The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 51.0°F | Partly Cloudy
Article Tools

What does Professor Alex Byrne, who teaches 24.503, Topics in Philosophy of Religion, have to say about faith at MIT?

“Scientists tend to be atheists,” Byrne said. In an interview with The Tech, he mentioned that he was not surprised to hear that 69 percent of MIT atheists somewhat or strongly agree that it is difficult to reconcile science with religion, whereas 71 percent of religious students at MIT say they somewhat or strongly disagree with that statement.

“At MIT, rejecting the deliverances of science is not an option,” he explained, “but MIT students are not happy with conflict. This is the natural way to arrive at atheism, I suppose, at least among the educated elite.” Indeed, 94 percent of all survey respondents say that their religious beliefs do not conflict with their studies.

Among all respondents, 43 percent agree that it is difficult to reconcile science with religion, while 49 percent disagree. According to Byrne, word choice is key here. “It’s misleading to call it a conflict between religion and science,” he explained, “Rather, it’s a conflict between facts and religion, or theory versus data. Any theory can be in apparent conflict with data.” Imagine a murder case where the suspect’s fingerprints aren’t on the gun, he said. The theory is that the suspect is the murderer, but the facts suggest that he or she is not.

But outside of the MIT bubble, science plays a smaller role. “Most people in this country don’t believe the theory of evolution is true, which is very different from western Europe,” Byrne said.

The Tech received a number of comments from students about the religion survey’s blurred lines between religious beliefs and forms of non-belief.

We asked Byrne to set the record straight. “Here’s how I understand atheism. It’s the view that there is no God or there are no gods,” Byrne said. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists thought they observed canals on Mars, and their hypothesis was that there must be intelligent beings on Mars. According to Byrne, members of the scientific community are now “atheists” with respect to martians because there are no martians. “Religious atheism is exactly analogous to ‘atheism’ about martians,” he said.

“Agnosticism is not having an opinion one way or the other,” he explained, “For example, many people are agnostics about whether there is life elsewhere in our galaxy. They don’t believe there is, and neither do they believe there isn’t. Similarly, with religious agnosticism: the agnostic doesn’t believe there is a god, neither does she believe there isn’t one.”

Giving another example, Byrne said, “None of us believe in Santa Claus; we do have a view in common that there is no such being named Santa Claus. But what unites us is nothing very deep or interesting. Beyond that view everything can be as different as you like.” Some people, he explained, pretend for the sake of their children that Santa Claus does exist.

According to Byrne, “I never really understood that strand in the New Atheist Movement where there’s this suggestion that atheism is a way of life. Atheism is the most boring, inconsequential world view, just like the view that Santa Claus does not exist. It is not a way of life, and provides no guidance about how to live. People who say that atheism is not a ‘religion’ are making that point, and they are absolutely right.”

Byrne’s class has only been taught once; students comprised only of MIT graduate students in philosophy and a few Harvard Divinity School students. The class has not continued, Byrne explained, because no students specialize in it. There’s “not this big clamor from the graduate community” for such classes, “which is a bit of a shame,” he said.

A popular example in Byrne’s class is to imagine a course 12 student who believes that catastrophic global warming will occur, whereas another student with access to the same evidence believes that it won’t happen.

“What should you do in the face of this disagreement?” he asks, “Do you suspend judgment and take their argument into account, which is the appropriately modest thing to do, or stick to your guns? If you apply this to religion, people get uncomfortable. And there’s a huge amount of religious disagreement. Shouldn’t we both just give up our beliefs and become agnostic?”