Science vs. Religion: Myth or Reality?

October 21, 2011 § 9 Comments

So often we hear of “Christian” scientists disagreeing with the majority of the scientific community, claiming that the earth is only thousands of years old, declaring evolution is a farce, or simply belittling anyone who disagrees with their beliefs.

As a Christian, this is exactly the reputation which I have to fight against.  Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a few of us Christians who like to imagine that religion and science can coexist, that we don’t have to choose one over the other.  And most Christians will agree with this—after all, God has told us that He has revealed Himself to humanity through creation, so what we learn about creation, then, should teach us something the Creator.  That is to say that science and religion should not come to different conclusions, that what we observe about creation and what God tells us about His creation should agree.

Of course if God says something, then it must be true.  However, the Bible is full of all sorts of different literary forms, like the poetry found in the Psalms, the parables Jesus speaks, or the exposition given in I and II Chronicles.  In order to see what a portion of the Bible means, we must be able to understand the literary context.  One example of this is the creation story.  I don’t think that Genesis 1 is exposition, nor do in fact most translators of the Bible.  An obvious indication of this is the simple indentation of Genesis 1 whose format matches the Psalms rather than the exposition which follows in Genesis 2.  At least, that’s how my NIV looks.  The actual words also flow much more like poetry, and there’s such obvious use of imagery, notably the parallels between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6.  I can’t help but conclude that Genesis 1 is more of song than history, more wondrous praise for God and declaration that God made everything than a setting forth of how events unfolded in the beginning.  As a result, I don’t think the passage really tells us anything about the age of creation, but only about Who made it, so when science suggests that the universe is billions of years old, I have no reservations in accepting that fact.

But how does this relate to aliens?  Well, suppose aliens showed up at our door step.  That would be an obvious indication from creation that they exist.  What would this mean about them?  Could they possibly have souls, or could they even be intelligent without souls?  Are they caught in sin like us?  What would this mean about us?  Would we feel compelled to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to them?  Would we feel betrayed that God might consider this other part of his creation as special as us?

I’m not sure how everything would be reconciled, but in short, I don’t think Christianity would change in any fundamental way.  The one problem with comparing the conclusions of the Bible to our observations about the universe is that we are the ones doing it, and we are fallible.  So it is more than possible that we believe false things, because to believe that we understand everything is to believe that we are perfect, and we are definitely not there yet.

Rivus

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§ 9 Responses to Science vs. Religion: Myth or Reality?

  • mshaddad says:

    This is an interesting thought. I always have thought that religion and science should be connected; religion does not give experimental results, but it does discuss the fundamental nature of the universe. Even if you only remotely believe in God or adhere to a religion, you are being hypocritical if you practice science as if religion were completely irrelevant to science; their mission statements are the same, i.e. to understand the true nature of the world.

    In relation to alien life with religion, I agree that there is a serious semantic issue at hand. “Human” can mean a certain organism with a specific range of genetic make-ups, but it can mean something more ambiguous and spiritual. Is there any reason to believe that holy texts are referring to genetic entities? They are probably referring to the ambiguous and spiritual concept, and an open minded person should see that there is no reason why an alien cannot be that.

  • shaunphilly says:

    The fundamental problem with the question of science and religion is the fact that while both try to say something about reality, only one of them tries to eliminate human biases as much as possible. One relies on revelation, personal (and collective) experience, and tradition/authority. All of these things are subject to biases, cognitive blind spots, etc. The scientific method does its best (and it might be the best method to do so) to force us to try and avoid those biases. Thus, the conclusions (tentative and prone to over-turning as they are) of the scientific method are far superior to how religion works.

    So, if we are talking about comparing our observations to what the Bible says (which is, BTW, another kind of human observation subject to our fallibility), there is no competition. Science is not mere observation, it is observation that tries to prove itself wrong. The scientific method is a method to try and prove itself wrong, not prove itself to be correct. Those ideas that have not been proved wrong become theories.

