Who gets to be “on top”? Science versus Religion

May 27, 2006 | By | 45 Replies More

For centuries, established religions have asserted that science should be viewed through the lens of religion.  Over the past few years, scientifically-oriented writers have turned that view on its head.  They have asserted that it is more appropriate to view religious practices through the lens of science.

The recent flurry of books includes the following:

  • Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, by Pascal Boyer (2002)
  • The Human Story, by Robin Dunbar (2004)
  • Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett (2006)
  • Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, By David Sloan Wilson (2003)
  • How We Believe, by Michael Shermer (1999)
  • Why God’s Persist, by Robert Hinde (1999)
  • The End of Faith, by Sam Harris (2004)
  • Attachment, Evolution and the Psychology of Religion, by Lee Kirkpatrick (2005)
  • In Gods We Trust, by Scott Atran (2002)

Though I own each of these books, I have completely read only half of them; I’m partly through the others.  They are a priority on my reading list given the high stakes of failing to understand religious practices (religious tensions and wars everywhere one cares to look). 

For anyone just getting started in this area, I recommend Dennett’s 2006 work, Breaking the Spell.  This book is classic Dennett: eloquent, heartfelt and clear.  He works extra hard so that he is not only preaching to the choir. He spends the first one-hundred pages working to convince Believers to give him a chance.  It’s quite an extraordinary opening gambit.

Most of the above books concern similar questions regarding religion, though they approach these issues in a variety of ways.  Those questions include the following:

1.  Why do religious people say the puzzling things they say?
For instance, some Believers say that a virgin gave birth.  Others insist that the Bible is absolutely consistent even though the Bible identifies two separate men as the father of Joseph (in an ethereal-sperm sort of way, I’m referring to the “biological” grandfather of Jesus); one Gospel insists that his name is “Jacob” (Matthew 1:16) while another gospel insists it is “Heli” (Luke 3:23).  There are many many more contradictions where this came from.  See the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.

2. Do believers really believe the alleged truths of their religions?  Literalist believers claim that they truly believe Bible truths, but this is difficult to grasp for outsiders like me.  For instance Deuteronomy 5:14 couldn’t be any clearer that God’s people shouldn’t work at all one day out of seven.  Yet there they are working those Wal-Mart stores seven days out of seven.

3. Why do believers engage in rituals?  You know . . . I’m referring to those things that many non-believers see to be pointless and time-wasting.  Interestingly, Believers often disparage the rituals of every one else’s religion. 

Each of these questions is actually four separate “why” questions, as established by the Nobel Prize winning ethologist Niko Tinbergen.   These four “why” questions concern the behavior’s:

  1. Phylogeny or history (when did the behavior developed over geological time as part of the evolution of the species?).
  2. Ontogeny (the behavior’s development over the life of the individual animal),
  3. Function (how the behaviour impacts the animal’s chances of survival and reproduction; the purpose the behavior serves in the animal’s life) and
  4. Proximate cause or mechanisms (what bodily machinery, including motivational systems, produces that behavior).

A full explanation of religious practice must carefully deal with each of these levels of explanation.  In The Human Story, Robin Dunbar points out that when analyzing any trait or behavior, it is important that we not confuse these levels of analysis, the most common confusion being between function and ontogeny.  As Daniel Dennett writes in Breaking the Spell, science is just getting started analyzing religion with vigor (hence the title to his book).

Based on these recent books, science is finally gearing up to vigorously put religion under the microscope of science.  Religion is not going to comply willingly, however.  If (long) history is any indication, religions (especially literalist traditions) will continue to insist that religion is primary and that any scientific finding threatening religious authority will be prima facie overruled. 

Ironically, the science needed for a fruitful analysis of religion is rich in vitamin “D” (Darwin).  Thus, the struggle once again comes down to believers versus Darwin.  This will be interesting struggle to watch.  I find it equally fascinating and frustrating to watch fundamentalist apologists deal with inconvenient facts. 

Even “science-friendly” religions such as the Roman Catholic Church aren’t about to hand science a blank check to figure things out.  The Catholic hierarchy will likely invoke its suspect intellectual and moral authority to veto the entire project if-ever and when-ever the enterprise becomes too embarrassing or inconvenient. It will do this despite the many ghosts from its past: To the Galileo problem, the massive pedophilia cover-up and the Church’s silence during the Nazi Holocaust, I would add the Church’s reprehensible treatment of gays and the Church’s condemnation of effective birth control, a position responsible massive starvation and suffering.

