Why Religion & Science Don’t Mix

August 11, 2006 | By | 9 Replies More

This link is to the district court ruling in the Dover, PA trial about so-called Intelligent Design. It is worth reading in full, especially in light of the recent survey publish in Science about our understanding–lack of, actually–of biology.  Basically, the judge threw out the claim by the defendants, that evolution is “merely a theory” and that Intelligent Design is somehow legitimate science.

This, of course, settles nothing in the long run. The true believers who pulled this stunt to begin with will not be persuaded, nor will they long shut up. That’s fine, that’s their prerogative, and it’s as should be in this country. My hope is that this will not be the last shot fired in defense of science and reason, against irrationalism and spiritual chicanery.

The critics of Judge Jones’ decision have come out screaming that he has overstepped his authority. He has written a pretty scathing and detailed decision. I can certainly see that he has hopes it will be used in other districts, as a means to settle this–at least legally–where and when it crops up. I personally see his response as fairly restrained, considering the clear frustration behind it. He has invoked the ground state complaint of the conservative–it has been a waste of tax payer money.

The profoundest irony, politically, is that Jones is a George W. Bush appointee. The right-wing Jesus faction of the Republican Party must be seized with apoplexy at this. One of their own–one anointed by their own prophet-in-power–has turned on them, delivering a rational verdict.

The point that is still lost on many people, I’m sure, is that what Jones said, and what was demonstrated in the trial, is that Intelligent Design simply is not science. I am not at all surprised at this misunderstanding, because people have such a poor understanding in general of what science is, be they fundamentalists who reject it on doctrinal grounds or just an average citizen who hated the subject in high school because it ran afoul of blithely partying one’s way through curricula. But it is at the core of the kind of civilization we have and it is at the core of the kind of philosophy by which we have dragged ourselves out of the past.

Science concerns itself with the testable. If you can’t put it on a table, dissect it, measure it, compare it physically to something else, and make both positive and negative statements about it with which to demonstrate its properties, then it is not a subject with which science is concerned. That leaves religious concerns out. Period.

Now, the one disturbing aspect of the trial, personally, was the way the witnesses for the plaintiffs took pains to say that there is no conflict between science and religion. There clearly is. Those striving to shove Intelligent Design into the classroom make it so. Their assertion–those driving the heart of this movement–is that if you believe in god, you cannot accept science.

I know, I know, they’re only talking about evolution, not all of science. But in fact, they are talking about science. They admitted in Dover that unless the definition of science is changed, Intelligent Design won’t hold up. But just changing the definition of science over one thing doesn’t mean you haven’t simply changed it–for everything. I doubt most of them have thought about this, but really science is their enemy, and for a very simple reason–the habit of critical analysis engendered by the disciplined application of science subverts the capacity of the charlatan to sway people to believe in garbage. In other words, it’s a cure for gullibility, and frankly the embrace of fundamentalist religious doctrine requires a certain level of gullibility. That fish is big, man, and swallowing it takes a lot of lubrication and a big mouth with very little discrimination behind it. For fundamentalism to succeed in its aims, people must be kept from developing critical thinking.

I disagree with those who seek to appease the religious by stating that religion and science can exist in harmony. I am one with Richard Dawkins, who stated that the problem with religion is that it makes “existence claims”–it states that such and such IS and this and that HAPPENED, very materially and very solidly, which puts it in the realm of study and scientific analysis. Religion, in other words, offers alternative explanations about how the universe works, and that puts it in conflict with science, which also offers explanations of how the universe works. And, of course, they are different explanations.

Whenever someone says to me that I must accept something on faith, without any hope of proof, I put one hand on my wallet and smile politely. That’s absurd. I must accept nothing. There are many things of which I am ignorant–that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they may exist. There are also many things I accept as real for which I have no direct evidence, but my acceptance is always provisional. If it turns out that the Taj Mahal, in spite of thousands of images and personal testimonials, were shown not to exist, my world wouldn’t stop. I would find it curious and perhaps a little disturbing because of the mass delusion and fraud that had gone on for centuries, but I would not suffer a crisis of profound spiritual estrangement because the world turned out not to be as I had always thought it was. (An extreme example, I admit, but some things require extreme examples.)

