Religion and Science

Again, my friend Carl from Stainless Steal Droppings has inspired me to write another essay about religion.  He and I are both disturbed by aggressive communication tactics taken by people on both sides of our philosophically polarized society.  Carl and I agree that both liberals and conservatives go to extremes in attacking each other.  Carl is a Christian and I am an atheist, and we’re working on ways to coexist philosophically.  We’re not trying to convert each other to our own positions, but we are trying to find ways to have opposing ideas and still have friendly discussions.  This is a real challenge.

Often in the editorial press and on the blogosphere you see writers trying to convince readers of their beliefs.  For many aggressive writers trying to get notice their position is often:  I’m right, you’re wrong, let me explain how you’re a dumb ass.  One step up in politeness is:  We’re right, they’re wrong, let’s have a good laugh. What I like to see is:  I’m coming from this vantage point, you’re coming from that vantage point, how can we solve a problem together.  Which probably explains why I’m not a popular writer because of my Pollyannaish thinking.

In my last essay on the subject, Faith, Carl posted a very good reply, but I particularly like what he said here:

I think you certainly got part of what I was referring to as ‘faith’ down. The other part is probably most accurately reflected in my feelings about evolution. I certainly believe in the type of evolution that involves adaptation. I believe species can adapt to surroundings, eventually developing new ways to cope with their environment, etc. In fact this kind of thinking most definitely falls in line with biblical ideas about how God’s creation works. I do not, however, believe that any one species evolved into another regardless of how long this ol’ earth may have been around. My own personal view of the ‘theory’ of evolution is that it is that, a ‘theory’, based on observations and calculations of scientists but mostly based on a type of ‘faith’. I don’t recall reading any ‘proof’ that my ancestors came from monkeys and it is certainly not an experiment that can be duplicated in a lab, tested, etc. so my ideas that there is ‘faith’ involved in science in large part comes from the way that a large part of the scientific community and humanity at large accepts the idea of evolution as science ‘fact’ rather than theory. That, in my mind, is no different than the faith I place in the existence of a real and loving and personable God. I know, your hackles are rising, but can you see what I am driving at?

Now this brings us to a very exact problem.  I don’t want to make this an issue of which side is right.  I’m not going to try and convince Carl how I think evolution is a good explanation biological reality.  What I want to do is explore ways in which Carl can have his beliefs and I can have mine and we can develop a social structure that allows us to coexist and communicate.

Science describes a universe 13.7 billion years old.  The Bible, by certain people’s measure, describes a universe that is just several thousand years old.  This is a problem mainly for our public education system.  It’s a problem being fought by school boards and state legislatures.  One solution brought about by creationists, is the theory of intelligent design, an idea that scientists considers an insult to science.  To describe the battle so far, some Christians feel that society went too far by excluding religion from schools.  The original solution to the problem Carl and I are working on was to separate church and state, and that’s still the best solution in my mind.  Evidently, there are conservatives that don’t like that idea, and they want to find ways to change the educational system.

But I don’t want to get into politics.  What I want to explore is how we treat each other personally.  Concurrent to my discussion with Carl, I’ve been discussing Christianity with a lady friend at work.  I told her that even though I’m an atheist I like studying the Bible, and I’m willing to consider some religious teachings as philosophical explorations on down-to-Earth problems.  She said Christianity is about accepting Christ, salvation and rebirth.  I told her I couldn’t go that far.

In fact, while I was talking with her, I had a revelation of my own.  I’ve always tried to imagine a metaphysical aspect to reality where religious people could be right.  I’ve always tried to imagine some kind of wormhole to the spiritual dimensions.  Theoretically, I wanted to give religious beliefs a possible loophole in space and time that could only be found in death where we might exist in some other dimensional realm.  However, while talking with my friend, I realized that I no longer can imagine such a loophole existing.

Where does that leave me?  I feel quite confident that all 6.7 billion of us living on planet Earth all share the same reality.  Whether or not that reality is ruled by some unknown quantum physics that allows for thought to bend the fabric of reality so Christians can be right as well as Richard Dawkins, or Buddhists meditating in a temple in Tibet, is beyond what I can know.  I do know that a couple billion of our 6.7 billion are Christians, and I think Muslims make up another billion or so.  Whatever political and social system we have has to include everyone.

Does that mean that the religious of the Earth are like a more populous Amish, and we should just let them freeze knowledge at some pre-19th century level of discovery?  Is it okay to just let a portion of the population deny Darwin?  Maybe the answer lies in my discovery of how to handle climate deniers that I made last week.

Up until very recently I worried that climate deniers would keep humanity from doing something about global warming, and then I reached a critical mass of observations in the news.  So many nations, states, companies, industries, scientists, educators and citizens are now working on the problem of global warming with the assumption that the theory is valid that it doesn’t matter if millions of people who are doing nothing, deny the concept.  Sometime in the last year, I think a secret vote was taken, and it was decided this was a problem we had to deal with, and people went to work.  A critical mass of scientists accepted the theory, and now the problem of global warming caused by man-made actions is now accepted as fact.

