Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 22 issue 3

Beware the Pitfalls of Belief Systems

David Koepsell

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 3 (Fall 2006).

Secular humanists and atheists are often wrongly accused of having their own “religions,” a charge that has become the basis for a flawed legal argument to desecularize American public life. By characterizing non belief as a religion, theocrats hope to cleanse public schools of the teaching of evolution (as it is a “tenet” of naturalism) and, ultimately, to inject Christianity into the public sphere under the misleading argument that the “religion” of secular humanism has inappropriately usurped theirs.

I am not going to get into the merits of this mistaken argument, as I have covered that ground before. Our assertions about the nontheistic and nonsupernatural bases of secular humanism and atheism speak for themselves. However, I do want to discuss the very real and dangerous tendency of any belief system to become religious, and how even naturalists must strive to avoid this.

Let’s look first at what we mean by a religious belief system vs. a religion. Scientific ways of knowing include the following necessary features: they are based upon the accumulation of evidence, the testing of hypotheses, and falsifiability. In other words, science never succeeds at absolute knowledge but rather remains in a state of admitted contingency, because scientists know that tomorrow’s experiments may completely unhinge today’s accepted theories. Scientists realize that, with more experimental confirmation, they are justified in becoming more confident in the truth of hypotheses and theories. However, they cannot ever maintain a dogmatic adherence to any theory, no matter how well tested, because, in the past, theories that have been generally accepted have been proven to be utterly wrong. A notable example of this is the “aether” theory of space, shown to be wrong by the Michelson-Morley experiments, which led to Einstein’s theories of relativity.

In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon described the methodological bases of what would become the scientific revolution. The growth of seventeenth-century empiricism into modern science brought the same pitfalls that befell old dogmas. Namely, those who practice science have oftentimes become elevated over and isolated from the daily lives of average citizens, their research and achievements beyond the easy grasp of laymen’s understanding. Because of that separation, it is tempting to simply put trust and faith in the methods and (provisional) conclusions of scientists and their research programs and to ignore the epistemological duty to understand the bases for those conclusions. It’s easier to stick to our own narrow areas of specialization, to nod our heads and say, “Yes, it must be, the scientists say so.”

When we succumb to the temptation to accept the conclusions of others without attempting understanding, we risk the religious tendency. This is at the heart of the problem of “scientism,” which involves accepting as true (rather than contingently accepting as provisionally true) the latest conclusions of science. Scientism makes a religion of science. Thus, those of us who profess a faith in the methods of “reason and science” without a full appreciation of those methods, their history, and their fallibility, are guilty of treating science religiously. When we treat something religiously, we revere it without necessarily understanding it. We accept its conclusions without appreciating its fallibility. We buy wholesale the statements of its “gurus” without appropriate questioning or doubt.

When Stephen Hawking suggests that black holes slowly radiate their information (energy) over time and lays money on it, he doesn’t want you to just agree with him because he’s an expert. He is challenging other experts to test the notion, to find error or fault with it, and to either develop confirming evidence (raising our confidence in the notion always to only something less than 100 percent) and admitting by the bet the falsifiability of the premise. We are not only entitled to doubt the proclamations of experts, but it is a moral duty to do so if we truly hold the methods of the sciences in greater regard than the methods of dogmatic or purely speculative belief systems. Given that moral duty, and understanding the contingent and provisional nature of all scientific knowledge, we can see how even atheism and secular humanism can be held as religious belief systems by those who fail to try to understand or fail to properly doubt the bases of their own accepted beliefs.

Take, for example, an atheist, i.e., one who does not believe in a god. Whether the lack of belief came from feelings of personal abandonment by a church in times of need, from great hardships that were felt unfair, perhaps from never having given the issue any thought, or from any of a million other reasons—if that lack of belief is not considered, then it may be religious. Perhaps our atheist has read one of the atheist manifestoes and agreed with it but failed to apply the principles of science to form that agreement; then lack of faith in a god has been substituted with a faith in a document. A nonreligious atheist comes to his or her conclusions about the existence of a god the way scientists came to conclusions about the nonexistence of the aether: by considering the evidence, weighing it against the dogma, and discovering contradictions between the evidence and accepted belief, or faith. In light of such contradictions, scientific methodology suggests tossing out the dogma and going with the evidence … for the time being. The scientific standpoint also always maintains the provisional nature of current evidence. Thus, our atheist could remain religious if he or she, even in light of careful consideration of the evidence, maintains that no amount of evidence otherwise could convince him or her of the existence of a god.

The same is true of secular humanists. Certainly, being a secular humanist involves at its base the rejection of dogmas and the acceptance of the scientific methodology as the most successful means of understanding the universe. However, secular humanists also typically accept and abide by certain common principles, such as those expressed in various affirmations and manifestos of humanism and secular humanism. In order not to be religious in our secular humanism, the acceptance of those principles should also abide by the scientific/empirical standpoint. A secular humanist who accepts those principles mechanically or based on aesthetics or authority risks being a religious humanist. Rather, if we recognize that the principles we generally accept are provisional, contingent, and based upon thousands of years of accumulated evidence but are nonetheless open to change, reordering, and even rejection in light of new evidence, then we can avoid the religious trap.

Critics of secular humanism often refer to it as just another worldview, no better than any other, and, at its worst, a religion. Doubtless, some secular humanists fall into the same trap as religious believers, but when we recognize the critical differences and the historical superiority of empiricism and science at actually bringing useful change to the world and allowing us the means to better ourselves and our environment like no other methodology so far, we can show by example the pitfalls of dogma in any worldview. By avoiding those pitfalls, continuing to revise and update our own accepted beliefs in light of new evidence, and by maintaining a healthy level of doubt in those accepted beliefs, we can demonstrate that the scientific, secular-humanist attitude is the one most likely to bring us to a better future.

David Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. He is currently a Donaghue Initiative Visiting Scholar in Research Ethics at Yale University.

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