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Science vs. Religion?
September 7, 2003 5:57 PM   Subscribe

Why do so many scientists believe in God? "Modern science did not emerge 400 years ago to challenge religion, the orthodoxy of the past 2,000 years. Generations of thinkers and experimenters and observers - often themselves churchmen - wanted to explain how God worked his wonders. Modern physics began with a desire to explain the clockwork of God's creation. Modern geology grew at least partly out of searches for evidence of Noah's flood. Modern biology owes much to the urge to marvel at the intricacy of Divine providence. But the scientists - a word coined only in 1833 - who hoped to find God somehow painted Him out of the picture... So although the debate did not start out as science versus religion, that is how many people now see it. Paradoxically, this is not how many scientists see it."
posted by gd779 (54 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
really interesting..thanks! I'd love to be a fly on the wall of that forum

great stuff about doubt and questioning--how it's essential to both science and religion.
posted by amberglow at 6:13 PM on September 7, 2003


Why do so many journalists ask leading questions? You could phrase it exactly the other way around -- why is it that the more educated people are, the less likely they are to be religious? If there is anything to religion, it should be expected that many scientists are religious -- after all, they grow up in the same religion-infused environment as everyone else. But the rate of belief among scientists in the US is much lower than the rate of belief in the general population.


Sir — The question of religious belief among US scientists has been debated since early in the century. Our latest survey finds that, among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total.

Research on this topic began with the eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba and his landmark survey of 1914. He found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected US scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God, and that this figure rose to near 70% among the 400 "greater" scientists within his sample [1]. Leuba repeated his survey in somewhat different form 20 years later, and found that these percentages had increased to 67 and 85, respectively [2].

In 1996, we repeated Leuba's 1914 survey and reported our results in Nature [3]. We found little change from 1914 for American scientists generally, with 60.7% expressing disbelief or doubt. This year, we closely imitated the second phase of Leuba's 1914 survey to gauge belief among "greater" scientists, and find the rate of belief lower than ever — a mere 7% of respondents.

...

Our chosen group of "greater" scientists were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality).
[source]

People who have strong emotional ties to religion (because they grew up in a religious community that they felt had a positive influence on them) and also have a strongly scientific worldview will always be likely to try to "reconcile" science and religion. But that is a lot like reconciling light and darkness -- you end up with a gray fog that clouds the mind.
posted by Eloquence at 6:26 PM on September 7, 2003


Back when I used to go to church, the priest there was a member of The Society for Ordained Scientists.
posted by JanetLand at 6:33 PM on September 7, 2003


Richard Dawkins, however, remains unmoved. Is there a limit to what science can explain? Very possibly. But in that case, what on earth makes anyone think religion can do any better?

'But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?'


Because, while the gardner, the chef, and the scientist have the good sense to not answer questions beyond the scope of their possible knowledge that same hesitance isn't found in mystics. And, to be polite, and since it doesn't matter that much anyway, you don't openly tell people that their lives are built around public and self-deception.
posted by rhyax at 6:36 PM on September 7, 2003


They need to ask some more computer scientists to balance out the physical guys. A few courses in Artificial Intelligence will make anyone believe in a God.
posted by Mitheral at 6:38 PM on September 7, 2003


Or in the unnecessariness of one.
posted by ook at 6:45 PM on September 7, 2003


Adding to Eloquence's excellent post, how religious one is correlates with how well educated they are. There is always the 'god of the gaps' fallacy that puts deity into further philosophical areas as scientific cosmology pushes him out. Interesting dynamic there and may very well explain how well the religious meme is doing in modern times, aside from the obvious almost lifetime's worth of socialization and indoctrication into religious establishments. I'm sure we would gasp in horror if our neighbor was raising an 8 year old anarchist or militant, but brainwashing with a theological bent is socially acceptable. A more interesting dynamic.

Also the article makes the assumption that scientific knowledge leads to atheism, when there are many atheists ignorant of much science. They can't hold their own in a creationism vs evolution debate, can't explain relativity, don't know occam's razor, but they have dismissed religion from their lives for various reasons like prayer not working, a waste of time, dont see how ancient prejudice and attitudes apply to modern times, etc. Usually these types favor agnosticism, but there's a very fine line between the two philosophies and lots of interplay between them.
posted by skallas at 6:49 PM on September 7, 2003


What ook said - a few courses in AI is pretty compelling for destroying one's belief in God - PROVIDED one is not cursed with a 'strong AI' teacher. Since nature doesn't rely on the strong AI (defined as a logical semantic network approach as opposed to weak AI's hierarchal neural network) model, good AI courses will generally push one towards atheism.
posted by Ryvar at 7:16 PM on September 7, 2003


For last December's issue of Wired, I asked a bunch of scientists and technology folks -- including Oliver Sacks, Lynn Margulis (Gaia hypothesis), and Larry Wall (the inventor of Perl) -- about their personal spiritual beliefs, and got a bunch of interesting answers. My favorite answer might have been Wall's.
posted by digaman at 7:17 PM on September 7, 2003


I think there's also another issue at hand. While science does give us an explaination for things once explained by religion (ex: lightning), it still leaves room for the currently unexplained. Because science is open to change and hypothesis it can be believed in association with relgions which are aslo open to larger explainations (notice how the use of religion is moving away from physical examples into the realm of the metaphysical: like in "why do we exist").
Were i'm not sure if we're missing the boat may be in examing the popularity of "spirituality" versus "religion". I would consider the former to be more vague in it's larger explaination and therefore symbiotic with science (and i think that generally many dogmatic relgions are becoming less popular while spirituality as a whole is becoming more popular)....of course since i don't have examples i could just be making a baseless generalization.
posted by NGnerd at 7:21 PM on September 7, 2003


oh, forgot to mention: as i've become more knowledgeable in the details of what science finds i become more appreciative of the expansiveness and complexity of the universe. This incredible detail can make one feel that a higher power or creator is more likeley.
posted by NGnerd at 7:24 PM on September 7, 2003


