Let's leave science alone and stop dragging it into the religion vs. atheism debate.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A proposed bus ad, an example of the conflict between atheistic purism and silly sola scriptura anti-scientific literalism.

Back in the 1980s when I was growing up until sometime around junior high or high school I had no idea that science and religion were supposed to be antithetical to one another. The first thing I wanted to be when I was young was a paleontologist, or an astronomer, I would go back and forth between wanting to be one or the other, and my room was packed with books of these types. Way back even in grade 2 or so when the teacher asked us what books we liked my answer was always "fact books", because really you don't get much more interesting than books that tell you about what life was like a couple hundred million years ago, how your own planet formed and what the universe was like beyond.

At the same time, sometimes we would go to church on weekends, and I suppose I was lucky in going to churches that didn't have a political agenda. The sermon would be about some passage in the Bible, an interpretation of what the church/pastor believed it meant for modern people, then some eating dry bread and a sip of grape juice, a bit of standing while watching people singing, and that was about it. After service I would sometimes ask the pastor about any questions I had (this was about grade 3 or so) like one day when I wanted to know why people should fear God when at the same time this God is all-loving, and the answer he gave was that it was similar to the love of a father in that you always want to be on your best in front of your dad and fear disappointing his expectations for you, which was a fair answer.

So that's how it went for about the first decade and a bit, and never did I encounter the idea that evolution is somehow controversial (it's not, it's just a process), or that the Earth was a few thousand years old (my "fact books" clearly showed that it was a few billion years old), or that this science I loved was the exclusive domain of those that don't like religion. It never occurred to me to even think of combining the two, because science was about using experimentation and logic to deduce how the world and the universe works, and religion (not just Christianity mind you; I wasn't a Christian at the time) was about understanding oneself in the context of mortality and what happens after death, and hopefully attaining a kind of enlightenment in one's lifetime (though it doesn't use the same term The Cloud of Unknowing is clearly about enlightenment, and there are many more like it).

I didn't end up being a paleontologist because (true story) on one of my many trips to Drumheller we had a chance to hear from some paleontologists in person and see how they worked, and what with all the time spent in the badlands tanning away it looked like reading about discoveries in paleontology would be much more fun than actually doing it. Astronomy...well, I still intend to seriously take that up some day. In the meantime languages are where it's at.

Back to (almost) the present: with the advent of the internet and early usenet groups like alt.atheism there seems to be two large groups of people, both wrong: one that has decided that for some reason the Bible is a scientific book and can be consulted for just about everything, and another that would like to make science its own, excluding those that have any religious belief whatsoever. I actually consider the second group to be more rational and receptive to a good argument which is why this post is about them and not the former.

My primary problem with the making of science into some sort of anti-religious worldview (it's a method of inquiry, not a worldview) is the same as my problem with the former group: it's mixing up two areas that should be more or less separate. That is, I don't want to read papers on science written by someone that keeps on bringing religion into the picture, and I don't want to have to have to feel like I'm an opponent of science for enjoying a good bit of theological debate or a nice orthodox chant. Let's keep these two as separate as possible (and yes, that includes support for a secularist society. Not secular humanism, just plain old laïcité).

So what are some examples of this mixing up the two? Here's one, a billboard:

Praise Darwin? Can't I just read Darwin? If I'm reading On the Origin of Species in a coffee shop somewhere are people now going to assume I'm an atheist? (not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Here's another one:

What's a post like that doing getting almost 800 points on the science subreddit? Once again here's an example of getting a discussion on religion when all you wanted was science. Here's another one:

Looks like an interesting video; too bad it's only indirectly related to science.

Here's another one:

This is a conference from 2006 that can be viewed here. As you might expect it has a lot of scientists debunking religion, which results in a fair amount of interesting debate but not all that much science.