I’m not trying to pick on the Catholic Church.  I believe the Catholic Church will be more open to a scientific analysis of religion than the many religions that are more literalist/conservative.  When the termites of science start munching at theological foundations, however, you can expect the Catholic Church to generate tons of abstruse proclamations. 

The more literalist/fundamentalist religions will fight a different type of fight.  They will throw off their gloves at the earliest moment to grab further hold of the political process in order to shut down funding for all universities and institutions daring to follow where the evidence leads. 

Liberal religions (e.g., Unitarian Churches) might well watch the work of science with some interest and, indeed, even some enthusiasm.  After all, many followers of liberal religions manage to find plenty of room for their poetic and inspirational versions of God no matter what science digs up.

The question, again: Should we look at science through the lens of religion or should we examine religion through the lens of science? I would choose to latter and here’s why.  As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction” (p. 223).  In short, many religions (especially literalist sects) have already set their positions.  They will be there to fight science no matter what science finds.  They’ve already drawn their curves. All that remains is to plot their biased data in accordance with their belief frames, guided by the all-powerful confirmation bias.

Science, on the other hand, is self correcting, isn’t it? Or is science often wrong and aren’t scientists often pig-headed?  Yes to both of these questions! Despite overwhelming supporting evidence, elegant new scientific explanations are regularly rejected by people (including experts in the same field) who refuse to look at new evidence with open minds. Galileo and Darwin are only the most recognizable examples.  Here are three equally disturbing examples:

  1. Alfred Wegener, the scientist who developed tectonic plate theory in 1915. Despite the existence of evidence supporting his theory, it was rejected by most of his contemporaries. 
  2. The same thing happened in 1984 to Australian Doctor Barry Marshall, who  argued (to a chorus of ridicule) that many ulcers are caused by bacteria called helicobacter pylori, not stress. It opponents claimed that it was medical fact that stress caused ulcers. Desperate to prove his theory.  Marshall drank a beaker of the bacteria to cause an ulcer in his own liver.  This began a revolution in our understanding and treatment of peptic ulcer disease). 
  3. Kilmer McCully, M.D. paid dearly for disparaging the reigning theory of his day, that heart attacks were caused by excessive cholesterol.  McCully published papers contending that high cholesterol was not the main cause of heart disease. His 1969 theory linked homocysteine—an amino acid that accumulates in the blood—and heart disease. For this work he was banished from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. For the next 27 months he was unable to find a position in North America that would allow him to continue this work.

Yes, science makes big mistakes.  The most important question to ask, however, is whether it is religion or science that has better tools for making self-corrections.  The clear winner is science.  Each of the above-described scientific blunders was corrected.  Science is currently off and running in the right direction in each of these cases.  As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his classic 1962 work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, inertial and institutional forces sometimes delay the implementation of major steering corrections in scientific research.  In the end, though, science gets it right.

Therefore, full speed ahead with the scientific analysis of religion!  Given the spate of unceasing religious wars everywhere we look, the stakes are too high to fail in this endeavor.

Erich

[Clarification:  Do I need to insert again, just to be clear, that I have the highest admiration for many devout believers?  That I find fault with the official doctrines and the organizational structures of many religions in no way disparages the heroic efforts of many members of these organizations to relieve human suffering, to achieve social justice and to encourage vigorous and free-thinking human exploration of the world.  If such a clarification is needed, here it is:  A toast to good-hearted open-minded believers everywhere!]

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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (45)

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  1. Walter,

    Peer review journals peer review SCIENCE. Creationism, intelligent design, etc is not science. Even its more lucid defenders (Behe and his ilk) have publicly admitted that one would have to change the definition of science for it to include Intelligent Design. It should be no surprise that Creationism papers are not peer reviewed in Science journals.

    Again, what is so difficult about this?

  2. Karl says:

    Thanks for your summary Erich

    Erich honestly states:

    "To me, it seems like the writers of this blog are focused on understanding phenomena based on methods that are independent of the internal emotions, hopes and social connections of the observers."

    I honestly believe most writers of this blog believe this is the case.