Odd, NGnerd - the more I learn lately, be it string theory or simply further reflections on 'cogito, ergo sum', the less and less glue I find myself needing to answer the questions I started out with. It helped to find an answer to 'why' very early on by developing a rigorous epistemology and essentially sitting down and thinking out my own Tractatus-style philosophy. Once I had locked down how and why I could know anything at the most fundamental level, the questions as to what I was doing here, what I should be doing, and whether there were any ethical imperatives at all rolled in through simple application of logic.

Put differently - taking a cue from AI (as mentioned above), I approached the problem from the ground up instead of in the usual manner, and the answers grew readily apparent.
posted by Ryvar at 7:33 PM on September 7, 2003


This incredible detail can make one feel that a higher power or creator is more likeley.

I don't really feel this, certainly not in my field as an ecologist. Religious creationists get their view of biology from a few paragraphs of a book. For them, Genesis sums up everything you could possibly want and need to know. God did it all in a week; end of story. Plants and animals are "where they are" because that's where God put them. They are adapted and work in their individual environments, because that's how God made them.

As a scientist, that just seems very boring and empty. There is so much diversity out there, in evolutionary and ecological terms, enough to fill dozens of journals every month. Genesis just doesn't cut it, because it is so much more beautiful to examine and interpret the complex interactions between living things. 4 billion years of evolution is a lot more beautiful than six-days of creation. Teasing out the processes that resulted in an orchid co-evolving to look like a bee is a lot more satisfying to me than simply believing "because God said so" and walking away.
posted by Jimbob at 7:57 PM on September 7, 2003


also have a strongly scientific worldview will always be likely to try to "reconcile" science and religion. But that is a lot like reconciling light and darkness -- you end up with a gray fog that clouds the mind.

You know, I can really only speak for myself here, but frankly, I haven't seen too much of the gray fog, and science and religion coexist rather comfortably in my life. I could draw the conclusion that maybe I'm just better at harmonizing the two than the posters who'd make or agree with the fog assertions, but that'd smack of the same sort of quality of self-held self-evidence which bothers me about said posts, so...

As far as harmonizing the two, it helps if you don't conflate spirituality/religion with cosmology -- or for that matter, science with cosmology. I know, a good number of religious people do this as well, which compounds the problem, providing lots of material for dismissive athiests to construct straw men with. Maybe you could consider it the analogue of the problem skallas mentioned with some athiests unfamiliar with some of usual rational points of their position.

And while we're on the subject of these athiests who haven't rejected religion on the basis of rational argument, but rather because of a negative experience with some central tenet of religion (say, prayer, as skallas pointed out), here's a question: what do you do with people for whom prayer works? And I'm talking only partly about people who make a request in prayer and it comes to pass -- because while that does happen, both sides of the athiesm/religious people have explanations about the fact there's no strict correlation between asking for anything in general and receiving it. I'm talking about the people who find that engaging in regular prayer, study of religious texts, and adherence to a set of practices brings them into contact with something divine, makes them more serene, their decisions more deliberate and prescient, and in general their personal wells deeper and richer.

Because while you can look religion one way, as a set of failed guesses at cosmology, superceded by an awful lot of good thinking that comes with measurements, I find that you can also look at it the body of religious thought as a set of hypotheses about the correlation between behavior and thought and personal happiness, spiritual growth, and behavior just waiting to be tested. Like science, it seems like the actual number of people who are on the front lines actually testing them and reporting about them are fewer than those picking sides and picking fights about the issue. But most of the tenets of "faith" that seem to matter have seemed to me at least as "easily" testable directly as, say, the fundamental constant that determines gravitational attraction between two bodies.

That's to say, attainable, but really not that easy unless you've actually put in the effort to understand algebra and a certain kind of reasoning that goes along with it, and basics of Newtonian physics.
posted by weston at 8:09 PM on September 7, 2003


digaman - Wow. Thanks.
posted by Samsonov14 at 8:11 PM on September 7, 2003


Religious creationists get their view of biology from a few paragraphs of a book

i would agree with you that creationists are likley wrong (i was attempting to say that i believe science has resulted in a move away from dogmatic forms of religion to more open forms which are generalized as spirituality (note: this is the general emotion resulting from religious experience and not to be confused with mysticism). To me you could argue that god may not have created the world in seven days, but possibly god created the big bang or worked out how everything orginated.

personally i would lean towards the possibility of a higher power which resulted in the creation of the universe, and that there are definitly being that have greater powers over the universe then we do (though with great enough technology difference anyone or thing could appear "godlike").

I also believe that in accepting science you take the leap of faith that the universe is rational (that for every effect there is a cause). It is impossible to PROVE without a doubt that cause and effect work because we have to make assumptions about what we're testing which first assumes it is possible to prove something at all (if you've worked in a lab sitaution you've probably expierienced how there is noise in any test no matter how well fit the theory, at some level the noise becomes acceptable for science). I apologize if that sounds like bagel logic (circular with a big hole in the middle).
posted by NGnerd at 8:24 PM on September 7, 2003


To elaborate on weston's nicely put post, most religious practice has very little to do with cosmology on a day-to-day basis. I'm a practicing Methodist and I'm also a science fiction writer who loves reading about science. These two arenas of my life have never once come into conflict. Even the Catholic Church admitted they were wrong about Galileo; why can't we just get over this stuff already?

