Science vs. religion

March 24, 2006 | By | 15 Replies More

I’ve often wondered why there is such a strong split between people who believe in science and people who believe in religion.  Certainly, there are many people who believe in both, or neither, but I think the vast majority of people believe in one or the other.  Then, I finally realized one possible source of the split:  for people who don’t understand science, what sources do they have for spiritual enlightenment, other than religion?  Perhaps the reason why so many non-scientists cling so tightly to their religion (even in the face of conflicting scientific evidence) is because they have nowhere else to turn.

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Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

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  1. Trevor Staff says:

    As an atheist for over 30 years, I used to believe that science had all the answers. However over the last 9 years my views changed to agnostic and finally to the belief in something more. Call it spirituality if you wish, but I don't subscribe to any major religion.

    The more I learn, the more I come to realise that science is just a religion too. The standard model for particle physics can only account for 4% of the universe. Yes it has proven some incredible facts, but just like all other religions it is aconcept that has to allow for the unknown!

    Recently I have been fascinated by the world of quantum physics, as well as my personal fascination for all things metaphysical and mysterious.

    After watching 'What the bleep do we know', I began thinking of the universe in terms of the smallest particle being "thought".

    But thought is not a particle of matter?

    Yet thought does matter – it has been the source of every evolutionary leap we have ever made as a species.

    So is thought the key to matter?

    Does a form of consiousness decide whether matter materialises as a rock, a bird or a human…?

    When you treat thought with the laws of Newton and Einstein, then it can never be destroyed.

    Is the instinct of plants and animals an example of the hereditary cataloguing of thought and experiences, always selecting the best course of action, based on millions of tears of trial and error?

    It's not a huge leap to see that we carry a genetic string of commands that determine our physical form, why not see that we also carry an invisible genetic memory.

    It really is worth thinking about. The evolution of man has come about by the choices made over huge timescales.

    But in our day to day lives, we control our direction by the choices we make.

    Think of the universe as 1 giant sphere of thought, within that exists all time all matter etc. And it is constantly growing everytime a new thought is created. Everything inside the sphere is connected – theoretically you have access to the first ever thought and the most recent – everything is interconnected.

    This sphere has infinite 'colours' to represent all the different forms of thought – ie: good, bad indifferent, neutral, active, passive etc.

    Your personal place in this universe also has a colour, a blend of all your feelings, dreams, emotions etc and personal and inherited experience.

    The key to all of this is, that you make the descisions! You may see yourself as a victim of circumstances, but you have control over what colour you want to be, and what colour you want to move towards.

    Use your intentions creatively and unwaveringly, and you will always be heading in the direction you want to.

    The only factor between a dream and realisation of it is your will, and time.

    Lets unite our thoughts and intentions for the good of the planet, it managed to create our world over billions of years.

    We should use our thoughts wisely for every second, minute, hour, day, week, year, decade, century and millenia for ever more.

    We can change the colour of the human universe for ever, with thoughts of love and harmony with all living sysyems. Lets eradicate fear, war, starvation and all the other plagues of greed, use our thoughts for good,

    and change the world for the benefit of all life on earth.

  2. Trevor,

    I don't have much problem with most of your sentiments, but one thing has to be clear: science is not and never was a religion.

    Firstly, yes, a lot of what is accepted from science must be taken on faith. But it is conditional faith, which is not found prescribed in any religion. Religion would fail utterly if it taught that faith is conditional.

    But the main reason science is not a religion is this: science as a practice invites the overturning of dogma. No religion could survive that standard practice. And while yes there are individuals who fought like mad to preserve a theory or idea in science, the discipline as a whole throws out what does not hold up, and this alone differentiates science from religion.

    But that's not all. Religion assumes an answer and then teaches that anything which denies that answer is false and to be censored. Science may assume a possibility of an answer, but it seeks evidence to support it or deny it before it accepts anything at all.

    I can see how people who don't know much about science might see it as a religion. It baffles me when someone who claims to know something about it does so.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Information (the basis of thought) is not matter nor energy. Therefore, it is silly to expect it to follow the rules of matter and energy. Information can be created and destroyed. This is easily demonstrated both by history and by experiment.

    Confusing the uncertainty of the far reaches of fuzzy metaphysics (at the limits of what we can measure or describe) with the 99.999% of everything else that is well described by science is a favorite fallacy of the Creationist set. Follow the money behind ‘What the bleep do we know’ and see whose point of view they are presenting.

