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The compatibility of science and religion
January 27, 2009 11:30 PM   Subscribe

Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail. [Via Pharyngula]
posted by homunculus (134 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also via PZ: The Evolution of Religion (host site NSFW).
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


This'll we--never mind.
posted by Caduceus at 11:38 PM on January 27, 2009


See also the numerous responses to this piece on Edge.org. The first summarizes my feelings:
There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:54 PM on January 27, 2009 [27 favorites]


I should add that the Edge.org responses include some from Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, whose books Coyne is reviewing here.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:58 PM on January 27, 2009


This will Caduceus.
posted by wendell at 11:59 PM on January 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


Good thing this wasn't posted on Monday, otherwise the collective loathing of the beginning of the workweek combined with the pent up snark from the 2 day Metafilter Outage '09 withdrawal would create a....a perfect storm of bruised egos and shoot-from-the-hip philosophy (but is there any other kind?) I'm sure it would have ended with a meta-talk thread and a few flame-outs, at the very least.

Obviously, the timing of this post is not merely coincidental.
posted by hellojed at 12:09 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I only mention it because I have observed that just about every monday has "that" thread, and usually I am wont to pointing this out in said thread
posted by hellojed at 12:12 AM on January 28, 2009


From the article: Evolutionists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march that culminated in humans.

Not in evolution theory maybe, but a lot of people think that an as-yet-unformulated fourth law of thermodynamics will demand the development of more and more complex forms (though obviously not 'culminating' anywhere in particular).

Regarding the world's current addiction to religion- I am not that pessimistic. I feel that eventually humanity will have to reconcile itself with its religious past. Some day in the distant future we will abandon the outdated pictures of cosmology and mind (or regard them as interesting stories), but we may well seek to preserve the community-unifying and world-celebrating emotions that religions encourage. And we will regard religious figures not as demigods but as revolutionary thinkers on the issue human flourishing ("hey everyone, why don't we be nice to each other instead of killing each other all the time??").

But if you really want hardcore reconciliation, you can take the Hegelian view that God is gradually emerging out of the development of matter and form and ultimately life, summarized by my favourite dictum that 'we are the universe become conscious of itself' (note: NOT pantheism). And this is all necessary because eventually conscious beings will have to somehow reverse entropy, or kick start the big bang in order for the universe to have ever existed at all in a paradoxical but not visciously-circular causal loop (aka the multivax solution). Somedays I entertain this idea so much that it feels like a belief.
posted by leibniz at 1:02 AM on January 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


From Giberson's response to the review:

Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein's dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that science was clearly in error. It was, rather, a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Why is this different than modern theology's near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, so eloquently skewered by Dawkins? How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed?

This perhaps gives an indication that Coyne was not wrong about the contortions the authors perform in trying to force a reconciliation between science and religion. For a start, I would suggest it would be more accurate to say that Einstein showed Newton to be incomplete, rather than wrong, but that's just a poor choice of example on his part. The wilful ignorance of the last statement is just stunning. Do modern scientists refer to Aristotle or Plato as their authority for stating certain theories about the universe? Religious leaders constantly refer to ancient texts as the basis of their authority. Gilberson proposes to maintain this authority whilst dispensing with the contents.

And as for a modern theological rejection of an anthropomorphic god, well I'm sure that comes as a surprise to 2 billion Christians.
posted by Jakey at 2:40 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article: In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.

Wait... how does it 'dilute' religion? To the point of 'meaninglessness'? Can someone help me with this?
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 2:42 AM on January 28, 2009


Priests & politicians do not recognizes experimental limits Jakey, despite all their yelling about man's inferiority.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:14 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article: In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.

Wait... how does it 'dilute' religion? To the point of 'meaninglessness'? Can someone help me with this?


He probably means that if God is everything, if I can call my shoes God and my belly-button lint God and the puddle out on the street God, then I might as well stop using the word 'God' and just use the word 'stuff'. You've spread the concept too thin.

In other words, if you think that God is a bearded dude up in a cloud, then at least we know what you're talking about, and if you think this man-like deity can hear you and grant your wishes, at least that's a concrete thesis. But if you start calling everything God, then the concept "God" doesn't really pick out anything in particular as opposed to anything else.

There's something to this, but it seems a but facile. What about "a man's home is his castle"? It seems that "castle" means something better than a normal home, so if you start calling everyone's home a castle, the word "castle" would lose its meaning. Or: "everyone's special". Since "special" only means something in contrast to normal or average, you could say that calling everyone special robs the word of its meaning. But at the same time, I don't think saying "everyone's special" is meaningless. It means we should give everyone the same kind of attention we give to obviously special people. It'd be interesting, too, to look at Zen Buddhism, which as I understand it claims that everyone is a Buddha -- this only means something if we still understand "Buddha" as something special, while in a sense denying its specialness.
posted by creasy boy at 3:26 AM on January 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


Ah. Thanks for that creasy. I want to look into that Zen thing you mentioned too. I'm really interested in that.
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 3:33 AM on January 28, 2009


I winced the whole way through this essay, and I'm an irreligious stooge working in the sciences. It's sneering and grotesque, and pocked with philosophical blind spots. Miller's and Giberson's responses on the Edge page are not perfect, but they do demonstrate more nuanced reasoning and greater depth.

I guess all I really mean is
...wait a decade and we will know a lot more about the anthropic principle.

Questionable.

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time.

Questionable.
and we're back where we started.
posted by jeeves at 3:55 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I want to look into that Zen thing you mentioned too

Eh, that's just something a professor said to me about ten years ago. Not sure how accurate I am about that point. But yeah, I think it was Zen he was talking about -- he had some story about how, as a young Zen guy, he was talking to a non-Zen monk, and when he said "everyone's a Buddha", the monk cracked up, since for him Buddhas can fly and shit. Also I remember the professor saying that, since everyone's a Buddha, everyone's enlightened, but of course people come to Zen Buddhism seeking enlightenment, which presented sort of a conceptual problem. According to him the answer was: "You're already a Buddha, so why don't you start acting like one?"
posted by creasy boy at 4:02 AM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


A spinning object exerts centrifugal force, in the form of momentum. Even in the vacuum of space, this is true. Now, eliminate every single atom in the universe, except for the spinning object. 1. Does it still spin? 2. Does it still exert centrifugal force? Theoretically, no, because it has no background to spin against.

Every atom in the universe exerts some influence over every other atom in the universe. You don't have to be an anti-Darwin young-earther to see some concept of G*d in that.

Or perhaps, "Mu!"

I say odd little prayers every morning, like "Thanks for gravity -- we'd be fucked without it. And thanks for Earth, which has just the right amount of gravity."
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:30 AM on January 28, 2009


This is the weakest part of the essay:

Perhaps what we mean by "religious truths" are "moral truths," such as "Thou shalt not commit adultery." These rules are not subject to empirical testing, but they do comport with our reasoned sense of right and wrong. But for almost every "truth" such as this there is another one believed with equal sincerity, such as "Those who commit adultery should be stoned to death." This dictum appears not only in Islamic religious law, but in the Old Testament as well. (It seems wrong, by the way, to call these truths religious. Beginning with Plato, philosophers have argued convincingly that our ethics come not from religion, but from a secular morality that develops in intelligent, socially interacting creatures, and is simply inserted into religion for convenient citation.)

If I were religious and wanted to defend religion, I would start with the way religious symbols can guide us ethically and aesthetically -- which doesn't conflict with science and yet is a necessary component of life that science cannot answer (nor does it claim to). Coyne seems to really want his essay to be one-sided, so he dismisses this as quickly as possible. But first of all, he argues that "our ethics ... comes from a secular morality", which is a weirdly empty thing to say. Second of all, he seems to think that differences of opinion within religion prove...what exactly? That religion doesn't offer any moral guidance? That none of them can be true? And thirdly, his main argument against religion here seems to be that these truths cannot be experimentally confirmed or falsified. But neither can any moral truths, as far as I can tell -- and if he's not prepared to argue against morals in general, it's hard to see the relevance of this argument against religion in particular. Finally, his whole case in general seems to rest on the idea that religion always and primarily offers theses that compete with scientific theses. But religion does a whole lot of different things, it seems to me -- and if he insists on seeing religion as merely a plate full of bad hypotheses, he might want to take a look at Buddhism.
posted by creasy boy at 4:30 AM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


2 day Metafilter Outage '09

hellojed, please don't belittle The Terror this way. It was, and hereinafter will be referred to as, The Great Metafilter Outage of 2009. Standard nomenclature is comforting to us in these uncertain times.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:33 AM on January 28, 2009


It stirs the pot to sell the books. Logrolling to come.

"As recounted by Giberson, the history of creationism in America has itself been an evolutionary process guided by a form of natural selection."

"...writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists...." (bold mine)

"...here are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.)" (bold mine)

Ok, I thought I was speculating as I wrote the first two sentences. Then I searched.

Anyway, some of my favorite people in the world are able to accommodate both faith and science. I'm not so good at that.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
posted by vapidave at 4:57 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Creasy boy. A couple of points, if I may. A man's home is his castle has the implict clause to him on the end. It's not saying anything about the nature of homes as god is everything does about the nature of stuff, but is rather about men's relationships to their own individual places of dwelling, so applying castle as another word for house (as opposed to home as well) misses the point somewhat.

Everybody is special otoh only really has meaning when you quantify what that specialness is - as a statement itself it's pretty meaning-free, because it's impossible to know if it refers to uniqueness, or possession of a demanding inner-child wanting attention in conflict with a sense of empathy for that situation in others, or even if the word 'Everybody' is special because it's got a capital letter. The same thing happens with pantheism - if you define it, it's usually provably wrong, and if you don't it's ultimately meaningless.

When a zenist says 'everyone is already a buddha' he's really just making fun of you and you are well in your rights to punch him out. Many zen texts are filled with charming and educational anecdotes about exactly this sort of thing.
posted by Sparx at 5:01 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Buddhist walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, "Make me one with everything."

I like Pure Land Buddhism. It's the total slacker religion. They're like, "Er, this achieving enlightenment stuff is really hard as an Earth-bound mortal. We'll... uh... put it off to the next life, by making sure we get reborn into a world where enlightenment is easy and guaranteed." Party in the manuṣya-loka!

Devils Rancher: A spinning object exerts centrifugal force, in the form of momentum. Even in the vacuum of space, this is true. Now, eliminate every single atom in the universe, except for the spinning object. 1. Does it still spin? 2. Does it still exert centrifugal force? Theoretically, no, because it has no background to spin against.

I think you're getting a bit overenthusiastic there and applying relativity to rotational reference frames, which doesn't work - it's only for inertial reference frames. A rotating object is accelerating and it's definitely possible to distinguish an accelerating object from a non-accelerating object, even if it's the only object in the universe.