There are millions of people that don’t believe in the income tax, but that hasn’t stopped Uncle Sam from collecting our dough.  The same is true about evolution.  The scientific and academic world accepted evolution as fact a long time ago.  I do not understand linear algebra, but this mathematical discipline can exist quite well without my awareness.  The time to argue Darwin’s ideas was in the late 19th century.  Botanists, zoologist, biologists, and all the people who use the science of evolution in their work took up the idea long ago and made it part of their routine because it worked.

It doesn’t matter that I believe Darwin, because my kind of belief is only a kind of faith. I’m just a fan at the Science Bowl rooting for the Science team.  It doesn’t matter that Carl chooses not to accept the theory of evolution.  As long as he doesn’t try to publish any papers on biology, his lack of belief will go unnoticed.  Is me trying to convince Carl that evolution is right any different that me trying to convince him that the Beatles were a better band than The Rolling Stones?

I think too much of the polarized emotional heat in the press and the blogosphere are people fighting over opinions.  Why should it matter to Christians that some people don’t believe?  Why should it matter to atheists that some people do?

Carl and I love to discover great books.  That’s what we do.  That’s why we’re friends.  I think we need to focus on what we do, and less on what we believe.  In the old days, it was considered impolite to talk about politics and religion publicly.  I think I’m going to take up that custom.  It doesn’t matter if I “believe” in global warming, it only matters if I do something about it.  I need to get away from writing essays about pure ideas and abstract beliefs.  I need to get back to writing about science fiction books.  Those are real.

JWH – 10-4-8

10 thoughts on “Religion and Science”

  1. I’m eyeball reading Incandescence, the new book by Greg Egan. I’m reading with my ears, Way Station, the classic novel from 1963 by Clifford Simak. Both books are stuffed with science fictional ideas. I’m reading Way Station because I joined the Yahoogroup discussion list for the Classics of Science Fiction at Ignacio, you might want to check it out.

    I had read Way Station back in the 1960s when I was a kid, but I’ve discovered that it’s a far richer novel than I remembered. Have you read it lately?

    What are you reading?

  2. I’m currently reading The confusion, second volume of the massive Baroque trilogy by Stephenson. But between the job and the family, I only get to read 4 or 5 pages a day…
    I have a fond memory of Way Station, but it’s been a long time since I read it.

  3. Great article, James. A nice breath of sanity in an increasingly fraught whirlwind of bickering.

    We’re never going to rid the world of religion, and even speaking as an atheist, I don’t think we should try to.

    As you say, it’s not up to us to try to convert people to atheism. In a way, that’s just playing religion’s game, and with such high levels of rhetoric and emotion on their side, it’s a game they’ll usually win.

    All we can do is promote the scientific method, rational thought, and evidence-based thinking. If we do that, then at least we might see religion gaining less of a foothold in our world power structures.

    And I think that’s the best we can hope for.

  4. I make it a point not to talk about religion. A lot of people need to believe in something- it gives them meaning to their lives, helps them deal with fears of death, etc. I personally am fine knowing that once I die-that’s it for me! There is no man in the clouds pulling the strings. But I make no attempt to convince others of this.
    What does bother me is when people of faith try to push their ideas onto me (or the world)- or judge me for my lack of faith. Like it makes me the bad guy. I respect their decision to practice their religion. When at function where there is prayer- I will bow my head- of course I might be thinking about my grocery list! But I do it out of respect. If only people could please respect my decision to not believe. Instead I get- Well, I be praying for you- or something of the like.
    So I don’t usually leave comments on blogs- and am unsure if I have stayed completely on topic- but these were the thoughts this got going in my head.

  5. Stormey, I didn’t expect many people to comment on this post, but I get the feeling that there are a lot of us who would like to just let everyone do their own thing and be left alone to do our thing. I’m starting to read in a lot of places on the net where people are tired of the loud-mouths who want to attack everyone not like them. I also bow my head when people are praying, and I let people pray for me if they want. I don’t like atheists who try to convert religious people any more than I like religious people trying to convert other people to their faith.

    Maybe more people are thinking this way, because this election has been less heated than the last two.

  6. Another fabulous topic, Jim. But again, you don’t bring facts or reason. Emotion just isn’t enough to develop depth and conclusiveness. And then there’s this:

    –I’m starting to read in a lot of places on the net where people are tired of the loud-mouths who want to attack everyone not like them.

    That would be a commendable self-parody if written with intension. Let’s have a reality check–you are the one who demonizes and dehumanizes and punitively names everyone not drinking your Kool-Aid. And if that weren’t enough, you go further than the worst loud-mouth to actually demote your enemies to a new and lessor species.

    The most exquisite irony: Finding profoundly intolerant people decrying intolerance.

    –So many nations, states, companies, industries, scientists, educators and citizens are now working on the problem of global warming with the assumption that the theory is valid that it doesn’t matter if millions of people who are doing nothing, deny the concept.

