Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The infinite nouns of unbelief

Brian cox

I have been a fan of the physicist Prof. Brian Cox for a while (not least for his TED appearances and the great “Wonders of the Universe” and “Wonders of Life” BBC series) and I now have a new reason: his views on the science-religion relationship:
“As someone who thinks about religion very little – I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns – I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science. By which I mean that if I were a deist, I would claim no better example of the skill and ingenuity of The Creator than in the laws of nature that allowed for the magnificent story of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and their overwhelmingly beautiful expression in our tree of life. I am not a deist, philosopher or theologian, so I will make no further comment on the origin of the laws of nature that permitted life to evolve. I simply don’t know; perhaps someday we will find out.” (Preface, Wonders of Life)
Not only does Prof. Cox put himself into the shoes of those who hold beliefs different from his own - “if I were a deist” - (a key pre-requisite for dialogue), but he even extends the possibility of cognitive consonance to them - “I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science.”

While the above is great, and a real departure from how others, who equally don’t believe in God but have a negative take on the science-religion question, have been approaching this topic, what struck me most about Prof. Cox’s words1 is his saying that “I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns.” When I read this, I immediately thought that the same is true of me - “defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns” - and that I would not want that either, if I were someone who does not believe in God. Just like I wouldn’t want to be labeled an “amanichean2 (which by virtue of what it denies links me to it), I can see why Prof. Cox is distancing himself from the atheist tag.

What the above attitude also points to is its complement: a focus on what one does believe in, and I think that Prof. Cox and I would have a lot in common, even in the absence of a shared belief in God.3



1 I first saw them in a tweet by @brainpicker and then traced their origin to the “Wonders of Life” book via a blog post.
2 Apologies for the possibly unnecessary neologism …
3 E.g., see a set-theoretic take in an earlier post here.