    To me, it seems like I look at two sides of interpretive evidence for the same phenomena

    based on methods that are clearly not independent of the internal emotions, hopes and social connections of the observers.

    What one believes is true in the case of origins is coupled to our understanding (logos) of the methods that are not simply independent of emotion (pathos) and certainly continually makes appeal to peer review (ethos).

    Appearances can be deceiving to those who claim faith in God, and also to those who do not make such claims.

    I'll grant you that science done properly without bias is the best that a claimed agnostic or an atheist can come up with to make sense out of the world, but that is only one interpretive framework to work from.

    A framework that ignores documented, written historical events because someone stuck a concept of God into the text is willfully choosing to cherry pick as well.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl says: "A framework that ignores documented, written historical events because someone stuck a concept of God into the text is willfully choosing to cherry pick as well."

      It's not that "God" shows up in the writings. It's because this concept of "God" is no more credible than the concept of "God" in most every religion. Karl, go visit http://www.religionfacts.com/ and ask yourself why you don't believe the "Gods" of other people's religions. Then transport those reasons to your own religion. Look at your own religion and ask the same hardball questions you would ask of Hindus, Mormons, Wiccans and Asatruans.

  3. Tony Coyle says:

    Shorter Karl:

    Goddidit. Nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nah

    me:

    *crickets*

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    Shorter Karl:

    goddidit. Nyah-Nyah-na-nyah-nah.

    I guess it is hard to hear anything intelligible from so deep in the water.

  5. Walter says:

    Mark, you asked what privileges the one that I prefer over all of the others? The one I prefer requires nothing of me accept to receive the free gift of what God did to bring me salvation. It's a gift, you just have to take it.

    All of the others require what man does to bring salvation upon himself or what one can do for God (emphasis on works). Others worship people who lived and died, but are still dead. Buddha did not rise from the dead. Muhammad was regarded as just a prophet and he did not rise from the dead. Confucius and Krishna did not rise from the dead. Jesus did rise from the dead.

    Whenever, there is a large group of people, there will always be a few nut jobs. As I pointed out earlier with my example of the columbine shooters whom embraced evolution.

    Perhaps, your religious upbringing has instilled morals in you that stayed with you into adulthood and now you are passing onto your children, even though you now are an atheist. You don't know how you would have turned out without your religious upbringing. Take for example the inner city of Newark. There are people that have no regard for life and would not think twice to rob and shoot you if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it".

  6. Karl says:

    Must have been something I learned as a child and then never looked back

    Sorry to bring out a 6 on the tolerance scale.

  7. Walter writes:—"Mark, you asked what privileges the one that I prefer over all of the others? The one I prefer requires nothing of me accept to receive the free gift of what God did to bring me salvation. It’s a gift, you just have to take it."

    Thank you for responding. Okay, fair enough as far as it goes, but in fact (apparently, by the evidence) the christian "religion" requires quite a lot—namely that one defend it and spread it. That seems to include an insistence that one ignore anything that seems to contradict the writings upon which you base it.

    Be that as it may, you still miss my point. People believe what they believe and then build structures around those beliefs. In other words, the priests set the rules after the legitimacy of the faith is established, so we can pretty much dispense with the trappings and rituals and just talk about the foundational concepts. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity worship the same god or idea of god. Other faiths have a concept of a creator. I've never seen anything about any of them that *as an idea* offers anything that makes it more real than any other.

    But you answered fairly.

    As for the Columbine shooters—do you really think it was their embrace of evolution that drove them to that? They also blamed all the jocks for picking on them (something I have personally experienced, even in a so-called christian school) and were enamored of other motifs that have nothing whatever to do with any science.

    As for morality…as I said, there are certain basic moral examples which seem to be universal, regardless of ones' religion. If one had the "wrong" faith, how come that would be the case?

    But it's a fair cop. Religion has been the chief instrument for the transmission of moral teaching throughout written history. The reason I doubt it is primary is because many people who espouse religious motives have turned out to be horribly immoral people, sometimes (often) in the name of their religion.

    But further, religious institutions have often been the chief instrument of transmission of any kind of knowledge throughout history—the priestly classes were educated, had special places in society, and taught the aristocracy. If not for the monastic societies throughout Europe after the fall of Rome, much more knowledge than what was lost would have been lost.

    But those institutions have also been at the forefront of censoring new knowledge.

