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nimoloth in interacademia

Science v. Religion

loriel_eris pointed me in the direction of this New Scientist article Beyond Belief: In Place of God, covering a recent seminar (called Beyond Belief) which on the surface appears to be a consideration of "Science, Religion, Reason And Survival". An interesting proposal, you might think, however it appears that it was more or less an exercise in religion bashing, which is unfortunate, because it could have been an excellent opportunity for informed debate from both sides. When you read further, the puropose of the meeting is to discuss the following questions:

"Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religion's place?
And can we be good without God?"

It appears that almost all the speakers were scientists, and some very outspoken anti-religious ones at that. Of 34 speakers, only 9 or 10 are not involved in the hard sciences, two of whom are writers, and only two of whom appear to be involved in the study of religions at all (the others are involved in ethics, psychology and philosophy). This does not make for a balanced discussion, but then, that is not their aim, as you see, looking deeper than the misleading title.

Statements abounded in criticism and overt hostility to religion, such as:

"The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion." "Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation." [Steven Weinberg, cosmologist]

"I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion," [Richard Dawkins, evolutionary theorist]

Carolyn Porco [leader of the Cassini Science Imaging Team] argues that we do not need God to provide meaning and awe in life - these can be provided by science:

"At the heart of scientific inquiry is a spiritual quest, to come to know the natural world by understanding it... Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful and awe-inspiring as it gets."

This is a more reasoned opinion, and I can see where she is coming from with this - this is basically the view of many pantheists (and indeed atheists and agnostics).

And, it would seem, there are fundamentalists of the opposite extreme in science as there are in religion. Neil deGrasse Tyson [director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York]:

Referring to a recent poll of US National Academy of Sciences members which showed 85 per cent do not believe in a personal God, he suggested that the remaining 15 per cent were a problem that needs to be addressed. "How come the number isn't zero?" he asked. "That should be the subject of everybody's investigation. That's something that we can't just sweep under the rug."

This is clearly an extreme view, but not all scientists think that way. However, views like this are not shared by everyone, as evidenced by the rebuttal from Joan Roughgarden [geophysicist and biologist]:

Attempts by militant atheists to represent science as a substitute for religion would be a huge mistake, she said, and might even set back science's cause. "They are entitled as atheists to generate more activism within the atheist community," she told New Scientist. "But scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots who can't tell the difference between a [communion] wafer and a piece of meat."

Indeed, her comment on the opinions of many scientists to religion and religious ideas is one I have seen and heard myself. Generally, those of a religious persuasion keep quiet here because there are a number of vocal atheists and when such discussions arise, it generally results in a good dose of religion-bashing. It rarely starts with both parties open to discussion - it's usually an automatic "don't be ridiculous, religion is patently a load of rubbish." Which is an unfortunate position to start from.

There were a few speaking for some consideration and humility from the hard-core atheist scientsts:

"I just don't think scientists, when they step out of science, have any better insight than the ordinary schmuck on the street. It makes me embarrassed to be an atheist." [Scott Atran, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris]

"The presumption here was that any effort to respect the existence of faith is a bad thing," he told New Scientist. "Philosophically I'm in complete agreement, but it's not a scientific statement, and I've seen how offensive it is when scientists say 'I can tell you what you have to think'. They make people more afraid of science. It's inappropriate, and it's certainly not effective." [Lawrence Krauss, astronomer]

All in all, I actually find some of the more extreme opinions from some scientists here to be on a par with the offensiveness of some fundamentalist Christian views - they are no better in their complete close-mindedness and unwillingness to discuss things in a civilised and educated way. Attitudes like this only further rifts between science and religion, where we should be looking to coexist peacefully. It is not for science to decide whether religion should or should not exist.

In my opinion, religion, while not scientific in form and teachings, serves a useful purpose, regardless of the truth of it or otherwise. It provides people with a comfort, a hope, a familiarity and a guideline by which to live their lives. The trouble arises when religion and science come to a face-off, as in the intelligent design/evolution debate in the USA at the moment, or when religion is used as an excuse for violence and evil acts as it has been throughout history. One cannot, generally, blame the religion for these acts - the people perpetrating them are solely responsible. Similarly, one cannot blame science for, say, Hiroshima - those responsible are the ones that made the decision to press the big red button, as it were. Humans are fallible, and we have the free will to choose whether to use certain technology, or to twist certain doctrine, to our own ends.