(Another way to think of it is, in any rotating reference frame, stationary objects a certain distance from the axis of rotation would appear to be moving faster than the speed of light - due to Coriolis "force", which isn't actually a force but an artifact of trying to use a rotational reference frame. There's exactly one "special" rotational reference frame where nothing can move faster than the speed of light: the one where you're not rotating at all.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:04 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sparx -- I'm imagining saying "everyone's special" in precisely the sense in which it would be a contradiction, and I'm saying that there still is a point to saying it. As a factual description you can't really take it to the bank, but it can change the kind of attention you pay to people. Logically it'd be equivalent to saying "no-one's special", but in reality what you take away from that statement would be quite different. "Everyone's special" can mean that you invest more energy in every individual you meet, whereas "no-one's special" might be the expression of pessimism and misanthropy. "Everyone's special" might mean: think of your relation to someone who's special to you, and relate that way to everyone; whereas "no-one's special" might mean: just don't bother too much with anyone. You can see that, the way I'm setting this up, they don't do the work of factual descriptions -- they do something else.

The same thing happens with pantheism - if you define it, it's usually provably wrong, and if you don't it's ultimately meaningless.

Well, what I was trying to question is the assumption that it's either provable or else meaningless. If I say to you: "Think of infinite love and mercy -- keep that thought in your mind -- and connect that to everything in your life, even the littlest things" -- is this way of seeing things provable one way or another? What about: "Treat everything as a blessing" -- is that provably wrong? What about the classic Christian idea that God not only took human form, but took the form of the lowest of the low and was crucified between two common thieves -- would you say that this is either provably wrong, or else meaningless?

Coyne seems to think that if you convinced everyone of evolution, they would stop going to church -- at least, he seems unwilling to separate the value of religion from a hypothesis about the origin of humanity. I don't think religion is necessarily one thing or another. You could see it as a bunch of bad hypotheses, if you wish -- but it seems to me that this is the most boring way to read it and will alienate you from the traditions of our society and from large chunks of the current population. A more charitable reading will get you further, I think.

And btw, you're not serious about Buddhism.
posted by creasy boy at 5:28 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why does science say I should get up in the morning? Why shouldn't I top myself now according to science. Why shouldn't I go and kill other people, is there some formula in Quantum Mechanics that says I shouldn't?

Science tells you how the world is, religion gives you a moral code to believe in. Science is amoral. This isn't to say that science isn't truly amazing, predictive and invokes a deep sense of wonder when understood, but it just isn't about belief.

Belief and faith do not, if they are well presented, present testable hypothesis. Science is not applicable.

I met a guy once who had spent quite a time in monastaries and almost became a Catholic monk. I went into a spiel about how you couldn't possibly not believe that evolution was a solidly demonstrated scientific fact. He said yes, of course and then just said that the bible was metaphoric when describing it and that god had created a universe in which evolution works. It completely floored me. And he was utterly right. By saying you don't have to take every word in sacred texts literally you immediately make many religions compatible with science.

Religion and science can be compatible. I've worked with and lived with a number of scientists who were devout Christians. But they were very smart, hard working people doing science. There was no problem.

James Clerk Maxwell, quite possibly the second greatest physicist of all time after Newton was devoutly Christian. Jerry Coyne can argue endlessly that you cannot reconcile religion and science, but it appears guys like Maxwell have no trouble doing so. People will be using Maxwell's equations long after Coyne is forgotten.

Various religious fundamentalists might believe they are incompatible and so may some atheists, but that is because they both want to have an argument about belief, not about science.

(Just for the record I'm an atheist, but I really respect religion and this incompatibility of science and religion argument annoys me).
posted by sien at 5:31 AM on January 28, 2009 [23 favorites]


sien: I favorite you lovingly.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:48 AM on January 28, 2009


Anytime anyone starts tossing around the names Science and Religion as if they were opponents in a professional wrestling PPV I just tune out. It's a sure sign that oversimplified antiquated ramblings from someone who has acquaintance with neither will follow.

RELIGION walks like THIS: doot doodooodooodoooDURRR
SCIENCE is cool tho they be like: bompchickaWAHWAH DAMMMMMNNNNN!

I'd rather talk about the second link...

What in the shit is an evolutionary biological essay doing on Suicide Girls? Are they trying to get me fired, is that the plan? "No, boss, really, very relevant stuff, very interesting... the piercing page? Clicked it by accident. Or research. Have you seen their article on stem cells? No no not "Zygote", actually she's a Portuguese bondage artist. Pretty eye-opening stuff though. Yes, literally, those are paper clips. Moving on, let's take a look at the progression of the Human Genome project map, they're about to fill in some extra heterochromatic areas in the tattoo around Giant Sandra's ribcage."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:49 AM on January 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative.

These sort of statistics no longer alarm me because I simply don't believe them. Across America, how many schools are teaching creationism along side of evolution? Not 7 out of 8, not even close. Does that mean that the 7 out of 8 people who think they should be taught together are silent? Politically apathetic? Ignored by school boards that just happen to be composed by the 1/8th of Americans who believe Creationism has no place in the classroom?

While I'm on the subject, what about the commonly reported figure that only 1% of Americans are atheists? Why can't I reconcile that with my own reality? I have no doubt that if I canvassed the people living in the foothills of the Appalachias I might find 99% believed in God, but not the streets of New York or the freeways of California. Is it a question of people lying to pollsters? Leading questions? Poor statistical analysis? I would really like to see some hard data on this and the angel question.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:54 AM on January 28, 2009 [11 favorites]


Well said, Secret Life of Gravy.
posted by Mister_A at 6:09 AM on January 28, 2009


What I find interesting is the evolution of religion itself. As we figure out more stuff, and no longer ascribe this event or that event to an invisible force, religions must continuously adapt, and 'god' is pushed into a smaller and smaller corner. As the corner gets smaller, the more fervent cling ever harder to their faith (which is just another word for 'believe what you're told' or 'assume this to be true without evidence'). What will happen when we have shrunk 'god's corner' so much that there's no room left for a god at all? I'm guessing that many people will continue to believe (BELIEVE, bruthah!) even in the face of verifiable and repeatable evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
posted by jamstigator at 6:24 AM on January 28, 2009


There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists.

There are too many bytes wasted saying there is too much ink spent on theological questions. While the person who wrote this may have resolved the clash between religion and science brilliantly in their own minds, that doesn't mean the issue isn't worth debating publicly as long as a lot of people don't find it so simple.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:26 AM on January 28, 2009


While I'm on the subject, what about the commonly reported figure that only 1% of Americans are atheists?

That's way off from the statistics I've seen, which usually say around 10%.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:29 AM on January 28, 2009


Various religious fundamentalists might believe they are incompatible and so may some atheists, but that is because they both want to have an argument about belief, not about science.
Sien, well said.

And Secret Life of Gravy, I wonder about statistics like that; I'd love to see the actual questions and data.
posted by pointystick at 6:31 AM on January 28, 2009


Science tells you how the world is, religion gives you a moral code to believe in.

The problem is that religion doesn't just give a "moral code"; it makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world. You can say those claims shouldn't be taken seriously, but then admit you're not taking people's religion seriously.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:31 AM on January 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


If I were religious and wanted to defend religion, I would start with the way religious symbols can guide us ethically and aesthetically -- which doesn't conflict with science and yet is a necessary component of life that science cannot answer (nor does it claim to).

Which is where you have people like John Dewey, E. O. Wilson and Carl Sagan come in and suggest that it might be possible to build a religion-like system of thought that uses the natural universe as a source for iconography and metaphor.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:46 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


All words are labels, whether you can apply the label god to anything is debatable. I do however think applying the Law of the excluded middle to these affairs, is a mistake. The problem is, by saying there is no god, we are saying there is no collectivization of consciousness. About 12% of the British public regularly go to church, I would guess a higher proportion go to football matches.

So football becomes a religion, or money becomes a religion, or sport becomes a religion.

We could as a species end up aspiring, to nothing more than empty testicles and a fat wallet, that merrily decimates our planet of other species willy nilly. It doesn't matter because nothing matters, bar sensory gratification.


Whitehead came out with a marvelous phrase "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” We are often in the situation of being absolutely sure we are right, when we have not seen the whole picture clearly and are in fact wrong.

For around 300 years Isaac Newton was seen as the last word on the nature of celestial movement. The fact that Mercury did not behave as Newton's laws of motion predicted was conveniently ignored. It was not until Einstein came along that the orbit of Mercury became predictable.

Whitehead and Russell collaborated on a book called Principia Mathematica they then fell out. Whitehead going towards spirituality and Russell going towards atheism al la Dawkins.

Whitehead saw things as a process that transcended the individual - evolution is a process. James Lovelock came out with the concept of Gaia.

Much ink has been spilt over the subject of artificial intelligence, being a chess player suggests to me that in a narrow sense, artificial intelligence is already here.

I think Descartes got it wrong, I do not *think* therefore I am, I *feel* therefore I am. I do not think alive, I *feel* alive.

The problem is not artificial intelligence, it is artificial consciousness. Over two thousand years ago Plato said we must separate passion from reason, what we now know about neurology tells us he was right. Neurotransmitter ratios instantiates emotions, neuronal firing instantiates logic.

When it come to things of a religious nature, we are talking about things of an emotional nature, not a logical nature. At its best, I perceive religion as a kind of artistic philosophy that can evoke positive emotions. At its worse, a form of brain washing, that hard wires, in group and out group, in terms of culture.

I believe consciousness is a non verbal process and because it is non verbal, can not be put into words. Music and mathematics get closer. Because consciousness cannot be verbally defined it becomes difficult to say what is and what is not conscious.

One of the metrics of IQ measurement is time, like the quicker you can think the more intelligent you are. The brain has the emergent property of consciousness, it is greater than the sum of its parts. How do we know that our planet earth is not in a sense conscious in the same manner, but only has one thought a week, ditto the sun with one thought a fortnight.
posted by dollyknot at 6:49 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The problem is that religion doesn't just give a "moral code"; it makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world.

Some religion, maybe most religion (or most religious), but not all, I would say.
I know I'm likely in the minority here, but I feel that being on the very unorthodox/liberal side personally doesn't mean I'm not religious. It's interesting that I have been told by both athiests and more conservative believers that since I don't believe that religion supersedes science, I must not, in fact, be a "good" Christian.
posted by pointystick at 6:54 AM on January 28, 2009


Some religion, maybe most religion (or most religious), but not all, I would say.
I know I'm likely in the minority here, but I feel that being on the very unorthodox/liberal side personally doesn't mean I'm not religious.


I'm not aware of any religion that doesn't make specific empirical claims about the physical or supernatural world. A belief system that's entirely made up of ethical beliefs wouldn't even be properly called a "religion." Of course, you're free to call it a religion, but then you're using an unusual definition of the word.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:03 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem is that religion doesn't just give a "moral code"; it makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world. You can say those claims shouldn't be taken seriously, but then admit you're not taking people's religion seriously.

What if the people who follow the religion themselves don't take these specific passages seriously? Or regard them as metaphor? Or allegory?

