Wars Between Atheists and Theists

by Ludwik Kowalski, PhD



Introduction

Can small "wars of words" lead to ideologically motivated killings? This question makes me think about events which affected my life (1)--the October 1917 revolution in Russia and proletarian dictatorship in the Soviet Union. In both cases wars of words (like Marx's Communist Manifesto) led to massive killings. That is why I think that wars of words should be taken very seriously. Today's feuds between theists and atheists make me think about the Roman Inquisition--a war against scientists (like Galileo), or about Leninism and Stalinism--physical liquidations of Russian theologians. The purpose of this article is to elaborate on what has recently been published in American Atheist Magazine (2).

In that article I wrote: "Futile conflicts between theists and atheists, often amounting to 'we are better than you' confrontations, are common, as one can verify by browsing the Internet (3). Those who promote such poisonous conflicts are usually neither scientists nor theologians. Is it desirable to end such confrontations? If yes, then how?" I also explained why theology (debates about God) should not be confused with religion. To discuss religion, one would have to address political exploitation of theism and atheism, differences between religions, and much more. Such important topics are certainly worth addressing, but not in a short essay. The article was based on papers written by a theologian, R. J.
Russell (4) and by a scientist S.J. Gould (5).

I am a scientist, not a theologian (6). As a university student in Poland from 1949 to 1957, I was an aggressive atheist and subsequently became a member of the communist party. I am now a theist, believing in God and attending a synagogue. Missing an earlier introduction to God, I am very different from other theists, and I describe my ideological evolution in the online autobiography (1). Writing it was a moral obligation, to my parents, and to millions of other victims of Stalinism. The victims are dead but I was definitely with them when I was writing. What can be a better confirmation that many of us live in two different worlds, material and spiritual? What follows is a set of comments posted (on serveral Internet websites) by readers of my article (2). __

Comments posted on an atheiistic website

Referring to "scientists should not participate in debates about the spiritual world, unless they happen to also be theologians." X1 wrote: "I disagree; the problem with the 'spiritual world' (undefined; this means a million things to a million people) is that it affects an untold number of things in the 'real world' (the only world we know to exist based on scientific inquiry), often to the detriment to the overwhelming majority of those that do not share it. Thus any perspective that criticizes and highlights it's serious and large number of flaws is a positive thing, especially when people's personal theologies attempt to impact on the lives of others (which happens a lot I'm sure you'll agree).

We can't escape from the facts of reality; there's no evidence for god, for a spirit world, for a soul, for a heaven or hell, for eternal punishment; none of it.

As a graduate of one of the worlds leading scientific universities, and being engaged to a microbiologist and having a large number of friends involved in their respective fields (from immunology to astro-physics), I can honestly say that not a single one has ever taken theology seriously, and rightly so.

I would however agree that no theologian can ever comment on science unless they are a scientist, and even then they should be ignored if they use theological reasoning in which to enact that critique."

Referring to "two different worlds: material and spiritual," X1 added: "I also know a lot of people on this forum will have a massive problem with this statement. Rather, it should read that we all live in the material/real world, and that some people think they live in a spiritual world. There can be no mutual respect until this is recognized and rectified."

Referring to "Please share this link with other potential readers," X2 wrote: "I am not your errand boy. And your article is terrible. ... Your defense of NOMA is clearly misguided, considering how massively flawed the concept truly is. ... I'm more than a little surprised that you ever managed to get it published in the first place. I've seen better essays from Greatest I Am. It's bad and you should feel bad."

X3 asked: "why do I get the feeling the writer is confusing atheism with communism?"

X4 wrote: "... Just leave me out of it and we'll both be happy. You 'leave me out of it' by leaving me alone and not forcing your religious views into schools and laws." (Where was I forcing anything on anyone?) Second, your claim that theology is like mathematics is entirely, if you'll pardon my bluntness, idiotic. Mathematical concepts have been proven. Mathematics starts with proven concepts that work every single time, allowing you to get the "correct" answer. Theology starts with an unprovable claim which allows you to get what is "claimed to be" the correct answer.

