I will make any and all biases clear at the outset. I am an atheist. I do not believe in the existence of any kind of deity. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that there needs to be irrefutable evidence of such a being before I change my mind.

I‘ve been watching the rather excellent new television series Cosmos, A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, some creationists have been kicking up a stink that their “equally valid scientific theories” aren’t presented on the show. It seems that creationists are fighting the culture wars between science and faith, an argument I always imagined was settled long ago in favour of science and the gathering of evidence.

This is a seriously difficult topic to write about, because it’s one of those topics that infuriates, annoys, and tribalises like very few other debates. Well…apart from Holden/GM versus Ford or Drumstick versus Cornetto. But, here goes.

But you say: he’s an atheist!

Most modern day religions teach the same fundamental idea: don’t be a jerk.

When I was much younger, more impressionable and much less wise (basically, before I got married), I went to a religious school. There, we learned about The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, the oral teachings of Christianity and even the history of the religion itself. The school also taught science, maths and all the other normal school subjects. Never was there any preaching about joining the flock. Ironically, the only encouragement to join the flock I’ve ever experienced is when I was in a government school, later on my academic career.

Now, I thought many of the principles of Christianity, the concept of humility, being nice to one another, don’t kill people, et cetera, et cetera, were marvelous concepts. As guiding principles for a young child, they formed the basis of many of the moral choices I have made from youth to adulthood. But these guiding principles, taught through parables and writings are not singular to any religion. Most modern day religions teach the same fundamental idea: don’t be a jerk.

As I said, I also went to a government school, where it was secular, but also included a broad church of students from all sorts of social and economic backgrounds. We didn’t learn about religion there, but we could choose what we wanted to learn and nobody ever judged anyone else for their beliefs.

I like asking the questions of “why” and “how”.

None of those experiences however, made me believe in a supreme, omnipotent being. I never have, and unless there is some provable evidence to convince me otherwise, I never will.

Why I don’t believe

The answer, in one short, simple response? Lack of evidence. Yes, I am a man of science and critical thinking, and I like asking the questions of “why” and “how”. Ultimately, by challenging the unknown and exercising our curiosity, by experimentation and passing down knowledge, humanity has pulled itself out of flame lit caves and into concrete towers glowing with electric lights.

It would be fine if the claims of religion were testable and empirical, measurable evidence could be found for a lot of things claimed by religion, especially the space magic parts. But, alas the space magic parts can’t be tested. Not just by scientists, but normal people, who need to be convinced otherwise. It’s fine to convince yourself that there’s someone or something  watching over you in your own mind, but you’d be very hard pressed to isolate cases where that was in any way useful to you.

The paradox

There is, in my mind, a cognitive dissonance from some quarters, resulting in the selective acceptance of scientific output. The problem is, science is not a pick-you-own adventure where you can choose to accept one portion as fact, and another as fiction. Rejecting reality and substituting your own is generally seen as a measure of insanity. The three major branches of science; biology, chemistry and physics are all interrelated and most of the knowledge from each branch rely on fundamental concepts from other branches in order to have been hypothesised, experimented on and the hypothesis confirmed or found to be baseless.

Times have changed and so have society and knowledge.

There are paradoxical and selective acceptances of science in both the modern day setting and in history. Look at Clair Patterson’s fight against lead additives in paint and petrol. Knowledge of lead’s toxic effects on life extends to Ancient Rome, yet all the world’s scientific evidence took years to persuade people that leaded petrol was a bad idea. It’s universally accepted that we have such an understanding of genetics and the chemistry of life, built upon amino-acids, proteins and DNA, that we can alter the genetic makeup of our crops safely for desired properties. Yet, there are people out there who will not accept evolution as the method by which individual species have accrued their unique properties on Earth, despite all of the known and understood evidence uncovered in fossil records.

Recently, I’ve argued against people who believed that evolution is a matter of “belief” due to a lack of “observable evidence” and therefore, was a lot like religion. That’s akin to saying that a yurt is a lot like the Empire State Building because they’re both on the ground. Faith in a deity, has, in historical situations, blocked scientific and social progress in various nations. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic church’s treatment of Galileo, who argued that the Earth was not the centre of the universe using observable and empirical evidence. Thankfully, people are not so easily cowed when facts and evidence are on their side.

When will the cows come home?

The biggest oddity resulting from the debate over science and religion is that not many people argue for a complete abolition of religion. Science is for the pursuit of knowledge of the universe. Yes, it will likely contradict (and has already contradicted) accepted “facts” of religion. Ultimately, all religious texts are written and rewritten by humans with (comparatively) little knowledge of how the universe functioned at the time of drafting and compilation. But what’s the big deal about that, given the context and limitation in which the book was written?

