Response to Essay #18

Essay #18, “Suicide Bombers and Their Deity,” was published in IEEE T&S Magazine, Spring 2002. As the Editor (Prof. P. Aarne Vesiland, Bucknell Univ.) explains below, it “drew an unprecedented response from our readers.” Because I believe that this response is interesting, I am presenting it as Essay #21, which concludes with my “Author’s Response.” The following, from IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol 21, Fall 2002, pp 4 – 6 and 31, is copyrighted by IEEE:
Editor’s Note: The Opinion column by Sid Deutsch entitled “Suicide Bombers and Their Deity” (T&S Spring 2002) drew an unprecedented response from our readers. There simply is not enough space to publish all of the letters in full, so we have had to edit the letters, while trying to preserve the tenor and substance of the arguments. Readers are welcome to correspond with the writers, and contributions to the Opinion column are always welcome.Dear Editor:

Sid Deutsch’s piece deserves at least a brief reply towards disentangling the logic of an apparent demonizing process of mutual- and self-destruction as a frightening terror weapon confronting conventional civility. For a scientifically oriented exposition, why rely on assumptions that are at best ambiguous, if not uncertain?

Take the assumption of “programmed to hate” as a precondition of terror, subject to manipulation with icy cold-blooded calculations or mixed with love for country and fatherland. Similarly, the belief [that one can] join a deity through self-destruction may appear as a plausible precondition but is hardly a compelling one. Since it is widely accepted that the existence of a deity (or deities) cannot be proved or disproved it appears advisable to exclude such references from discussion that are deemed to be rational arguments.

What remains are beliefs in extreme fundamentalism grounded in righteous ideological doctrines mostly locked in unbending good and evil confrontations unwilling to give an inch or [accept] any compromise. Why assume that the “average intelligence is no longer increasing”? Even if this would be credible, there remains the need to recognize symbolic representation. Roman numbering notions can be seen as an obstacle even for simple mathematical problems once left for experts to solve. Substituting the Arabic numbering system resolves solutions even for common uses. Instead of being doomed by ideology (often by being declared as uncorrectable), why not apply efforts to challenge failing and boxed-in ideational modes for a truly rational and scientific analysis that counters a “barbarism of reflection” (G. Vico, 1724)?

Walter W. Zessner
Toronto, Canada

Dear Editor:

Both religion and science are based in part on facts, in part on reasoning and in part on faith. In each case, these foundations have their limitations. Both religion and science present problems of accessibility for lay people and unsolved mysteries for the adept. Neither can use its methods to verify the conclusions of the other, and neither can answer all our questions in any field. Last but not least, both religion experience and scientific experience have been integral parts of our human reality for a very long time. Shamans have been having mystic experiences for thousands of years. Hypothesis forming, reasoning and speculation of a scientific nature go back to the ancient Greeks, if not before.

There are, of course some big difference between religion and science. For example, one should be ready to die for one’s religion, but nobody is going to die for the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And their routes to knowledge are so very different. But the difference need not be sources of incompatibility. Indeed, having different routes to knowledge can be useful, for it gives two very different ways of approaching reality, which may be too complex to be grasped by any one field. …Perhaps, for most of us, the “real real” has always been (and always will be) only partly explainable and only partly verifiable. At some point we are going to have to trust somebody else. And this “somebody else” might even turn out to be a cleric or a scientist, or maybe some of each!

Lewis L. Smith
Carolina, PR

Dear Editor:

I read “suicide bombers and their deity” and found two points troubling:

1. Saying that there is “no scientific evidence for single or multiple deities of any kind” is, it seems to me, grossly misleading. As far as I know, there is similarly no scientific evidence for there being no deities. As best I can tell, science is mute on this question and [this article] implies it to not be.

2. It seems implausible to me that any judge, jury, or prosecutor in the country would fail to try, convict, and harshly sentence a suicide bomber because of religion belief. If that is true, changing U.S. education to be anti-religion will have no effect on this problem.

Russell Brand
Redwood City, CA

Dear Editor:

I have just read the Opinion piece by Sid Deutsch and feel that an answer might be [required]. [The author] … calls for “teaching scientific viewpoints only” … [and apparently] thinks that good training in scientific thinking, i.e.,  strengthening rational approaches and behavior, would solve the many problems due to fanaticism, bigotry, religions, etc. [He expounds these] views in this interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary magazine—in which many of us grapple with the difficult problems relating to ethics, values, responsibility, etc.—all of which are not easily approached and understood from a strictly “scientific viewpoint.”

