Science – Religion

Sorry, I had planned to stop going on about the comments on the Jamie Whyte article. However, on further reading there were some comments I couldn’t pass up on.

The first was just trivially funny, so I will kill it now. Several of the commenters came up with witty counter arguments along the lines of this one:

Surely this line of argument applies just as surely to atheists. What about the weight of living without a God? Your line of reasoning exposes you as one who does not believe either
David , London,

Erm yes. Being an atheist means you do not believe. It is kind of in the definition of the term. Being an atheist does not mean you “believe” in a hedonistic lifestyle of death and destruction (strikes me as being a bit too biblical to be honest). It does not mean you have be debauched and craven to fulfil your belief structure (again, this seems a bit like a few churches….). It simply means you do not believe in any gods. Easy isn’t it?

Anyway, onto the more important one – this time a commenter gets at the big problem faced in the west:

You were one of my philosophy lecturers when I was at Cambridge in the 90s. I reject your ‘realist’ view of science. Science doesn’t explain the origins of anything, it’s merely a useful construction to help us form judgements about the future. This view lets religion and science coexist.
andrew, London,

Now, I cant help but agree that Science does not explain the ultimate origins of some things, but to claim religion does so is a huge fallacy. I can only hope that Andrew learned more during his studies. “Religion” is not a solid body of information that can answer questions – every religion has a different creation myth and they can’t all be correct. Equally, the best that “religion” (ah, Loki, lets use Christianity as an example) can do is explain origins as “God Did It.”

Now, call me old fashioned but that isn’t an explanation. To claim that science can not explain the origin of something but saying “it was created by God” is an explanation is raving madness. The most basic example of this is the origin of life fallacy. While evolutionary theory makes no claims about the origin of life, the general scientific consensus seems to be along the lines of chance mixture of chemicals in the early Earth. The “Faithful” dislike this because it isn’t an answer to them – they want to know who created the chemicals to be mixed. Science can then bring in the creation of heavy elements in super nova, which leads to the question where did the early stars come from. We move to the “big bang” which leads to the question “what caused the time=0 event” at this point the Honest Science says “we do not know.”

Is this a bad thing? Not really. It is an honest answer. At best “Religion” can take it a stage further with “[deity of choice] caused it to happen” but still the question remains – who created the deity? Dishonest Religion weasels back with words to the effect of the “Uncreated Creator” but it is a screaming logical fallacy.

The last point “Andrew” made is also interesting. So interesting, I’ll repeat it here:

This view lets religion and science coexist.

How? While in an ideal world, and for some people, their particular religion and science can co-exist, as a general term it is impossible. Science demands its practitioners accept the evidence presented before them and dismiss even the most cherished notion should the evidence demand it. Religion is the exact opposite. It demands its practitioners cling to their notions in the face of evidence, no matter how strong.

In light of this, how can the two co-exist? One must always be corrupted by the other. If my religion dictated that the Earth was flat, could that co-exist with Science? No. Either I allow the evidence to alter my religion (either changing the interpretation of its canons or simply pretending parts of its holy book don’t exist) or I refute the evidence because my faith is strong.

That is not co-existing, one or the other must triumph. Personally I thought the enlightenment was when Science had taken the lead, but it seems a large portion of the world is trying to drag itself back to the middle ages.

5 thoughts on “Science – Religion

  1. I generally enjoy your commentary on religious whackery, but you do sometimes take it too far. You end this by saying that “one or the other must triumph” in the “battle” between science and religion, but that is only because you are defining religion far too specifically as only those fundamentalist folks who ake a 4000 year old oral history as gospel.

    There are other people, like myself, who take a far more scientific view of religion. My religion is of my own creation, based on detailed studies of many of the world’s various religions, as well as a detailed study of nature and science. I combine elements of Buddhism with the moral philosphy of Jesus and rationality of Confuscious. I look closely at Hindu ideas of personal, spiritual growth through internal study, and I find the Islamic concept of Jihad against our own sins and temptations to be a wonderful way to regulate my own behaviour. All of this belief is tied into my knowledge and study of science and nature, and nothing in science contradicts any of my religious views.

    I don’t believe in a God in the way that a Southern Baptist rapturist does … rather, if I have to use the term God, I define it to mean “all that is, was, or will be” In essence, to me, the concepts of God and nature are interchangeable. God is not supernatural … God is the definition of natural. The natural world IS God, and we all live inside of, and make up God.

    When I look to answers about questions in the physical world, I look to science. When I am asking questions of a philosophical, spiritual, or personal nature, then I look to religion and philosphy. There is more to the world than the physical, and science doesn’t even attempt to address questions of spirit, or discussions of the abstract.