All that said, I do not accept the flip side of the public debate, that there is no god and that we would all be better off without religion. I do think we’d be better off without extremism, of which fundamentalism in religion is a form. We’re seeing the consequence of the intractable nature of extremism now, with suicide bombers thinking they’ll go straight to paradise because they die killing people they don’t like. We see it in the willingness of self-proclaimed “christians” to subvert truth in order to win a debate, who have accepted that winning is all that counts. We see it in the intransigence of custom, the intolerance of accepted ideology, the ready brutality of genocide. But not all religion is extremist, and history shows that all too often the generosity of spirit engendered by a religious viewpoint has been the only thing standing between what is right and desolation. Too often, religion has been the only repository of moral instruction for the vast majority of humans on the planet. It must not be dismissed lightly by anyone, nor should it be mistaken for that which it is not. Therein lies the problem.

To be clear, I do not believe there is a Creator.  I do not believe there is a supernatural being who commands reality and, like an introverted adolescent, pines for adoration and will viciously punish those who don’t hand it over.  I do not believe in an afterlife.

I do believe in faith.  It obviously exists, it functions, and, despite my personal opinion that it is mostly misplaced, seems to serve its possessors.  I do not believe we will ever be rid of it, and maybe we shouldn’t. 

But we need to start dealing with it more realistically than we have to date.

I think a lot of people, at least in the West, probably in many other places (but I don’t know, so I won’t claim with anywhere near the same conviction on their behalf), manage on an almost instinctive level to parse the difference between materialism and spiritualism, and keep them separate where they would interfere with each other. The old dictum “god helps those who help themselves” holds. You have to manage your life, make choices and decisions, act on conviction. Reliance on the lessons taught through religion helps. I am an atheist, but I admit that my basic moral education came through the Lutheran Church. There is no Church of Atheism, as such. It’s an oxymoron. The closest thing we have to something like that would be in Philosophy courses in university and college. For me, my present moral condition was reached through religion–religion as a phase through which I passed–rather than by any path outside of it. There’s nothing odd about this–we all pass through stages of maturity in which different levels of discourse hold sway. We believe in Santa Claus until a certain age, when we “know better” but recognize the utility in the fiction. We have heroes who must not be less than wonderful, until we grow up a little more and learn that they, too, are human, with faults. Thus, for me, religious teachings were “true” until the point at which I recognized the essential truths couched within the stories, and relegated the stories to the shelf along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Lone Ranger.

See, I write fiction, and I understand something about it which I think most people accept intuitively without consciously recognizing it. Fiction was condemned a couple of centuries ago as somehow immoral, because it is lying. Fiction is “not true” in the way that history or science or what happened last week at Aunt Milly’s is true. Fiction is something made up. A lie.

But that confuses fact with truth, something with which even philosophers have had to contend for a long time. The two are connected, but they aren’t the same thing. Because there are two questions about any event–what happened (fact) and what does it mean (truth). You can tell the truth without there necessarily being anything “factual” to compare it to. Yeshua knew this, hence he told parables–stories. He probably made them up, tailored them to the moment. Were they lies? Of course not. They are a third category of conditional statement. The three conditions would be That Which Is, That Which Is Not, and That Which Is True. Telling the truth about something…well, good writers do it all the time. They tell the truth about the human condition. They give lessons. They make connections with the way we feel and think and how the world is. They do this thing which has nothing to do with lying, because we aren’t trying to establish what Is or Is Not in the sense of facts presented in a court.

Science concerns itself with the first two categories. Religion traditionally deals with the third.

It’s philosophy. And it’s fluid, which is what makes it so difficult for fundamentalists, because they want their truth absolute and unchanging. But they can’t really have that and have it be Truth. Because the nature of Truth is its adaptability and its capacity to interpret. Truth deals with Meaning, and Meaning is a living thing. If you nail it to a tree so it doesn’t move, you kill it, and Meaning is lost.

You can arrive at the Truth of facts, by connecting meaning to What Is. You can’t really attach meaning to What Is Not, and hence there is no truth where there is nothing. Of course, that’s provisional. And frustrating.

But Meaning itself can be a fact. How we behave and why. How we see the universe and why. To arrive at Meaning is a journey, and we must not discard tools lightly.

So while I proclaim myself an atheist, I do not dismiss religion as an encumbrance. I would actually pity the world is religion disappeared. It is all too often the only bulwark against the unrefined, brutish impulses of human beings, especially humans in large groups. Religion is a force for good in the world.

But it’s not science.

The so-called mainstream religions have reconciled–sometimes uncomfortably–with science. Even the Catholic Church has finally conceded that Galileo was right (something they knew all along, but there was a question of Authority to deal with). There’s not much problem with them. It’s these fundamentalist groups–of which we’ve never been rid, nor probably ever will be–who are causing a lot of the problem, and will continue to, because they cannot figure out the difference between Truth and Fact. I would go so far as to say it is a certain lack of sophistication. But it must not be allowed to dominate public discourse at the level of policy. We must talk about it, certainly, but it must be labeled for what it is–extremism. The most damaging aspect of extremism is its intensely distorting effect on all other discourse.