    As for Proverbs, that is quite evidently wrong. We know of monsters who come from good homes all the time. Sometimes the most devout homes produce some of the worst examples. So either they're raising the kid wrong or the religious part is simply not efficacious.

    Anyway, thank you for a clear and lucid response.

  8. p.s. for Walter…

    —"Jesus did rise from the dead."

    Case in point—that is an article of faith. You have no proof whatsoever. It's just something you choose to believe. If such a man lived, more than likely he died and is still dead.

    But that wouldn't make a very good story…would it?

  9. Ben says:

    Mark,

    I know, I was just (trying) making a point…

    4,500,000,000,000,000

    btw, is Quadrillion years.

  10. Karl says:

    I believe everyone who says they believe in a God of one version or another has every right to be given the opportunity to state why they believe so and to not be told it is not credible for them to believe in such a way. The human mind and spirit has a way of cross validating belief with reality and one of those methods is by the use of honestly performed science.

    If a major event like the flood happened in documented historical context, saying it didn't happen because "lame people" make this stuff up is just plain willful bias from my point of view.

    Requiring nature to explain itself is the ultimate faith in nature and some "God" of what you would call "believable" scietific methodology that is simply no more or less than an establishing a worldview that gives you warm fuzzies as far as I see it.

    When it ignores documentad events it has a blind bias in favor of a God of your own making.

    I believe the bloggers here at DI do believe in something or someone that they must place their trust or faith in in order to be satisfied with some of the ultimate questions about life.

    Why should there be a struggle between science and religion? why should either want to be on top anyway?

    Oh yeah, "my Daddy's bigger than your Daddy" could anout sum it up.

    What if a global flood actially happened and all of the "God talk" was removed from the historical record, would that make your understanding of evolution have to change?

    Ultimately no, but in the short term it would be a mess to have to sort it all out.

  11. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl

    I'll respond to your latest one at a time, since it deserves a response (although I'm not really responding to you – see the endnote for more on that)

    I believe everyone who says they believe in a God of one version or another has every right to be given the opportunity to state why they believe so and to not be told it is not credible for them to believe in such a way.

    No one disputes this. We dispute only your claim that your 'way' is reliably correct. You make a claim of 'God' but provide no evidence for God that cannot be equally, and more prosaically, shown to be naturalistic. Occam's razor suggests simply that "your claim is not proven" and that the naturalistic explanations are more meaningful, more predictive, and more credible as a result.

    The human mind and spirit has a way of cross validating belief with reality and one of those methods is by the use of honestly performed science.

    The human mind is a fabulous but flawed instrument. We are fabulists and storytellers. Our minds construct elaborate fully clothed realities from the merest thread of evidence. They don't cross-validate belief with reality as you so blithely put it. They build stories to explain reality. Science has provided a reliable mechanism to eliminate bias and enhance actual knowledge. The more we discover, the more we recognize that our early preconceptions about reality were wrong. This discovery continues. And unfounded beliefs continue to crumble.

    If a major event like the flood happened in documented historical context, saying it didn’t happen because “lame people” make this stuff up is just plain willful bias from my point of view.

    Yes. It is your point of view. That does not make it right. No evidence exists to back up your claim. Science is not a game of picking and choosing evidence to fit your preconception. The available evidence demonstrates that there was no global flood in historic time. There certainly was no flood that destroyed the entire fauna & flora of the world, and there is zero evidence that the world's entire biosphere is descended from a very narrow gene-pool only a few thousand years ago (regardless of how you measure years). You can't just make stuff up and expect reasonable people to believe you. It doesn't work that way. Evidence. All the evidence. Not just the parts that seem (or that you squeeze) to fit.

    Requiring nature to explain itself is the ultimate faith in nature and some “God” of what you would call “believable” scietific methodology that is simply no more or less than an establishing a worldview that gives you warm fuzzies as far as I see it.

    yep. Again, this is as you see it. But it's not how I see it.

    There is no god. Science is not god. Science is a human construct that helps us understand reality. It doesn't give me warm fuzzies. I don't pray to it. I don't hold it in any greater esteem that I do anything else 'contructed by people'. I do find great beauty in it, and in what we have learned about reality through it's use.