The number of Christians who actually literally interpret the book of Genesis to mean that the Universe came to pass because God spake it into being in exactly that means is, actually, pretty small. Vocal, but small. A far greater number of Christians take the book of Genesis to mean: "God created the universe. Maybe He didn't do it exactly this specific way listed here, maybe God was that unknowable force that set the Big Bang in motion or the like but...that's what science is for, explaining HOW it happened. But the Book of Genesis is there to explain that however the MEANS of it happening, God ultimately was the catalyst."

Or, they see the book of Genesis as, "...it's about God being the source of all. Or mankind's awakening to God."

Or, if you ask them how they interpret the book of Genesis when it comes to the origins of life, they will look at you funny and say, "....but...why would you think I'd ask a religious text about science? That's like saying I should read a math book to learn about poetry."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Science tells you how the world is, religion gives you a moral code to believe in.

You know what else doesn’t give you a moral code? Telephone books. Chinese restaurant take-out menus. Most maps (pretty much any not made by Dante). They’re all useful, though, and we don’t look at their inability to supply a moral code as failings.

I’ll also make the obvious point that religiously-defined morality is situational morality, which is what most believers seem to decry. If I think killing another human being is wrong, that isn’t about to change because some holy man in a funny hat tells me differently. If you think murder is wrong because your good book tells you so, then I hope your reading preferences remain utterly predictable, because you’re dangerous.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:07 AM on January 28, 2009 [7 favorites]


But yes, in terms of "reconciliation", it's pretty easy. Theologians: cede all claims over the empirical world and we're good.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:08 AM on January 28, 2009


Coyne shows a lot of sloppy thinking in this piece, but nowhere more so than when he unintentionally validates Intelligent Design while attempting to refute it. He writes:

There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: ... we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent.

One of the basic criticisms of ID has been that it is not science because it has no positive research program to engage in, and merely consists of labeling gaps in understanding as proof of design.

So what if the Discovery Institute were to announce tomorrow that they were beginning a research program to look for "meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent"? If I were DI, that's exactly what I'd do.
posted by Missiles K. Monster at 7:09 AM on January 28, 2009


empirical claims about the physical or supernatural world
I'll grant you that most/all religious faith makes claims about the supernatural world at the very least. However, for me, that doesn't really relate or interfere with science.

Yes, it's probably unusual. But since many of my religious (if that's the right word) friends and family are liberal Church of Christ, Episcopalian, or UU, I guess I get a skewed view at times of what it means to be religious and/or Christian. And it's a good point to think about how "religion" is different from a set of ethics or beliefs.

Although these threads get contentious at times, I always learn a lot from them. Thanks Jaltcoh and other Mefites!
posted by pointystick at 7:10 AM on January 28, 2009


The number of Christians who actually literally interpret the book of Genesis to mean that the Universe came to pass because God spake it into being in exactly that means is, actually, pretty small. Vocal, but small. A far greater number of Christians take the book of Genesis to mean...

But Genesis isn't the only empirical claim made by Christianity. How about the claim that a human being died and then came back to life 3 days later? Is that just a "metaphor"? At a certain point, you could say all the religion's claims are "metaphor." But then you'd be left with something that doesn't much resemble Christianity.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:29 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Science tells you how the world is, religion gives you a moral code to believe in.

This is a pretty common sentiment but its completely wrong. Religion gives some people a moral code to believe in. Morality is not derived from religion.
Additionally there is an extremely strong case for morality being a byproduct of evolution.

Science tells you how the world is, it can also explain why humans have a moral code.
posted by phyle at 7:31 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Warning: long post. Shorter than the article, though!

As one of the unfortunate folks who accept evolution and believe in God, I'll try to work past my crippling cognitive dissonance and formulate responses to some of Coyne's lines that particularly grabbed my attention.

1) If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses.

That's flat wrong. The question doesn't hinge on whether we can prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, but whether we can disprove its inevitability. Until humanoid inevitability is disproved, we're playing the same game on a different field: (most) atheists will say it wasn't, (most) theists will say it was, and we are fighting another matter of gaps in knowledge. The inevitability question won't change the equation for a long time to come, if ever. And Coyne's argument from a lengthy evolutionary chain (primates would therefore have to be inevitable, mammals would therefore have to be inevitable, etc.) dodges the point. It's been a while since I've read Miller, so I don't remember what he said, but the functional definition of "humanoid" for theological purposes doesn't require that the sort of intelligence we are discussing come in a primate form--or, for that matter, a mammalian one.

But even then, one of Coyne's unstated assumptions is that "the doctrine that God specifically intended to create humans is an essential platform of Christianity." I can only think of two texts in the Bible that can be interpreted that way (Genesis 1 and Psalm 8), and in neither case was the idea of special human creation at issue--that was assumed as part of the fabric of the ancient Near Eastern worldview. Rather, the polemical functions of the texts were to assert the benevolence of God and his desire that humans live purposeful lives--assertions that put early Judaism at odds with their neighbors. I think the goodness of God and his purposefulness are essential doctrines, but it is coherent to believe that an ever-patient God created the universe(s) with potential for life and then chose to engage intelligence in a meaningful way once it arose.

In short, while I understand that Coyne would like this issue to settle the discussion, it simply won't. He's talking about a proposing he can't disprove, and which isn't strictly neccesary for Christians, anyway.

(2) Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science?

If he were to ask me that question, I would say "reject" is not really the best term. Creation accounts and Noah's ark are part of the cannon of scripture for me, as they are for other progressive Christians--it's really a question of genre. Much of the Old Testament, and especially Genesis 1-11, come from a time long before any of our modern notions of history or science. Those texts simply could not have functioned as historical accounts for their original audiences as there was no such thing as history. They are mythological texts which I read seriously but in a way appropriate to their nature. I don't "reject" them, I read them as theological poetry, and not because of my belief in evolution, but because that is the appropriate category for those texts. (On the other hand, if I believed that they were intended to function literally, I guess I would leave Christianity because clearly they don't--Coyne is right about that. )

The virgin birth and the resurrection are in a different category, for two reasons. First, they are much more recent texts, by 1000 years or more. Expectations of historical accuracy had changed--they weren't at 21st century Western standards, but they were certainly different than in the era that produced the creation and flood texts. Secondly, no matter how much Coyne insists that believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection are incompatible with science, that isn't the case. I can and should and do accept that it is the nature of things that sperm and egg together produce a new fetus and that people who are dead three days always stay that way. Of course I do. And yet I can still believe that God has intervened to overrule the nature of things on those occasions. That belief is not supported by science, but neither is it ruled out by science. Until Coyne gets a DNA sample from Jesus, Mary and Joseph, science has nothing to say on the question. There is no data for scientists to examine. Nor can science prove or disprove the resurrection. No one with the right instruments was there. My belief in this case is non-scientific, but not anti-science, and Coyne ought to be able to appreciate the difference.

(3) It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

All it means to be scientific and devout is that I listen to more than one kind of authority. I accept the consensus opinions of modern science, and I honor and appreciate the good that scientific inquiry has done in the world. At the same time, I value the testimony of prior generations who have written of their experiences of God. I have had my own encounters with Christ, and I have experienced that when I follow the path of the prophets and apostles, I find that I am more contented, peaceful and fulfilled. That is as close as I can get to verification of their moral truthfulness, but contentment, peace and fulfillment is good enough for me. I'll have to forgo tinted slides and super-magnification when it comes to faith.

I realize that for people who do not give any weight to tradition or testimony I may have nothing to offer when it comes to matters of faith. We have each made our own determinations about the kind of voices we listen to. I'm not attempting to persuade anyone to accept my faith on an empirical basis. I don't think Christians were ever supposed to, and it was a huge misstep when we tried. All I can do is follow the path of Jesus as far as I am able, and trust that God will take care of the rest.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:58 AM on January 28, 2009 [18 favorites]


Translated as - "Seeing and Believing: My never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion (in my personal worldview), and why it is doomed to fail (for me)."
posted by aapep at 8:02 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you define "religion" as "Christianity/Islam/etc". The idea that Religion and Science are irreconcilable is only true if you believe a typical "western" religion, like Christianity that dictates the nature of the world.

Also, plenty of people manage even holding a western religion while believing in science, people's religious beliefs can be pretty flexible. Not that I'm for religion but I think people have a way of thinking of religion as being exactly as they or their communities practice it. (as an example, look at all the atheists who argue against biblical literalism as if they could disprove all of religion that way)
posted by delmoi at 8:04 AM on January 28, 2009


It's worth mentioning - or reiterating - that not all Christians see a problem reconciling faith and reason. (see also).
posted by jquinby at 8:05 AM on January 28, 2009


"Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions." -- Oscar Wilde
posted by newmoistness at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time.

As demonstrated by illustrating the flaws in two books. Science!

At a certain point, you could say all the religion's claims are "metaphor." But then you'd be left with something that doesn't much resemble Christianity.

Which is basically the review author's foundational premise as well. And I can see this point, I really can - for the most part I have come to mostly opt out of participating in these sorts of discussions precisely because the current state of my thoughts on my religion and its practice are so far outside the mainstream that its relevance to the discussion - at least the discussion most non-religious AND religious alike seem to want to have - is questionable.

Which is maybe a shame because this question is fascinating to me as a practicing religionist who is also a student of science - long ago in the formal university setting, ever since impelled by my own personal fascination.

I think the argument that the discussion must stick strictly to religion as it is practiced is worth debating. The whole point of whether the two can be truly reconciled within the individual mind must involve being allowed to see religion differently than the mainstream orthodoxy, which after all not that long ago (in historical terms) adhered unfailingly to a literal interpretation, for example, of Genesis. If you deny the individual the freedom to treat their own religion without constraints then of course you create a situation where reconciliation is impossible (you also, incidentally, ignore the fairly underground/counter-cultural but very real aspect of skeptical inquiry by practicing religionists that runs through the history of Christianity and all religions, i.e. heretical theologies that rejected the doctrine of the literal resurrection of Christ that have existed from the very beginning of the religion's history).

I also wonder at the vehemence with which the validity of individuals going in this direction is often denounced by the non-religious. I can understand the orthodox religious objection to it, since it fundamentally denies the orthodox (I have quipped that if I got into what I really believed at church they wouldn't be able to decide whether I was a heretic or an apostate), and I can understand the non-religious arguing that I have basically just adopted atheism or agnosticism with religious window dressing, which I don't agree with but could actually have a discussion about. But isn't this trend - away from things like literal interpretation of the bible as a factual history book and so forth - better in the mind of the non-believer? Shouldn't it be embraced and encouraged (not in the sense that you should personally endorse and adopt it but that you should see it as superior to the alternative)?
posted by nanojath at 8:15 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


And Christians aren't a monolithic group. Interpretation constitutes a major difference between denominations.
posted by ersatz at 8:22 AM on January 28, 2009


"But isn't this trend - away from things like literal interpretation of the bible as a factual history book and so forth - better in the mind of the non-believer?"

