Data Sensmaking, Science, and Atheism

I’m an atheist. Despite the stigma that most Americans still attach to atheism, I embrace it without reservation. My perspective as an atheist is tightly coupled with my perspectives as an advocate of science and a data sensemaking professional. Atheism, science, and data sensemaking all embrace evidence and reason as the basis for understanding. All three shun beliefs that are not based on evidence and reason as the enemy of understanding.

I wasn’t always an atheist. Like most Americans born in the 1950s, I was raised as a Christian—in my case, a version of fundamentalist Protestantism known as Pentecostalism. Not satisfied with a nominal commitment to religion, I was that weird kid who carried his Bible with him to high school every day. While still a teenager, I felt called by God into the ministry and pursued that calling as my initial profession. Despite a genuine commitment, however, I sometimes felt a bit uneasy about my faith. From time to time, I was faced with facts and a sense of morality that conflicted with my faith. These conflicts became increasingly difficult to ignore. In my mid-20s, after many dark nights of the soul, I pulled out of the ministry and gradually abandoned my faith altogether while searching for a new foundation to build my life upon. Eventually, science became that foundation. The transition was painful, but also exciting. I went on to study religion in graduate school from an academic perspective (comparative religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, etc.) because I wanted to better understand the powerful role of religion in people’s lives and in the world at large.

After leaving the ministry, I didn’t embrace atheism immediately. I first spent a few years exploring liberal expressions of religion (e.g., Unitarianism, the Society of Friends, and even Reformed Judaism), hoping to find a like-minded community, but they all had something in common that never felt right to me. That something was faith. As I increasingly embraced science as the best path to understanding, I increasingly recognized faith as a problem. Faith delivers ready-made answers based on authority—end of story—but science encourages open-ended curiosity, continuous self-correction, and discovery.

For many years, I called myself an agnostic. Without reservation, I could say, “I don’t know if a god exists.” Since no one really knows, in a sense everyone is an agnostic, whether they admit it or not. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as an atheist because I misunderstood the term. I thought that an atheist was someone who claimed to know for sure that no gods exist. That isn’t the case. Agnosticism is an epistemological expression—it’s concerned with knowledge, or more precisely, with the lack of knowledge: “I don’t know.” Atheism, on the other hand, is an expression of belief, or more precisely, the absence of belief. An atheist says, “I don’t believe that any gods exist.” One can also embrace a slightly firmer version of atheism that declares “I believe that no gods exist.” Either way, atheism does not claim “I know for sure that no gods exist.” Agnosticism and atheism represent the same epistemological perspective: “I don’t know if any gods exist.” Atheism just goes one step further by extending a lack of knowledge to the realm of belief.

Science resists certainty; it deals in probabilities. Based on the available evidence, something is either likely or unlikely to a statistically calculated degree. I lack belief in gods because I’m not aware of any evidence for their existence. During my years as a Christian, I accepted the Christian god’s existence as a matter of faith. At the time, I made this leap to make sense of the world, but I no longer need faith in a god to make sense of the world or my role in it. If evidence for a god’s existence ever emerges, I’ll reconsider my position.

It bears mentioning that, just as everyone is in a sense an agnostic, whether they realize it or not, everyone is also an atheist. Even if you’re a religious fundamentalist, as I was, you’re also an atheist. This is because, while you believe in your god, you don’t believe in other gods. In other words, in respect to most of the gods that people believe in—all but your own—you’re an atheist. In this respect, you and I are a lot alike. We only differ in that I include one more god on my list of those that I don’t believe in.

Religions codify faith-based beliefs. They declare what is true about the world, about humans, about our role in the world, and, of course, about the role of supernatural beings. They do so without evidence. Faith discourages curiosity and the search for truth. As Richard Dawkins wrote, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding” (The God Delusion, 2008, page 126). As a data sensemaking professional, my commitment to reason and evidence as the basis for understanding puts me at odds with faith.

We can thank the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould for the conceptual basis on which many scientists and data sensemakers who are also religious reconcile these conflicting perspectives. Gould proposed that science and religion occupy two “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.” I admire Gould’s work greatly. He was a marvelous scientist who did a great deal to popularize science, but I find this awkward construction intolerable. According to Gould, science has its domain, religion has its domain, and the two don’t overlap. Furthermore, these two domains should respect one another and consistently stick to their own distinct areas of expertise. As explained by Adam Neiblum in his book Unexceptional when describing Gould’s position:

Each magisteria has its own epistemic foundation, each fulfilling a different role in human needs and affairs. Science, epistemologically founded on empirical observation, evidence, data and reason, necessarily deals with facts about the world, while religion, epistemologically founded on personal revelation and faith, deals with values and morality, which have nothing to do with matters of fact about the world. (Unexceptional: Darwin, Atheism and Humanity, Adam Neiblum, 2017, p. 166)

Since the emergence of modern science, it and religion have always co-existed uncomfortably. I suspect that Gould wanted to make science more palatable for religious folks—the majority of Americans—so he separated science and religion into exclusive, non-competing realms.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of scientists (specifically members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), only 33% believe in a god and over 40% identify themselves as atheists or agnostics (“Scientists and Belief,” Pew Research Center, November 5, 2009, www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief). This is extraordinary in light of the following statistics, also reported by Pew:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind. (“Key Findings about Americans’ Belief in God,” Pew Research Center, April 5, 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/25/key-findings-about-americans-belief-in-god/)

The correlation between scientific work and atheism, while extraordinary, is not surprising. Pursuit of science is not necessarily responsible for a lack of theistic belief, but my own exposure to science definitely influenced my departure from theism, and to a great degree.