    I am both scientific and religious. I do not subscribe to any organized religion … instead, I take what works from any and all, and I discard the rest. I choose my religious views scientifically, by study of the phenomena, and experimentation with the various ideas contained within. But I am still a highly religious person who knows that science can’t address all the questions I have because it is designed to examine the physical world, not the internal world of human cognition and spirit. Philosophy and religion are the tollsets designed to examine those aspects of our lives. There is no conflict between them … instead, for me anyway, science and religion work hand in hand. Religion rarely comments on the areas that science examines, and science rarely comments on the areas that relgion and philosophy examine. Instead, both kinds of inquiry serve to inform us in different ways.

    I can’t imagine living a life where I did not believe the results of science. Equally, I can’t imagine living a life that didn’t have a spiritual or religious component to it. I see no contradiction between the two modes, and in fact it seems to me that I can only get complete knowledge by using both modes of inquiry. Science and religion complement each other for me … they don’t compete in any way in my mind. I am very scientific … I am also very religious. Both modes are required, IMO, for us to be complete. Thats certainly true for me … your mileage may vary, I suppose …

  2. Lyle, thank you for the comment, you make some interesting and valid points.

    First off, and a bit of a cop-out apology on my behalf. Ironically in a post where I complain about other people using language in a lackadaisical manner, I fell into the same trap. The line that reads:

    That is not co-existing, one or the other must triumph.

    Was supposed to be only a reference to the example above it. One of the purposes of this post was to identify the problem with a phrase like “religion and science can co-exist.” While it is possible for some religions to do it, not all can.

    Despite this attempted clarification, in general I think that being able to combine science and a religious viewpoint is going to be difficult if not impossible for most people without some major compromises in one direction or the other.

    In your example you express a personal spiritual viewpoint which is, I suspect, very different from most people’s beliefs. The reason that science and most religions struggle to co-exist is the down to the structure of religion. In mainstream belief structures there is a doctrine which must be believed as true by the faithful – should science ever challenge this (and in 99.9999% of the time it does) then there is a problem.

    Your belief structure avoids this by remodelling itself to accommodate the knowledge provided by science. You say your religion rarely comments on areas that science examines and I wonder, what happens on the times it does? Based on the above, it strikes me that science triumphs your religious beliefs simply by your unwillingness to allow the two to come into conflict. Each of the belief structures you draw upon has elements which conflict with our current scientific understanding and you have chosen to dismiss them from your religion.

    For my worldview there is no need to draw upon (for example) Jesus’ teachings on behaviour. They are valid and worthwhile, however the fact that Jesus is purported to have said them is irrelevant. It is not a religious viewpoint to think that being nice to others is the best way to live and the fact I live my life in that manner is not a “religious” mindset.

    It is certainly possible to analyse my life and opinions, and find parallels in the various world religions but to claim that I have a religion based upon the extracted teachings of those religions that match my behaviour would be false.

  3. Atheism seems dandy until you are faced with the inevitability of your bodily death. People who have experience of the spirit world have no doubts, just varying perspectives.

    May I recommend traditional Roman Catholicism (Latin Mass, Confession, Communion, Indulgences) if and when your hour of trial comes (may it be a long way off).


    T. O’ Donnell.

  4. @ TigerTom: I have no desire to spend eternity with the God described by the Catholic religion. If thats my only choice, I WILL be happier with the other choice. The God who presided over the Crusades and the Inquisition isn’t someone I have any desire to spend eternity with. However, I don’t think thats an issue, given that I have eternal life through science. When I die, I decompose to become compost for plants to feed on, and they in turn provide food for herbivores, who provide food for other carnivores, letting the cycle of life contine. My eternal life comes through that cycle, and I, quite literally, go on to fuel life for eternity. From Stardust to stardust … I have no issues or concerns with that at the end of my life. Quite the opposite … it excites me to know that I will go on to allow life to others.

    @TW: Yes, my theology is quite different from most people. I tend to agree with you that organized religion tends to have serious issues of doctrine. Organized religion tends to be more of a political control tool rather than a tool of spiritual growth … the mere fact that the “religion of Jesus” was the same ones involved in the Crusades, and the Inquisition, and all other manner of nastiness is solid evidence of the primacy of political control over spiritual values. But the term “organized religion” has a modifier for a reason … because it is not synonomous with religion in general. There are many modes of religious expression, and the main reason we see most people today in the organized kind is precisely because its whole point is to draw people to it, for purposes of control.

    Its worth noting that the evolution of the Catholic church in its infancy makes a lot of historical sense. the 4th and 5th century AD were, quite literally, the height of the dark ages. A HUGE power vacuum was left by the weak and decrepit Roman empire, and a new method of controlling the populace (or organizing them, depending on how you want to put it) was needed. The Catholic Chruch evolved as much as the defacto government of the day, as it did a spiritual and religious organization, and it brought a much needed order to a very chaotic world. Clearly, there have been some missteps along the way, but its hard to argue the fact that the western world was screaming out for political control around the time of Nicea.

