Saturday, September 27, 2008

Steven Weinberg on life without God

I'm currently in Omaha working on a project and so the postings have been running a bit slow. Here is the second part of Weinberg's article. I had earlier posted comments on Weinberg's views on the sources of tension between science & religion. The second part of his excellent article talks about the decline of religion and how to think about life in the absence of God. But is it true that religion and religious beliefs are on the decline?
The weakening of religious belief is obvious in Western Europe, but it may seem odd to talk about this happening in America. No one who expressed doubt about the existence of God could possibly be elected president of the United States. Nevertheless, though I don't have any scientific evidence on this point, on the basis of personal observation it seems to me that while many Americans fervently believe that religion is a good thing, and get quite angry when it is criticized, even those who feel this way often do not have much in the way of clear religious belief. Occasionally I have found myself talking with friends, who identify themselves with some organized religion, about what they think of life after death, or of the nature of God, or of sin. Most often I've been told that they do not know, and that the important thing is not what you believe, but how you live. I've heard this even from a Catholic priest. I applaud the sentiment, but it's quite a retreat from religious belief.
And it is this retreat that his article has really focused on. But he also takes into account other social factors associated with religion:
I have been emphasizing religious belief here, the belief in facts about God or the afterlife, though I am well aware that this is only one aspect of the religious life, and for many not the most important part. Perhaps I emphasize belief because as a physicist I am professionally concerned with finding out what is true, not what makes us happy or good. For many people, the important thing about their religion is not a set of beliefs but a host of other things: a set of moral principles; rules about sexual behavior, diet, observance of holy days, and so on; rituals of marriage and mourning; and the comfort of affiliation with fellow believers, which in extreme cases allows the pleasure of killing those who have different religious affiliations.
...
The various uses of religion may keep it going for a few centuries even after the disappearance of belief in anything supernatural, but I wonder how long religion can last without a core of belief in the supernatural, when it isn't about anything external to human beings. To compare great things with small, people may go to college football games mostly because they enjoy the cheerleading and marching bands, but I doubt if they would keep going to the stadium on Saturday afternoons if the only things happening there were cheerleading and marching bands, without any actual football, so that the cheerleading and the band music were no longer about anything.
This last analogy is fantastic. But is Weinberg's premise true? I'm curious how big of a role does supernatural play in the survival of religions. What about group selection as proposed by David Sloan Wilson and others (also see this Science & Religion lecture by Wilson). In any case, Weinberg believes that religion is on the way out but also warns of other substitutes. Furthermore, he believes that "the worldview of science is rather chilling":
Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
But I think this is where Sagan was much better at using our curiosity and wonder about the universe in creating an uplifting narrative. He traced the history of individuals from the Big Bang to the present via stars (yes, unfortunately his spiel about "star-stuff" has become cliche'd, but it is still effective) and the 4.5 billion year evolutionary history of the Earth (for a fantastic illustration of this point, see this clip from Cosmos). We can see the contrast between Sagan and Weinberg in the way they look at life and death. Here is Weinberg:
The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved. As religious belief weakens, more and more of us know that after death there is nothing. This is the thing that makes cowards of us all.
...
Living without God isn't easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation—that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking—with good humor, but without God.
and here is Sagan on the same topic:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Instead of lamenting the losses, he is appreciating the gains. The over all message is the same - but I find Sagan's tone so much more uplifting.

Read the full Weinberg article here, and here is an earlier post about Sagan.

5 comments:

Matthew said...

Weinberg's comment at the start of this -- about agnostics or atheists not being electable in the US -- made me wonder: how effective could an atheist be as leader of the US, particularly in his/her role as commander in chief of the armed forces? I'm sure there have been and are atheists in the world's militaries including commanders, but it must be a very difficult thing to knowingly condemn your own soldiers (or the enemy's) to deaths you believe means the end of their existence. It may be easier (certainly not easy but easier) to commit troops to war believing that God will sort things out in the end. I wonder would that be an unconscious factor in the decision-making process even for agnostic and atheist voters?

I also wonder if much of the decline in religious dogmatism came about not because science can explain some formerly unknown things, but rather because it has made clear how little we understand the universe, even now. The answers to so many questions about the universe remain elusive that perhaps the dogmatic "Answers" provided by religion either don't have the same credibility anymore or just don't provide the same comfort they did. Or maybe science simply provides a wider perspective with which to view religious dogma.

Or maybe it's simply that religion simply doesn't monopolize people's attention and experience the way it used to and therefore has less of an effect. That can be true of anything, not just religion.

Salman Hameed said...

but it must be a very difficult thing to knowingly condemn your own soldiers (or the enemy's) to deaths you believe means the end of their existence.
But that's where group identity and other ideologies can come in and sacrifice/altruism (is)may, in any case, be hard wired from evolution. In the case of the US, the rhetoric of "freedom" and "spreading democracy" provides the justification for sacrifice (and of course, godless commies used their version during the cold war).

I also wonder if much of the decline in religious dogmatism came about not because science can explain some formerly unknown things, but rather because it has made clear how little we understand the universe, even now.
This is an excellent point and you are right that it gets tied to the wider perspective provided by science. We got by with simpler origin narratives for thousands of years - but now its not possible. Now we will have to include the Lambda-CDM model in the story... :)

Matthew said...

But that's where group identity and other ideologies can come in and sacrifice/altruism (is)may, in any case, be hard wired from evolution.

I don't disagree, but the logical consequences of that are sort of scary. Taken to an extreme, you could call the rise of the Third Reich an evolutionary survival strategy.

I do agree with you on altruism, though. My initial question had an unstated bias, namely that these two things are "morally good": that human life has value generally, and that the individual has rights within society. Neither is true of dictatorships. Communist (and radical nationalist) countries would likely place value on human life, but would probably put the value of the individual behind the masses or the nation. It's a different different definition of "morality" is.


Now we will have to include the Lambda-CDM model in the story... :)

God created Cosmology class... God help us.

Tom said...

I also find Weinberg's final statements rather pessimistic, and enjoy Carl Sagan's response better. To recognize there is a "knife edge" and we better not slip into nihilism through humor is not enlightening.

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