I haven't blogged any atheist thoughts for a while, so I thought I'd dredge up a board post that I wrote last October.
Christians like to frame things in terms of "world views", saying that being a Christian changes the way that you think about everything, which is why they have such specific views on "moral" issues like abortion and homosexuality and so on. Of course, many liberal Christians don't align with those views, but that's okay; fundamentalist Christians just write them off as not True ChristiansTM who are duped by worldliness.
I kind of believe in "world views", but I don't believe they are caused by religion. I think a major component of your world view, INCLUDING how seriously you take your religion, is influenced by the way in which you regard the concept of knowledge.
Whether there is a god or not, human knowledge is imperfect. Everybody realizes that, or ought to. Theists generally believe that there is a god, and their god knows everything. Therefore, True Knowledge is obtained by listening to what God says.
The problem with that is that, even if their god is real, he isn't down here issuing public statements on the issues that we deal with right now. Take abortion, for instance. Anti-choice Christians will point to portions of the Bible which they say clearly prohibits abortion. But on the other hand, pro-choice Christians will just as easily point out passages in the Bible that supports THEIR position as well. I suppose the god could have clearly said in the Bible "don't commit abortion" or "abortion is a-OK with me!" But it probably wasn't known in those exact terms back then, and it's been a while (2000 years) since he supposedly communicated with us.
So even if you personally know an omnipotent being, that doesn't really do you much good unless he tells you clearly what he thinks. And the Bible sure ain't it. Hence we have the concept of "faith", which is believing things sincerely without evidence, just because it makes you feel better.
Now, "faith" may well be an excellent way to become personally fulfilled and at peace, but historically it has proved to be a notoriously bad way to actually know things. Even accepting the idea that there is a particular kind of faith which is right, and which will reveal the absolute truth, that still leaves open the sticky question of what to have faith in.
There are thousands of religions in the world now, as well as thousands more historical religions that are now defunct. It's hard to be objectively certain that you're not simply participating in a religion that will, hundreds of years from now, be studied with the same kind of bemused curiosity with which we currently regard the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, these religions can't all be right, because many of them hold as a fundamental tenet that the other religions must be wrong.
The fact that there have been a lot of false religions doesn't PROVE that any particular religion is wrong. But it does illustrate that people put their faith in an awful lot of things that turn out to be false. If you were an educated person born in ancient Greece, chances are good that you'd probably believe in Zeus. Being born in 21st century America, chances are almost nil that you'll believe in Zeus.
What changed? Did Zeus once exist and then disappear to make room for Jesus? No. We know for pretty certain that Zeus doesn't exist and never did. But as an ancient Greek, you wouldn't KNOW you were wrong, because you wouldn't have the perspective that hundreds of years later, everybody would "know" that Zeus is a silly idea. Whereas the idea of a man who was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead is a far more sophisticated idea that represents the real truth.
In short: really, truly BELIEVING something is a bad yardstick for verifying what's actually true.
So if faith isn't the way to go, then how do we go about the business of actually finding things out and being pretty sure you know the things that are true? I think that at some point, clearly the answer has to be that you come up with unemotionally applied tests that can be repeated by everyone. You have to be able to admit that you don't know what you don't know, and apply what you do know to form an overall informed opinion of the world.
Unfortunately, sometimes even your most informed opinions will be wrong. There's no way to escape this because, as I said before, all human knowledge is imperfect. But the ability to recognize and admit when you're wrong is actually a strength, not a weakness. Because every time you understand that you have been wrong, it allows you to switch to a position that is (more likely to be) right. And there's a word for the process of investigating things and trying to weed out wrong ideas. It's science.
I think that even the most die hard young earth creationists understand the value of science in principle, because that's what religious apologetics are all about. At their best, apologetics are meant to be logically sound arguments that persuade the listener to objectively accept their opinion as true. If faith were enough to really know truth, then apologetics would be a waste of time, because logic would be irrelevant.
And I know that the promoters of Intelligent Design (or "stealth creationism" as some prefer to call it) recognize the value of science as a way of understanding the world, because that is after all what ID is theoretically about. It is an effort to meld a belief in God with the respectable objectivity of the scientific method. Again, if faith were enough to go on, there would be no need to make scientific arguments, and ID would not have come to be in the first place.
In a sense, I applaud the concept of ID. Although I happen to not believe in any sort of intelligent designer, I understand that many people believe it very seriously. And if there is one, I want to know about it. I would like nothing better than to see the question settled once and for all from a scientific perspective.
Where I have a beef with Intelligent Design is not their goal to marry science with God; it's their unfortunate tendency to repeatedly declare victory before they've actually accomplished anything at all. If you really want to put science and religion in harmony, then I say throw money at research. But you have to be sure that your money is actually funding RESEARCH, and not a PR campaign. Not lawsuits. Not politicians. Not school boards. Tell them to stop trying to buy respectability by getting museums to show designer-friendly movies.
Really, I think everyone who truly cares about ID should be DEMANDING that the Discovery Institute start spending their donations on hiring brilliant minds to do genuinely original research, instead of more lawyers. I think it would be a great day for science if that happened.