based on doubt. Atheists are fundamentalist scientists who don’t doubt their belief in science; Christian fundamentalists are those who don’t base their faith on doubt. The middle territory, belongs both to doubting Christians (who obviously aren’t all that certain that Jesus died for their sins), and doubting scientists (who obviously aren’t all that sure whether or not they’ve split the atom). 

Bingo – Common Ground.

Let the atheists and the fundies carry on their ugly brawl while the true Christians and the open-minded non-believers can go off and enjoy their Christmas dinner “whatever Christmas means to them”.

MacKay has decided that real Christians disregard their subjective experiences and any religious feelings along the lines of feeling God as a presence or a force in their lives. To be a true Christian, by MacKay’s definition, one must disregard any subjective feelings of certainty. This, I think, would come as news to many if not most Christians. I have heard many Christians say that their faith is what keeps them going in times of great hardship, or has motivated them to risk their lives doing humanitarian work. How many Christians throughout history suffered a painful death for refusing to recant, often on the subtlest of theological distinctions? According MacKay, these people had the wrong kind of faith and should have died gasping the words “Of course I might be wrong about all this.”

It might surprise Hugh MacKay to hear that many people treat these issues seriously and feel compelled to make up their mind – either God exists, in which case I can try to open my life up to this power, or experience its presence; or God does not exist, in which case I should face fear, loneliness and mortality honestly without it.

No doubt there are also those who follow MacKay’s non-committal way of holding some kind of vague belief and writing off all the troublesome parts as metaphor, but I suspect not even MacKay bothers to follow that himself.

So on to science:

If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, “the free market”, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian – or a moral code we believe will make for a contented life and a better world.

If you read that quickly you might have overlooked the word “science” in that list. Yes — Hugh McKay, psychologist, sociologist, social researcher with a B.A. and a Master of Arts from Macquarie University — equates “belief in science” with belief in Feng Shui…. (Yes, he does. Read it again!) 

Dear Hugh, how many Feng Shui masters do you know of who have traveled to the moon or figured out how to build atomic bombs? I don’t like atomic bombs myself, but I will accept their detonation as convimcing evidence of E equaling mc2. Scientists’ certainty in this matter should be taken more seriously than, say, the idea that nailing hexagonal mirrors all over the place will enhance the chi in your bedroom.

When people like Richard Dawkins criticise religion for its fanaticism or its blind embrace of scriptures riven with inconvenient contradictions, this is not a criticism of religious faith, per se, but of fundamentalism.

Yeh, and when Dawkins says that there’s no evidence that any gods exist and that belief in them distorts ones view of reality and hinders the understanding of science, that is a criticism of religious faith per se.

The fundamentalists want you to develop a conviction so strong, you lose the capacity for doubt…

Yep, fail to doubt your “belief” in things like evolutionary theory or the possibility of heavy metallic machines taking to the skies, and you’re a fundie. Notice how McKay doesn’t specify any of those “beliefs” which Dawkins holds with such certainty, which McKay finds objectionable? That is cost of finding this “common ground”. Add specifics and it disappears.

….They don’t want you to believe; they want you to know you are right, with the same conviction you might know it is raining when you get wet.

Yes, or with the same conviction that you can know that humans evolved from earlier hominids.

Fundamentalism is like a steel trap that imprisons the soul and inhibits its freedom to wonder.

There’s no point in “wondering” about things that have already been firmly established by science. There’s no point in doubting whether or not aerodynamic theory is true. It’s been tested enough. Get in a plane and fly — use it for heaven’s sake! Being certain of well established facts doesn’t mean you’re a fundamentalist. It means you’re willing to use these ideas or benefit from others using them. If well established facts upset people who have been primed to deny them, then that’s not the fault of any scientist.

Scientific certainty is a wonder in itself.

Posted by Yakaru



  1. Well I try to uphold everyone’s right to define words as they wish, so in principle I’ll let him have faith depend on doubt, and, interestingly, he fits one of my definitions of “deluded fucktard”. Yep, you’re right, it’s stupid, slimy and arrogant. What gets me is that it’s so blatant, as well. It’s so obvious exactly which intellectual bullet he’s dodging. He’s sick and tired of being challenged with the observation that faith is belief without evidence, or, ideally, doubt, that doubt is antagonistic to it, so he’s cunningly devised a formula where they’re on the same side. Ner.

    It’s like someone responding to a criticism that their livingroom is gloomy because they’ve painted it black, and, after sulking about it for a week they come back at you with the “paradox” that pure black can’t exist and there must be some tiny bit of white in there, and you’re a douche … for being so black and white.

    It’s pure doublespeak, confused and accidentally self-contradictory in more than just its essential point. I was stunned reading this one bit, for instance. After casually sharing that recent translators of the bible indicate God’s blatant favouritism, correcting the earlier “shoddy” OKJ Version where peace is granted to all (men), he says: “Leaving aside the nuances of rendition, the Christmas story stimulates the imagination in powerful ways, and faith is, after all, the work of the imagination…”

    Er, yes, that’s right. Imagination. Think about it. Then doublethink about it and write an essay on how imagination depends on, and must paradoxically include, reality.

    “… It is a creative act;”

    Yes, it is. That’s why imagination is called MAKE-believe.

    ” a tentative encounter with the possibility of eternal verities;”

    Like tentative encounters with fairies at the bottom of the garden?

    ” a reaching-out for certainties that always elude us.”

    Well, if you keep looking in the wrong fucking place for certainties, or just evidence…! And finally, he gets to the point (although I don’t suppose he really intends to make it):

    ” Faith is also about trust; about deciding to settle for answers to questions”

    Deciding? Deciding to settle for answers? Fundamentalism, then, by his own definition. He’s settled on answers. Only these are answers to questions about imaginitive, created, far-reaching (fetched), tentative possibilities of eternal verities! Doh. Compare with science: deliberately, consciously analysed measures of confidence in temporary answers to rigorously defined, usually limited, always falsifiable, repeatable, physical, demonstrable processes in the real world that make predictions that can be measured (in the hope of developing some tentative insight into eternal verities, if they exist, in the long haul).

    Oh, I edited out the last, as far as I can see, pointless, qualifier:

    ” we scarcely dare ask.”

    Actually, I thought that was pointless, but now I see it even more clearly. It just cries out, desperation. He hardly dare hope. Deep down, I suspect, he has absolutely no belief in god whatsoever.

  2. Ach yes, the “eternal verities”. So humble it is to pontificate about such things while calling someone a fundie for being certain that humans are a product of evolution.

  3. […] recent post about finding “common ground” between religion & science by distorting both reminded me of a review I wrote in 2012 on the Amazon site of the book Religion for Atheists: A […]

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