Thursday, 4 August 2011

When an atheist gets a touch religious

Click to appreciate the 'Grand Design'
It's very hard being an atheist who appreciates the natural world. All around you are reminders of the intricacies of natural structure; the minute detail of pattern and colour; the myriad species that inhabit the world. Why is there such variation? Who's it all for?

Now, those of a religious bent will sugggest that all of this variety is the work of God. Mathematicians will cite the construction of species as being the result of evolution into the most workable shape. Biologists will see patterning and colouring as needed for camouflage, display or warning purposes.

I took the picture above on Banstead Downs. It is of Small Scabious. It is not uncommon, and something that I see on a regular basis. But when I actually took it in - actually looked at it as opposed to identifying it and dismissing it - I was quite taken aback. It is a precious thing. This has been crafted, with symmetry at its heart. The more I looked, the more I was sucked in, it became a botanical snow flake. The old questions rose up inside me - 'Why?' 'For who?'

When fossils were first understood as being petrified life forms, those who rallied against the thought that these could possibly really have once been 'God's creatures' suggested that He had planted them for man to find as a kind of hidden entertainment, a treat for us in moments of idleness. I quite liked that quick thinking by the religious as a way of deflecting a challenge against their solid belief system.

I would quite like to be religious, but I never have and most probably never will. I've had moments of darkness, and I didn't ask for nor did I hear a voice. But when you look at a wonder of the natural world - and there are millions of them - wouldn't it explain an awful lot very simply if I were.


Flora said...

On the contrary, for me, it very easy being an non-theist who appreciates the natural world.
This post makes me think of Richard Feynman but his view of the intricacies of a flower led him to different questions. If you not seen it - check out 'Ode on a flower' on You Tube. The longer 1981 Horizon interview is utterly brilliant.
Perhaps deflecting questions is indicative of a not so solid belief system?

Rob said...

Hi Steve, Just based on what I've observed this year with local Field Scabious, at least some of the 'Why?' and the 'For whom?' would better be answered by the beetles and bees that feed on it.

Anonymous said...

Steve, the natural world & all it`s beautiful contents are just that ..... Natural.
Nothing more than the process of evolution, and not the work of the most fictitious character in the history of man.

Peter Alfrey said...

Seems like different ways of thinking are converging on recognising an underlying code that governs everything in nature (good, bad and the ugly). Also seems that there is an emerging consensus that as humans we posess the ability to choose our destiny (and the planet that we seem to be affecting) rather then, like other creatures, be slaves to the indifference of chance.
That is both a religious and a scientific conclusion- the presence of a divine law or code that once understood can be used to master destiny.
So perhaps religious and non-theisitc thinking can arrive at the same answer which indicates they are both 'correct' so room for them both in one mind?

Steve Gale said...

Thank you all for your comments. As a lifelong atheist, I'm intrigued by those who are religious - not out of any need to try and make them see my point of view - but from a perspective of trying to evaluate if I'm just 'not getting it'. By the way Mel, I did check out that You Tube clip and enjoyed it very much.

Flora said...

Peter. Of course there is always the possibility of a Black Swan (Nassim Taleb) to contend with ;-) Not sure which ways of thinking are converging or that there is any scientific conclusion that we can master our destiny. The recent upsurge in medieval-style religious intolerance is I believe the most dangerous threat facing mankind and his 'destiny'. Science and religion are utterly different world view points - one based on questioning and testing hypotheses, the other on acceptance of immutable statements of 'fact' - pre-prepared answers. Don't think my mind would cope with both!
It is a source of great comfort to me to know there are some questions I cannot answer and that I won't ever know everything. Phew!

Peter Alfrey said...

Mel.Hello. The whole environmental movement is about mastering the destiny of people and the planet- environmentalism seems to be increasingly moving towards the top of scientific and socio-political agendas at present.