[Related links: New Scientist podcast, Science v. Religion]


The trouble arises when religion and science come to a face-off...

And also when [Religious] you try to tell others what to believe/convert the masses. Belief in terms of faith is a personal thing. (However, when you're talking belief in terms of a scientific/proven concept, that's different. I think). Going back to converting the masses, that's usually when you get the Religious Wars, isn't it? Wasn't that what The Crusades were?

I think the problem is that Science is Proof with no room for Belief and Reigion is Belief with no room for Proof. Obviously, there's wiggle room there, but if you get right down to the root of it, science is all about what you can prove/disprove and religion is a matter of belief or 'faith'. The mindset in each case is so radically different that it becomes difficult to co-exist.
Indeed, these are very good points. I particularly like your phrase:

Science is Proof with no room for Belief and Religion is Belief with no room for Proof.

Although I'm sure some people would argue that there is proof of religion, although perhaps not repeatable proof, only personal evidence that holds up for them. However, there are said to be miracles attributed to Jesus and/or God even into present and documented times, that were witnessed by many people at once and have no convincing (at least, not yet) scientific explanation.


Hmm, I'm disappointed to see a scientist expounding the idea that science can prove anything absolutely. That is the realm of mathematics and logic and even then it can only be done in reference to assumed axioms.
Science is all about rational belief based on evidence. Newton was sensible enough not to claim that he had proved his theory of gravity, which is just as well considering we now know it to be incorrect. However he did state that the best observations would lead him to believe it, which is a rational position to take and an example of how science operates in general.
No theory can ever be proved absolutely, even if it is the final correct uber-theory, but with every iteration that science makes we come closer to the truth.

As for religion, I am slightly hesitant to comment, not being religious. It's my view that religion must be based on belief without evidence, since any evidence presented by religion must be a statement about the real world, and therefore subject to science (even if it is untestable in practice). If religion wants to keep separate from science, as it seems to, it should restrict itself to metaphysics. I don't know, but I think that theologians also hold this position? Certainly Christianity has retreated from its earlier claims that have been disproven, such as the geocentric view of things.

I'd like to pose the question, what would a religion based on testable predictions look like? I mean one which came to terms with any contradictory evidence rather than just abandoning its position. Could such a thing even rightly be called a religion?
I have a suspicion that it would eventually evolve into something very much like science, but this idea has never occurred to me before so I haven't thought it through at all. I'd be interested to hear other people's points of view on what makes a religion a religion rather than just a set of beliefs.

John V
I don't know, but I think that theologians also hold this position?

I know at least on theologian that would vehemently disagree with you there! As for your question - I'm afraid I don't have time just now to think about it and consider it fully, but perhaps you should post it as an entry in it's own right too.
Well, I admit to not knowing any theology, but I guess the point of this thing is to educate each other (and have a good old fashioned argument).

The point was though that if a religion makes any kind of testable claim about the physical world, such as "Noah built an ark to survive a global flood", then we are entitled to look for evidence and apply the whole apparatus of science to it. If there turns out to be compelling evidence against such a claim, then surely that religion is weakened?

I had assumed, therefore, that theologians don't stick to the literal interpretation of religious texts in order to avoid being caught in this kind of trap.
The alternative, it seems to me, is that science and religion really do conflict in their answers to certain questions, and frankly I know which one my money's on!
Yes, I think most serious theologians consider more extreme biblical occurences to be metaphorical. They must, surely! Right enough, otherwise crazy physical stuff can and should be subjected to rigourous scientific critique.
I am an pantheist/agnostic by nature so I tend to be less robust in my arguments and I'm open minded as you know. I do agree though that the politicisation of religion (I don't mean church and state I mean turning the religion into a political/tribal entity) has caused a lot of damage. As you say it's used as an excuse to bash the other..