    The problem between science and religion is that science has a superior epistemological methodology, and so when the conclusions of science contradict the exposition of the Bible, then why accept the Bible? Would you not be leaning on your own understanding in accepting the Bible as authoritative?

    Like Genesis 2, for example. Where Adam and Eve literal people from whom we all descended? Science seems to indicate that this is not possible, whether it happened 10,000 years ago or millions of years ago: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10231.html

    So, while science and religion are not necessarily at odds, science is at odds with revelatory religious traditions which make claims about reality which do not cohere with what our best skeptical methodologies conclude. So yes, science and Christianity are at odds.

    • mshaddad says:

      The issue with science as the irrefutable alternative to religion is that it automatically assumes that its ideals are upheld. Your argument is just as ostensibly absurd as saying we know Jesus was the son of God because it is in the Bible – in an ontological argument, there is no qualitative difference between the two subjects even if there is a difference in degree. This is even a moot point given that science seeks to predict facts and events, whereas religion primarily is focused with the description of morality and ethnics (fundamentalists aside).
      Still, science is practiced in an extremely subjective way: even the most quantitative physics experiment can be interpreted in any number of ways. How do you know the machine was performing precisely within the assumed error limits? Statistics gives you complex modeles and probabilities, not facts. Just because previous theories haven’t been proven wrong does that mean you can garner meaning from them in order to interpret your results? How precisely does the experimental design address the hypothesis that you posited? Are there other alternative hypotheses that could explain it? If the other possibilities are less probable, what reason do you have to say they haven’t happened anyway?
      The only people that think science and Christianity are at odds are people that adhere to the objectivity of science in the same way that a fundamentalist asserts the irrefutable nature of a religious text. The truth is that if you are searching for truth and science is “the best we’ve got”, then it is still imperfect, and thus it fails to find absolute truth. What is wrong with using the good things about science (and there are many) along with the good things about religion, such as the idea that God is unknowable and ostensibly illogical and that there is a universal morality? One of the reasons that science is practiced so well today is because most scientists know its limits.

      • shaunphilly says:

        The issue with science as the irrefutable alternative to religion is that it automatically assumes that its ideals are upheld.

        Wait, who said science was irrefutable? And I’m afraid you are completely incorrect concerning the ontological basis of science. The only assumption involved is that there really is a real world outside of us which we can observe to any degree of accuracy. If this assumption were not true, then any discussion of anything would be absurd, so I throw that question away.

        Whatever empirical reality there is to observe the methodology is applied to. I don’t know about any methodological ideals in science, I only know about empiricism. If empiricism isn’t true, we are in more trouble than the issue of science/religion.

        in an ontological argument, there is no qualitative difference between the two subjects even if there is a difference in degree.

        This is postmodernist drivel.

        Still, science is practiced in an extremely subjective way….[etc]

        Science does not give us facts? Are you kidding me? OK< listen, when I was in graduate school I read the anti-realists and the other postmodernist theorists who talked of science and the fundamental philosophical underpinnings of empiricism. I did not buy it then and I don't now. I'm afraid you have drank the Kool-Aid here.

        The fact that information received via empirical methods is not 100% certain (a criteria which is impossible so nobody asks for it) is not a problem. Of course science is probabilistic, but expectations of absolute certainty is irrational.

        The issue is when you compare a claim made based upon skeptical observations of reality versus a claim based upon authority. The observation of a particle in a complex tool of at CERN is so much different than a claim of Jesus' divinity. I honestly cannot comprehend how an intelligent person cannot see that. I'm not claiming that what scientists at CERN observe is certain (it's probabilistic), I'm claiming that it is more certain than the Jesus claim (to a large degree).

        The only people that think science and Christianity are at odds are people that adhere to the objectivity of science in the same way that a fundamentalist asserts the irrefutable nature of a religious text.

        Ah, the old accusation of scientism. We who believe in science are just like the fundamentalists. That is the implication. This claim is not supported and is absurd. I think you give away the argument in the following:

        The truth is that if you are searching for truth and science is “the best we’ve got”, then it is still imperfect, and thus it fails to find absolute truth.