But why do people embrace it?  And why are those less ferocious in their rejection of fact so easily swayed, as indicated by the Science survey?

Have you noticed that all the really extreme religions are apocalyptic?  They always have been.  They can’t wait till the Last Days, and god’s return, and the End Of The World.  That’s what they live for, this finality.  Why?

Because–in my opinion–it’s easier than having to accept the fact that the world must be dealt with.  Much easier to just long for it all to be swept away so we don’t have to worry about it, don’t have to understand it, don’t have to figure out what to do tomorrow. 

So we don’t have to be Responsible anymore.

Fundamentalism like this is profoundly shy of responsibility.  Look at the list of denials.  Things You Should Not Do!  Telling someone that they should never do such and such reaches a point where it is clearly a matter of denying responsibility.  To stay away from something altogether means you never understand it, never find out what it’s really all about, and never learn to manage it.  It’s an either/or proposition, and it’s horribly limiting.  But then learning to think for oneself and then having the discipline to act accordingly–that’s hard.  And it’s confusing sometimes.  And it’s frightening.  Better that Jesus comes and removes the necessity of thought and action.

And responsibility.

In the Fifties, there was an image prevalent, mainly in Hollywood, but it spread virus-like through the popular mind, of the amoral scientist who didn’t care about anything but his or her own research.  It’s a lie.  Once you really understand something about science you discover that it has the inbuilt capacity to make you responsible.  Because when you really know something, when you really understand something, you can’t just ignore it.  Take global warming…ah, but that’s another topic.

Fundamentalism fears science because science gives people the tools to at least comprehend what’s going on.  It arms people and an armed populace is an independent populace.  There ought to be a corollary to the Second Amendment: “The right of the people to keep and bear knowledge shall not be infringed.”

I talk about responsibility.  As proof, I offer adolescent sexuality.  No one need answer, but think back to your earliest sexual experiences, and consider the circumstances.  The behavior was irresponsible, often, and perversely so.  We didn’t want to know about contraception, about venereal disease, about pregnancy rates.  When someone brought it up, it was with salacious giggles and embarrassment.  Boys who won’t use condoms, girls who won’t take birth control, but then put themselves in positions wherein that’s exactly what they should be doing. 

Not everyone, no, but surely everyone knows someone who…

Knowledge makes you responsible.  Wanting to be responsible requires a bit of self-knowledge.  Fundamentalism is very much about denying self-knowledge.  And because it’s god being used as a threat, people get peevish about countering it.



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Category: American Culture, Communication, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Education, Evolution, Good and Evil, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. John says:

    Kudos. I have been sifting through fundamentalism, religion, and philosophy lately too. You have presented some interesting thoughts / observations here. I have avoided questions of science though as I have some contention with at least the "soft" or social sciences (mainly in how they are "science" on par with the "hard" or physical sciences).

    I do not know what I am, but I am not an atheist (at least in relation to the existence of "god", perhaps in relation to certain religious traditions I am though). I think that (probably) all of the traditional conceptions of god are mistaken, afterall, how can such a limited mind such that humans posses actually grasp the supposed immensity of a divine being? I think what we ascribe the names "God", "Allah", "Shiva", "Thor", or "Zarathustra" is all the same ontological thing, but that thing is beyond our capacities to understand. Thus it is in the relm of faith or belief rather than that of the sciences.

  2. Skblllzzzz says:

    Thanks for this analysis.

    Being free of responsibility indeed appears to be worth killing for.

    Unfortunately, in science there is fundamentalism too; people latching on to a theory, proclaiming it to be *truth* and effectively creating a sect.

    Sometimes I find a reversed tendency with sceptics. While I like nonsense presented as science to be debunked, the debunking tends to become a means to shield very specific world views from percieved attacs on it and rejecting the responsibility of having to actually look at other peoples views and arguments.

    Just say "cold fusion" at a sceptics gathering and you'll understand what I mean ;-).

    The need for a static world view and the rejection of responsibility are firmly locked together. And when the world changes around you, proving you wrong in your static beliefs, it's easy to long for an end to it all.


  3. Jason Rayl says:

    To Skblllzzzz point about fundamentalism in science, you are quite right. The difference is, such theories and the people who defend get attacked and when they are exposed as error-filled and their proselytes demonstrated to be anything from gullible to patently dishonest (and there is fraud in science, as in any other human endeavor), the Scientific Community does not close ranks to defend the charlatan, but rather helps bring it down. Science is the only practice we seem to have in which popularity is not defense and debunking is prized as much as solid work.