There seems to be an urgent tendency in people to create a dichotomy where none truly exists. People who advocate for Creationism, it seems to me, can't truly be awfully concerned about the precise date of the beginning of the Universe. It's much more likely that they feel threatened by viewpoints that they don't understand, and are lashing out at what they see to be attempts to marginalize their worldview--not realizing that it is their very lashing out that marginalizes them.

Likewise, though, those who dismiss all people of faith as deluded fools are flogging a straw man. Religion has far less to do with promulgating ideology than it does with spiritual practice and community building. Listen to a sermon in nearly any Christian church whose name doesn't include the words "rock" or "living water" and you're not likely to hear about Genesis, or evolution, or hellfire and damnation. You're far more likely to hear a sermon about practicing compassion, or learning not to worry, or experiencing love. And while there are certainly those people of faith who claim to believe the Bible as literal truth, I think you'll find the vast majority of Christians are far more intellectually discerning.

At the end of the day, science and religion truly have little to do with one another. Each one is an inquiry into an area where the other is of little use. Attempting to take a scientific accounting of the spirit will never yield useful data; trying to explain the Universe by saying, "God did it," accomplishes about as much. It's a question of knowing which hat to wear, and when.
posted by vraxoin at 8:30 PM on September 7, 2003


That's true, vraxoin. Hard-core Creationists are really the only ones who are still concerned about "creation". Science has moved on and isn't interested in the argument anymore. Science isn't really telling people what to believe in this respect, because the two areas are separate in most rational people's minds. Some cultures believe a giant rainbow serpent wiggled around a continent, creating the valleys, mountains, lakes and rivers. Scientists know that's unlikely, but most scientists aren't condemning anyone who believes it. Some cultures believe a god created all the forms and life on earth in six days. That's unlikely, but most scientists aren't condemning anyone who believes it. You don't have to "believe" in electrons to use a computer.
posted by Jimbob at 8:42 PM on September 7, 2003


As long as the religious guys only preach about love and compassion, I have no problem with them. This to me is less religion and more community with a "spiritual" stamp on it. You don't need the so-called "spirituality" but if it helps some people to imagine they are being constantly watched, well, let them imagine it.

When they start preaching in favor of war, about the inferiority of women, against homosexuality, pornography or "promiscuity", against abortion or contraception, against separation of church and state, against the evils of atheism, and so forth, then I think any effort to "reconcile" this with scientific, progressive thought is futile or even malicious. As long as the religions stay in their wishy-washy territory of feelgood sermons, I think nobody really has an issue with them. To put it provocatively, weak religions have weaker effects on people's sanity.
posted by Eloquence at 9:07 PM on September 7, 2003


The only way to prove religion to be true is for the end time it suggests coming true.

The only way to empirically prove that religion is false, really, is to demonstrate that there is no mysticism of the mind whatsoever.

What this would require is recording every inner working of a human brain at the molecular level for a specificied length of time (we'll pick a nice round amount like a year), and eventually a lifetime. If a human being can be demonstrated to go his entire life with every chemical working of his brain being simple cause and effect, then not only is the concept of spirituality destroyed, but the concept of free will that most religions rely upon. Obviously there's no sin if no 'choice' occurs between the time I learn my wife is cheating on me and the time I butcher her with an axe - if it's really all just chemicals undergoing simple chemical reactions like an algorithm executing as its input (the environment) demands, than there can be no 'guilt.'

What would be required to gather the data would be one helluva nanotech rig (possibly built into the skull) passively observing and transmitting all molecular interactions of the brain at the atomic level. If every single interaction checks out as predicted, there is provably no soul, spirit, sin, or free will - and thus we know at least Judeo-Christianity and Islam to be so flawed as to be null and void.

The ability to run this kind of experiment, barring unforseen advances in medical science, won't exist within the lifetime of anybody reading this - but quite probably around the time of their grandchildren we might see something concrete.

As to social implications - yes this means one has to give up the social niceties religion provides, but that's less of a loss than most people think. From I think, therefore I am, and the simple observation that there is no way to be certain of the absolute nature of the Universe (our senses could be fooled) we are left with the realization that the only thing one TRULY ever has is one's existence. So, no suicide. Following this we come to the conclusion that in the absence of a priori knowledge regarding the nature of the universe, we must act as if what our senses tell us is true - a possible lie is more helpful than no explanation whatsoever. One thing almost every potential universe-explanation carries is the presence of other, also sentient entities like self. These entities, presumably bearing the same existence-value as self due to the 'self is all one has' point, must therefore not have their existence interfered with in any manner.

We're up to 'Don't kill yourself and don't kill other people', using just some simple logic and "I think therefore I am." Next up, most explanations of the universe posit that these entities take a form which feels pain and reacts quite strongly negatively to it when it is unwanted. These other sentient minds being no different from self, the only reasonable conclusion is to cause them as little pain as possible in a default pan-sentient ceasefire of sorts. We've tagged on a third - more or less 'and it harm none, do as you will.' There's probably significant room for extension here that I haven't considered, but already we've demonstrated those three principles as endemic to existing as a sentient human amongst other sentient humans.
posted by Ryvar at 9:10 PM on September 7, 2003


"And while there are certainly those people of faith who claim to believe the Bible as literal truth, I think you'll find the vast majority of Christians are far more intellectually discerning."