As a non-believer, yes. Especially since the vast majority of believers I know are in that camp.
posted by aapep at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2009


Some related discussions that also get into the interesting complexities of this topic -

And AskMe post on books discussing religion/spirituality from a rationalist but not necessarily antagonistic perspective.

The debate between Scott Atran and his fellow atheists at the Beyond Belief conferences (discussed here and more here) is an interesting study of the real conflicts that exists within intellectual skepticism.
posted by nanojath at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


So what if the Discovery Institute were to announce tomorrow that they were beginning a research program to look for "meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent"? If I were DI, that's exactly what I'd do.

That's pretty much all they do all the time. In fact, that is precisely what they started out trying to do.
posted by delmoi at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2009


"religion gives you a moral code to believe in"

And sets the bar pretty low from what I've seen.
Is there a passage in the bible forbidding slavery?
posted by 2sheets at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2009


So what if the Discovery Institute were to announce tomorrow that they were beginning a research program to look for "meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent"? If I were DI, that's exactly what I'd do.

That's pretty much all they do all the time. In fact, that is precisely what they started out trying to do.


Not precisely, delmoi. The DI itself isn't so focused on spitting out "research" in this area -- they write "textbooks" and such, but they don't do research as such.

But they have spun off this thing they call the Biologic Institute (wiki) so they can play scientist, too.
posted by gurple at 8:57 AM on January 28, 2009


He said yes, of course and then just said that the bible was metaphoric when describing it and that god had created a universe in which evolution works. It completely floored me. And he was utterly right. By saying you don't have to take every word in sacred texts literally you immediately make many religions compatible with science.

I wish more people realized this.


The problem is that religion... makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world.

No, the problem is that people who don't get it -- and I'm talking about people on both sides -- assume that religion makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena. Some religious people take stuff too literally, and some non-religious people assume that all religious people take stuff too literally.

Some religions have "don't take the myths literally" built right in to themselves. Egyptian myth, for instance, has dozens of creation stories. It has at least one god who witnessed the birth of the god who existed before anything else. These are not meant to be transitive and thus contradictory, but to be illustrative only of their subject.

If the ancient Egyptians had figured out gravity and fusion and so on, they wouldn't necessarily have given up on the idea of Ra flying around the sky in a big boat. No more so than we've given up on the antiquated, scientifically disproven ideas of "sunrise" and "sunset."


So really, the modern error (IMHO) isn't necessarily in creationism itself, but in believing that creationism invalidates evolution. Or vice versa.
posted by Foosnark at 8:58 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


(And all that said, I don't buy that "morality," as in a sense of right and wrong, and doing the right thing even when the wrong thing seems more personally profitable, solely comes from religion either.)
posted by Foosnark at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem is that religion doesn't just give a "moral code"; it makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world.

Empirical? Maybe we're working with separate definitions here, but I'm under the impression that the one of the main thrusts of various religious claims is that they're distinctly not empirical. They're derived from authority, not observation, and they sure as hell aren't measurable or testable.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:02 AM on January 28, 2009


There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists.

Right, because there are no religious scientists. And never have been, in the history of science.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:02 AM on January 28, 2009


I wish there was a word for scientific and historical skepticism together without the negative cultural connotations of "skepticism". Because it seems like a lot of time believers say "well of course I accept science, I'm not an idiot! But I also believe the testimony of this 1st century religious zealot despite the overwhelming contrary evidence."
posted by BaxterG4 at 9:05 AM on January 28, 2009


Egyptian myth, for instance, has dozens of creation stories. It has at least one god who witnessed the birth of the god who existed before anything else. These are not meant to be transitive and thus contradictory, but to be illustrative only of their subject.

Egyptian myth has several creation stories, written down at vastly different times by people in vastly different circumstances. There is no one canon of "Egyptian religion" -- Akhenaten alone is proof enough of that. And he didn't introduce an entirely new interpretation of sun-worship that was meant to be compatible with everything that came before, he explicitly stomped all over what came before.

Which is to say, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that there were many Egyptians who took the stories metaphorically, and many others who took them literally, just as with modern religions today.
posted by gurple at 9:05 AM on January 28, 2009


Which is where you have people like John Dewey, E. O. Wilson and Carl Sagan come in and suggest that it might be possible to build a religion-like system of thought that uses the natural universe as a source for iconography and metaphor.

KJS, can you elaborate, or is this an idea that sort of permeates their work and I just need to go read more of them?

From my experience, when talking about things like morality, or meaning vs. meaninglessness, it is near-impossible to not use, at the very least, poetic language if not religious language for these things. I'm not sure how you'd go about creating a whole alternate set of metaphors.

For example, what amused me no end about the "atheist" His Dark Materials series was how it tore down the traditional God only by introducing a non-traditional universal consciousness that could speak and guide the characters' actions; Lyra harrows Hell/Limbo in a very Christ-like fashion, and while the souls don't go to Heaven, they are reabsorbed peacefully into a sort of universal All. Which is a profoundly religious setup.
posted by emjaybee at 9:16 AM on January 28, 2009


But Genesis isn't the only empirical claim made by Christianity. How about the claim that a human being died and then came back to life 3 days later? Is that just a "metaphor"? At a certain point, you could say all the religion's claims are "metaphor." But then you'd be left with something that doesn't much resemble Christianity.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:29 PM on January 28 [+] [!]


It would be great if those of you who are strictly anti-religion could leave your numerous biases at the door. To the poster of this comment: who are you to say what does or does not resemble Christianity? Where exactly are you getting this from? You seem to have a very, very narrow view of one rather large and widely practiced religion, which varies from sect to sect and from there, from individual to individual. There is no "one way", there is no "one kind" of religion, because that defeats the entire purpose of the spiritual nature of religion. Yes, there are Fundamentalists or Orthodox practitioners, but that's one EXTREME, and to say that only this kind of belief "resembles Christianity" (or any other religion for that matter) is misguided at best and willfully ignorant at worst.

I don't understand why so many posters on this site take religion so personally. There are practitioners of any faith who are rather reprehensible or who do things that we disagree with fervently because of our own moral code. This doesn't reflect on religion in general, it reflects on that group of people. Why can't many of you separate the two?

Furthermore, there's the issue of respect. I respect your right to believe in nothing, or the lack of any meaningful God-like force, and I do not shove my spiritual beliefs down your throat while belittling your intelligence. I would appreciate the same respect*.

*and I'm not even religious, but extremely spiritual and find incredible value in most religions I come across, though some have more appeal than others. Just because you believe that Religion is exclusively X means very little to me, as does your apparent inability to open your mind and conflate things that I think are very much in a similar realm. Science attempts to explain, whereas Religion is descriptive. Considering how greatly scientific theories evolve and are informed by later discoveries, I'm not part of the camp that beleives all scientific discovery is absolute. That isn't how the universe works. I also find it interesting that human beings actually take themselves so seriously that they actually think their science has it all figured out, or does anything more than translate the physical realm into a language we can understand. Religion has the same goal, so in that sense I don't think they're very different at all. Open your minds, people.
posted by nonmerci at 9:17 AM on January 28, 2009


The problem is that religion doesn't just give a "moral code"; it makes specific empirical claims about physical events and phenomena in the real world.

Furthermore, unless religion makes at least one empirical claim about the real world, then it offers no real advantage over atheistic attempts to justify morality.

The history of western philosophy is essentially the resounding failure of anyone to come up with a generally compelling basis for morality apart from religion.

Religious justifications for morality are generally compelling...IFF!...you believe the empirical claims of the religion in question.

Science tells you how the world is, it can also explain why humans have a moral code.

But if science is right, my sense of morals is basically a trick my genes are playing on me to get me to behave in a way that will get me to pass along my genes. I feel no more obligation to obey that sort of moral instinct than I would the instinct to impregnate every female I'm attracted to.

Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science?

On the one hand we have tons of evidence that the history of the earth is different from that spelled out in Genesis. On the other hand the only "scientific" evidence that the virgin birth and resurrection didn't happen is, "Well, it doesn't usually happen that way!" Which is hardly a modern scientific argument since it's exactly what Christians said about those events from the beginning.
posted by straight at 9:28 AM on January 28, 2009




From the article: In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.

Yeah, I had some trouble with that, since pantheism is actually integral to quite a bit of Hindu theology. While there are Hindus who are not pantheistic, I would say that it's been, in some form or another, a majority belief since at least the time of Vedanta. The Upanisads are, essentially, pantheistic texts: the whole concept of Brahman and atman relies on the belief that "God" is infinite and indivisible, and present everywhere in its totality-- including, most essentially, in you. The true realization that you are nondifferent from God (That your atman is Brahman) frees you from the bonds of the world, and your self will return to Brahman like a drop of water reentering the ocean.

This does bring up some philosophical issues, such as the one creasy boy mentioned: Also I remember the professor saying that, since everyone's a Buddha, everyone's enlightened, but of course people come to Zen Buddhism seeking enlightenment, which presented sort of a conceptual problem. In Hindu terms: If you already are, essentially, God, how can you not know this? Why do you have to essentially reuinite with God? How did you become seperate from God in the first place, if God is everywhere? The concept of maya is evoked here, as the force of seperation.

Maya is different things to different people. According the hugely influential theologian Sankaracharya, maya is illusion: it makes us believe that things are seperate from other things, that a differentiated world exists and we inhabit it, when this is not actually true. Sankaracharya never really pins down where exactly maya comes from and why, since because maya is illusion, maya doesn't really exist, and when we come to a state of enlightenment, maya then simply dissapears. This is a weird little argument that has always seemed unsatisfying to me, but there you have it.

For others, maya is a good thing, a sort of magic that allows Brahman to really be everything: both the infinite and the finite, the non-differentiated and the differentiated. Without the ability to fracture God into the many bits and pieces that make up our world, it would not be possible to experience anything-- since experience requires an external force that is experienced as well as a subject which does the experiencing. It would not be possible to love, or to learn, and so on. There are people who actually celebrate maya, then, and who don't necessarily want to destroy its illusion. As a popular saying puts it, "We don't want to become sugar, we want to taste sugar." Experiencing God requires us to not be God, and maya allows us to do that-- even if we actually are God.

Of course, most Hindus don't sit around thinking about all this stuff. But popular temple Hinduism also has many pantheistic aspects to it, and many Hindus will tell you that, for example, when you worship a statue of Krishna you are actually worshiping Krishna himself, for Krishna is in the statue-- is in all statues and pictures of Krishna, as well as outside of the statues and pictures.
posted by bookish at 9:37 AM on January 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


emjaybee: Carl Sagan argued in a number of essays that our position in the cosmos demanded something of a moral imperative. Our petty political and economic concerns pale next to the fact that we live on the only known planet capable of supporting our kind of life. Environmentalism and attempts to establish world peace are therefore moral obligations.

Wilson, who evidently identifies as an agnostic deist rather than an atheist, argues that the Big Bang and Evolution can serve as creation myths and narratives just as well as Genesis, Tiamat, The Titans, or Odin and the World Tree. Green Space, Green Time explores these ideas in more detail (not just focused on Wilson). His perspective is that the deep-seated evolved psychological needs of humans that have traditionally been satisfied by religion need to be satisfied by secular philosophy if it is to be successful.