    Science is, ultimately, a human activity, and as such is prone to the same faults humans bring to anything–but its base line standard is to finding things out and how they really work. Charlatans hold the field here and there for a short while, but they never last.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Thank you for a wonderfully insightful post that could very well serve as the basis for a book, if you ever choose to undertake such a project. I will make only a few points in this comment, but these points barely scratch the surface of what you have accomplished.

    Here is the main thing I take from your post: the conflict between religion and science is not nearly as clear a question as most people suppose. It depends on what kind of religion one is considering (in my mind, it also depends on what type of science one is considering). Some types of religion can coexist (and have coexisted) with robust science. The Unitarian Church would be an obvious example, though there are many others. I found your discussion of the Catholic Church one point. I agree that the Catholic Church is often science-friendly. I was raised in the Catholic tradition. I have found that as long as one first kissed the ring of the powers-that-be (by not attacking that a virgin had a baby, for instance), one has often been allowed to mix it up pretty good intellectually under the supervision of the Catholics. Or at least you could do so until recently. I sense that the Catholic hierarchy is currently in the midst of serious housecleaning. It might be that the remaining Catholic intellectuals will eventually be setting up shop somewhere else, if the present trend continues.

    Some religions are clearly hostile to good science. Fundamentalists of all stripes are the poster children for this approach. They squelch skepticism in many directions and this prevents science from doing what it does best: following the facts where they lead in the context of scientific theories. Sooner or later, fundamentalist religions prevent science from understanding the world and contributing to it in tangible ways. I find it ironic that so many fundamentalists are willing to hop on modern jet airplanes when there own outlook would prevent science from using and extending the same general principles that science used to understand aeronautics and build airplanes.

    It is not really a matter of religion versus science, then, and we all need to be careful to keep others from framing the dispute in this simplistic fashion. Whether it's religion versus science depends on who is doing the religion, and how they are doing it.  As you suggest, it has sometimes actually been religion that served as the last bastion for helping the needy and preserving intellectual inquiry. When religions do good things, those things should certainly be recognized.

    When religions succeed intellectually, it is when they honor the things that science does well. Consequently, it is when religions stick firmly to literal interpretations of dusty old books and when they show a conspicuous failure to be curious about the world, that we see a stark conflict between those particular religions and science. It is when believers are unwilling to doubt spectacular claims made by their leaders and to show an unwillingness to doubt their own treasured thoughts, that particular religions dramatically part ways with science. It is the unrelenting, almost ruthless, willingness of science to attack its own beliefs and to hold everything as provisional, that ultimately makes science a reliable and trustworthy enterprise with a solid track record.

    I am a strong believer in your suggestion that knowledge makes one responsible. This idea reminds me of this quote from Socrates (from Diogenes Laertius):

    <p align="center">There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.

    From this quote, it follows that those churches that are not vigorously curious about the world are not capable of determining the difference between good and evil. That would be my position too, based upon my personal encounters with fundamentalists. Without vigorous intellectual capacity, churches are incapable of moral leadership. But, as you have suggested, some churches are highly capable of both.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    As someone who has extensively studied 'hard' sciences, I've never entirely understood why some people see science and religion as mutually exclusive. Science, as Jason points out, deals with things that are testable (and that produce repeatable results), whereas religion deals with things that are untestable (e.g., the existence of heaven) or that cannot be repeated (e.g., the existence of divine "miracles"). Religion seeks to answer three basic questions: where did we come from (e.g., where did our soul or our consciousness come from), why are we here (e.g., what is the meaning of life, what is our purpose, etc.) and where do we go after we die? Science deals with none of these questions, nor likely ever will.

    Thus, to me, the so-called conflict between religion and science is a false choice created by religious zealots who have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of a conflict. In some cases (e.g., most televangelists), these zealots are fools (or pitch-men) who are preaching to a population of like-minded fools, and they believe their livelihood depends on continuing to preach the same nonsense so the fools will continue to support them. In other cases (e.g., the Catholic church), these zealots are not fools, but they have made the mistake of painting themselves into a theological corner with no way out, other than to "stay the course" and steadfastly refuse to admit they were wrong, regardless of the consequences or the amount of evidence against them (just as Bush has done in Iraq). Evangelical Protestant Fundamentalists are in this latter camp: once they paint themselves into a corner by declaring their belief in the literal truth of the Bible, they must also declare war against all the contrary evidence from science…and when they then discover this evidence to be overwhelming, their only defense is to utterly blind themselves to the evidence. Unfortunately, many people confuse such belligerence for leadership or, worse, rectitude.