Well, if by "vast majority", you mean "a noticeable minority of believers" then you may be onto something:

According to the most recent Gallup poll, 47% of Americans believe that God created human beings at one time within the last 10,000 years pretty much in their present form, while 49% believe that human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, including 40% who say that God guided the process, and 9% who say that God had no part in the process.

The bold figure considered along with the figure that 9% of the population are nonreligious, pretty much disproves your "vast majority" sentiment right off the bat, unless you mean something more precise, such as "the vast majority of christians worldwide" or "the vast majority of christians throughout history", in which case you're even more wrong, as most of the people in those categories have no concept of evolution, and nothing else to believe in but superstition.

But moving on to the 40% (AKA "the vast majority") of the religious who say they basically accept evolution, I think a convincing case could be made that many, if not most of them are saddled down with creationist notions as well, if not by definition (depending on what they think that god "guiding" the evolutionary process means. Seems like a perversion of the process to me) For starters, I can look at how many of these "Theistic evolution" types think that Creationism should actually be taught in school alongside evolution [from same link]:

"According to a Gallup poll conducted June 25-27 of this year, Americans favor teaching creationism in the public schools, along with evolution, by a margin of 68% to 29%. However, by a margin of 55% to 40%, they
would oppose replacing evolution with creationism. Despite public support for teaching those subjects in public schools,
most Americans do not believe them to be crucial to a person's education. According to the most recent Gallup poll, conducted August 24-26, only 28% of Americans say evolution should be a required subject and 49% say it should be an elective. Similarly, 25% say creationism
should be required and 56% say it should be an elective. The number who would ban either course from the classroom is 21% for evolution and 16% for creationism. By contrast, 83% of Americans believe that computer
training should be a required subject, while 76% would require courses on alcohol and drug abuse prevention, 69% on drivers education, and 60% on sex education -- among other subjects.
"

So 7 out of 9 religious people must think that Creationism is a legitimate academic subject. In my opinion, this demonstrates fairly little of this hypothetical "discernment" of yours.
posted by dgaicun at 9:42 PM on September 7, 2003


>I also believe that in accepting science you take the leap of faith that the universe is rational

I think you're completely misusing the word faith here. Faith is the religious concept of belief without proof or belief from authority. This very different than the root assumptions of science, which exist only to keep us from falling into solipsism. A lot of good the scientific method is if every thesis can be dismissed as 'its all in your head!' Religious faith can be seen as existing so one doesn't fall into atheism or another religion. Also it keeps questioning down to a minimum, afterall the texts are the words of deity and who is an ordinary man to question those?

As far as the "religion as harmless community building" goes. I can BS on that. How much bigotry, misogyny, and hate is implicit in the world's religions. Lots. Also, the larger the community the more power they have and thus we have big religion writing legislation, becoming a political force, forcing its beliefs on others, marginalizing other belief systems, etc.

Faith is really a mind-killer, it stops one's rational faculties for the sole purpose of carrying on the religious meme. No questioning, no logic, no proof, no peer-reivew, just pick and go and consider the other religions nonsense. Happens everyday.
posted by skallas at 10:11 PM on September 7, 2003


Martin Gardner says a little bit about this in an old Skeptical Inquirer interview.

"Shortly before he died, Carl Sagan wrote to say he had reread my Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener and was it fair to say that I believed in God solely because it made me "feel good." I replied that this was exactly right, though the emotion was deeper than the way one feels good after three drinks. It is a way of escaping from a deep-seated despair."

I read a different article in the Inquirer around five years ago that went into the belief of scientists in more detail. I remember being astounded at the number of scientists, skeptics, and professional debunkers who believed in God. Wish I could dig up the article, not having much luck...
posted by L. Ron McKenzie at 10:24 PM on September 7, 2003


What annoys me is how "science and religion" is nearly always taken to mean "science and Christianity," possibly with a token Jew or (rarely) Muslim thrown in for sport. Include Asian religions and the issues become completely different. Buddhists, say, do have scientific problems to deal with -- the reincarnation thing, in particular. But they don't give a crap about all this creation stuff. It's not that I object to the premise of this conference, but call it what it is: something like "science and monotheism."
posted by ramakrishna at 10:25 PM on September 7, 2003


Buddhists, say, do have scientific problems to deal with

But many of them nevertheless welcome the dialogue.
posted by homunculus at 10:42 PM on September 7, 2003


What annoys me is how "science and religion" is nearly always taken to mean "science and Christianity,"

so true, but maybe consider yourself lucky that you're under the radar. People do tend to immediately think christianity, and a strict traditional form at that--i guess it's a hazard of living in societies (US and Britain) where they are the majority.

How do Buddhists reconcile scientific discoveries about the way the world works with the religious teachings?
posted by amberglow at 10:47 PM on September 7, 2003


As long as the religions stay in their wishy-washy territory of feelgood sermons, I think nobody really has an issue with them. To put it provocatively, weak religions have weaker effects on people's sanity.

Provocative indeed. :) Probably true... but weaker religions have weaker effects in general, though -- weaker positive effects, too, though. A discipline that demands nothing of a person isn't a discipline at all, and does nothing to shape them into something more than what they are. That goes for a martial art, a musical training regimen, any of the sciences, and religion too. All of those things can test and bend your sanity (upper division/graduate level mathematics certainly can), but without making those kinds of efforts, you end up with the wishy-washy new ageish affirmations that (often rightly) are mocked in Stuart Smalley style skits.