    This is the product of an insular life. Nobody in South America, Asia, or Africa every took ACC seriously. Only the wealthy can indulge in such fantasies. With global finance issues looming, we see that people in North America, Europe, and Australia are downgrading their climate concerns. Call it Time Value Philosophy–current real problems are always more important than distant imaginary problems for healthy people. Regardless of their “species” or reports of record cold around the world.

  7. Helen, we’re having a cold year because of La Niña. Global warming does not mean we won’t have cold weather. There are weather systems in all the oceans that will make local weather change from year to year. Some people are predicting we may have cooler weather for a decade in this part of the country because of a system in the Atlantic. Global warming is more subtle, because it’s the average world-wide temperature that’s rising. Some people have said it should be called global weirding rather than global warming, because the overall effect is to cause weird changes in the weather.

    It’s hard to judge the world-wide response to global warming since many places that are going green could be doing so because of economic reasons. Helen, you should read Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman. Friedman has traveled all over the world investigating environmental technology and the politics and the economics of going green in various countries. Even the U.S. military is using solar panels and windmill generators in Iraq, not because of global warming, but because fewer soldiers get killed transporting fuel.

    Friedman predicts environmental technology (ET) will be bigger than IT, producing the next economic boom.

  8. I’m not sure I can buy into the idea of you not writing these kinds of posts. Now do I want you to write them every day? Of course not, I like your sci fi and movie posts too much. But I have shared with you in emails and on this site that I believe this kind of dialogue has allowed me personally to examine the way I feel about discussion politics and religion online–something I am generally very much against.

    Contrary to what Helen may be implying, I don’t see you as talking down to me or demoting me to a lesser species. I have not doubts that both you and I feel very strongly about our positions and would like nothing better than to convince the other person that we are right. However, we are learning first and foremost how to enjoy one another’s similarities and are at the same time exploring our mutual frustrations over the way things are communicated in society.

    I am not advocating, nor do I believe are you, a true ‘let everyone believe what they want and don’t talk about it’ world. I think it is very important that ideas be discussed passionately and that people are true to their causes and ideals. What I wholeheartedly object to is the way people go about doing it.

    Let me give an example from my world. Christianity as a whole promotes the idea that homosexuality is contrary to the laws of God. However the greatest and most important message of Christianity is that the death and resurrection of Jesus provides the means whereby man may reconcile with God and be saved. It is very clear that this is a gift, freely given to be freely accepted. No where does it say that a person has to clean up their act, quit ‘sinning’, etc. to accept God’s gift. And so, presupposing that Christians were 100% right in their views on homosexuality, there is still no logical, reasonable, or even spiritual reason why so much of this movements energy should be spent decrying homosexuality. Instead Christians should be more concerned with each individuals eternal soul…one that can be saved regardless of whether one is gay or straight, faithful in marriage or an adulterer, etc, etc, etc. I look at Christianity and I see BIG, HUGE areas that Christians should be focused on. Ones that, if done passionately…like truly loving one’s neighbor as ones self…would go a long way towards resolving many of the other issues that Christians want to focus on.

    I see that same thing happening with political and social issues. That is why I am frustrated with any part of secular society that insists that people must accept the prevailing scientific ideas on global warming while ignoring other scientists views when the reality is, like I said in my comment on the last post, I think we can all agree that from a health standpoint, and economic standpoint, and a strengthening of America standpoint that finding alternative energy sources, promoting conservation, etc it makes sense to do something about what we are doing to the earth. By the same token I get frustrated with religious folks who want to label everything ‘new age’ that may come out of a community other than their religious community, like the scientific community.

    I’m sorry that I don’t fault you for not adding a lot of ‘facts’ to your posts and instead focusing on ’emotion’. I don’t recall you writing these articles for a scientific journal, I thought we were just discussing ideas. Don’t listen to the naysayers, post what you feel.

    I certainly won’t agree with you all the time nor will you with what I have to say, but at least we give each other a sounding board from the opposite sides of certain issues that allow us to test the waters with the things we want to say.

  9. I’ve got a lot of conflicting feelings on this and on different days I will be anywhere from “I’m right, you’re wrong, and a dumbass to boot” to “cool, do your own thing.”

    And I think that there’s an important point buried in the latter perspective, which you discuss at greater length. When it’s a minority position of irrationality that the world at large has moved beyond, we can tolerate it, ignore it, as it won’t cause problems for the rest of us. We just make asses of ourselves and become annoying stomping around over such things. When it’s something larger and more prevalent however…the organized religions have great power to affect education, politics, research dollars, and other things that are critically important to me. They should be called out in appropriate ways and consistently challenged. The Catholics in Africa lie about condoms and AIDS to promote their own lifestyle, and likewise promoters of abstinence-only programs in the US lie about condoms. Stem cell research has been stalled based on more lies. You may argue it’s a small group of people fighting evolution, but when it affects our educational system it’s a big problem and a tragedy.

    I think the best way of doing it is to pick the right battles and stick to the facts and to avoid the name calling. Even when the name calling is justified. I remember that except when I drink too much…

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