    As regards believing in faith, religious faith appears to exist for the same reason that shaman healers exist: the placebo effect of prayer. Despite thousands of years of study, no one has ever proven that prayer yields any supernatural benefits. Thus, to the extent that faith has yielded positive results in peoples' lives, the results can be explained by the placebo effect. For example, it has been shown that people who adopt a "fighter mentality" toward cancer and other life-threatening diseases tend to survive longer than people who don't, but these results do not depend on whether or not the person worships Jesus. Similar results occur if the person believes in a witchdoctor who shakes a dead chicken over the person's head and mumbles unintelligible incantations. Thus, to the extent that competing religious faiths all tap into the same placebo mechanism, faith will likely aid survival and will likely continue to exist. But this does nothing to demonstrate that faith invokes a supernatural being. Bottom line: faith exists for a good reason, but not for the reason that Believers claim; i.e., it works by triggering the placebo effect, not by pressing a supernatural being into service.

    Finally, as regards the evangelicals who claim that Judge Jones overstepped his authority in the Dover case, these zealots belong to a special category of idiot: the fools who don't realize they are fools. These people have no legal education whatsoever, yet they blindly declare themselves to be better jurists than those who sit on the federal bench (even on the Supreme Court) and who have devoted much of their careers to interpreting the Constitution. For example, I once saw the actor, karate expert (and, now, telemarketer) Chuck Norris declare that the Supreme Court justices who ruled against mandatory Christian prayer in school "don't understand the U.S. Constitition." Imagine the laughter that would pour from Norris' mouth if these same Supreme Court justices were to declare that Norris "doesn't understand karate," yet he is unable to see that his reverse assertion is just as absurd.

    Sadly, the poor state of science education in America, combined with the skillful use of mass media propaganda by evangelicals, has produced the bizarre "conflict" between science and religion that we see today. Evangelicals — themselves ignorant and suspicious of science — realize they can never "win" in the science classroom, or in any other scientific forum, so they take their argument directly to the masses…realizing (like Hitler did) that a majority can impose its will on a minority even when the majority is hopelessly wrong.

  6. rosa says:

    religion answers why. science answers how basically.

    in order for either to work to make life better and lead people to happiness requires integrity(moral fiber) on the part of those involved. no dishonesty and greediness or power seeking or money grubbiness allowed to taint the process. keep one's ego out of the picture.

    too bad this is such a difficult and taunting task.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      rosa: My continued silence doesn't mean I agree all of your comments. As you can see from my many posts at DI, I don't believe that religion offers any "why" answers. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that many of the factual claims of most religions mislead people. They quite often assert claims for which there is no evidence, or for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. For example, I very much doubt whether anyone ever fed thousands of people with a single basket of food. I have trouble understanding how anyone could believe such a preposterous claim.

  7. rosa says:

    you honest objections are duly noted. could you give me an example of what you think is contradictory with regards to bible and science?

    I know it can be hard to imagine jesus turning a few loaves into enough to feed thousands. boy we sure could use that ability now couldn't we?

    but we could just ask did jesus exist and was he truthful about who he was and why he was here? consider that his life has influenced millions of people for thousands of years long after he died. people were burned at the stake for that belief. I would think it would take more then just believing in heresay to go through something like that!!

    of course it would take more than a few posts to examine this, it would require a bible study adn comparsion with archealogy history etc to come to grips of jesus and his existance. also it is good to remember the history or attempts at destroying the bible. many attempts at preventing people from getting it, well in christendom prevent from getting copies they could actually read themselves considering only priests ther for the longest could get a hold of one and in latin or some foreign language to boot was intense.

    we have enough non biblical history to see the bible is pretty much come down to us intact (with minor misspellings) you could just go to http://www.watchtower.org there are tons of stuff in there that asks the same questions as you are miracles real and did jesus exist and even articles pretaining to science too.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      rosa: I do love your enthusiasm. And I'm really not trying to rain on your parade. But I've done a lot of reading (and living) in my life and I can't agree that "we have enough non biblical history to see the bible is pretty much come down to us intac[t]."

      You might want to read some self-critical sources, and not simply scoop information off sites like Watchtower, which draw the curves before plotting the data.

      And please. I would very much recommend that you take the time to do a spell-check and grammar check before hitting that "submit" button. Firefox has one built in. Your many writing errors suggest to me that you can't be bothered with details. But Bible history is also a matter of (often tedious) details. Bart Ehrman has written some highly accessible books wherein he carefully compares manuscripts and historical analysis (including this one http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/08/22/if-bi… )

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