The author writes that science and religion are incompatible. However, he certainly must be aware of the fact that our psychological “underground” and our emotions are inextricably intertwined and interacting with our intellect and logical thinking. Aren’t we like (magnetic) dipoles? You can’t have North (rationality) without South (emotion). Or like an electron being particle and wave – complementing each other! How would you try to separate the two?

In fact, we appear to be highly complex beings with relatively weak intellects – subject to many rather strong emotions processes and forces acting in our bellies, many of which we are not even aware of.

Urs Gessner
Romanshorn, Switzerland 

Dear Editor:

I am in 100% agreement with the Opinion piece. As a colleague of mine says, “religion is the most malevolent force on earth.”

Clark Johnson
Minneapolis, MN

Dear Editor:

The author states “for [the Japanese kamikaze pilots] the emperor served as a kind of deity.” This is not entirely correct; in fact, before the emperor was constitutionalized after the defeat of Japan in WWII, the emperor was indeed considered to be deity according to Shinto beliefs. Also, the author suggests that there was an evolution from multiple deities to a single deity. According to Christian missionaries, this is actually untrue; in fact most primitive societies believed in a single deity and more advanced cultures believed in multiple deities.

The author mentions the “separation of church and state” and “[teaching] the scientific viewpoint, exclusively,” followed by his argument that “science and religion are incompatible.” But can the existence of God be scientifically proven? No, and neither does he seem to be aware that humanism (believing humanity to be ultimately in control) is a form of religion, and is professed as such by humanist leaders. So, one cannot meaningfully argue for the teaching of “the scientific viewpoint” (in fact what the author says is the humanistic viewpoint) “exclusively.”

The author talks of “intelligent design” being a euphemism for a deity; in fact, this is not true. When god-believing people talk of intelligent design, they talk of a piece of evidence that a deity exists. It is definitely not a euphemism (which would imply that the design is the deity).

With the numerous problems in the article, I was quite surprised to see the article in T&S; in fact, it is more of a surprise when one realizes that the article is essentially propaganda for atheism and humanism. Would the publication of this article imply that other religious articles are OK in T&S?

Ambrose Li
Toronto, Canada

Editor’s Response: Yes, we would most certainly welcome contributions on religion and science, two of the most important forces governing both our technology and our society.

Dear Editor:

Mr. Deutsch’s point of view is an example of scientism; the belief that science is the only real source for answers to questions such as what life is about, why we are here, and what will happen to us when we die. Although not formally regarded by its believers as a religion, it has many of the characteristics of a religion: a deity (the body of knowledge called Science), revered saints (e.g. Albert Einstein, Richard Feyman, Carl Sagan), high priests (e.g. the evolutionist Richard Dawkins), cathedrals (any science museum in a major city), creeds (such as Mr. Deutsch’s statement that “there is no evidence for single or multiple deities of any kind”) and even ecumenical councils that include believer in real religions.

There is some truth in Mr. Deutsch’s model of how Islamic suicide bombers are trained in madrasses to hate all things Christian and Western, and to believe that their suicidal actions are worth the sacrifice of their lives. But in a clash of civilizations, I would put my money on a civilization whose members believed in a cause greater than their own lives, rather than one whose members all value their own skin more highly than anything else. For all the appeal of the majority of the scientific quest and the grandeur of scientific civilizations, scientism does not seem to be very popular among those classes whose callings involve the real possibility of the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, such as firemen, policemen, and members of the armed forces. Scientism is found more among the upper classes, whose leisure is secured by the work of others whose lives are at daily risk. In a world populated only by believers of scientism, we might have a real problem recruiting firemen and soldiers.

I believe both in Deity and in the extreme usefulness of the scientific approach to advance the lot of man. I see no contradiction whatsoever in these beliefs, and I can cite the words of dozens of scientists, both living and in the past, for whom their religious faith posed no obstacle to their scientific work.