Dewey I'm a bit less familiar with as a whole. But he was a signer of Humanist Manifesto I which actually included both secular philosophers and liberal religious ministers in its creation.

For example, what amused me no end about the "atheist" His Dark Materials series was how it tore down the traditional God only by introducing a non-traditional universal consciousness that could speak and guide the characters' actions; Lyra harrows Hell/Limbo in a very Christ-like fashion, and while the souls don't go to Heaven, they are reabsorbed peacefully into a sort of universal All. Which is a profoundly religious setup.

Actually, one of my criticisms of His Dark Materials as a critique of religion is that his fantasy universe revolves around a body/soul dualism, leading many people to consider it supportive of contemporary liberal theology. And to the extent that it ends up just being polemic, I don't think it's that effective.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:41 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I'd really like to see is what percentage of Americans believe that an angel will snatch them from certain death in front of a speeding car. I'd guess the vast majority would rely on their jumping ability. So........ this angel-belief is not 100% inconsistent with managing your life using rationality. Arguably for some people believing your dead loved ones are angels in no way hampers your ability to behave rationally.
posted by Wood at 9:43 AM on January 28, 2009


But if science is right, my sense of morals is basically a trick my genes are playing on me to get me to behave in a way that will get me to pass along my genes.

That's a pretty skimpy reading of the evolution of morality. Evolution has given us moral impulses toward a lot more than just passing on our genes. Altruism, for instance, is called for in many circumstances by simple math (survival brother's genes + sister's genes + kid's genes >> survival of my genes). Empathy, compassion, mercy, reciprocal behavior / fairness... all of this comes from our genes and is easily observable to varying degrees in animals.

Also, your description of evolved morality as a "trick" is a bizarre value judgment in which you're both anthropomorphizing your genes and separating "yourself" from them.
posted by gurple at 9:45 AM on January 28, 2009


And now that I look at it, that's probably way more than anybody wanted to know about Hindu theology.

I just wanted to make the point that, if you're making big pronouncements about what religion is and isn't and can and cannot be, you're probably taking too limited a view and missing a lot of the diversity and subtlety that thousands of years of human belief has created. Sure, if you define religion and science in very limited ways you can find them logically incompatible. I can say that science is belief in Darwinian evolution, and religion is not believing in Darwinian evolution, and therefor they'll never get along! But that's not the way it is for most of the people in the world.
posted by bookish at 9:46 AM on January 28, 2009


But if science is right, my sense of morals is basically a trick my genes are playing on me to get me to behave in a way that will get me to pass along my genes.

Well my post was a response to the statement that science cant explain morality. It can- whether poeple like that explanation is another thing.

I feel no more obligation to obey that sort of moral instinct than I would the instinct to impregnate every female I'm attracted to.

I think its far more complicated than your making out. The thinking is morality is derived from empathy, which is an emotion like fear or sadness. They are not completely voluntary so they are not so easy to discount.

Of course if morality is derived from emotions it is relative which a lot of people hate, but this explains a lot about it changes between times, cultures and individuals.
posted by phyle at 9:53 AM on January 28, 2009


nonmerci: Just about every church I attended at least gave lip-service to a variation of Apostolic Creed as a foundational statement of their faith. Certainly Unitarian-Universalists and some Quaker congregations are willing to consider the possibility that Jesus was just a politically radical Rabbi who had some things to say worth considering, but they are pretty honest about how that's a pretty big leap away from traditional and mainstream Christian thinking about Jesus.

It's not an extreme statement, or an overgeneralized one. It is one of the basic ideological claims that distinguishes Christianity from other religious faiths. And it is no more insulting to say that Christians believe in the divinity and the resurrection of Christ, than it is to say that gay men are attracted to men, or American Democrats tend to vote for members of the Democratic party.

I don't understand why so many posters on this site take religion so personally.

I don't understand why you consider a largely abstract and intellectual debate to be "personal."

Furthermore, there's the issue of respect. I respect your right to believe in nothing, or the lack of any meaningful God-like force, and I do not shove my spiritual beliefs down your throat while belittling your intelligence. I would appreciate the same respect*.

Now you see, I find "believe in nothing" to be a profoundly ignorant and disrespectful straw man argument that's so often used in arguments with atheists and agnostics that it's something of a cliche. As are most of the arguments you make in your footnote, as I don't know of many people who honestly argue that "all scientific discovery is absolute," or "has it all figured out." Your parting remark is also highly disrespectful.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:01 AM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


straight: But if science is right, my sense of morals is basically a trick my genes are playing on me to get me to behave in a way that will get me to pass along my genes. I feel no more obligation to obey that sort of moral instinct than I would the instinct to impregnate every female I'm attracted to.

Well, which science? Because evolutionary biology, sociology and psychology have some dramatically different theories about how we develop our moral sensibilities. And in the end, in spite of all the straw men being burned in polemic after polemic, people coming from the evolutionary biology of behavior and the psychology of behavior generally agree that our moral behavior is a complex interaction of genetic disposition and environmental upbringing.

On the one hand we have tons of evidence that the history of the earth is different from that spelled out in Genesis. On the other hand the only "scientific" evidence that the virgin birth and resurrection didn't happen is, "Well, it doesn't usually happen that way!" Which is hardly a modern scientific argument since it's exactly what Christians said about those events from the beginning.

Well, the actual argument is that Christians have not presented sufficient evidence to justify belief in the historical truth of those events. Many atheists in the last several decades have come to admit that it's impossible to completely disprove many religious claims. But disproof isn't necessary to establish doubt and skepticism as a reasonable default position.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Egyptian myth has several creation stories, written down at vastly different times by people in vastly different circumstances. There is no one canon of "Egyptian religion" -- Akhenaten alone is proof enough of that. And he didn't introduce an entirely new interpretation of sun-worship that was meant to be compatible with everything that came before, he explicitly stomped all over what came before.

There's some aspect of that, sure. But then you've got examples like Neith "who saw Tem's birth" -- a statement that is not at all meant to deny that Tem was the self-created god who created all the other gods (including Neith). It's simply meant to illustrate a property of Neith. Things like that make me inclined to think they didn't really see "contradiction" in the same light we generally tend to.

Akhenaten was kind of an odd duck anyway.
posted by Foosnark at 10:37 AM on January 28, 2009


The Buddhist walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, "Make me one with everything."
posted by XMLicious


So the vendor makes a dog for the Buddhist, who in turn gives he hot dog man a $20 bill. After the Buddhist takes the frank the vendor says 'thanks' and goes on to the next customer.

"What about my change?" says the Buddhist.

"Change?" the vendor replies. "Change must come from within"
posted by daHIFI at 10:53 AM on January 28, 2009


He said yes, of course and then just said that the bible was metaphoric when describing it and that god had created a universe in which evolution works. It completely floored me. And he was utterly right.

This has always been an obvious solution to the "incompatibility" question for me. So I always wonder why hundreds of thousands of words are shed on this subject (aside from addressing the literalists). Anyone know of a good rebuttal for this?
posted by naju at 10:53 AM on January 28, 2009


From the introduction:

It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science.

He just rendered the rest of his essay an empty exercise, really. As far as I can see, not just some, but nearly all of the "tensions" disappear when the Bible, or any religious text, is understood as literature and metaphor which is intertwined with morality and social codes, which flex in their interpretations of that literature over time.

The "real" debate is no such thing. The philosophy of science doesn't, as noted upthread, presume to explain the world, but to discover its nature. There's nothing incompatible with a belief in divine intelligence and a belief in evolution, relativity, or geology. I believe in atoms and photons and quarks, and other abstractions, because of scientific research and experimentation; I can believe in, broadly, some system of metaphysical justice of intelligence in the world and find no incompatability between the two whatsoever. Isn't the nature of God, from what I recall from the Book of Common Prayer (actually Robertson Davies quoting from it) unknown, ineffable, incapable of being comprehended by human thought?

Of course, all this debate takes place in that poisonous atmosphere of fundamentalism and Biblical literalism subscribed to in large parts of the US, where being an atheist is a political statement...
posted by jokeefe at 10:56 AM on January 28, 2009


Of course, it goes almost without saying that you can find science and any religion compatible as long as you do not look too deep or are not particularly concerned with consistency.

For those who do, I think science and religion are compatible, for all values of "religion" which do not feature any of the following:

1) physically impossible miracles

2) proclamation of the existence of sentient entities whose existence cannot be disproved through any hypothetical mechanism

3) contradiction of any reasonably-established (let's take climate change as a benchmark) existing science

4) statement of the self-evident/obvious truths (sarcasm) of "rights and wrongs," afterlives, and additional untestable framework bolted on as an addition to science

While Biblical literalism and Creationism of various stripes most obviously fail the third, the Apostles' Creed guarantees that any Christianity more intense than "I think there might have been this guy Jesus, and he was waycool, but then some people got jealous of how cool he was, so they killed him, and we were sad, but we liked his ideas a lot" fails the first two. The same goes for Judaism and Islam. The Buddha seems to violate the first. And so on, and so forth.

I would like to know what religions, if any, satisfy all of those criteria.
posted by adipocere at 11:27 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lots of discussion here about pantheism, but very little to no mention about Panentheism. As a practicing scientist, this is probably the best synthesis of god and science I've ever found. It dovetails nicely with scientific thought. This is an interesting essay.

Big points that need to be addressed here are:
1) The problem of evil -- if god created the world why so much of the evil?

2) Foundation of morals -- it is discussed above, but if you don't believe in God, you've got a hard time justifying why it is you should care about good vs. evil. So having a belief in God gives you at least a faith in goodness. You can then argue about what is good vs. evil using texts, philosophies etc.

I'm not sure panentheism solves the problem of evil satisfactorily, but I can't go full atheist because to my mind you no longer believe in good for good's sake.
posted by spaceviking at 11:39 AM on January 28, 2009


2) Foundation of morals -- it is discussed above, but if you don't believe in God, you've got a hard time justifying why it is you should care about good vs. evil.

"morals" and "good vs. evil" should not be conflated. That's a trick. Standards of moral behavior do not depend on good and evil absolutes.
posted by gurple at 11:49 AM on January 28, 2009


There's a pretty good case to be made for religion as a coping mechanism for the burden of self-consciousness and as a (however murky and compromised) system of inculcating morals that a given society finds necessary for existence. Which easily implies that it's a) not related to any greater truth and b) something we should learn to do without. We should be able to do things just because they are sensible for our survival, and survival is good.

But, frankly, the hitch for me comes at that point; saying "right actions are sensible for our survival" is compelling, but easy to ignore; lots of right actions might, after all, inhibit my personal survival, and certainly my pleasure, and why should I care about future generations, or the survival of my species as a whole? It won't help me; I'll be dead. Just saying "you should! Because it's your species!" is not necessarily terribly convincing. My species is a blip in the universe and eventually we'll be gone, and it's all random anyway, and I won't be around to see it in any case.