When they start preaching in favor of war, about the inferiority of women, against homosexuality, pornography or "promiscuity", against abortion or contraception, against separation of church and state, against the evils of atheism, and so forth, then I think any effort to "reconcile" this with scientific, progressive thought is futile or even malicious.

And yet I think I can make a reasonable case for a reasonably typical Christian stance on sexual morality, which would say something to the effect: sex is a particularly powerful sensual experience, and like most sensual experiences, requires some guarding to make sure you don't become a slave to an appetite and push out a sensitivity to other things. Furthermore, unlike, say, ice cream or summer evenings (other great sensual experiences), it's pretty deeply tied up with a lot of psychological issues and with how you tend to see relationships with other human beings. Counsel from scripture is to avoid homosexual relationships entirely, and otherwise avoid sex outside of marriage, and you avoid the associated negative effects and reap some spiritual benefits.

I write that fully aware that despite the fact I'm trying to explain this in a slightly more articulate manner than saying "The Bible sez it's a sin, and God hates people who do it", I'm still going to come off as an alien to a number of people around here, and honestly, other points of view aren't inconcievable to me. Wanting to make sure you don't miss out on powerful experiences (or a variety of them!) makes a lot of sense to me sometimes, and I think there's other framings of the issues that make sense, too. But the somewhat typical christian view I articulated above was one I encountered at some point, and on some gut level, it made sense to me to test it by living it for a while, and I found it rewarding.

So my question is: now, if I've had that experience, is it particularly wrong, unscientific, unprogressive, or malicious for me to go out and speak about it? "Preach," if you will?
posted by weston at 10:57 PM on September 7, 2003


As far as the "religion as harmless community building" goes. I can BS on that. How much bigotry, misogyny, and hate is implicit in the world's religions. Lots. Also, the larger the community the more power they have and thus we have big religion writing legislation, becoming a political force, forcing its beliefs on others, marginalizing other belief systems, etc.

And this has been refuted thousands of times by pointing out that human beings don't need any kind of religious excuse to kill. It's a convenient one, but communism will do in a pinch if you want to kill a few tens of millions. Or money. Or oil.

Religion brought you MLK and Gandhi as well as the Crusades and the Jihads.

Faith is really a mind-killer, it stops one's rational faculties for the sole purpose of carrying on the religious meme. No questioning, no logic, no proof, no peer-reivew, just pick and go and consider the other religions nonsense. Happens everyday.

That may be your definition of faith, but there are more sophisticated ones available, closely related to the view I expressed above that considers tenets of spiritual practice to be hypotheses directly testable by personal experience.
posted by weston at 11:08 PM on September 7, 2003


>And this has been refuted thousands of times by pointing out that human beings don't need any kind of religious excuse to kill.

Don't be facetious, this isn't just about killing its the whole slew of traditionalism that includes but is not limited to what I listed above. Humans do justify these horrible actions and negative social behaviors through religion all the time. That is inexcusable.

>Religion brought you MLK and Gandhi as well as the Crusades and the Jihads.

And this is relevant because? Religion in general has brought about a lot and I would argue that it only reflects human nature it doesn't make it. So at the time some ancient civilization codified its social rules women were objects, thus the misogyny. Now that this belief system is antiquated but popular we still have justification for the misogyny through holy script, thus the word of the gods. Progress has been stopped.

Also, religious people are just that - people. To think that MLK was soley the product of religion or could not have achieved greatness without it is very short-sighted. Not to mention there are secular philosophies that emphasize humanism much better than any religion could ever do.

>That may be your definition of faith

Oh please, the sophistry can go on forever but faith as the "proof" of things unseen, undetected, and untested is hardly a controversial opinion.
posted by skallas at 11:29 PM on September 7, 2003


>but communism will do in a pinch if you want to kill a few tens of millions. Or money. Or oil.

If the best you can do to defend religious organizations is compare them to bloodthirsty political regimes, then I don't know what to tell you. Its pathetic.

In the end Karl Marx can be questioned and refuted. Political leaders can be ousted, but ousting gods is a very different story. Why do you think so many religious traditions punish heretics and unbelievers? The religious meme has nothing on the most bloodthirsty of warriors because they can be defeated and their empires crumble, while the religious meme adapts, finds modern apologists like yourself, and continues on, breeding itself on the fallacy of faith and continues to block progress and rationality because we fear death and the unknown.

In America this can translate into people reading this right now experiencing Alzheimer's in the future because we have such a religious government that a potential cure is seen as an affront to the currently popular monotheistic god. Or homosexuals not being allowed to marry because traditional ancient societies who wrote holy script had no room for tolerance or understanding.
posted by skallas at 11:42 PM on September 7, 2003


And yet I think I can make a reasonable case for a reasonably typical Christian stance on sexual morality,

Please see my articles Defending the Right to Pleasure and Cannibal Culture.

which would say something to the effect: sex is a particularly powerful sensual experience, and like most sensual experiences, requires some guarding to make sure you don't become a slave to an appetite and push out a sensitivity to other things.

Actually, sexuality is much better regulated than, say, ice cream consumption, because it is much older. Evolution did not have to worry about obesity -- in fact, it invented it -- but sexuality could not have developed if it would be "naturally dangerous" to your well-being. It is, in fact, very healthy and perfectly self regulating. People aren't permanently horny unless they are sick or repressed.

Furthermore, unlike, say, ice cream or summer evenings (other great sensual experiences), it's pretty deeply tied up with a lot of psychological issues and with how you tend to see relationships with other human beings.

Indeed. The more sex you have, the more you value other human beings emotionally, because they give you pleasure.