Also, it keeps floating into my mind at 4 am and sorry for not mentioning it before. But I owe you £5. Do you have a paypal account and I can figure out how to get it to you?
You do? Forget it - it's no problem. It's more trouble to get it to me than it's worth! I don't have a Paypal account (not pay-in one).


Do you have an Amazon wish list?
Ooh that was me.
[I'll reply in my journal.]
I should have known Dawkins was involved in this. He has always struck me as one of the most annoying, self-righteous and arrogant scientists out there. If you ask me, science should deal with science and not concern itself with religion. I really dislike the extremist view which seems to portray religion almost as a mental illness.

I think what really irritates me, though, is pushy people who try to ram their worldview down my throat, whichever side of the fence they're coming from.
Agreed, on most points. This chap Dawkins seems quite the extremist, and from the quotes I saw from him, an arrogant one too. Not a good combination. He should be more open and tolerant to others views, whether he agrees with them or not.

I don't like extremists from either side of the fence, especially proselytizing ones.

As for religion and science - I don't think they can be considered one and the same, and I do think religious opinion should be left out of scientific technique and work, however, they are in a sense looking at different sides of the same coin and are not mutually exclusive (depending on you point of view, I suppose). I think understanding and toloerance is called for, which is not to say we should live in each others pockets.
Several interesting, and well reasoned, posts by physicists (well mainly Sean Carroll (http://cosmicvariance.com/sean)) on some of the issues raised above can be found here (http://cosmicvariance.com/category/religion/). Particularly interesting is this article (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/angier06/angier06_index.html) by Natalie Angiers (a science writer, not a scientist) quoted and discussed here (http://cosmicvariance.com/2006/11/19/natalie-angiers-god-problem/). The main thrust of the argument, like your above quote from Richard Dawkins, is that scientists generally show much more respect, at least publicly, for religion than they otherwise would to other belief systems - despite the fact that generally they don't hold with any of it. The fact that religion is accorded such respect is partly due to social conditioning and partly to tow some sort of party line. Many people that may seem hostile to religion are generally just applying the critical eye to it that they would to anything else, and honestly speaking out about their considered views. Hopefully critical statements about religion can make people take a more rational look at their beliefs and why they hold them.

"Scientists who do try to point out that walking on water isn’t consistent with the laws of physics, and that there’s no reason to believe in an afterlife, etc., are often told that this is a bad strategic move — we’ll never win over the average person on the street to the cause of science and rationality if we tell them that it conflicts with their religion. Which is a legitimate way to think, if you’re a politician or a marketing firm. But as scientists, our first duty should be to tell the truth. The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine. In the long run, being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy." [Sean Carroll]

The annoying, and unfortunate, thing is that being critical of religion generally only gets overtly religious people's backs up and makes them more defensive - it rarely will open them up to new ideas.
The annoying, and unfortunate, thing is that being critical of religion generally only gets overtly religious people's backs up and makes them more defensive - it rarely will open them up to new ideas.

Your average punter, yes, but hopefully academic theologians will be more open to debate. However, that in itself brings up an interesting point - the man on the street can't be expected to fully understand the nuances and subtelties of his religion, he must simply accept the dumbed down teachings of his religious "betters". i.e. on a simple level "Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes," but on a higher level, I expect (I say expect, because I am the (wo)man on the street) that this is a parable layered with meaning and depth and religious scholars will tell you that it is not physically true, but is a lesson. Or something like that.

So shouldn't religion, being for the masses and followed by the masses, be fully understandable by the masses?

However, in counter to that, the average man on the street doesn't understand science much either. He knows that, "gravity holds things onto the surface of the Earth," but we know the much more complicated details and subtleties behind that. Hence you see that the same is true of science as of religion.

So what it boils down to is that what we, as average punters, know and understand about religion is akin to what average punters know about the complex details of our science. So are we in fact able and qualified to discuss the deeper subtelties, truths and meanings behind religion?

I think this one calls for it's own post!
Also, I guess this is part of the point of this community - for us to learn more about educated religious thinking, and vice-versa.