(I would still go to the conference of course)

Okay, but born-again Christianity is quite opposed to evolution and science, and needs to be fought against, right? Perhaps, but not with tools as blunt as these. Here's why:

1) Atheists on the whole seem to be aiming for a secular humanist society, one where we have the following (parts in bold emphasized by me):
  • A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
Once again the bar is being set too high. Why bother with traditions (literal meaning a handing down, from Latin) and mysticism? Can't the problem of science and religion mixing be solved without a complete retooling of something that doesn't necessarily even have anything to do with religion? Add to that the fact that many religious people support secularism, and you can see that the bar is set way too high, and many potential allies for a secular society are excluded with secular humanism.

2) People on the whole live their lives seeing science as something dry and academic, and have never been exposed to the wonder of it all. What science needs are more people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, probably my favourite astrophysicist in the world and someone that never fails to impress. Imagine for a moment how much better off science would be if its proponents were capable of explaining their fields in the same way he does:

(h/t to this thread on Reddit for the video)

This is at the same conference mentioned above. Compare his speech with some of the others given there, the majority of which were made for internal consumption ("religious people claim this, they're wrong and here's why"). Neil's speech, however, works for anyone. It's factually accurate, inspiring, and doesn't have to include a lot of "religion is wrong because x". This I think is the approach that most scientifically-minded atheists should take. A bit less aiming for a complete eradication of religion and a lot more talking up science and what makes it great.

This video (Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne and Richard Dawkins) and the videos on the Colbert Report with Neil deGrasse Tyson show what the ideal between religious and non-religious people should be. You'll notice that in spite of their religious differences Coyne and Dawkins have a lot in common and a ton of mutual respect, and I suspect Dawkins would enjoy an hour or two of discussion with Coyne again (both scientists, different religious views) more than one with an atheist that worked in a different field (same religious views but only one is a scientist).

Short conclusion (because the post has gotten quite long): standard secularism and promotion of science itself is the way to go. There's no sense in setting up a "you must have this much lack of religion to enter" bar that excludes great scientists that don't even bring their religion into their work in the first place.

This second video by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the same conference also shows what happens when you have a society where religion and science don't clash. Let's aim for that.


Anonymous said...

The problem is that religious people are actively trying to infiltrate science and education---and this has been the case throughout history. For instance, Copernicus kept his theory of a heliocentric solar system a secret for decades, because he feared persecution from the church. A teacher, John Scopes, was put on trial in 1926 for teaching evolution. Also, the religious nuts so feared the ill effects of masturbation, that they promoted male (and female!) circumcision, so that for the last 100 years, the United States has been ritually mutilating its boys' genitalia (to their demonstrable disadvantage).

Religion is a disease of the mind, one that poisons people's ability to think critically and reason. Naturally, then, science is part of the debate.

Anonymous said...

The reason that science and Religion are treated separately is that some people are trying to force their religious beliefs on people with thoughts not theories on Intelligent design. Placing it in schools in places. My interest in Religion is mostly my lack of belief. I wonder why people believe in God as everyone I know are Christian or Atheist/Agnostic. Atheists use science because in todays society in North America people think atheists are immoral and would kill because morality depends on the bible and not humanity. It is reasons like this that some feel the need to separate science and technology. Some religious idiots think that science threatens religion or that the bible is a book of science and can not accept no mention of God in evolution and attack thought to place ID in schools. There are laws to make people have god in places in the US and in Canada there are atheist ads(a complete waste of money) that wont be allowed on buses for being inflammatory, while other religious based agency's can place their ads on buses. Other things that are bothersome are tax exempt status for places of worship whether or not they are using fixed donation advancement. Now few will be convinced of Atheism its more something you come into on your own not through the coercion of hell. The use of a 2000 year old book to oppress is another horrible use of religion. Some Religions do not allow the use of psychiatric medicine(which is overused but in some cases appropriate) and others don't allow blood transfusions or the use of modern medicine but only prayer which is fine for an adult to choose but to force a minor to do this is abusive and disgraceful and protected by government.

So what I am really trying to say is that it is the hyper religious that perpetrate hate and preferential treatment is what cause people to separate the two. When science is perverted to support god or imply god such as ID or trying to prove that the flood people will strike back. If the religious weren't trying to pervert science then there would be no need to make science incompatible with religion.

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