And how can we posit "survival=good" outside of some sort of overarching value system? Nonlife is certainly more common than life in the universe.

In short, science can tell me what, when, and how, but it can't tell me why I should care. Which is not to say religion has done a standup job either, but it has at least attempted to address the question.
posted by emjaybee at 12:11 PM on January 28, 2009


Wow, this was a much better discussion than usual.

I too kind of bailed when I saw Coyne setting up straw-men (meaningless deism, "as practiced" religious dogma), but wanted to give this analogy:

In a lot of ways, theology resembles jazz. Jazz is hard to define, is rooted in tradition but ever expanding, is acknowledged by nearly everyone but studied by very few. The vast majority of what laymen believe about theology is crap, the equivalent of Kenny G. It doesn't require a lot of engagement, it's mostly based on what people have always known, etc. There is a small, vocal contingent that believes that jazz died after bop, and defines everything else as "not jazz." But there's still a vanguard who pushes the conception of what jazz is, and, unfortunately but for the most part, that conception of jazz is wildly removed from the popular perceptions of the genre. It's esoteric, complex, sometimes moving, obscure, and frequently not well understood outside of a tiny coterie.

When I see people dismiss liberal theology, I think of them as only wanting to talk about bop, or maybe swing. Which is fine, but it's limited and has little direct relationship to how people within jazz think about jazz anymore.
posted by klangklangston at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Change?" the vendor replies. "Change must come from within"

Hilariously deja vu.

(I know I didn't write the original, but I prefer my wording.)
posted by grubi at 12:48 PM on January 28, 2009


The history of western philosophy is essentially the resounding failure of anyone to come up with a generally compelling basis for morality apart from religion.

I like Adam Smith just fine. The Categorical Imperative also works and the Golden Rule certainly counts as an ancient basis -if not explanation- of morality that is still followed by non-religious people.
posted by ersatz at 1:01 PM on January 28, 2009


I don't understand why so many posters on this site take religion so personally.

First, this thread hasn't been very personal.

But since you ask: I'll stop taking religion personally when religion stops being used to justify bigotry, hatred, persecution, the rejection of science, and various other terrible policies that happen every day. If religion were confined to churches and inside people's own homes that would be one thing. But it isn't: it intrudes on every part of the public sphere in the United States, and often in a very negative fashion.

So, yeah, I tend to take it rather personally.
posted by Justinian at 1:04 PM on January 28, 2009


emjaybe: In short, science can tell me what, when, and how, but it can't tell me why I should care. Which is not to say religion has done a standup job either, but it has at least attempted to address the question.

The question that comes to mind from this is why do you think science should tell you why you should care? Do you go to literary critics to diagnose a sore throat? Or get legal advice about your rights as a defendant from a semiotician?

"Why should I care?" is exactly the sort of question that science shouldn't answer. It's not an generalized mechanism inductively derived from a collection of systematic observations.

Now someone like Sagan can take a look at a photograph of Earth from Voyager on its way out of the solar system, a tiny blue dot in the background of stars, and use it as a philosophical parable. But that's not science per se.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:08 PM on January 28, 2009


I also wonder at the vehemence with which the validity of individuals going in this direction is often denounced by the non-religious. I can understand the orthodox religious objection to it, since it fundamentally denies the orthodox (I have quipped that if I got into what I really believed at church they wouldn't be able to decide whether I was a heretic or an apostate), and I can understand the non-religious arguing that I have basically just adopted atheism or agnosticism with religious window dressing, which I don't agree with but could actually have a discussion about. But isn't this trend - away from things like literal interpretation of the bible as a factual history book and so forth - better in the mind of the non-believer? Shouldn't it be embraced and encouraged (not in the sense that you should personally endorse and adopt it but that you should see it as superior to the alternative)?

I highly recommend reading what Sam Harris says about "moderates" in his book The End of Faith -- not that I completely agree with him. He says moderates are no better than fundamentalists. They're just cowardly, and their cowardice legitimizes the fundamentalists. I think that's overstated. They're better than fundmentalists in the narrow sense that they correctly reject a whole lot of incorrect fundamentalist beliefs.

But that's a far cry from saying we should "embrace" or "encourage" liberal/pragmatic/metaphorical religion. And here's where I do agree with Harris: so-called moderates are simply incoherent. On one hand, they accept religion as some kind of authority -- but not the bad parts! Well, it's only very recently that we've understand why a lot of religious beliefs are so wrong. Meanwhile, the belief in religion as a source of authority has been tricking people for 1000s of years. I'm sorry to point out the painfully obvious, but it seems really ill-advised to continue believing in religion as having any kind of authority since it's gotten so much wrong. It's all too convenient to sweep all the bad parts under the rug and only believe in the good stuff. After all, what makes you think the good stuff is good? Because it hasn't been disproven yet? Because you have external reasons for believing, say, that killing is wrong? (I'm saying "you" in the abstract, not addressing you specifically.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:12 PM on January 28, 2009


I don't understand why so many posters on this site take religion so personally.

To echo Justinian: (1) Who's taking it personally? (2) When Christians and Muslims reach a broad, global consensus (not just ad hoc assurances by certain affluent Westerners) that I'm not going to hell, I'll be less inclined to take their religion personally.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:14 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


The question that comes to mind from this is why do you think science should tell you why you should care?

I don't! But in my struggle to figure out why I should care, since science isn't (and can't be) of much help, so far that leaves me with a) religion of some variety, or b) caring because I know I'm supposed to/I've been raised to, not for any actual reason.

Which may be all there is to do, in the end. It's just the kind of question I wish more "my science conquers your religion, ha HA!" types would approach more seriously.
posted by emjaybee at 1:16 PM on January 28, 2009


emjaybee: I don't! But in my struggle to figure out why I should care, since science isn't (and can't be) of much help, so far that leaves me with a) religion of some variety, or b) caring because I know I'm supposed to/I've been raised to, not for any actual reason.

Or c) a 2,400 year old tradition of moral, political and ethical philosophy that isn't dependent on myths of deities giving divine revelation onto chosen prophets.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:25 PM on January 28, 2009


Or d) there's no particular reason you should care.
posted by Justinian at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2009


In short, science can tell me what, when, and how, but it can't tell me why I should care.

I'll admit first off that I'm not up on evolutionary theory or theology in any in-depth way, but why wouldn't something like the devopment of compassion as a human emotion/instinct not operate in the way that altruism is hypothesized to? In fact, if people feel more compassion toward those who remind them of themselves (which I think is borne out in study), might this not square nicely with observations of altruism and its inverse proportion to genetic difference (both in terms of generations within a family and between non-related individuals)? So I know it sounds like a cop-out, but maybe the answer to "why should I care" is "because you do". (and then society operates to weed out the insane and the sociopathic)

Big points that need to be addressed here are:
1) The problem of evil -- if god created the world why so much of the evil?


I can't read the essay at the moment, so I apologize if it answers my question, but isn't the "problem of evil" only a problem if you feel constrained to posit an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful god? If so, why are people so constrained?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2009


He says moderates are no better than fundamentalists. They're just cowardly, and their cowardice legitimizes the fundamentalists

Which sounds to my ears just like the "fellow travelers" argument used way back when to lump all socialists and liberal internationalists in with Stalinism. It's a fairly prevalent trick in political and social debate, and seeing Harris use it was a bit disheartening for me.
Religious moderates aren't incoherent. They just choose to deal with the question of God using more sources than just a literal reading of the Bible - usually combining personal conscience (which comes from God) and science (the study of God's creation) with a historically-minded examination of the Biblical texts as the records of men who encountered the divine and drew their own conclusions from it. Harris, while I respect a lot of what he says, seems to be huffed at moderates simply because they refuse to be good little caricatures.
It reminds me a great deal of how the religious right dismisses any calls to examine atheism's relation to morality honestly. If you aren't a raving nihilist then, in their eyes, you aren't a real atheist, just a sort of lukewarm unbeliever who's still operating under the moral assumptions of a (in their eyes) Christian culture. And, of course, in the meantime you are enabling the evil nihilist atheist conspiracy or whatever.
It's that whatsit, "Scotsman's Fallacy" or whatever. Define a group, insist that anyone who deviates from your definition isn't really a member of that group.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:38 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


For example, what amused me no end about the "atheist" His Dark Materials series was how it tore down the traditional God only by introducing a non-traditional universal consciousness that could speak and guide the characters' actions; Lyra harrows Hell/Limbo in a very Christ-like fashion, and while the souls don't go to Heaven, they are reabsorbed peacefully into a sort of universal All. Which is a profoundly religious setup.

The book is gnostic, isn't it? Not "athiest." Huge difference.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 1:59 PM on January 28, 2009


The book is gnostic, isn't it? Not "athiest." Huge difference

I'd say that the rejection of "physical world = evil" in the Dark Materials trilogy would write off gnosticism as a source. I don't think that series has an ideology it is for, so much as it is against aspects of Western Christianity that Pullman sees as destructive. If I had to guess at the source he drew on most deeply it would be Milton's epic.
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:03 PM on January 28, 2009


On one hand, they accept religion as some kind of authority
This is rolling around in my head, because authority is really not a word I would use (nor would a number of liberal or moderate religious, I'd guess). It sounds a lot like the fire and brimstone type of Christianity I shy away from. A lot of my spiritual practices aren't done out of a sense of obligation to an authority, but done because I feel they make me a better person. For example, I like to say confession*. I don't do this so God will forgive me and save me from hell**, but because doing so helps me reflect on times I have been selfish or nasty and how I might treat the world around me and its inhabitants better.

I also think of religion personally in the sense that I feel my religious beliefs are personally applicable to me and it seems very inappropriate to think my beliefs should be applicable to anyone else's life.

I also have to admit that although I attend a Christian church, that to many people, maybe I would not be considered Christian because I am so very unorthodox (heretical?) however there are enough priests, pastors, practitioners and theologians that make me feel I do have a right to be called Christian. I have to disagree with harris that moderate and liberal religious are incoherent by definition.

I have read a lot of John Shelby Spong, who is admittedly very left wing, but a lot of his stuff helps me think through things and I recommend him to the curious.

* my denomination does not say confession to a priest
** which perhaps prompts the question, can one be an agnostic or deist religious person?
Apologies if this was rambly.
posted by pointystick at 2:03 PM on January 28, 2009


I'll stop taking religion personally when religion stops being used to justify bigotry, hatred, persecution, the rejection of science, and various other terrible policies that happen every day.

What about other justifications of bigotry, hatred, etc.? Do you take them personally as well? Aren't all justifications of such terrible things invalid in your view? (They are in mine.) So why does it matter how somebody justifies intolerance? Shouldn't it be the intolerance itself that you take personally, since any justification is nonsense?
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 2:37 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


So why does it matter how somebody justifies intolerance? Shouldn't it be the intolerance itself that you take personally, since any justification is nonsense?

Nope, because any time you have a worldview that lets you cede responsibility for your own actions ("I don't hate gays, the Bible just told me to vote yes on prop 8!), the worldview itself is a problem.