Counsel from scripture is..

This part of your post is irrelevant. Can you argue your points rationally or not?
posted by Eloquence at 11:56 PM on September 7, 2003


Science relies on an inherent uncertainty, a continuous collection of data, and there is always the possibility that somewhere, somehow, it could work differently. Science takes pride in proving itself wrong- this is a benchmark of progress. The language of organized religion is not so capable of self-correction, being that the only evidence in question is the faith of the community and a supposed trust in the same absolutes. If you consider that the differences between religions are akin to the differences between languages (a universal development of necessity to civilization), or at least religions being a symbolic set from which meaning can be constructed, a religion can only prescribe as much as its capable of describing. Some languages don’t include words for “snow” or certain colors or even ownership but the concepts can still be organized from other terms, and certainly still exist. Religions are passed on by tradition as much as word, and are far more difficult to translate. The evidence upon which they are based is long vanished, it is the compulsion to faith that maintains the suggestion as anything definite. To subject one’s religion to the same rational inquiry as a scientific theory is sort of like loudly denouncing a film because you saw through the special effects. The depiction is not as significant as the story itself, the “sacred meaning,” something that Science will never be able to describe. I don’t think Science and God are mutually exclusive so long as there’s no intention to express them simultaneously.
posted by indigoskynet at 5:42 AM on September 8, 2003


Some statements are more true than others. For example Einstein's statments about motion and time are more true than Newton's; Newton's more true than Aristotle's, etc. One way of looking at human progress is as a series of quests to discover truer and truer things we can know about our world.

Now try to imagine something perfectly true—a Platonic ideal of Truth. What would it be like? As I think of it, it would a simple enough thing, it would be permanent and unchanging, but it would have vast, and, well, universal conquences. Everything that we could ever possibly know could be derived from it. Lesser truths might approximate it, might approach it asymptotically, but never be it. You could never prove this perfect truth, because anything you might say about it would be a tautology. So you would have to assume that there is a perfect truth, not because it can be proven, but because it is true.

Such a truth would be useless for gaining practical knowledge. So is there any reason to assume that there is a perfect truth? Certainly, understanding its qualities provides a measure for testing imperfect truths. In this way it becomes motivational prod in the quest for increasing understanding. The qualities of the perfect truth are assumed in the scientific method.

As we progress in our understanding of the universe, particularly here in the west, we split what once was considered one thing into two. More and more, the practice of science and reason becomes the sole means of understanding truth and it admits no others. This leaves the practice of religion and charity to fulfill that which remains, the one other thing, whose perfect expression is itself—love.
posted by wobh at 7:12 AM on September 8, 2003


wobh, what in sassafras are you trying to communicate??

where's mdn when you need her?

I can't belive 'sassafras' was in the spell check. Is that actually a word?
posted by dgaicun at 7:54 AM on September 8, 2003


So 7 out of 9 religious people must think that Creationism is a legitimate academic subject. In my opinion, this demonstrates fairly little of this hypothetical "discernment" of yours.

dgaicun, I don't get why you interpreted my remark as a call to arms, or why you felt so obliged to go to such great lengths to belittle it. Whatever the percentages are, the point is that there are plenty of people who believe in God and yet are totally okay with science. Let me amend my statement by saying, "The vast majority of Christians whom I know personally are far more intellectually discerning." Does that suit? The point remains--it's easy to make a blanket statement about a group of people, but it seldom applies to everyone in that group. Even if only 40% of Christians don't believe that God created the earth in six days, that's still millions and millions of people. Even if only a fraction of us believe that gays aren't hellbound sinners, that's still lots of people. Being a Christian doesn't exempt you from being a bigoted asshole, but it doesn't ensure it, either. That's all I'm saying.

Addressing another common theme that has reared its head in this thread, it is not religion that is dangerous or murderous--it is blind adherence that is dangerous, and greed and fear-based ideology that is murderous. If you can find the section in the Gospels where Jesus instructs his (Jewish) disciples to torture Jews until they convert to Christianity, then you can disprove me on this. Any words can be twisted to malign ends. Was Marx responsible for Stalin? Show me the passage in the Communist Manifesto where Marx advises committing genocide against the proletariat.

As to the "wishy-washy feel goodness" of sermons about love and compassion, I think a moment's reflection is in order. To speak of love and compassion is not to be milquetoast. To seek to inspire what is good in humanity is not wishy-washy. There are some denominations who preach intolerance and bigotry, but they are not the rule. Most of what is preached in Christian churches (at least all of those that I have attended, lest dgaicun take me to task again) is love, understanding, compassion, and spiritual discipline. That's the point of it. That's the central theme. People always manage to fuck it up, but we've all read enough history to know that people are capable of fucking up anything given time and opportunity.

All I'm saying is that there are plenty of specific names you can drop if you want to point to bigoted (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al), xenophobic assholes and I would prefer not to be swept out among them in grand generalizations. Jerry, Pat and I all call ourselves Christians, but that's where the similarity ends; it's a big religion, with a large ideational footprint.
posted by vraxoin at 7:59 AM on September 8, 2003


The only way to prove religion to be true is for the end time it suggests coming true.

This sort of thing, and Creationism, keep coming up in the "science vs. religion" debates.

"Religion" is not a synonym for "Funadamentalist Christian Radio Shows."

I am an ordained minister and pretty much a zealot within my religion, who neither believes that the Earth and all life as we know it was thrown together in 7 days, or in an "end time" per se (though obviously, the Earth's ecology is going to get hosed sometime either by the sun's aging and dying, or a massive collision, or something stupid that humans do; hopefully we will have made our way into other living environments so the species lives on).