        Wait, who said anything about an absolute truth? Why do you think such a thing exists? Have you read Nietzsche? Have you read any philosophy of science? Have you read any science? Of course it is still imperfect. But it’s imperfection is still miles better than anything religion has ever produced. That is why they are incompatible; it’s not that one is a gateway to absolute truth and the other is not, it is that one’s methodology is eliminative of bias, subjectivity, etc…not absolutely, just that it does these things…and the other is not.

        What is wrong with using the good things about science (and there are many) along with the good things about religion, such as the idea that God is unknowable and ostensibly illogical and that there is a universal morality?

        Well, because the claims of religion are only true by accident. And only “sophisticated theology” thinks of god as unknowable and illogical. Most religious believers accept god as intimately knowable and as true (I doubt most of them would comprehend illogicality in such a context). The erudite theology you refer to is, in my view, an attempt to save god from science. Its sophistication is a necessary step away from the empiricism that illuminates all the corners god used to live.

        And what’s worse, there is no reason to believe it exists. Also, there is no reason to believe in absolute morality. That’s just a fiction believed on faith, just like god. In sum, there is nothing given my religion which is good which could not be reached by non-religious means. And some of what it gives is only fantasy (like absolute morality).

        One of the reasons that science is practiced so well today is because most scientists know its limits.

        Perhaps. Theology has not learned this yet, it seems. The proposition of absolutes is evidence of this lack in knowledge.

  • mshaddad says:

    It turns out that I know a lot about science, but it doesn’t seem like you know all that much about religion. Theology is the study of religion, religion is an institutionalized set of beliefs, and a belief is, for lack for a better work, an opinion. I am very passionate about science and its capacity to elucidate the world around us, but I am not convinced that science is capable of answering the questions that religion has generally attempted to address – and this does not mean that I think religion is any better than science at finding truth in the world (regardless of whether you call it absolute or relative).
    For example, if you were actually using the scientific then you wouldn’t have bothered commenting on this post. Then you would have ascertained that this post is about using religious texts and beliefs to deal with scientific discoveries and how science can help inform those religious conclusions. Your logical “tests” are not even appropriate to the hypotheses/arguments of this discussion.
    Science makes no effort to answer questions of morality – such as how should we view and treat alien life – because there is no way to empirically test morality. If you knew anything about religion, then you would realize that religion and science focus on different questions. It is a straw man argument to argue against the views of extremist minorities – they exist amongst supports of science, too.

    • shaunphilly says:

      I have a degree in Religious studies (Religious Anthropology, more specifically). I also have a MA in Philosophy, with an emphasis on the philosophy of religion. Religion is the area of my expertise, in fact. I just disagree with your view of religion.

      I do not accept the claim that religion and science deal with separate claims (nor with NOMA). The questions religions often try to address are, in fact, available to skeptical methods, including science and logic. The only places where science and reason cannot delve are places that have no content. Religion deals with a lot of subjects that have no substance. Theology is an area of study of both fictitious things and real things. But what it says about those real things are often wrong, or if true only accidentally so (in the sense of accidental true belief a la Plato).

      Science can deal with morality, assuming one understands that no moral proclamations are ever absolute. Morality is about behavior in groups of people with preferences (otherwise it would not matter). We have the ability to apply our rational faculties to figure out which ways to behave given our physical realities. In other words, our actual real circumstances, including our preferences, can be analyzed in order to determine which types of behaviors would bring about the goals that cohere with our actual preferences, desires, etc. Have you not heard of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape? I’m assuming you disagree with the view Harris takes, if you are familiar with it.

      I think that Sam Harris is essentially right.

      Further, I believe that skeptical methods (primarily science) are capable on commenting on, analyzing, and finding good conclusions on any real thing. If religion will insist on dealing with unreal things (and not merely purely abstract things, but things which have no meaning at all), then you can say that religion and science deal with different things, but then you are merely admitting that religion deals with nothing.