    Although the absolute behavior of a single quark is slippery at best, the behavior of a few dozen congealed into an atom becomes quite predictable. By the time you have a few trillion quarks (like a smoke particle) the behavior is completely describable and predictable. That is, within the limits described by complexity theory, a new branch of math that emerged in our own lifetime. See "Chaos theory" and fractals.

    Science is a process for determining how nature works. Bad ideas are documented and stored. Good ideas are accepted and built upon. Although it is silly to call science a religion, I think that science does have some articles of faith:

    The universe (world, etc) can be observed and measured repeatably by unbiased instruments. Changes, rates of changes, and changes of rates of changes can be measured, as well as the more prosaic "states".

    Measurable events precipitate other measurable events (not always apparently going forward!). This is generally called "cause and effect", but modern theory (mathematical models supported by direct observation) don't always match that description.

    Our minds are capable of describing the universe and all its details.

    Mathematics is a (growing) set of tools that can eventually accurately model all events and behaviors of the universe, describing precisely even the bounds of those things that cannot be precisely predicted.

    Everything in nature can be described in terms of things in nature. This is the main item that was recently debated in Pennsylvania school districts for application to biology tests.

    All large things (events, times, changes, objects…) are made up of smaller things. This is actually a biggie. This is what Archimedes figured out at the end of the Golden Age of Greece. That information was lost for 1,900 years, and then Newton worked it out again. All modern science, medicine, and the industrial revolution are based on repercussions of applying this little article of faith.

  4. Trevor Staff says:

    Thankyou Mark and Dan for your comments.

    I don't profess to be an expert in either Science or Religion, but I thought I should explain why I feel that Science and Religion seem similar to me.

    Both camps are trying to secure the hearts, minds and most importantly the wealth of their followers.

    Money talks, and that is the problem I have with both camps.

    Do the advances in technology or philosophy belong to the people, or are they the property of the highest bidder?

    Both are good business in a commercial world.

    We may never know how to save a soul (if that exists), but my god we have the resources to save lives and bring about global equality.

    I just wish that both camps could see eye to eye over what really matters to human kind here and now. It seems to me that technology is increasing the gap of social inequality.

    What are the ethics between the next flight into space as opposed to the huge number of people who could benefit from clean water, food and education, given the same expenditure?

  5. Trevor said:

    –It seems to me that technology is increasing the gap of social inequality.–

    Yes, that's true. Has to do with education and apparently the "luck" of where you're born. But–and this may seem like picking nits, but it really isn't–technology is a product of the application of a certain slice of science, it is not science.

    Trevor also said:

    –What are the ethics between the next flight into space as opposed to the huge number of people who could benefit from clean water, food and education, given the same expenditure?–

    The dollar amount of the space program has never been much compared to the needs you mention. However, let's consider the likelihood of a space program that might provide medicines which can't be created on earth (gravity well), the research on global climate change that is conducted from space (which can affect food production) and a scenario which could someday "capture" an "iceball" in space that could provide a new water source.

    The spin-off technologies of the space program of the Sixties was immeasurable—hundreds of percent over and above the actual cost of the program. But the morale potential was even higher. One stat: suicides among citizens in this country over sixty five dropped precipitously during the Apollo program. After Nixon gutted NASA, the suicide rate skyrocketed (pun intended). The benefit of Doing Something Cool like that has benefits which can't be measured precisely in dollars. But just having a program like that requires that, to do it right, we educate people. I don't think it's just coincidence that we started running educational deficits when we gave up on the space program.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Technology is not science, although there is a sibling relationship between these practices. Science is a tool for understanding, and technology is application of this tool to the material world.

    As for feeding people instead of throwing money into space: One is a subsistence strategy, and the other is a capital investment. If we put all of our resources into the immediate needs of feeding people and keeping them alive, we end up with ever-increasing numbers of people with ever-decreasing standards of living. If we invest in methods of improving the availability of resources at the expense of immediate needs, then the future holds an improved standard of living.

    Why space? The Earth is starting to get a bit worn out. The total amount of all usable resources here is known to within a fairly precise margin. We have long passed Malthus' original estimate of the total number of people the planet will support, through the use of fossil fuels to produce fertilizer and other technological means. One example of when money had gone to pure research instead of feeding people.

    If we want room and building materials for the steadily increasing number of people, we need to work on reaching the orders-of-magnitude greater resources available in our neighborhood (the Solar system).

    Or, we can return to the preindustrial, marginally civilized ways that most religions were developed to support and explain. We can easily limit our population with war, starvation and disease to a level where this planet will support us without the serendipitous benefits of further pure research. But I'm not hoping to leave this dystopia to future generations.