Karl Stephan
San Marcus, TX

Dear Editor:

I was disturbed by the Opinion column in T&S and am discouraged and embarrassed that my society would publish such an uninformed and insulting column. Unfortunately there was no content in that column that had any bearing on the social implications of technology. In your normally excellent magazine, I expected a column that would help me learn about society and technology. Instead, anyone who believes in a creator was personally degraded and compared to a suicide bomber.

If Mr. Deutsch would take the time to learn about religions and how they have affected our society, he may be surprised to learn that virtually all modern ethical and moral codes, including the IEEE’s own Code of Ethics, have their roots in religious writings. Examples of these are the Ten Commandments and the Golden rule. Many people in this world believe words such as those found in the Bible were inspired by a creating God.
Please, in the future, consider carefully the opinions that are printed in the magazine. The content should be aimed at the edification of engineers who are concerned about society, not insulting those who have religious beliefs.

Daniel Doan
Lancaster, PA

Author’s Response:
My essay was the best I could do given the limited space available (and space constraints apply, equally well, to this response). My main points are that there is no scientific basis for deities, and that scientists should separate themselves from religion. The IEEE is concerned with how we harness the electron (technology) for the benefit (or destruction) of mankind (society); the topic considered here falls into the very center of technology and society.

The scientific proof that there cannot be a deity is this: A deity would have to violate one or more of the natural forces or laws (such as gravitational forces, electromagnetic [EM] forces, and conservation of energy law) that He (or She) has presumably made. Where is the deity? How does it influence events on Earth? There is no way It can act without breaking the law! It must violate the laws of gravitation and/or electromagnetic (light) waves if It is invisible, and/or the law of conservation of energy if It moves things around without accounting for the required energy. In fact, it is starting to sound downright silly for us to even consider such possibilities. As children we wondered, with good reason, what kept the deity from falling down, or why He wasn’t visible, or why He allowed awful things to happen to good people who, ironically, believed in Him! True believers remain, of course, unconvinced: somehow, the deity does not have to abide by gravitation, EM, or energy restrictions. But this is exactly my point—the deity is an unscientific concept, outside the laws of science.

The Intelligent Design (ID) people say “OK, the deity has completed His work, and is no longer with us. But He did set the universe up, 14 billion years ago, and also got life started on Earth some 3.8 billion years ago.” The different time frame remains unconvincing: whenever He created the universe and life, the creation violated the scientific laws with which we are familiar today.

Pertinent to the above is this question: What was the size of the universe when the Big Bang took place 14 billion years ago? It was a “singularity”; in effect, a point with negligible diameter. How is this possible? No problem at all for our present-day physicists: They say that the laws of the Universe were different at the time of the Big Bang. But this is a dangerous game to play. It is exactly the argument presented by the ID advocates: “The laws of the Universe were different when the Deity made the Universe.” It is better strategy to tell the ID people that the Big Bang was preceded by the Big Crunch in a never-ending cycle [1]. With regard to my second point, “separation”: From infancy on, if a child is taught that there are one or more deities, that belief becomes part of him/her. A minority of these children become scientists later on,  and discover that the deities are nonexistent. These individuals are scientists on the job but, at other times, they continue to carry out their religious customs with family and friends. This is what I mean by separation: These scientists freely admit that they lead double lives, but they feel very comfortable acting this way.

Life consists of much more than science and religion. There are art, entertainment, sports, emotional behavior, and so forth, but these topics are more appropriately considered elsewhere, not in Technology and Society Magazine.

E-Mail Comment:
According to an e-mail comment by Dr. Didier de Fontaine, with regard to my statement that “Almost single-handedly … Paul Kurtz gave birth to what eventually became the …” CSICOP, here is the “human interest” angle:

“The whole idea had its origin in my home country of Belgium where, immediately after WW II, a group of MDs decided to counter the many charlatans who promised the credulous to find, by paranormal means, friends and relatives who had vanished during the war. When quite a few years later Paul Kurtz visited Belgium, he spoke to Astronomer Demongeot who told him about the Belgian debunking group, and Dr. Kurtz then decided to start a similar group in the US, adopting as name “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims to Paranormal”, which is the exact translation from the French of the original Belgian name (later shortened to “Comité Para”)! I know this because I visited Dr. Demangeot at the Royal Observatory in Brussels some years ago, and he told me the story.”


[1] Science, pp. 1436-1439, May 24, 2002.


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