In this interview, Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein answer a wide range of questions. Here’s what Pinker think about religion and the science vs religion debate:
When people are asked a question, they don’t just turn a flashlight into their data bank of beliefs and read out what they see. When people say, “Yes, I believe in God and the Bible,” they’re kind of saying, “I’m a moral person. I have solidarity with the community of churchgoers that I was brought up in and that I currently belong to.” I think that if you were to probe a lot of people’s religious opinions, they would not be as religious as the numbers would suggest. […]
I think students should know something about religion as a historical phenomenon, in the same way that they should know something about socialism and humanism and the other great ideas that have shaped political philosophies and therefore the course of human events. I didn’t like the idea of privileging religion above other ideologies that were also historically influential, like socialism and capitalism. I also didn’t like the euphemism “faith.” Nor did I like the juxtaposition of “faith” and “reason,” as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing. […]
I would be opposed to a requirement on astrology and astronomy, or alchemy and chemistry. Not because I don’t think people should know about astrology. Astrology had an important role in the ancient world. You can’t understand many things unless you know something about astrology — the plays of Shakespeare and so on. What I’m opposed to is equating it with reason or science.
Then, the interviewer asked:
But can you really equate religion with astrology, or religion with alchemy? No serious scholar still takes astrology or alchemy seriously. But there’s a lot of serious thinking about religion.
And Pinker answered:
I would put faith in that same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy.
[…] Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests. Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens. […]
A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious. […]
As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought. […]
Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true — and perhaps they tell us more about those who harbor them than those who are maligned by them. […]
I sat with a Pirahã once and he said, what does your god do? What does he do? And I said, well, he made the stars, and he made the Earth. And I asked, what do you say? He said, well, you know, nobody made these things, they just always were here. They have no concept of God. They have individual spirits, but they believe that they have seen these spirits, and they believe they see them regularly. In fact, when you look into it, these aren’t sort of half-invisible spirits that they’re seeing, they just take on the shape of things in the environment. They’ll call a jaguar a spirit, or a tree a spirit, depending on the kinds of properties that it has. “Spirit” doesn’t really mean for them what it means for us, and everything they say they have to evaluate empirically. This is what I hadn’t been doing, and this challenged the faith that I thought I had, to the extent that I realized that it wasn’t honest for me to continue to claim to believe these things when I realized how little investigation I had done into the nature of the things I claimed to believe.
Daniel L. Everett is a former evangelical Christian missionary to the Pirahãs, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe, in the Brazilian Amazon for more than 20 years, is Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at Illinois State University.
He lived with and studied the Pirahãs, their culture and their language in particular, for many years, and under their influence, his faith disappeared and he became an atheist.
“It’s wrong to try and convert tribal societies, […] What should the empirical evidence for religion be? It should produce peaceful, strong, secure people who are right with God and right with the world. I don’t see that evidence very often. So then I find myself with the Pirahã. They have all these qualities that I am trying to tell them they could have. They are the ones who are living life the way I’m saying it ought to be lived, they just don’t fear heaven and hell.”
I have found that I can get each group to think about what they are saying by using the other group as a foil. Namely, of the creationists I ask, “Do you believe in flying saucers?” They inevitably say “no.” Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied all of the claims?” Similarly, to the alien abduction people I ask, “Do you be- lieve in Young Earth Creationism?” and they say “no,” wanting to appear scientific. Then I ask, “Why? Have you studied every single counterclaim?” The point I try to make for each group is that it is quite sensible to base theoretical expectations on a huge quantity of existing evidence, without having studied absolutely every single obscure counterclaim. This “teaching” technique has worked in most cases, except those rare times when it has turned out that I was debating an alien abduction believer who was also a creationist!"