Science and religion are indeed different world views but in many ways they do converge on the same conclusion- the choice of a negative destructive path or the choice of a positive constructive one.
This is Darkwins take on it-
"We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination.... We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators"

It is of great discomfort to me that there are questions which I cannot answer which is a neccessary disposition in order to look for those answers :-)

Black Swans are written in the code too.

Graham James said...

Take a look at

and read the paragraph about Fascinating Life Strategies. It is hard to believe that any insect could either have been created or evolved with such complexity.

Peter Alfrey said...

Maybe a bit of creating and evolving. God Knows!

Flora said...

Hi Peter
The 'environmental movement’(EM) is a broad church. I've personally never seen the EM as being about mastery, more about stewardship and humanism. And regarding the destiny of the planet and people – what about the EM and GM crops?
Anyway I don’t see ‘environmentalism’ moving up the socio-political agenda – I see slippage. And if we can’t even manage a road verge for a rare plant (or even care if we do or not) – how we gonna sort the whole planet?
Err, unsure where some religious (and non-religious) world-views are on a ‘positive constructive’ path for mankind. I see faith and science as widely divergent paths. Can we realistically have a collective choice anyway?
Love the unintended misspell of Dawkins as Darkwins – a kind of marriage of Darwin and Dawkins  How apt. It’s been a long time since I read The Selfish Gene – and I’ve not read the 2nd edition. Can we really over-ride our genes and choose to act morally to ‘save the planet’? Well, perhaps if we have a humanist, science-based worldview. It’s a long way from choosing to use contraception to saving the planet though.
I agree that not knowing answers impels one to question – of course it does or should, if one holds a scientific rather than faith-based world-view. So we set up hypotheses and test them. And yes, I will die rather frustrated that there are things I won’t know (and plants I won’t see).
No, let’s not sit on the fence – you can’t have faith-based creating and evidence-based evolving.
Graham. I looked at the site you suggested. I don’t find it hard to believe that insects (any creature) could evolve complex life strategies or adaptation. Evolution is a fact. I would find it much harder to accept that they were ‘created’ - not least as that hypothesis is untestable and therefore can be dispensed with pretty sharpish.

Peter Alfrey said...

I know what you mean. I just dont see faith and evidence based thinking as mutually exclusive.
I dont think being open to different modes of thought is sitting on the fence- I think it is more jumping in and exploring both sides. Personally I think that it is good science to question science and to explore religion and to be open to faith.
At the end of the day it all comes down to personal experience and what individuals find rewarding and makes sense to them.
Darkwins- I think that was a Freudian slip. The Dark wins when I fail to make myself understood when what I am saying I think is indisputable. There is room for faith and evidence based thinking because it is exists- in my head anyway! haha. I like you Mel, thanks for the chat :-))

Flora said...

Woken by an owl. Or possibly a 386 ;-) Brain half-wake anyway.
Can't have 2 people on one blog imagining what they say is indisputable ;-) But, I respect your position whilst maintaining that there are core differences in those 2 ways of thinking. 'Twould be a dull old world if we all agreed 'bout everything. I would go on to say, that faith-based thinking usually means based on a code, constrained by creed and has supernatural elements.
If you mean science needs to be open to 'faith' as in hoping for a positive future for this fantastic planet we've woken up on, and its various inhabitants, then yes, I agree. Glad we got rid of the word ‘destiny’ though, it made me feel twitchy. But of course science is not ‘faith based’ and cannot be, as it is making and testing assumptions about how the Universe works; what rules govern it. Science is based on evidence, open to new evidence and advances based on evidence. Faith-based belief systems generally resist evidence or challenge.
I can accept that it might be interesting for science to probe why some people have or need religious belief. To spend limited research £ on investigating the supernatural per se, to my mind is an inappropriate use of resources.
Yes, it does come down to personal experience and some people seem to need ‘faith’ to deal with those questions and uncertainties, which I just accept as so far unanswered, (but also awesome and mind-blowing).
Your Freudian slip was delightful!
May I quote from Christopher Hitchens (‘God is not Great’) before retiring back to bed?
‘And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically……and the unfilled gaps in post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication.’
Good chat, Yes! Night....

