Echoing anti-theist spokesman Sam Harris, my forum friend Mycroft remarked that: “… a whole branch of science is devoted to the biological and societal reasons for human conditions, the balance of selfishness and altruism, greed and reciprocal behavior, dogma and tolerance, etc.”
This is so. There is, indeed, a branch of science dedicated to finding a biological explanation for everything we are and do. Sam Harris has a PhD in this discipline. But the observation begs the question: In what way should the existence of that discipline impact my understanding that we humans exist in part in a spiritual reality or invalidate my individual attempts to understand my self and my interrelations with other human beings?
In other words, should I discount the idea that I can affect my personal reality and/or the world around me because there’s a branch of science that’s studying the issue?
In response to my assertion that science is steered by human perceptions of right and wrong, and therefore is tethered inseparably to our spiritual values, Mycroft said,”You refer to the essentially political problem of how potentially beneficent science is being applied, or rather not applied. …Well, as far as I can see from the outside, it looks like atheists are born liberals,… In Germany, where I was born, they have obligatory health insurance for everybody, since 1871/1889. That was when they still had a Kaiser, 120+ years ago… As I said—it’s more of a political problem.”
The German response to the need for healthcare may have been political, but it is a response to a spiritual and moral issue of whether the individual has some responsibilities toward the collective and vice versa. In the larger sense, the beneficent application of science (and resources) is an issue related to how we think and behave as individuals, and therefore what moral and spiritual values inform our society. Even what seems a purely political problem (such as the gridlock spawned by the USA’s broken party systems) is a symptom of a deeper issue.
I know many atheists who are far from liberal. Social liberals come in all flavors, just as dogmatic conservatives do. Is there a type of religious dogmatism that leads people to be selfish and stingy? You betcha, but it flies in the face of the teachings of the faith those people profess to believe. AND it is a dogmatism that I’ve also seen in atheists—the sort of dogmatism that causes an atheist to show prejudice against others simply because they are religious. The sort of dogmatism that causes them to believe—against all evidence to the contrary—that all “believers” are the same.
My point, of course, is that it doesn’t matter where dogmatism pops up—it’s still dogmatism and it’s still harmful, ignorant and counterproductive.
Mycroft’s remarks about the Bismarck healthcare system still in use in Germany assumed that the German government responsible for it was atheistic. I found this ironic because Otto von Bismarck proposed his system as what he termed “applied Christianity.” He was right, it was the application of principles of altruism proposed by Christ in a number of scriptural passages.
I had commented earlier in our conversation that science in and of itself could not contribute durable solutions to human suffering. Mycroft found this outrageous. Like Sam Harris, my friend was convinced that science was the savior of mankind. That it could confer upon us “prolonged human life spans by eliminating many causes of premature death, plagues & pestilences, reduced maternal and child mortality, and continues to progress. No durable contribution? Ask someone with a kidney transplant or a former cancer patient.”
This might be true if Science had a will of its own, but of course, it does not. It is a tool that is at the service of human agency. No suffering can be relieved in any durable way by science unless and until human beings determine to use the product of science to relieve that suffering. What else can explain the high infant and maternal mortality rates in the richest western nation—the US.
Science cannot solve the suffering caused by selfishness, greed and a dogma of individual sovereignty that dictates the needs of the one (ME!) outweigh the needs the many (THEM). Science cannot solve the healthcare crisis in the US, or the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa because science is devoid of any power of its own. It is a tool we have so far wielded as much for ill as for good.
In the US, a person who can afford it, certainly has the ability to buy the fruit of medical science. The poor and disenfranchised, however, have not. So, to them, the voice of science is indeed, empty or altogether silent, because the voice of compassion is shouted down by the louder and more appealing voice of materialism. When we can solve that problem, then science WILL have a durable effect.
Next time: My friend Mycroft on Religion