The issue with religion is that it appeals to an infallible authority; and a false one at that. If you posit an infallible, omnibenevolent god then you can justify any action by saying Deus Vult.
posted by Justinian at 2:56 PM on January 28, 2009


"Nope, because any time you have a worldview that lets you cede responsibility for your own actions ("I don't hate gays, the Bible just told me to vote yes on prop 8!), the worldview itself is a problem."

Wow, a hard Existentialist. You must really hate when people are found not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect.

(And we'll ignore the whole Foucault and anti-Rawls digression about how insanity/rationality is constructed.)

I mean, since we're knocking around straw men like your quote above.
posted by klangklangston at 4:57 PM on January 28, 2009


Oh, and with only a couple of axiomatic assumptions granted, it becomes incredibly hard to refute hard physical determinism, which would allow just as dumb reasoning ("I don't hate the gays, I just voted for Prop 8 because a cascading causal chain of physics made me tick the bubble").
posted by klangklangston at 4:59 PM on January 28, 2009


The history of western philosophy is essentially the resounding failure of anyone to come up with a generally compelling basis for morality apart from religion.

I like Adam Smith just fine. The Categorical Imperative also works and the Golden Rule certainly counts as an ancient basis -if not explanation- of morality that is still followed by non-religious people.


By "basis" I don't mean a theory of why people have moral opinions. I'm talking about the long list of failed attempts to find a system based on reason that would 1) settle disputes about what is morally right or wrong and 2) provide a compelling reason to choose to do what is right.

Lots of people have tried, but there is no system that 1) has not been shot full of holes by other philosophers or 2) has achieved widespread consensus such that any reasonable person would agree "Yes, this explains what is right and wrong and give me a good reason for wanting do what is right."
posted by straight at 5:15 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend reading what Sam Harris says about "moderates" in his book The End of Faith -- not that I completely agree with him. He says moderates are no better than fundamentalists. They're just cowardly, and their cowardice legitimizes the fundamentalists.

I'm well aware of this and what I find interesting is that it is not, as far as I can determine, in any sense an evidence-based claim. It's just an argument Harris created. I can easily make a counter-argument: by demonstrating things like the fact that what many people recognize as positive aspects of religion are not contingent on literal belief in the bible as a factual history book, religious moderates make the world less hospitable to fundamentalists. Is that true? I don't know. I know developing an evidence-based case for either would be very difficult and I certainly have never seen one attempted.

This all gets a little weird because I don't personally profess or affirm what you and Harris are talking about as "moderate religion." My beliefs (which are not some fixed theology but something continually in development) are way farther outside mainstream and orthodoxy, and I do not consider them to be, in any sense, "moderate." But putting that aside (because the argument of nanojath's one-member-crazy-religion is not really germane, and I've got my OFB to talk about that).

But. It is worth considering: if Harris is wrong, if religious moderates (however incoherent they may be) in fact reduce the amenability of society to fundamentalism, or if their impact on the persistence of fundamentalists is neutral but they in themselves represent a superior option to fundamentalism, if (as is very arguable) the shift to religious moderation facilitates an eventual social transition towards non-belief then attacking it is quite possibly not just a waste of resources among those who believe such a transition is to the ultimate benefit of society, but literally counter-productive in the sense that it could cause a real delay in the social shifts they desire.

I'll link this again, I think it's very worthwhile to investigate the discussion Scott Atran sparks, talked about in this thread, by arguing that much of the proselytizing of modern atheism is misbegotten because it is founded in non-evidence-based models of what religion really is and how it works.
posted by nanojath at 5:21 PM on January 28, 2009


Nope, because any time you have a worldview that lets you cede responsibility for your own actions ("I don't hate gays, the Bible just told me to vote yes on prop 8!), the worldview itself is a problem.

...so when people do something wrong and say "The devil made me do it", are you saying that you think that an actual being named Satan is motivating their actions?

No? But I thought you said that it's what they cede their responsibility to that's the problem rather than their own failings, right?

What about other justifications of bigotry, hatred, etc.? Do you take them personally as well? Aren't all justifications of such terrible things invalid in your view? (They are in mine.) So why does it matter how somebody justifies intolerance? Shouldn't it be the intolerance itself that you take personally, since any justification is nonsense?

Favorited with extreme enthusiasm and requoted for truth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:03 PM on January 28, 2009


Islam and Evolution: a good article as answer to a recent AskMe.

As lots of people have pointed out upthread, so much of the Science v Religion polemic is based on an assumption that religion = christianity, and a pretty narrow version of it at that.
posted by BinGregory at 6:48 PM on January 28, 2009


No? But I thought you said that it's what they cede their responsibility to that's the problem rather than their own failings, right?

No, I said *a* problem. The intolerance itself is obviously a problem regardless of the justification used, but that doesn't mean that something which lends itself easily to justification of intolerance is blameless.
posted by Justinian at 8:24 PM on January 28, 2009


Wow, a hard Existentialist. You must really hate when people are found not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect.

Why is that? I would, however, say that mental illness is itself a problem. That's why we call it an illness.

Look, if one person says their religion tells them to be a bigot, that's a problem with the person. If a million people say their religion tells them to be a bigot, that's a problem with the people *and* the religion.
posted by Justinian at 8:26 PM on January 28, 2009


Look, if one person says their religion tells them to be a bigot, that's a problem with the person. If a million people say their religion tells them to be a bigot, that's a problem with the people *and* the religion.

I'd say that, since hammers were invented, that probably over a million people have whanged themselves in the thumb instead of hitting the nail. Do you blame hammers themselves for these injuries, or only those who were using them?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:30 PM on January 28, 2009


"Why is that? I would, however, say that mental illness is itself a problem. That's why we call it an illness."

While I realize the fraught territory inherent in comparing the religious to the mentally ill, arguing that any worldview that allows people to avoid responsibility for their actions is a problem necessarily includes worldviews such as recognizing mental illness as a factor that mitigates responsibility.

I also realize that it's a cheap shot, but when you argue against all religion on the basis of a few bigots voting for Prop 8, you deserve some cheap shots in return, especially because you're being pretty offensively prejudiced yourself.

(Side note: One of the biggest donors and public speakers opposing Prop 8 was Steve Young, who's a Mormon.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:01 PM on January 28, 2009


I'd say that, since hammers were invented, that probably over a million people have whanged themselves in the thumb instead of hitting the nail. Do you blame hammers themselves for these injuries, or only those who were using them?

I would say that whanging yourself in the thumb with a hammer is a bug, not a feature. It isn't at all clear that given the history of (for example) the Roman Catholic Church in Europe over most of its history that using religious doctrine as a tool of subjugation is a bug rather than a feature.

When you tell people that they can either burn in hell or live forever in heaven but that you only get to heaven if you follow God's will... and then you get to define God's will... well, that's just a disaster waiting to happen.

The very idea that some nebulous deity defines what is good and what is evil and is inherently corrupting. It's all too easy to end up with Abraham holding a knife to his son Isaac's throat.
posted by Justinian at 11:41 PM on January 28, 2009


Ishmael. To his son Ishmael's throat, you mean. Anyway, that episode worked out pretty well, didn't it?
posted by BinGregory at 12:07 AM on January 29, 2009


Most statements of opinion or prescriptive statements can be proven correct or incorrect given a proper logical due process. The problem is that that process takes a longass time and a Ph.D in a field where you don't make a lot of money. But it only takes a second of your time to make an obscure statement. And then that statement gets refracted through the multitude of lenses and opinions, and each lens needs its own logical processing.

That's why the division between science and religion exists. Nobody has the fucking time or energy.
posted by saysthis at 3:11 AM on January 29, 2009


I would say that whanging yourself in the thumb with a hammer is a bug, not a feature. It isn't at all clear that given the history of (for example) the Roman Catholic Church in Europe over most of its history that using religious doctrine as a tool of subjugation is a bug rather than a feature.

Ahhhh, I think I see the problem: you're still using Catholic Church V. 14.02. You need to upgrade to Catholic Church V 19.63 -- its Vat-2 coding was written to eliminate that operating bug.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 AM on January 29, 2009


straight: Lots of people have tried, but there is no system that 1) has not been shot full of holes by other philosophers or 2) has achieved widespread consensus such that any reasonable person would agree "Yes, this explains what is right and wrong and give me a good reason for wanting do what is right."

If we are going to be fair and apply these criteria across the board, then we have to say that religion has been a failure at solving these problems as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:43 AM on January 29, 2009


You need to upgrade to Catholic Church V 19.63 -- its Vat-2 coding was written to eliminate that operating bug.

Unfortunately, more bugs were introduced and we're still waiting for a patch.
posted by jquinby at 7:54 AM on January 29, 2009


>You need to upgrade to Catholic Church V 19.63 -- its Vat-2 coding was written to eliminate that operating bug.

Unfortunately, more bugs were introduced and we're still waiting for a patch.


True. But part of Vat-2's code allows for greater user-end customization, and increased diagnostic tools. Bugs do definitely still happen and some of them are serious, but the user is no longer as tied to this programming as they were with Catholic Church V. 14.02. Some of the software is even compatible with other operating systems, such as Prodesto1517 or HuMan1853. CC-V.19.63 is no longer a government interface, the way CC-V.14.02 was, is my point.


Full disclaimer: I AM NOT A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM. Apologies for having mangled or utterly mis-used any of the above buzzwords in my attempt to make a cute joke.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why does science say I should get up in the morning? Why shouldn't I top myself now according to science. Why shouldn't I go and kill other people, is there some formula in Quantum Mechanics that says I shouldn't?

Should? What is this should? You want to kill yourself? GO FOR IT. Why "shouldn't" you? Should is a pretty meaningless word. If the consequences are worth it for you...do it. If not...don't. Simple.

Coyne can argue endlessly that you cannot reconcile religion and science, but it appears guys like Maxwell have no trouble doing so. /

Really, this is only evidence for the assertion that people have no problem holding contradictory beliefs at the same time, something we have long known. Stupid brains.

posted by adamdschneider at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2009


Something about religion with "end user customization" seems really off to me. How can one reconcile receiving truth from a higher power with deciding personally what is actually true? I guess that's one of the big issues with religion though anyway.
posted by ODiV at 10:23 AM on January 29, 2009


Something about religion with "end user customization" seems really off to me. How can one reconcile receiving truth from a higher power with deciding personally what is actually true? I guess that's one of the big issues with religion though anyway.