Peter Alfrey said...

Indeed, very satisfactory to identify the pit falls with faith dependency. I advocate faith and reason and like to suggest the benefits of embracing both. Evidence based reasoning cannot answer everything and blind faith can have frightening consequences. Faith and Reason working together is a very useful bit of kit- in my experience :-)
I actually think it would be a brilliant world if enough people agreed on enough to work together to generate an improved condition for us all and nature.
Thanks again. Interesting stuff :-))

Graham James said...

For me, Peter and Mel, religion doesn't have the answers to anything and science only allows us to alter the world to suit our own needs, normally at the expense of other forms of life.
Religion is not based on facts, and science is only based on evidence that facts exist. The two are poles apart, although I am sure that those with religious faith can see reason in science, whilst science cannot logically embrace religion as it is not based on tangible evidence.

Factor said...

Hmm. Science has its limitations - the main problem is we humans have limited intellect to understand all that is out there. So, no matter how brilliant/arrogant the scientific mind becomes with time, there will always be things we can never know. I think that is where science and religion cross over. We can never know if there is a God until we die. Both are searching for the unreachable.

Personally, I believe that a God, in its many forms around the world, is just a comfort blanket for anyone who can't face the finality of death and historically has been a political and psychological tool to control the masses. Job done on that front. :-(

Nice flower, though.

Peter Alfrey said...

Here's a big question- what's the moth on my blog? I can't even work that out let alone trying to identify the true nature of reality! I reckon it's a Great Oak Beauty- would welcome correction/confirmation.

That is a very nice flower.

Gavin Haig said...

Steve, what have you started here?
Mel and Peter, interesting exchange, though I'm not sure I grasped it all...
Is evolution really 'fact'? And faith really not 'evidence-based'? Both of these notions are robustly debatable, thankfully, with plenty of capable, reasoning minds on both sides of the table in each case. This latter fact is enough to persuade me that glib dismissal of religious belief by means of the 'supportive crutch of the unthinking' argument is grossly narrow-minded.
Isn't it interesting that the most inventive designers of modern times are still many light-years behind the random fumblings of a few millenia of supposed blind chance?!

Peter Alfrey said...

We (?) invent a few clever things (crude and clumsy by nature's standard) and then struggle to keep persepctive on those achievements- in a childlike and vulnerable way.

Nyctalus said...

Wow, this is deeper than your average post on a natural history blog! I bow to the superior intellect of Mel and Peter and get back to Steve’s original sentence. In my humble opinion, it’s actually the easiest thing in the world to be an atheist who appreciates nature. The trick, I offer, speaking from a position of no authority whatsoever, is to get properly to grips with the principles of evolution by natural selection (not blind chance alone Gavin). I don’t know anything of your background, and you might be an expert in this field for all I know, but to move anyone to a position of comfort in their atheism, while at the same time gaining an even deeper sense of wonder at the complexity and beauty of that scabious flower, I thoroughly recommend The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, even if you only make it through the first three chapters....
best wishes

Flora said...

Following on from Allan's post and I trust in the spirit of the discussion above, perhaps I could add the following...
I've been following, via the superb PZMyers Pharyngula blog (not a blog for the faint of heart) the republican presidential candidate farce, where of course the religion vs evolution debate is hot. He linked to an eloquent piece in The Washington Post this week by Paula Kirby on evolution and religion
Here is a short quote, I recommend anyone to read the entire article.
"In the real world, facts are stubborn beasts. They are supremely unmoved by whether we like them or not....neither our disapproval nor our disbelief will make the slightest difference to the real-world.
And it is the same with evolution. Evolution is a simple fact. We can choose to remain ignorant of it, we can stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to think about it, we can even rail against it and shout and scream that it is not allowed to be true. But facts are facts, and will not go away just because we don't like them.'
Best regards