    Increasing the gap of social inequality? Yep. Now, just a few percent of the Earth's population suffer from rampant disease and starvation, and the majority have much higher living standards than were even imagined a few generations ago. We will never eliminate the bottom, but we could easily reduce the top simply by not proceeding to extend our technological grasp.

    Science and technology are about understanding and controlling the world we live in. "Controlling nature."

    Religion is about accepting whatever world in which you find yourself. "Accepting God's Will."

  7. Trevor Staff says:

    Again, thankyou Mark and Dan for your insights.

    Science is without doubt responsible for so much good and progress in the world, but should it be the science of controlling nature?

    Nature has a mind of its own, one that evolves over huge time scales, I worry that if we believe that we can control nature, that we are playing with fire!

    It is true that with the current poulation growth, we face some tough challenges on how to feed and support such numbers.

    I know I used the space progam as an example of 'where do we spend the money for the best gain', and I do wholeheartedly agree with your comments – I do realise that so much of our advances come from mans ability to reach for the impossible, and long may that continue.

    But you also touch on the fact that we are searching for resources to consume outside of the earth. Fair enough, but I wish we could turn the whole thing on its head and suggest ways that we can be more efficient and consume less.

    Perhaps nature has the answer here. Look at the largest mammals on earth – the whales. Capable of large life spans, free of many of the diseases that plague mankind, and grown and fed on phytoplankton

    that contain all the nutrients required. I could go on and on, but my point is we should think a bit more about where our nutrition comes from and how we produce it in a balanced and natural way.

    There is not enough land mass to support enough plants and animals for our growing population to consume, so what can we propose outside of genetic experimentation?

    I would love to hear your views.

    Many thanks

  8. Trevor said:

    –But you also touch on the fact that we are searching for resources to consume outside of the earth. Fair enough, but I wish we could turn the whole thing on its head and suggest ways that we can be more efficient and consume less.—

    I've stated this elsewhere, but I doubt it can be overstated. You want humanity to consume less? Convince humanity to stop reproducing in defiance of all understanding—understanding which has emerged as a result of science. There are many factors which make this difficult, but religion–if I may point out one very big different between it and science–has a lousy track record on this point.

    Science urges people to look reality in the face and, comprehending it, places a moral charge to deal with that reality. Religion tends to tell people to (a) be selective about the reality they see and (b) ignore it when it runs counter to dogma. When it comes to this issue, religion can't seem to get around itself.

    Because of science–if I may be blunt–we have developed methods whereby people can screw all they want without pregnancy resulting. Instead of promoting this, religion in general tries to put that genie back in the bottle, thinking apparently that god will provide.

    You want to save the earth? Tell people to stop making more.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark – I agree entirely. Most people don't give much thought to whether the Earth has the capacity to support more people. It's only a rare person who understands that it was the existence of cheap (but now dwindling) oil that allowed the Earth to get to the point where we have the huge population that now exists. Most people I talk with don't ask hard questions regarding the collision course we are now running between uncontrolled population and impending ecological disasters, such as global warming and contaminated water and air.

    All of these serious issues relate to that thing that people just don't want to discuss: whether we need to have fewer people on this planet in order to maintain some semblance of the civilization we treasure.

    There are many sources of information out there on this issue. One is Population Connection (http://www.populationconnection.org/index.html) which published these disturbing facts:

    Growth

    10/1/2007

    95% of the global population growth is concentrated in the world's poorest countries.

    Source: Richard Ottaway MP

    Conflict

    10/1/2007

    Countries in which young adults comprise more than 40% of the population are more than twice as likely to experience civil conflict.

    Source: Richard Ottaway MP

    Funding

    10/1/2007

    Between 1995-2005 USAID's annual allocation for family planning fell from $12 million to $9 million while HIV/AIDS allocation rose from $2 to $74 million. As a result, unwanted births rose from 11% in 1998 to 21% in 2003, and contraceptive users relying on public sector supplies fell from 68% to 53%.

    Source: John Cleland, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

    US Consumption

    6/11/2007

    The US has the resources to sustain less than half of its current population of 300 million. If all 6 billion people were to share the world's resources equally, Americans would have to reduce consumption by 80%.

    Source: Overpopulation.org

    Pregnancy Numbers

    3/23/2007

    Of the six million pregnancies that occur among American women each year, nearly half are unintended. As a result, American women experience 1.4 million unplanned births and 1.3 million abortions annually.

    Source: Guttmacher Institute

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    Consuming less is an alternative that I discussed. Universal bare-subsistence living and/or drastic population reduction are our only long-term alternatives to finding more resources. Religions say, "Multiply. More life is good." But science says, "Whoa! Slow down before everyone starves".