    My theology is informed by science, and my science is informed by theology, in the places where they meet. There are areas that are clearly the domain of science, and there are areas that are clearly more abstract than science ever examines. I think its possible that we may eventually discover a toolset and theory that allows us to look at religious issues in a scientific way. I have no idea what the system would look like … but then again, Newton would have had very little idea what the toolsets and theories of quantum mechanics would look like, and he would have thought you were pretty unscientific, illogical, and irrational to suggest that matter wasn’t composed of solid particles at all, but instead was made up of “probability wave-form functions” with a huge degree of uncertainty. THAT theory would have sounded utterly crazy to Newton, the father of the physics that eventually gave rise to Quantum theory. We can’t see any way for science and religion to meet because we have no frame of reference in which to imagine it, and even though it may seem to be irrational to us today, given our current worldviews, we could be as wrong about that as Newton would have been about the fundamentals of quantum theory.

    I don’t think what I do is a new way to treat religion. Most of my spirit of learning and education in the relgious side of things comes from Buddhism and other eastern religions. Buddhism is the odd man out in religious thoughts, with no deity and with a strong respect for the views of others, and the practice of Buddhism over the centuries is a nice, living example of how to combine the external and the internal worlds into a cohesive whole. And its worth noting that many of the non-canonized early Christian texts spoke in terms that were very similar to Buddhist notions. Thomas, specifically, comes to mind, but much of early Gnosticism is very similar in form and function to Buddhist modes of inquiry into the world.

    As for Jesus, my admiration of him is actually more scientific than relgious, and that annoys most modern Christians no end, lol. Jesus serves not so much as saviour for me … instead, he serves as an example of how to live a better life. I think the modern views of him as the Son of God rob much of the power of his story. As a human being, like me, Jesus is a powerful example of how to treat other people, how to face adversity with dignity and honour. As a mortal, I can’t hope to emulate Jesus the Son of God … but I CAN hope to emulate Jesus the man. Jesus the saviour can perhaps help me after I die … Jesus the man helps me be better while I live. To ignore that example seems to me to ignore a powerful moral resource in human history, regardless of whether he was “real” or a composite figure. Its worth noting that I see Jesus in the same light as I see Prince Siddartha (who became the Buddha, supposedly) or Confuscious … they, and others, are people who have been “genius” in moral areas, the Michaelangelos of the moral sphere. And they are as worth paying attention to as Michaelangelo himself is.

    My worldview has to change when I learn new things … to do otherwise seems an insult to the rationality I’ve been given. But I learn new things both from science, and from spirituality, and they BOTH inform a more complete view of the internal and external worlds. I do tend to agree that “organized religion” has had its “issues” over the generations, but each one also has nuggets of truth to uncover. To discard these nuggets because of their source seems to me to be as much an insult to my rationality as it would to ignore the nuggets that science gives me.

    Thats why I have issues with the more militant atheism. The truth is, when it comes down to it, most people who identify as religious consider me to be an atheist when I say things like “God and the universe are one and the same.” I do not identify with the dude with a awhite beard in the clouds, and I think the way most people conceive of God is pretty anathema to the way I use the term, when I do. But to deny the necessity of an internal, spiritual life that isn’t directly informed by the external world seems equally militant to me. I KNOW that there is a world inside my head that science does not comment on. It comments on the meat and process that makes it happen, but NOT on the experience itself. Science can tell me what happens in my brain when I dream, but science doesn’t really comment on the dreamworld itself. As Descartes said, Cogito, Ergo Sum and one of the implications of that is that the “I” in that idea is a wholly internal thing, and the only “existence” that we can actually prove is our own. Ultimately, we ALL live in our own, seperate, internal worlds that are somewhat informed by the perceptual impulses we receive and process from the “outside.” But the “I” of Descrates is always locked behind the glass of our perceptions, staring out, but ultimately in a world of its own. There are some things science can tell us about that world, but ultimately, the only way we learn about it is to explore it ourselves, and thats the world of religion and spirituality.

    I think the problems you see between organized religion and science aren’t a function of the “religion” part of that phrase … I think they are a function of the “organized” part, and I tend to agree that organized religion will have to evolve to survive. But religion itself is a fundamental part of who we are, because its the toolset we use to explore that internal terrain.

  5. Catholicism might not be a good idea. According to a Greek Orthodox priest I spoke to Catholics and Protestants are both going to be swept in hell by a river of fire when judgement day happens. I’m surprised neither Williams or Ratzinger mention that as a hazard of their beliefs.

    There could be a gap in the market for the religious equivalent of a price-comparison site. Fill in a questionnaire saying what you want out of a religion and you get quotes for what various religions can offer.

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