I want to start dissecting an argument I had recently with a student theologian. As an atheist, I don’t get the field of theology. You cannot study something that does not exist. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement. To borrow a famous example, you can study various aspects of the tooth fairy: how old are the children she visits? What’s the average value of a tooth? But in the end, if you haven’t established that the tooth fairy exists, you leave yourself open to the obvious possibility that you’re making an attribution error. That is, you’re studying the parents – not the tooth fairy.
Based on my experience with this up and comer, I am not inclined to modify my view. The argument in question began when this person – let’s call him AK – asserted that “even the unbeliever” would fall to her knees and pray when faced with a thirty foot wave. When pressed, he quickly redefined prayer from beseeching a personal interventionist deity to simply having an “intuition to hope to continue to live.” Well, shit. I didn’t realize you had to be a believer to want to not die. Here I was, living my life as if it’s the only one I’ve got, but apparently I’m not at all attached to it. Go figure.
60 emails later, and AK drops this gem on me:
Good Christians struggle with their faith all the time. That you happened to stick to atheism doesn’t make you better then those who stuck with Christianity. Science doesn’t make you privileged.
Let’s for a moment, bask in the fact that this comment was typed into a computer, bounced around an optic fiber cable at the speed of light, and transmitted across the internet. Science doesn’t make me privileged, he wrote on his magic communication box. Science doesn’t make me privileged, he wrote, because he didn’t die in infancy from preventable diseases. Science doesn’t make me privileged, he triumphantly asserted from his weather-controlled, seismically retrofitted house. Science doesn’t make me privileged, he blustered, before taking a gulp of pasteurized milk.
No. See, that’s where you’re wrong. Science DOES make me privileged. It privileges me in innumerable ways – allowing me to, as Sheldon Cooper put it on The Big Bang Theory, spend much of my time perfecting inside. Science is privileged because, as XKCD put it, it works, bitches. To paraphrase SNL, science gets shit done.
Notice, though, the snide elision of ‘atheism’ with ‘science.’ Atheism, as you’ll no doubt recall, is simply the rejection of god-claims. Sure, the scientific method can be employed to evaluate god-claims, but they are not the same thing. My conclusion that the god hypothesis is unsupported was made possible by science, which has explained one thing after another that religion used to take credit for. Science has privileged me with an atheistic worldview based on evidence.
“Good Christians” may struggle with their faith, because their faith is unsupported. In the absence of mental illness, it takes a lot of effort to maintain a delusion. Weekly meetings help shore it up, but it’s still a struggle.
Consider, though, that I do not struggle with my atheism. I don’t go through life confronted at every turn with supernatural phenomena that science cannot explain, struggling to avoid believing in a god. It’s only a struggle to maintain an idea if that idea conflicts with evidence. The source of their struggle is cognitive dissonance.
AK here is attempting the po-mo dance where all worldviews are reduced to randomly assigned discourses, where it is profoundly impolite to point out that one worldview is superior to all the others. But science is not just another perspective, just another religion. It’s the best method we’ve got, and theologians, by dint of their use of liquid crystal display laptops to bash science cannot help but concede this point, even if they won’t admit it.