Religion is not always literal and exclusive of other apparent truths. I believe that the universe is much like an artwork with God as the artist, and that physical laws are the medium. Evolution is an underlying theme in the ongoing performance. Individual organisms are bits of great detail within an incredibly vast work.
posted by Foosnark at 9:15 AM on September 8, 2003


I believe that the universe is much like an artwork with God as the artist, and that physical laws are the medium.

The problem with that is that religions throughout human history have made countless claims that are empirically wrong. We all know this and yet some of us think that our religion is right where all others have been wrong. We fall back on safe, unfalsifiable claims, like "God is the Universe's artist," or that old standby "God works in mysterious ways." An atheist can be just as charitable, just as good, just as "spiritual" as a believer and yet doesn't have to accept random unfalsifiable statements (let alone obviously false ones) as truth. Doesn't that make more sense?
posted by callmejay at 9:41 AM on September 8, 2003


dgaicun, I'm trying to communicate, in simple, rational language, why I believe in God and science. But it's like approaching a cloud in a plane; from a distance the cloud appears to be a distinct entity, even solid, but as I get closer everything becomes mist.
posted by wobh at 9:41 AM on September 8, 2003


The problem with that is that religions throughout human history have made countless claims that are empirically wrong.

So have scientists! The ether? Bodily humors?

I'm being glib, of course. I think you're missing Foosnark's point, though. It's one thing to say, "God did it and that's all I need to know." It's something entirely different to say, "Science has revealed an elegant and intelligible Universe, which I choose to see as God's handiwork." Science works to explain how the Universe works. Foosnark is talking about the why. In his introduction to A Brief History of Time, Carl Sagan talks about a Universe with no beginning and nothing for a Creator to do (or something very close to that). For those scientists who believe in God, the very physical laws which to Sagan obviate the necessity of a Creator, are themselves the embodiment of that Creator's achievement. Not the evidence of the achievement, but the achievement itself.
posted by vraxoin at 10:05 AM on September 8, 2003


An atheist can be just as charitable, just as good, just as "spiritual" as a believer...

I agree so far...

and yet doesn't have to accept random unfalsifiable statements (let alone obviously false ones) as truth.

Neither does a religious person, which is my point. This is the usual argument that atheists have, and I think it comes from a narrow view of what religion is.

Faith is not dogma. Faith is not automatically blind; in fact for it to be personally worthwhile, you have to be able to question and doubt and judge, and come to the conclusion yourself.

To me, science itself is faith that things are logically consistent and follow a set of universal laws. There's no way to prove that the sun isn't going to go nova tommorow, but according to past observations and current theory, there's absolutely no reason to expect it to.

Based on my past observations and current theory, there's a divine power at work, a power that communicates as an intelligent being and loves humanity.

If another theory comes along that better fits my observations, is simpler and/or explains more about the universe, I will accept that and ditch the old theory.

And yes, I know that my observations are not universally reproducible... that's why religion is not science.
posted by Foosnark at 10:27 AM on September 8, 2003


amberglow: I'd probably say Buddhists' difficulties with science are less severe than Christians'. Theories of karma and rebirth have never been proven, but they also haven't really been disproven (unlike, say, "In seven days God created heaven and earth.") Such Buddhist ideas with no scientific confirmation pose difficulties for a skeptic like me who is struggling with them, but a believing Buddhist who accepts them won't have a whole lot of difficulty accepting the mainstream claims of science.

Homunculus's link is a good discussion of the ways in which a Buddhist-scientific dialogue can work. For a symposium to claim on good conscience that it is about "science and religion," it needs to include stuff like that -- unless it's going to claim that Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and indigenous traditions aren't really religions.
posted by ramakrishna at 1:02 PM on September 8, 2003


bottom line - there is nothing in reality that calls for or necessitates the existance of a God. If he does exist, he is inert.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 1:07 PM on September 8, 2003




vraxoin and foosnark, props for really good comments. Just thought you'd want to hear from the peanut gallery.
posted by dness2 at 3:00 PM on September 8, 2003


thanks rama

and i second dness2. this is a really interesting thread (partially because i'm not of a logical or scientific mindset) : >
posted by amberglow at 4:35 PM on September 8, 2003


also: there is nothing in reality that calls for or necessitates the existance of a God. If he does exist, he is inert.

isn't that true of all sorts of things? they may be inert in that reality doesn't need it, but serve as animating impulses and motives for all sorts of beliefs, behaviors, and actions. (imagination or hope or fear might all fall into the standard you set, no?)
posted by amberglow at 4:41 PM on September 8, 2003


I think almost everyone here agress that God is a 'supernatural' entity. Then by definition, he is outside the domain of science -- an enterprise that explores empirical (i.e. natural entities). The existence of God can not be answered by science. Neither is all the knowledge we accept generally attributable to science. Clearest case would be mathematics -- most of us think its more than the physics of bottlecaps.

Mathematical theories aren't "falsifiable". We don't revise mathematical proofs. They are true of false, and it stems from definition. One could conceive of God in a similar manner. The past few centuries a bunch of people decided not to, so most of us do not anymore.

I'm more of an agnostic on this in the Wittgenstein relativistic way. So to me its just two different languages, bot that are somewhat arbitrarily assumed to be true.