Referring to "... scientists should not participate in debates about the spiritual world, unless they happen to also be theologians. Likewise, theologians should not participate in debates about the material world, unless they happen to also be scientists," X4 added:"

This is perhaps one of the most one-sided assertions I have ever seen. I do agree that science and religion are completely incompatible and have nothing to say about each other with the exception of science soundly trouncing many religious claims, but to suggest that one is not qualified to debate religion unless one is a theologian is ridiculous. (I was referring to theology, not religion.) You appear to have been suggesting either that or that becoming a scientist somehow disqualifies you to speak on religious matters unless you are also trained in religious matters, which is even more ludicrous. Given that generally only religious people are theologians I can certainly see why a theist would champion this very one-sided rule. By this idiotic request only religious scientists could ever debate religion and science together. Who the hell would they debate? When you have excluded everyone else as magically unqualified there is no more debate, there is only acceptance amongst those 'qualified', in your eyes.

Moses didn't have a degree in religion. Neither did Jesus. I don't suppose you'd be willing to throw out their works as the works of those woefully unqualified to speak on religious matters? Somehow, I doubt it. A biologist DOES have relevant knowledge on religious matters when it comes to literal creation. A geologist can look at a claim of a 6,000 year old earth and give an opinion he is fully qualified to give on this matter of religion. And I, as a former religious person and someone who has studied both science and religion in my spare time, am fully qualified to give my amateur opinions on either. ... Regardless of all that, as long as theists try to push their religion and religious beliefs on me and mine, the conflict will continue. For the first time in my life, we're winning. Why the hell would we quit now and lose all the ground we gained because an 81 year old "ex-atheist" tells us we should?"

X5 wrote: "... And since theology is mere made up mythological lies how can one rationalize that a person who holds these as truths can be a rational, thinking, intelligent human? Its bad enough to grant illusion as fact but worse to grant the illuser(?) intelligence."

Quoting the above X1 wrote: " Exactly. Even attempting to insinuate that science and theology are somehow on an equal setting is ridiculous, as is attempting to say that theologians have an insight that can assist the world beyond their little enclosed circle of believers, with or without science. ." Hmm, a little circle of believers?

Addressing my starting post, X6 wrote: "you write that science and religion are (or at least should be) separate, but that they were not always that way; How did they become separated? Did theologians arguing with theologians decide to filter out science and separate it from religion? How did the one-week creation story lose credibility, only by debates between theologians or by the involvement of scientists (or at least science) into the issue? Did theology voluntarily retreat into the boarders of its magisterium (and how were those borders defined?) or was it driven there?" Defining borders is indeed a difficult problem, to be addressed.

X7 wrote: "I agree with X1. And I disagree with the whole Stephen Jay Gould NOMA nonsense. Saying that one must be a theologian to critique religion is like saying one must be a fortuneteller to critique astrology or tarot reading.

Quoting me "God is not a material entity, and attempts to refute God's existence by performing scientific experiments are not appropriate," X8 wrote: "With this statement you reveal yourself as a theist apologist. This is merely an unsupported -- and unsupportable -- theist 'god of the gaps' assertion, a strategy designed to cast theism as if it were on equal footing with rational empiricism and science.

You also neglect that the dialog between theists and non-theists is heated because non-theists are fed up with theists' lies, abuse and oppression. We are sick of having your superstitions shoved down our throats and our children' throats. We are sick of your superstitions being forced upon us though laws made or dictated by influential superstitious people and groups
. (where did I force anything on anyone?) It's a WAR. Wars are neither polite nor cordial. We won't be getting along until you get out of our bedrooms and classrooms, and, ultimately, until you come to your senses and realize you have been bullshitting yourself and everyone else, and leave us and our children the hell alone."

Where did I say anything about bedrooms and classrooms? And why are capital letters used in WAR? Does it mean that X8 is ready for a "holy war" against theologians? I am already implicitly accused (see above) of being responsible for "theists' lies, abuse and oppression," and for superstition "being forced upon us ..." This reminds me of the Russian accusation "wrag naroda"--the enemy of the people. Such accusation was usually a prelude for an execution or long-term Gulag sentence. I hope I am wrong in making such comparisons. Yes NOMA is definitely worth promoting, on both sides of the divider. What else can we do to prevent another wave of ideologically inspired killings?

X9 wrote: "I did a little research and it turns out if you are this Ludwik Kowalski you are not a scientist but a mathematician with an unhealthy obsession with cold fusion. I wonder if this is because you have never taken a high level chemistry course or you are actually just bonkers."