Not sure I follow the question, but I could have exacerbated things with the cutesy computerspeak, so:

What I meant was that while the Catholic Church does still have some impact on the world in general and its followers in the specific, it does not have an impact to the degree that it did in the Middle Ages. The medieval excesses of the Catholic Church are often what people tut-tut about when they want to point out the ills of religious history; I don't deny that happened, but I also feel it's important to acknowledge that, well, that was 600 years ago, and things are a bit different today. Back then, true, you could be executed for not being Catholic. But today, not being Catholic would get you...er....lack of Catholicism. Not quite the same thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2009


Ah, I thought you were referring to the "pick and choose" phenomenon.
posted by ODiV at 10:39 AM on January 29, 2009


Also, it should be noted that central to more liberal views of the protestant reformation is the concept that every person has a direct relationship with God and is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to his or her own interpretations of the scripture. Of course, this has recently come under fire from fundamentalism, which is an entirely tangential issue for debate.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:05 AM on January 29, 2009


"Also, it should be noted that central to more liberal views of the protestant reformation is the concept that every person has a direct relationship with God and is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to his or her own interpretations of the scripture. Of course, this has recently come under fire from fundamentalism, which is an entirely tangential issue for debate."

It's not just the more liberal views of the Protestant reformation—it's a central part of the Protestant reformation. It's related, but not identical, to debates over the literalism of scripture and the revealed word of God; it's directly related to the issue of translation and common-language Bibles.

And, speaking to something Justinian erroneously asserted above—that religion lends itself to temporal authoritarianism is very much a "bug," not a "feature," when regarded systemically. That it is a feature for some folks within whatever religion is being discussed is understandable, but it's like arguing that government is inherently bad because of bad governments, mistaking cause and consequence. Like the issue of vernacular translations—the Church's position was that the revealed word of God was codified in Latin and that further translation would distort the meaning. A similar position can be seen in Islam, where translation from Arabic of the Koran is haram. That's a debatable proposition, but one that easily lends itself to authoritarianism.
posted by klangklangston at 11:57 AM on January 29, 2009



Me: No secular philosophy has successfully produced a compelling justification for morality.

KirkJobSluder: If we are going to be fair and apply these criteria across the board, then we have to say that religion has been a failure at solving these problems as well.


But they fail for different reasons. If you don't subscribe to Christian justifications for morality, it's because you believe the assertions they make about God and humanity are false.

If you don't subscribe to secular justifications, it's because you realize that they aren't actually justifications at all. They all boil down to: "I personally don't like murder (because society and my genes have programmed me not to like murder). I sure wish everyone else felt the same way."

Unless there is some standard outside of ourselves to which we can appeal, morality can never be anything more than a detailed description of our preferences. "Secular morality" is the logical equivalent of "27 Reasons Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Awesome!"
posted by straight at 2:28 PM on January 29, 2009


Unless there is some standard outside of ourselves to which we can appeal, morality can never be anything more than a detailed description of our preferences. "Secular morality" is the logical equivalent of "27 Reasons Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Awesome

So? You're committing a logical fallacy: This is a classic appeal to consequences. Just because you don't like the consequences of something doesn't make it any more or less likely to be true. Even if we grant that secular morality can never be anything more than a detailed description of our preferences (which is not something I grant), that doesn't mean it isn't the case.
posted by Justinian at 2:38 PM on January 29, 2009


Ah, I thought you were referring to the "pick and choose" phenomenon.

I wasn't, but -- on that tangent, I'm not certain that pick-and-choose is all that bad a thing, personally.

Are you familiar with Midrash? It's a Judaic concept -- the study of the many different layers of meaning you can find within sacred texts. When it was explained to me, it made perfect sense to me -- you're dealing with mystical and metaphysical stuff, after all, and dealing with texts that were written millennia ago. Scriptural texts have a lot of different layers of meaning, and the world has changed dramatically.

So sometimes, then, "picking and choosing" may not be so much a casual dilletante's move, so much as "how do I square what happened two thousand years ago with the modern world?" For some, okay, maybe it is a blithe "oh, dear, I don't like that part, I'll just ignore it", but for others, choosing to "overlook" certain parts of a scripture or a text may actually have a well-reasoned and logical explanation.

Take "Jihad" -- as I understand it (and I should issue the disclaimer that I'm not Muslim, I've just read the things I'm about to say), "jihad" simply means "struggle" -- a struggle for goodness, for right. Now -- the interpretation of "jihad" many people in the West have heard refers to a struggle against non-Muslims. But the majority of modern Muslims choose to see the jihad as referring to a personal struggle -- the struggle to hold fast to one's better nature. So all the exhortations of struggle in the Q'uran? They're all about you trying to overcome acting like a dick. It still holds to the spirit of the law.

...So I wouldn't call it so much "picking and choosing" as I would call it "adapting". Which -- if you think about it, is kind of a scientific approach, no? ;-)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:53 PM on January 29, 2009


Justinian, it's not a fallacy because I'm not trying to argue that the inadequacy of secular morality proves that religion is true (or that materialism/naturalism is false).

I'm arguing that morality is a fundamentally religious concept, and that "secular morality" is nonsense, unless by "morality" you mean something very different from what most people mean when they use the word.

Most people, when they say that torture is "wrong" or "evil" or that cheating is "not fair" seem to mean something more than just "I don't like it" or "Most people don't like it" or even "C'mon now, how would you feel if that happened to you?" They sound like they're making a more fundamental claim about right and wrong, something more than just an expression of their preferences.

Atheists often claim they are as moral as religious people, but if atheism is true, there is no such thing as morality. Of course this in no way proves that atheism is false. Some theists point to the almost universal belief that moral judgments are possible as one of the reasons they believe God might exist, but there are certainly plausible non-religious explanations for why we tend to think that way.
posted by straight at 11:40 AM on January 30, 2009


Atheists often claim they are as moral as religious people, but if atheism is true, there is no such thing as morality.

Why would you say that? What you say about the reciprocity belief above -- "Most people, when they say that torture is "wrong" or "evil" or that cheating is "not fair" seem to mean something more than just "I don't like it" or "Most people don't like it" or even "C'mon now, how would you feel if that happened to you?"" -- is a near universal-constant, even among humanist groups. The reason why people trot out the "how would you feel if that happened to you" response when questioned "why is torture wrong" is, to me, an indicator that there are some basic general concepts about right and wrong that, if they aren't instinctive, then they're ones we all agree on even when we disagree on every other damn thing.

And the fact that just about every religion in the world, even though they disagree on everything else, happens to agree on this one thing, tells me that something other than "religion" is dictating morality in this instance.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:38 PM on January 30, 2009


I'm not saying religion is the reason most of us don't like to see people tortured. Evolution can explain our feelings of empathy just fine.

When you say "How would you feel if that happened to you?" You're making a hopeful appeal to someone's feelings, hoping 1) they will have the same feelings that you do and 2) they will choose to behave in accordance with those feelings.

But not everyone has those same feelings. And even those of us who do sometimes choose to ignore them because they conflict with something else we want. Why should I place a higher priority on my feelings of empathy than on any of my other feelings and desires?

At this point you can try to appeal to my self-interest with rewards or threats ("You'll feel good about yourself." "You'll go to jail." "I'll kill you." "We'll give you most-favored-nation trading status." "You wouldn't like living in a world where everyone acted that way.")

But I maintain that when most people say "Torture is wrong," they are making a more fundamental claim, one that is deeper than either the appeal to empathy or the appeal to self-interest. And it's this deeper claim that is what they mean by "morality." If atheists are right, then these people are mistaken. There is no morality that is any deeper than feelings and self-interest.

Some atheists are fine with that
posted by straight at 1:32 PM on January 30, 2009


There is no morality that is any deeper than feelings and self-interest.

Yeah, pretty much.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:58 PM on January 30, 2009


If you're in agreement that there's an evolutionary basis for empathy, then would it not follow that empathy is actually what dictates most of our morals?

I grant that in the specific, "how would that feel if it happened to you" can fall short. But most of these moral codes were first defined in broad strokes, which -- I believe -- came out of empathy. That core moral sensibility came from empathy.

The religious dictates about the specifics are something else again, but the drive TOWARDS morality in the general is what comes from empathy, which -- as you state -- may indeed have an evolutionary basis.

But I maintain that when most people say "Torture is wrong," they are making a more fundamental claim, one that is deeper than either the appeal to empathy or the appeal to self-interest. And it's this deeper claim that is what they mean by "morality." If atheists are right, then these people are mistaken. There is no morality that is any deeper than feelings and self-interest.

Well...yeah.

where you lose me is where you say that "if atheists are right, then these people are mistaken" -- which people, and mistaken about what?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:32 PM on January 30, 2009


EmpressCallipygos, what you're describing is an account of where our morals come from, you say they come from our feelings of empathy.

What's missing is a compelling reason to obey those feelings, especially if I have other feelings that seem more compelling.

Most people think of morality as a standard that helps you decide which of your feelings and impulses are the "right" ones. But if atheists are right, then our sense of morality is just another one of those competing feelings.

If you listen to the way people use the language of morality, when they say things like "Torture is wrong" it sounds like they mean something more than "I don't like torture" and/or "Torture is not in your self-interest." They mean, "You shouldn't torture even if you liked it and you could be sure it was in your self-interest."

But the only way such a statement could be true is if there is some standard of right and wrong that is somehow more fundamental than our feelings and preferences and self-interest. Such a standard would have to be religious or otherwise external to humanity in some way.
posted by straight at 1:44 PM on February 2, 2009


What's missing is a compelling reason to obey those feelings, especially if I have other feelings that seem more compelling.

The collective ire of the rest of the community wouldn't be compelling?

It may be true that the rest of the community may believe that "God said this was wrong, and so it is wrong". But that's not quite as powerful as "it's wrong, but Sid did it anyway -- wow, Sid's a right bastard!" When you have the rest of your community shunning you because you did something "wrong", precisely WHY they think it's wrong is actually kind of secondary, to my mind, because it's their shunning that would have the most affect on you and which would actually run counter to your self-interest.

I'm not questioning that we might have gotten those morals out of a sense of common human instinct as opposed to religion. What I AM questioning is the argument -- which I think you are making -- that without religion there is NO morality whatsoever. If that's not what you're saying, then I'm not clear what you ARE saying.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:20 AM on February 3, 2009


Doing the right thing because you fear the ire of community is the same as obeying the law because you're afraid of getting caught. The word "morality" is usually used for something different than just obeying the law. It's used to mean doing the right thing even when it doesn't benefit you, even when you're sure you wouldn't get caught, even when you don't want to.

Evolution can explain why such an idea might give a selective advantage to a population, but if you decide you don't want to be moral when it doesn't benefit you, when you can get away without anyone in the community hating you, then atheism can't give a persuasive argument why you should. The word "should" there is meaningless to an atheist.
posted by straight at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2009


The word "morality" is usually used for something different than just obeying the law. It's used to mean doing the right thing even when it doesn't benefit you, even when you're sure you wouldn't get caught, even when you don't want to.

Well, hell, not even religion can make people do that at a constant rate. Just as -- as I believe -- it is human nature to want to aspire to do the right thing, it is also human nature to try to cut corners and get away with crap. No matter what the source of the moral code, and what the source of the transgression.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:08 AM on February 3, 2009


Born believers: How your brain creates God
posted by homunculus at 8:49 PM on February 6, 2009


Science and Other Beliefs
posted by homunculus at 8:51 PM on February 6, 2009


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