    Consuming less per capita of irreplaceable resources only slows down the inevitable. But if we wait until we are spending everything to feed ourselves, it will be too late.

    The energy it takes to launch a weather satellite could power a city for days or produce enough food for the same city for weeks. The millions of lives saved so far by weather satellites might justify the cost (before weather satellites, there was no warning before hurricanes hit a coast). I can't justify television satellites this way, though. Not all technology goes to our long-term benefit.

    Science is not about controlling nature. It is about understanding it. Technology is about learning to manage nature to our best advantage.

    Complexity theory finally proved that our degree of control over nature has distinct limits. Contrary to predictions in the 1960's, we will never precisely control weather. Chaos theory emerged in the 1970's from weather studies. But we now know that we can (and do) affect climate, not only locally, but globally. Little things add up to big things.

  11. Trevor Staff says:

    Great comments chaps.

    I can't tell you how refreshing it is to hear those points of view coming from the USA. I come from Norfolk, England, which is essentially a farming area of the UK.

    The figures and stats quoted by Erich Vieth are alarming, and I will have to find out the same stats for the UK. We are after all a tiny island with a huge population. I wish more people here were concerned that most of the fresh produce in our supermarkets comes from anywhere but our own country.

    We could go off on many 'save the world' tangents – but I get the feeling that you guys share my frustrations that so much of the world thinks that god or a politician is going to save them, and their own personal action will make little difference – wake up!!!

    Mark Tiedemann wrote:-

    Science urges people to look reality in the face and, comprehending it, places a moral charge to deal with that reality. Religion tends to tell people to (a) be selective about the reality they see and (b) ignore it when it runs counter to dogma. When it comes to this issue, religion can’t seem to get around itself.

    I could not agree more. Whatever your view, science does stand out as the 'here and now', point of view. To ignore cold hard facts and well observed and predictable consequences on the basis of a religious belief, I am afraid I just view that as immoral.

    What are the cold hard facts of religion?

    I really enjoy the debate wth my religious friends, but it keeps coming back to…'it says so in the Bible'.

    It's a bloody book, for crying out loud! A collection of words and metaphors

    that can and have been taken in infinite ways, mostly as a form of social control. Fine, lets debate and philosophise over the symbolism and metaphors contained, but it is not black and white!

    And to come back to my point that Science IS at the cutting edge of opinion, as opposed to books that have been subject to thousands of years of chinese whispers and political manipulation.

    I want to try and bring this back to grumpypilgrims original post, I have my roots in an atheist and scientific view, but it was quantum theory that really made me question that, and hold a spiritual viewpoint.

    That view is unique and my own, and will never require any church for me to belong to, but I suppose if it hinges on anything it would be on the ideas of Jung and consciousness and the quantum idea that we are all interconnected in some way.

    Did anyone else out there start to question the ideas of faith, because of Science?

  12. What are the ethics between the next flight into space as opposed to the huge number of people who could benefit from clean water, food and education, given the same expenditure?

    That just reminded me of a book by Isaac Asimov I read a couple of years ago, I think it was called "Foundation". Mankind has invented a technology that allows control of time. The main I always gcharacter is this guy who is some sort of guardian and travels through time with the help of this technology to prevent catastrophes and disastrous events in human history. He falls in love with this woman who is also able to travel through time. He thinks she is a regular woman, but in reality she is from the future, outside this time bubble in which he lives and her mission is to destroy this technology. Anyway, in the end she explains to him that the time manipulation technology that had prevented suffering also had prevented humankind from exploring space and when they finally managed to man a spaceship and set out to new adventures, they discovered that the universe had already been explored and all the planets colonized by other living beings who were more adventurous. I got all mushy inside when I read this and thought, "Asimov must be a romantic." 😀 I also admit, I loved Babylon 5.

    But: "what a fool, what a fool is man…who clutches at the firmament, forgetting the earth is a star."

    – Han Suyin, A Many-Splendoured Thing

    I'm not being very helpful today, eh? 😀

  13. Ok, that was the wrong book. It was The End of Eternity.

  14. grumpypilgrim says:

    I recently heard the following provocative explanation of the difference between science and religion. If someone were to kill all the people who believed a particular religion, and also burn all the books that described that religion, the religion would be gone forever. However, if someone were to kill all the people who believed a particular scientific theory, and also burn all the books that described that theory, the theory would eventually be rediscovered. Gods must speak through others, but nature speaks for itself.

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