      Religion does not actually deal with nothing, it just deals with real things poorly.

      • mshaddad says:

        Alright, you got me. It was foolish to make statements on your background, and probably not important to what I was saying in any case. I won’t get in an argument about a topic that I am less informed about. But I am well informed about science, having both studied and practiced it, and what you are saying about science is absurd.

        I have not read The Moral Landscape so I can’t say much about it, but the entire premise of claiming science as a morality, or as directly giving rise to morality, is complete “post-modern drivel”. Science doesn’t “deal” with morality any more than a trip to Bangkok “deals” with a travel blog. Sure you can derive a morality from science, but that isn’t remotely what science is.

        Science is the method of finding out what probably is true. It is both unbendingly logical and artistically intuitive, both benefiting from scientists drive towards objectivity and suffering from their subjective perspectives. At the end of the day, however, science has no direction and no morality, and morality has no place in science. There is no meaning in science, just patterns. Religion seeks to find or produce meaning – whether you think it does is a value judgment. They do different things.

        Science isn’t a new alternative to religion; science is a hand groping in the dark, searching for a path without knowing where it is going. The only thing I get from authors like Richard Dawkins, and apparently Sam Harris, is that people are terrified of uncertainty and they want science to give them unambiguous meaning. Science doesn’t do that. Ask any scientist that doesn’t spend his or her career promoting pseudo-philosophy books about what God is dead.

      • shaunphilly says:

        Sorry I was delayed in responding. Busy weekend.

        Ok, so what I say about science is absurd. Let’s see why:

        …the entire premise of claiming science as a morality, or as directly giving rise to morality, is complete “post-modern drivel”. Science doesn’t “deal” with morality any more than a trip to Bangkok “deals” with a travel blog. Sure you can derive a morality from science, but that isn’t remotely what science is.

        I don’t think I’m understanding you at all. First you said that science can give rise to morality is drivel, and then you say that you can derive a morality from science but that is not what science is.

        I really think you should read Harris’ book or at least a fair summary. Many people disagree with his premise (including many philosophers of science) but I think it should be given a fair reading. He is on good philosophical ground, I believe, in following (while not seemingly aware of) people such as Hilary Putnam (cf “The Collapse of the Fact/Vale Dichotomy”).

        My view is that science is a tool which can be applied to the question of morality, as morality deals with real, empirical questions. I don’t see how that is postmodernist at all.

        Science is the method of finding out what probably is true. It is both unbendingly logical and artistically intuitive, both benefiting from scientists drive towards objectivity and suffering from their subjective perspectives. At the end of the day, however, science has no direction and no morality, and morality has no place in science. There is no meaning in science, just patterns. Religion seeks to find or produce meaning – whether you think it does is a value judgment. They do different things.

        I emphasize part of that because I think it shows where we may differ. I wonder how you are defining morality, because I don’t think how I think of the term and how you are using it here cohere. As I see it, there are ways of finding out what actions will actually result in the desires we have based upon the values we have. In other words, there is a way to determine, empirically, what things are more or less moral.

        You seem to be indicating some abstract, almost Platonic view of morality as a sort of goal or value, rather than a topic of study of what types of actions to perform. This is a rather archaic and useless definition of morality, I think. Your objection seems to be saying that since science has no inherent value (that we need to actually desire the truth in order to do it and that science does not supply this value) that it has no morality. But the motivating values that cause actions are not morality, morality is the question of what actions to take given the existence of those values (which are facts, as Putnam and Harris observe). Those values are given, being that we actually have them no matter what we do (unless we are sociopaths or something). Morality is the philosophical (or scientific, in this case) question of what to do about it.

        Science isn’t a new alternative to religion; science is a hand groping in the dark, searching for a path without knowing where it is going. The only thing I get from authors like Richard Dawkins, and apparently Sam Harris, is that people are terrified of uncertainty and they want science to give them unambiguous meaning. Science doesn’t do that. Ask any scientist that doesn’t spend his or her career promoting pseudo-philosophy books about what God is dead.