Responding to X9 I wrote: (A) Correction: I am not a mathematician; I am a scientist (Ph.D. in nuclear physics, 1963). (B) Yes, I am not a professional chemist. But I did take an undergraduate chemistry course, after learning elementary chemistry in high school. (C) And yes, the so-called “Cold Fusion” fascinates me. In fact, I participated in three unsuccessful attempts to validate CF claims (made by other scientists), during the last ten years. This is described in my free online book at:

http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/cf/403memoir.html

Feel free to share this link with other potential readers. Thank you in advance.

X10 wrote: " Well [your article] was published in an 'atheist' magazine (American atheists perhaps?) So all I can think of is that it was a token gesture; something to show the other side of the argument. Normally I would agree as its always beneficial to display the merits of both sides then dissect and critique to show the reader how one gets to a given opinion. However, I've always disagreed giving religion any credence, especially when compared to rational skepticism. ... The term "theology," rather than "religion" would be more appropriate.

X11 wrote "... [LK] completely misunderstands and misrepresents what atheism is. What is wrong with saying that atheism is not believing in God's existence?

Responding to X3, who asked about communism, I wrote: "No I am not confusing communism with atheism; the majority of atheists are most likely not communists. But all communists in the USSR and Poland (where I lived) were expected to be atheists.

X1 asked:
"... Why would an emeritus professor come to an online atheist forum and promote an article that attempts to elevate theology to the same level as science?" Neither theology nor science was elevated in my article.

X12 asked
: " Ludwik, do you intend to be a part of this forum and contribute as a member, or instead just promote your writings?" Responding to this I wrote: "I am reading messages posted on this forum, and on other fora, with great interest. They make me think; I might write another article on the topic. Wars of words often degenerated into genocides. NOMA, in my opinion, is the only way to prevent this. That is why I am "promoting" Gould's idea.

I have been implicitly accused of being responsible for "theists' lies, abuse and oppression." This, as I wtote above, reminds me of the Russian accusation "wrag naroda." Yes, NOMA is worth promoting, on both sides of the divider. What else can we do to prevent another wave of ideologically inspired killings? P.S. I am definitely against "lies, abuse and oppression." My father was definitely not a "wrag naroda."


X13 wrote: " I'm not quite sure I understand what you are saying here. Are you actually suggesting that you believe that, like an oppressive communist government did in the past, we may be about to start self-justified killings? Because if you are, then f*** you. I don't care what degree you have, you are not worthy of debate of any sort. You may have been sharp once, but at 81 and spouting dumb shit like that, suggesting that to be "atheist" has ANYTHING WHATSOEVER to do with ANY government, past or present, it's time to have your nurse give you your Alzheimer's medicine because, congratulations, you are now a f***ing moron. Hey, why don't you call me Hitler and suggest I'm going to start up the ovens for the Christians, you senile old f***?"

X14 wrote: "You might go to christian forums instead and tell them not to want to kill atheists, and not to want to impede on our rights and generally you could ask them to be less crazy. They will be really impressed." I was going to tell them that editors of three theological, and two atheistic, journals rejected my article, before it was finally accepted by AA. But I changed my mind, after reading several posts containing insulting profanities.

Comments from readers on other fora

Welcoming me in Polish--Zapraszamy do naszej strony internetowej--Y1 wrote: "... I am a Christian. Not only do I believe in the existence of God, but I also believe that He has a Son that is alive and tenderly cares for me. He cared so much for me as a member of a fallen human race, that He took upon Himself my humanity and paid the penalty that I was powerless to pay, in full. Yes, I fully believed that Jesus Christ became a human, that He died in my (our) (your) stead and rose again from a grave that could not hold Him. ... God bless and direct you in your honest inquiry and search for truth."

Y2 wrote: "I am curious as to why you have posted an article addressing Atheist and Theists on a Christian Message Board ... We are followers of Jesus Christ...I don't think your debate applies to us ... In addition we are not confrontational...in the manner you suggest. We relate the Truth of the Bible and you are free to accept or reject it. There is no confrontation involved. ..."

Y3 wrote: " Scientists who call themselves agnostics do so because they know one thing for sure at this point in mankind's understanding of the universe: they cannot ... prove or disprove, beyond any reasonable doubt, the existence of God. What they can tell you for a fact is that there is nothing supernatural. Anything that exists in the universe, known or unknown, exists and is therefore natural. ..."