    You seem always to go back to this need for a 'first cause'. Karl, that is just how our brains are wired. We make up stories to explain, and stories have actors. So of course we see actors. We saw actors in naturalistic gods (of trees, and animals, and air, and water, and sun, and fire). We then saw melding of these gods in hierarchies – that paralleled our own social evolution into city dwellers (the ancient jews had Elohim [ = gods, plural] and YHWH, the patriarch. All documented in the T'orah). That does not make any of these gods real. And it does not make your 'innate desire' for a first cause be real. Get used to it. So far as we know there was nothing, then there was stuff. We see this at the quantum level all the time. The universe is just a mite bigger – and so we WANT it to be more special.

    Wanting it to be so does not make it so.

    When it ignores documentad events it has a blind bias in favor of a God of your own making.

    Again Karl – where are these 'documents'? What is their provenance? Just because you say it is so, and just because 'eye witnesses' at third-hand said they saw something, does not make it true. If this were so, where are the minotaurs, the cyclops, the griffins, the dragons, the unicorns? All of these were recorded and reported by eye-witnesses. Reliable witnesses, apparently. Do you believe those 'eye-witness' tales, Karl? We have alchemical recipes that demanded 'dragon scale' and 'unicorn horn' and 'griffin feather', among other more prosaic ingredients. Should we consider those documents to be reliable proof that such creatures existed?

    Or is that just crazy talk?

    I believe the bloggers here at DI do believe in something or someone that they must place their trust or faith in in order to be satisfied with some of the ultimate questions about life.

    Nope. At least, not me. I do place my trust in people not to be too stupid. But explain what you mean by 'ultimate questions of life'. I don't have many ultimate questions. I don't think "Why are we here?". That presupposes a cause, and an agent to act. (see earlier). We simply are. Life simply is. You may think this nihilistic. I don't – I find it liberating. As Popeye said "I is what I is". A philosophy to live by.

    You may need the crutch of a God to make your life meaningful. My life IS meaningful, because I give it meaning, each and every day. I imbue it with meaning in every interaction I have with other people.

    That's all the meaning I need, desire, or expect.

    Why should there be a struggle between science and religion? why should either want to be on top anyway?Oh yeah, “my Daddy’s bigger than your Daddy” could anout sum it up.

    hmmm. Yes, but the people who keep wanting to be on top are the religious, aren't they? The only ones who care about such precedence are the religious. Most of the rest of us don't give a toss about such authoritarian crap, other than how it affects us. Then we care. The battle is not about who's on top. The battle is who gets to set the agenda – and we've seen what theocratic agendas do to people. So no thanks, bubba! I'll take secular any day of the week.

    Your struggle is that of every 'dinosaur'. Your time has passed. Recognize it. Move on.

    What if a global flood actially happened and all of the “God talk” was removed from the historical record, would that make your understanding of evolution have to change?Ultimately no, but in the short term it would be a mess to have to sort it all out.

    As Dan is wont to say – bring me the proof and together we'll claim the Nobel prize!

    Again – you want the flood to be true because that would justify your intransigent behavior in so many little ways. It isn't. The evidence simply is not there.

    Sorry no, that's wrong. The evidence IS there – it is simply evidence that fails to fit your stupid hypothesis. Your hypothesis is flawed, erroneous, incorrect, wrong. But no – you so need your flood to be true you continue to wish for more evidence that will prove you right.

    Don't you see how crazy that is?

    ———————————-

    I shouldn't encourage crazy, and getting in a dialog doesn't really help, because crazy sees the world through different filters than the rest of us. But maybe by responding I can help someone else who is not yet fully bat-shit off the wall fruit-looped with regards to evidence and reality.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    There's a curious thing about many religions. The stories are simple, but those who run the religions feel the need to teach them to the congregation over and over and over. How many times to you need to be told that Lincoln was assassinated to understand it, remember it and believe it? Once? Maybe twice? Based on the repetitive nature of sermons, people need to be told over and over (and over and over) that Jesus rose from the dead and that He loves us. Why do they need the repetition? Don't they understand how that could happen. I think not?. Don't they believe that he lived again after he died? I think not.

    I think that we are a nation full of religious people who need to be taught the basic principles of our religions every week because they are contrary to common sense or oxymoronic. In short, we need to be constantly re-"taught" these basic principles of faith every week because we don't really believe them no matter how many times we are "taught" them.

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