Times have changed and so have society and the way we increase our knowledge. We’re no longer bound by the limitations of fear of that which we don’t understand. We embrace that now, we daydream about the possibilities and wonders the unimaginable can bring to us. We’ve been fascinated by the adventures of Captains Kirk and Picard in Star Trek, the constant fight between good and evil in Star Wars, the politics and drama of Babylon Five. Even the tentative steps we’ve taken with robotic spacecraft to explore our Solar System has stolen people’s imaginations, run with it, and molded it into creativity and inspiration.

My overarching opinion is that whether our universe is the result of fortune or a whim of some long forgotten being, supernatural or not, the fundamental laws and boundaries of our universe, our home, are there for us to discover, understand and even exploit. This is, in many ways, the cold and calculating route of progress. Religion, through the teachings and experiences of people through the ages, could be a good moral guide, setting social boundaries to acceptance to temper the enthusiasm of uncontrolled advance. However, religion should never be the basis of stopping or questioning the discovery of new information or understanding of the universe.

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14 thoughts on “Science versus faith

  1. Religion has a far more important role than the one you ascribe. It is the great comforter to the poor and those who are in hopeless positions. Science can sometimes offer healing but it offers nothing to those who are about to leave this world. Technological advance has also led us into a precarious situation where the future of the race looks uncertain. Naturally it is man who uses religion and science for his own ends so ultimately we must accept the blame when things go wrong.

  2. While I agree that religion comforts the poor, I doubt it can, in any material way, lift them out of poverty, ill health or powerlessness without the collective willpower of those who are privileged (i.e. the rest of us). I would never say that science could, alone, do any of those things either. Neither religion or science can solve the world’s problems. Only humanity can, through kindness and forgiveness.

    While I agree that science has advanced to the point of energy and resource consumption accelerating beyond sustainability, I do not believe the future will be bleak. There will be a way forward, whether that is through collective sacrifice or collective conflict (pragmatically and realistically, I’d go with conflict).

    • “While I agree that religion comforts the poor, I doubt it can, in any material way, lift them out of poverty, ill health or powerlessness without the collective willpower of those who are privileged.”

      Seriously? Am I understanding you right here?

      “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27.

      Look up the work that a religious organisation named Samaritan’s Purse is doing. Their goal is to empower impoverished people to break out of the poverty cycle. Compassion, World Vision, Salvation Army, all organisations rooted in religion acting to lift the poor out of their poverty.

      • Shaun, what my reply was getting at is the fact that many people, of various faiths, claim to truly believe and adhere to their religion. That does not mean that they will get off their collective backsides and help others. It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to actually go and do it.

        You also raise the names of several humanitarian organisations with a religious base. There are many without one, such as Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, the Red Cross/Crescent, etc. What inspires those who do not believe in a deity? The fundamental right that we all have the opportunity to lead a peaceful existence.

        I say more power to all these organizations, but you won’t convince me that it is purely religion that gets people to help others.

  3. In addition, the Bible contains roughly 2000 fulfilled prophecies. Jesus himself fulfilled many over which he had no control, born in Bethlehem, descended from David, crucified to name a few.
    Now online debates rarely go anywhere so let’s not get into the nitty gritty, I just want to raise the point that you are writing off an awful lot of hard evidence on the grounds that it can’t be measured by scientific theory despite the fact that the peer review system wasn’t around in 0 AD.

    • Here, of course we will disagree fundamentally with your premise that the Bible is, in any way, portraying the events surrounding the life of Jesus with a high level of accuracy.

      We’re talking about a book that was written, edited, translated and compiled over a period of hundreds of years, including the Medieval period, by many hands. It’s very easy to fulfil prophesy when you have hindsight and the ability to change what was written to suit your narrative.

      If the reverse were true, that The Principles of Natural Philosophy was compiled over a number of centuries and only attributed to Isaac Newton, but really built by many hands, I’d be sceptical of its veracity too!

      • If it is the accuracy of the Bible over thousands of years you want to discuss I would direct you to the Dead Sea Scrolls as evidence of how uncannily accurate it is.

        Regarding charities, nice people will always do nice things but what could be more effective a method of getting people collectively off their backsides than going straight to their core beliefs. To be clear I do not offer this as evidence of my God or any other deity people believe in. You said it’s one thing to talk the talk, another to walk the walk I could not agree more.

        As an example let me point out that for all the bad press the Catholic Church (I am not Catholic) gets they are the largest non government provider of health care services in the world, but that doesn’t sell newspapers so we don’t hear about it.