Y4
wrote: "... This is why I really don't like the term "supernatural"-it's too ambiguous. I prefer to argue for natural explanations over apparent violations of known physical laws."

Z1 wrote: "When a debate occurs, the main issue people think about is probably "Wait, who has the burden of proof?" The same goes for this debate, the debate for God's existence. So who does have the burden of proof here?

Responding to this question, Z2 wrote: "I think the burden of proof lies in the hearts of those who have it. We know God is, because we have proof that He is, within ourselves. God has no intention of proving Himself to anyone without them first, having a little faith in seeking Him."

Quoting Z1 I wrote: "In my opinion the concept of the "burden of proof" would disappear if the NOMA idea were universally accepted, as explained in my article published in American Atheist Magazine. The link is:

html://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo/atheist.html

Referring to my comment, Z3 wrote: "Very interesting article, very good points. I am in complete agreement with you that using scientific methods to prove or disprove religious beliefs is the wrong approach, given the radically different nature of scientific and religious thought. I have noticed there is a huge gap in communication between people who are spiritually-oriented and those with strong materialistic views. I've often wondered if there is a way to get around this issue.

The main problem is, I think, the general tendency of de-spiritualization in our modern world. I can understand that people have issues with certain aspects of official religions and doctrines, what I can't understand is the complete lack of spiritual awareness in some of the advocates of materialism.

As an ex-Communist, I believe you have a much clearer understanding of the hidden dangers of radical materialism and the damage it can do to people's minds. People in Western countries seem much more unaware of these dangers and tend to focus solely on the dangers of superstitious beliefs. They can't see that at this moment radical materialism is at least as great a threat to humankind as religious fundamentalism. ..."

Referring to my essay, Z4 wrote: "Thanks Ludwik, enjoyed your article. I don't think its possible for someone who rejects a spiritual realm to ever grasp it, yet at times, I know they do feel it. I've seen this many times over the years. Before I became spiritual, I felt it around me at times."

Z5 wrote: "There is a great deal of scientific work yet to be done concerning Christianity. It will almost certainly require the intestinal fortitude of a Galileo, as you will easily see. First to be able to hold two conflicted concepts in mind before breakfast: for Christianity, this is the Torah and the new Testament. The former, a distinctly patriarchal reading of Jewish history; the latter, a strongly maternal ethic of unconditional Love and forgiveness for heinous wrongs even until the dying moments in fact. The scientific basis for Christianity has hardly been touched. The virgin birth for example: this of itself is NOT miraculous; there have been (exceedingly rare) examples of virgin births to women, though other mammals show this unusual outcome more frequently. ..."

Referring to Z5, Z6 wrote: "Are you sure you want to go there with this topic? First of all, as a Reform Jew who teaches [physics] in a strictly Ultra Orthodox school I would take strong exception of your rather cavalier 'dismissal' of the intent and meaning of the Torah as a 'reading of Jewish history.' To Jews and Christians alike the Torah is THE word of God and not just some "reading of history". The five books of Moses tell not only the story of the Israelites, but lay out in succinct terms the entire ethical and moral code which governs, or is supposed to govern, all of the Western world's religions today.

There are really two Torahs... the written one everyone associates with the "Bible" and the oral word spoken to Moses at Mt. Sinai. To a Jew, especially an Orthodox Jew, the code of conduct of all humans is enshrined in these two Torahs.

To the Orthodox people these scrolls are their entire Raison-d'etre; their entire life is based on the constant reading and interpretation of the Torah through the writings of the sages of the last several thousand years called the Talmud and the Gamora.

I know personally some Orthodox scientists who find no disagreement between their Torah studies and their work in science. These people are constantly studying and reading, sometimes in the ancient Aramaic, sometimes in the Biblical Hebrew (different from the conversational Hebrew) and can balance their religious work with their scientific work.

I'm sure you didn't want to defame or denigrate an entire group of people so I think you had better come up with a better distinction of the 'Old' and 'New' Testaments! "

References

1) Ludwik Kowalski, “Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality;”
http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html

2) Ludwik Kowalski, "
Futile Confrontations Between Theists and Atheists;"
http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo_sci.html

3) Collected Internet comments,
http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo_sci.html

4)
Robert John Russel, “Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must be Done;” http://www.ctns.org/about_history.html

5) L. Kowalski's publications:
http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/LK_publications.html

6) Gould, S. J. (1997). "Nonoverlapping Magisteria.
www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html