        But that’s exactly what I have been saying all along. Science cannot give us unambiguous meaning. Of course not. But neither does religion. Religion merely claims to show us where we are going and what it is about, but religion is dealing with the same world and facts as science. But science’s methodology is better at it, blind or not. Science is a replacement for religion insofar as religion is a practice of what types of things to accept as true about the universe. What remains outside of that within religion is either useless (like ritual) or are simply aspects of our social nature (like the community religion offers). Religion offers us nothing that a skeptical worldview cannot do equally well or better.

        As for pseudo-philosophy, well, I suppose I’m a pseudo-philosopher.

  • shaunphilly says:

    [gah! I forgot to close an html tag and the formatting was screwed up as a result. Here’s the way it should appear, I hope]

    Sorry I was delayed in responding. Busy weekend.

    Ok, so what I say about science is absurd. Let’s see why:

    …the entire premise of claiming science as a morality, or as directly giving rise to morality, is complete “post-modern drivel”. Science doesn’t “deal” with morality any more than a trip to Bangkok “deals” with a travel blog. Sure you can derive a morality from science, but that isn’t remotely what science is.

    I don’t think I’m understanding you at all. First you said that science can give rise to morality is drivel, and then you say that you can derive a morality from science but that is not what science is.

    I really think you should read Harris’ book or at least a fair summary. Many people disagree with his premise (including many philosophers of science) but I think it should be given a fair reading. He is on good philosophical ground, I believe, in following (while not seemingly aware of) people such as Hilary Putnam (cf “The Collapse of the Fact/Vale Dichotomy”).

    My view is that science is a tool which can be applied to the question of morality, as morality deals with real, empirical questions. I don’t see how that is postmodernist at all.

    Science is the method of finding out what probably is true. It is both unbendingly logical and artistically intuitive, both benefiting from scientists drive towards objectivity and suffering from their subjective perspectives. At the end of the day, however, science has no direction and no morality, and morality has no place in science. There is no meaning in science, just patterns. Religion seeks to find or produce meaning – whether you think it does is a value judgment. They do different things.

    I emphasize part of that because I think it shows where we may differ. I wonder how you are defining morality, because I don’t think how I think of the term and how you are using it here cohere. As I see it, there are ways of finding out what actions will actually result in the desires we have based upon the values we have. In other words, there is a way to determine, empirically, what things are more or less moral.

    You seem to be indicating some abstract, almost Platonic view of morality as a sort of goal or value, rather than a topic of study of what types of actions to perform. This is a rather archaic and useless definition of morality, I think. Your objection seems to be saying that since science has no inherent value (that we need to actually desire the truth in order to do it and that science does not supply this value) that it has no morality. But the motivating values that cause actions are not morality, morality is the question of what actions to take given the existence of those values (which are facts, as Putnam and Harris observe). Those values are given, being that we actually have them no matter what we do (unless we are sociopaths or something). Morality is the philosophical (or scientific, in this case) question of what to do about it.

    Science isn’t a new alternative to religion; science is a hand groping in the dark, searching for a path without knowing where it is going. The only thing I get from authors like Richard Dawkins, and apparently Sam Harris, is that people are terrified of uncertainty and they want science to give them unambiguous meaning. Science doesn’t do that. Ask any scientist that doesn’t spend his or her career promoting pseudo-philosophy books about what God is dead.

    But that’s exactly what I have been saying all along. Science cannot give us unambiguous meaning. Of course not. But neither does religion. Religion merely claims to show us where we are going and what it is about, but religion is dealing with the same world and facts as science. But science’s methodology is better at it, blind or not. Science is a replacement for religion insofar as religion is a practice of what types of things to accept as true about the universe. What remains outside of that within religion is either useless (like ritual) or are simply aspects of our social nature (like the community religion offers). Religion offers us nothing that a skeptical worldview cannot do equally well or better.

    As for pseudo-philosophy, well, I suppose I’m a pseudo-philosopher.

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