        Also look at some of the atrocities occurring in Africa don’t you think that a dose of “treat others as you would have them treat you; turn the other cheek; love your neighbour but love your enemy also” might help lift some of these people out of poverty, ill health and powerlessness?

      • Shaun, I’m no scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but a cursory Google for information available on the interwebs show that they contain the Old Testament, which I am led to believe is common to the Jewish and Christian bibles, as well as translations of the Bible into other languages and mundane things like calendar calculations and educational material. See here: http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/learn-about-the-scrolls/scrolls-content. There’s nothing revolutionary or prophetic about the contents as described. When I say accuracy, I do not mean whether it was faithfully translated from the original work, rather the accuracy and veracity of the description of the life of Jesus and other biblical figures.

        I believe that the vast majority of people are good and decent, no matter their background, but it’s the morons and arses of this world who ruin it for others. As for the Catholic Church, well, like you said, nice people will do nice things in general. In that case, it’s a tiny minority that ruin people’s lives and the Church’s reputation.

        In terms of Africa, it’s probably a case of showing that religion is a double edged sword. It can, with proper guidance and leadership, grow a sense of community and common sacrifice for the greater good. At the same time, it can also be the catalyst for unspeakable crimes. Unfortunately, this is where I sometimes think that Africa is a basketcase because the Western style of thinking (or even the Asian style) is detrimental to the whole continent.

  4. The problem is not religion or science but our use or abuse of them. Religious truth speaks to our conscience and we often choose to ignore it. Science gives us opportunity to improve the lot of people and we use it to create weaponry or go to Mars. We have in our make up a selfish ambition which could well be genetic. If we can control that and obey our conscience then it is possible for us to survive and thrive. Our intellect is of little use unless it has moral guidance.

    • This I completely agree with. To be honest, the requirement for moral guidance does not have to be from religion, though it has historically formed the basis for our moral codes. I have no real problem with people having some form of faith. I just don’t like it when it’s used to circumvent the teaching of science in schools or to cast doubt upon the origins of the universe.

  5. Where exactly our moral conscience comes from we do know. I suspect way back in the old stone age it may have developed but just why I can’t imagine. Nature , the cosmos and all other creatures are not hampered in this way but in humankind it has created an inner battle ground. We can no longer happily live for ourselves.

  6. Correct the DSS are only Old Testament, but the OT makes up more than half the Bible. People back then were not stupid, they may not have had all our scientific knowledge but they weren’t stupid. Writing lies into the history of a nation would have been uncovered by the Jews who are very methodical and precise people (the method of how they transcribed texts by assigning numerical values to each word and line then adding them up for example).

    If you can accept the DSS shows that ancient writings of the Bible are accurate that invalidates your assertion that scripture (at least the OT) was changed “with the benefit of hindsight”. To give you some OT examples of highly specific prophecies.
    Genesis cites the 8th day after birth for circumcision, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that science proved this is the peak of blood clotting chemicals in the body.
    Several prophets predicted the destruction of Phoenician Tyre. Ezekiel (good name for a child there) in particular noted not only it’s destruction but that the city would be “thrown into the sea” which is exactly what Alexander the Great did to mainland city to build a bridge and reach the inhabitants who had relocated to a nearby island.

    Ultimately if unquestionable evidence of Jesus (or any other deity) existed we would all be of one mind, but for me as a Christian my belief is that God never promised life would be easy and if we want a relationship with him we need to take that leap called faith.
    My evidence of God’s existence is not facts and figures it’s the undeniable presence of him in my life and the lives of those around me. It’s not scientific and it never will be but when you can clear your mind and jump it completes your life to find you have landed on solid ground.

    • Shaun, I don’t think anyone can prove (yet) whether the scripture of the Old Testament is accurate. It might be a good read, but with archaeology comes evidence. I’m willing to agree to disagree on the veracity of the book.

      As for medical knowledge, such as when is the optimal time to get the snip, that would have been developed with trial and error over time. That’s hardly a revolutionary concept. As for prophecies like the city of Tyre being “thrown into the sea”, that’s not exactly a revelation for a military campaign against a coastal settlement which is well fortified but easily encircled by an army. The words in a prophecy are up for interpretation. That’s why I don’t take them seriously. However, I do agree that Ezekiel is an awesome name for a baby.

      Again, we’ll have to agree to disagree about the presence of any deity in our lives. That just sounds like the voice of a well developed conscience and id, which is an altogether brilliant thing to have though. Additionally, I’d like to have a high midi-chlorian count in my body…

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