There is a fundamental problem with Gould’s concept of Nonoverlapping Magisteria: it isn’t scientific. Science is definitely concerned with religion’s claims that the world was created by a god and that supernatural entities (gods, angels, spirits, demons, leprechauns, dead people, etc.) continue to intervene in the world’s affairs. Religion is definitely agitated by the fact that more and more of its territory is being reduced by scientific discoveries. This conflict cannot be defined out of existence. To do so defies the tenets and methods of science.

I reject the notion that morality is the rightful and exclusive domain of religion. Morality does not require religion. To say that it does makes morality an obligation that’s imposed on us by an external authority rather than a personal choice. I am no less moral as an atheist than I was as a Christian. Actually, I am more moral, for my behavior is based entirely on a personal sense of good behavior, never on a belief that I must behave in certain ways because a god demands it. When I was religious, my morality was governed, at least in part, by fear. You don’t dare piss off a god.

As religions develop, they codify morality in various ways, but they don’t create it. Morality began to evolve in social animals before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Certain ways of behaving towards others naturally evolved as moral instincts in all social animals, not just humans. Altruism, justice, and fairness are exhibited quite naturally in our species and in several others as well.

If you’re a scientist, or similarly, if you’re a data sensemaking professional, and you’re also religious, you must come to grips with the conflict that exists between these perspectives. You must divide your life, as Gould proposed, into two distinct realms. You can’t allow your willingness to accept things on faith to influence your work. Professionally, you must always go where the evidence leads you. If you do this successfully in your work, it may become increasingly difficult to do otherwise in your personal life.

Despite the stigma about atheism that still persists, an increasing number of people embrace it as a reasonable position. This is especially true among the young. They are less militant about it than my generation, however. Unlike my generation, many of them haven’t needed to claw their way out of religion. Atheism simply makes sense to them and has from an early age.

As with almost everything that I write about in this blog, this article was prompted by a particular event. Not long ago I was approached by the business school of a nearby religiously affiliated college to help them put together a data analytics program, and potentially, to also teach in the program, so I reviewed their website to find out just how religious they were. Despite the fact that members of the denomination that founded and runs this college are often quite liberal and known for their work as social activists, I found that this college is quite fundamentalist in its statement of faith. Here it is, word for word:

The Trinity
We believe in one eternal God, the source and goal of life, who exists as three persons in the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In love and joy, God creates and sustains the universe, including humanity, male and female, who are made in God’s image.
God the Father
We believe in God the Father Almighty, whose love is the foundation of salvation and righteous judgment, and who calls us into covenant relationship with God and with one another.
God the Son
We believe in Jesus Christ, the Word, who is fully God and fully human. He came to show us God and perfect humanity, and, through his life, death, and resurrection, to reconcile us to God. He is now actively present with us as Savior, Teacher, Lord, Healer, and Friend.
God the Holy Spirit
We believe in the Holy Spirit, who breathed God’s message into the prophets and apostles, opens our eyes to God’s Truth in Jesus Christ, empowers us for holy living, and carries on in us the work of salvation.
Salvation
We believe that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, to whom we must respond with repentance, faith, and obedience. Through Christ we come into a right relationship with God, our sins are forgiven, and we receive eternal life.
The Bible
We believe that God inspired the Bible and has given it to us as the uniquely authoritative, written guide for Christian living and thinking. As illumined by the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are true and reliable. They point us to God, guide our lives, and nurture us toward spiritual maturity.
The Christian Life
We believe that God has called us to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to be God’s agents of love and reconciliation in the world. In keeping with the teaching of Jesus, we work to oppose violence and war, and we seek peace and justice in human relationships and social structures.
The Church
We believe in the church as the people of God, composed of all who believe in Jesus Christ, who support and equip each other through worship, teaching, and accountability, who model God’s loving community, and who proclaim the gospel to the world.
Christian Worship
We believe Christ is present as we gather in his name, seeking to worship in spirit and in truth. All believers are joined in the one body of Christ, are baptized by the Spirit, and live in Christ’s abiding presence. Christian baptism and communion are spiritual realities, and, as Christians from many faith traditions, we celebrate these in different ways.
The Future
We believe in the personal return of Jesus Christ, in the resurrection of the dead, in God’s judgment of all persons with perfect justice and mercy, and in eternal reward and punishment. Ultimately, Christ’s kingdom will be victorious over all evil, and the faithful will reign.

Wow. This is an incredible statement of faith. I mean this quite literally: it isn’t credible. Not a shred of verifiable evidence exists for any of these assertions, but faculty members at this college must affirm these articles of faith in writing. Obviously, I can’t make this affirmation. I pointed this problem out to my contact at the college and she suggested a way to get around it. I didn’t want to offend her, but I had to make it clear that I could not affiliate myself with a faith-based religious organization, even if they allowed it. What I didn’t say was that I found the college’s statement of faith frightening. It brought back vivid memories of the faith-based beliefs that I fought hard to abandon when I was young.

This encounter left me wondering how people of faith manage to avoid the pitfalls of this orientation when making sense of data or doing science. The cognitive dissonance must be exhausting. I have no desire to offend anyone who navigates this tension, but I am genuinely concerned that it affects the work. Faith primes us to accept certain things as true, without question, regardless of the evidence. This is never a good approach to data sensemaking or science. The magisteria definitely overlap. The conflict is real. If you’re religious and also a scientist or a data sensemaker, you must navigate these conflicting perspectives with care. I, for one, couldn’t do it.

One Comment on “Data Sensmaking, Science, and Atheism”


By Branden. January 14th, 2020 at 7:41 pm

Thank you very much for sharing your story, and great fan of your blog!

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