Monday, January 26, 2009

Science v. Religion

History is rife with conflicts between religious dogma and scientific discovery. Even The Simpsons couldn't put it to rest, although Judge Snyder did enter a restraining order to keep science and religion at least 500 yards apart at all times. The most notable modern flash point is the evolution/creationism debate, which seems to rage anew every few years as the creationists reboot and come up with new packaging for their old arguments.

With that background in mind, Jerry Coyne has a lengthy column in a forthcoming issue of The New Republic (via PZ) that covers the conflict. In the context of reviewing two books in which authors try to reconcile the use of evolutionary theory and their religious views. Coyne concludes, rather persuasively, that it can't be done:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: 'Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.' With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.
This is important beyond the interesting philosophical issue. Why?
And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, 'Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old.'
That bodes ill for our future. In an ever complicated world in which rational thinking and problem solving become more critical, we as a nation cannot afford to slip further beneath the waves of faith-based public policy.

It's a problem. I just don't know how to deal with it.


unsilentmajority said...

Hmm, but some of our greatest scientists also had faith in a higher deity.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I may be wrong, but I believe this is a false dichotomy. It takes faith to believe both a materialist view of earth origins, and faith to believe in special creation. Both have a reasonable possibility.

I believe the more faith is required to believe in ultimate meaninglessness --that chaos plus chance and time resulted in giggling babies and poetry and sex and taste buds and astonishing love and beer and etc. etc.

Simply the position of the earth and the mathematical unlikelihood of anywhere being able to support life is one primary example of how unlikely (and therefore requiring a lot of blind faith) the materialist view is.

But maybe I'm a blind fool.

The evidence is one thing, and I see few serious and rational barriers to belief in special creation (contrary to the dogma of religious darwinists) but the consequences are what really disturbs me most. If the materialist is right, then Hitler is justified (who can say his truth was not right, in any serious sense) and abortion is OK, racism is OK, rape, and so on. If we are the final authority then there are some baleful justifications for horrors of every kind.

Thank God it is not so. There is a God, though the fall has led to many evils. All shall be well. And joy is not hollow.

Peace to you.


JDB said...

USM - True, but not relevant. The issue isn't whether someone can be religious and do good science. People, of all faiths or none, have an amazing ability to compartmentalize. The issue is whether faith, as most American's perceive it, is compatible with a rationalistic view on the world.

Dale - Thanks for the comment, but, I have so say, it's so full of fail that it's hard to know where to start. So I'll point you here:

That addresses several of the arguments against atheism you raise (Hitler, the complexity of existence, etc.). As for the argument that live couldn't exist if the universe were set up a little differently, the linked article takes that apart pretty expertly.

I will agree with you that "joy is not hollow." But the joy in my life doesn't require a God to be so.

Anonymous said...

I checked out the link, but I think you misread what I said, or may have lumped me in with some folks making some different arguments.

Hitler did use a church-State occultic religious amalgam to advance his will, but he was certainly not anything close to a biblical Christian.

But my point was not what he believed, but that if there is no God, that his actions (whatever he believed) are absolutely justified (in an ultimate sense). If we are left with relativism then our pleas to stop murder, or other evils can be met with an unanswerable "why?" "Who cares?"

I have heard no one, not Dawkins, or Hitchens, or any of the dogmatic religious materialists answer this point with any satisfaction.

I appreciate your last response. And I wish you well.


JDB said...

Thanks for the comment, Dale. Usually when I get a comment labeled "Anonymous" on an old post it's Chinese Spam - this is definitely an improvement!

As for morality without God, here's a pretty good summary:

You may not find that convincing, that's the standard argument.

Or, if you prefer to leaf through political theory, check out Hobbes and Locke and social contract theory. It's rational to limit our own behavior in order to protect our own interests. The Golden Rule makes a great deal of sense, which is why it's not unique to Christianity:

Finally, let me turn this around a bit. I'm assuming you're a decent human being and not currently in prison. Given that, is the only reason you've never raped/robbed/murdered anybody because you think God says not to? Conversely, if God told you to rape/rob/murder someone, would you? Would that make it OK?

Which is better: a general stance of "do no harm, so others won't harm you" arrived at rationally, or a set of commands dictated from on high that could be changed on the whim of the command giver?