On an unrelated note, I don't know how much value there is in knowing that eminent scientist do not believe in God -- too many confounding factors. If you believe science is the only source of knowledge, you are probably more likely to pursue it and excel in it. Moreover, studies have been done to show that marriage and kids detract from scientific careers (think additional time commitments). So it should come as no surprise that theistic scientists (think church, etc.) aren't necessarily amongst the top scientists.
posted by nads at 6:21 PM on September 8, 2003


...personally i would lean towards the possibility of a higher power which resulted in the creation of the universe, and that there are definitly being that have greater powers over the universe then we do...

I agree.

It's called "mathematics." Or "physics." Same thing, different view.

posted by five fresh fish at 9:33 PM on September 8, 2003


Guh. I hate it when I botch the tags.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:33 PM on September 8, 2003


>Faith is not automatically blind;

Faith by its nature is "automatically blind" (what a wonderful metaphor). I don't think the phrase 'belief in things UNSEEN' gained popularity because faith isn't blind. The question is what rational faculties are you using to pick that one religion or spiritual course and reject the rest. Why not Zoraster? Nature religion? In the end a religious person is an atheist to all other religions, yet they can't defend their poisition with anything remotely resembling proof or argument. That is why so many people shift to agnosticism, afterall joining every religion would be impractical and shows the fallacy of faith too clearly, or simply become atheists.

Faith also protects dogma, as faith cannot be questioned. I can tell you that your faith is a pack of lies, but to you that's meaningless. You arbitrarily drew the line in the sand and you're staying there. There's no fact, no argument, just "I like Jebus and he likes me." Its wrong, but that is faith in a nutshell. Belief without proof, without skepticism. Not to mention faith is encouraged by the religious higher-ups, to protect the followers from leaving or as Jebus would have put it "the sheep from straying."

>in fact for it to be personally worthwhile, you have to be able to question and doubt and judge, and come to the conclusion yourself.


And what if your methodology? As I've said, what rational faculties are you using. Just because you think, say, Catholicism isnt for you, but Lutheranism is, doesn't mean much. To the outsider you're just an arbitrary chooser of religious philosophies. You may be okay with that, but to the uninitialted you're a functional lunatic. I see you the same way as the guy who talks to god outloud while wandering the streets or the scientologist I met.
posted by skallas at 10:53 PM on September 8, 2003


I probably wouldn't be as blunt about it, but I've got to agree with skallas in essence. There is not some innate circuitry in your mind that automagically suffuses you with a warm glow of certainty when you hear Truth. Just because you are certain of something without evidence, that doesn't make it faith and it doesn't mean it comes from God.
posted by kindall at 12:01 AM on September 9, 2003


Eloquence: I think you missed the point of my post, which wasn't anywhere near so much to defend the specific standards of behavior that I chose as to ask: what makes the advocacy born of the kind of experience I talked about insidious? But I'll address your question anyway....
Counsel From Scripture Is
This part of your post is irrelevant. Can you argue your points rationally or not?


It's relevant as the source of the hypothesis, even if it's irrelevant to the truth/falsehood of the hypothesis.

What you probably assumed was that I was falling back on the authority of scripture as an argument, and that's fair enough since it's done so often, but in fact, that's not what I was going for. What I was saying: there exists a hypothesis that observing certain bounds to sexual behavior results in certain rewards and avoids certain negative consequences. It happens to exist in a sacred text, which is one place I encountered it, but I'm assuming you'd reject the authority of a sacred text as a defense and instead say that rationally the source of a hypothesis has no strict relevance to its truth or falsehood. And what I've said is, fine, I can accept that and instead say: I've tested the hypothesis directly by following a set of recommended standards of behavior, and I observed predicted benefits. What do you do with that?

YMMV, of course, but that's an entire other portion of this kind of discussion. The point of this is to get away from the idea that anyone following a particular set of religious practices is simply doing it because they've been afraid to make their own observations and choices themselves. Some of us participants actually find it rewarding and stick with it for that very reason.

And skallas: you're being as sloppy about some kind of solid correlation between religious folks and killers as you're accusing the rest of us of being. If you want to be precise about it, get back to us with with properly adjusted ratios of religious killers:religious folks vs non-religious killers:non-religious folks. Then we can at least talk about correlation.
posted by weston at 12:40 AM on September 9, 2003


>There is not some innate circuitry in your mind that automagically suffuses you with a warm glow of certainty when you hear Truth.

Exactly. Yet, if someone feels that way why won't they just admit to being solipsists and stop pretending that what they assume and feel, without proof mind you, applies to others or to the real world. It takes a massive egomaniac to go from "i believe this because my gut tells me so" to "my beliefs exist outside my head thus my religion is the one and true one." Scary, but once you dissect faith all you get are evangelical solipsists.

Evangelical solipsists? Sounds like a good name for a band.
posted by skallas at 2:45 AM on September 9, 2003


Don't be facetious, this isn't just about killing its the whole slew of traditionalism that includes but is not limited to what I listed above. Humans do justify these horrible actions and negative social behaviors through religion all the time. That is inexcusable.

So the justification for all sorts of bad things has usually been religious throughout history -- that's because world views and moral systems have generally been religious throughout history! A justification is worthless if the one acting puts no value in it. Humans will always find a reason. If you manage to kill religion, they will still find a reason. They will still blindly accept what's told to them. Hell, look at the science-based urban legends we have floating around. How many people really have a scientific mindset? They have a religious mindset with scientists as the new priests. I'm betting as the number of people who aren't religious rises, you'll see the number of atrocities committed for non-religious reasons rise too. Are those inexcusable too? What about the thought-systems that lead to them? In this case, your good old-fashioned scientific inquiry.
posted by e^2 at 1:50 PM on September 13, 2003


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