Thursday, March 24, 2005

Religious complaints about science

So, I was just reading Mike the Mad Biologist's post concerning the scientific definition of theory, which mostly just quotes an article from the Washington Post. I'm not really going to discuss that topic here, because the Post said it wonderfully. What I did want to write about, though, was a statement that I have heard several times from people of a religious persuasion. This statement always disturbed me a bit, because it always seemed so inept despite the fact that I couldn't exactly explain why. It just hit me...

So, the statement that I am referring to is that science teaches you nothing about morality and gives you no answer to the big "Why are we here?" types of questions. The big bang theory offers no explanation of what existed before the singularity or why the event occurred. The theory of evolution does not offer an explanation of the soul. In short, science does not explain the meaning of life. Therefore, religion is superior to science. I guess it's more of an idea than a statement...

The solution to the conundrum hit me a short while ago and seemed so obvious I don't know why I didn't think of it before. The statement offers a perfectly true premise, but a flawed conclusion. It is entirely true that science alone does not provide answers to the major questions of the human drama. I could study biology, chemistry, and physics to my heart's content and never come across an answer to the question of what constitutes a good act. There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting this fact. However, the religious conservative implies that this is a flaw of science. That is the problem. This fact is not a flaw of science, but a description of the fundamental basis of science. The purpose of science is to explain what is happening in the universe and how it happens. That is all. Unbiased, nonjudgmental explanations of fact. Questions of truth, epistemology, ethics, etc., are outside the realm of science. You do not go to chemistry expecting to learn about the Vatican's views on birth control. Similarly, you do not go to an ethics class to learn about the laws of thermodynamics.

This is the problem. Many Christians, especially fundamentalist creationists, learned "facts" about the world from their religion. They learned that the world was created in 7 days and the first humans were Adam and Eve. When you point out that scientific observation of the world leads to a conclusion that the modern world was not, in fact, created in 7 days, they view this as an attack on their entire world view. They believe that every fact they learned from their church must be true because it came from church. There is no room for doubt or discussion. As a result, they try to push such religiously inspired beliefs into the classroom so that future generations will believe as they do. I guess there's safety in numbers. If everyone believes in Creationism, it must be true. It's democracy in action. Whichever viewpoint has the most believers is automatically true.

So, I addressed the premise, that science does not address ethical and meaning-of-life questions. What frightens me the most about the idea is actually the conclusion described above. I.e., because science does not address those issues, religion is superior and should thus be granted authority when the two fields are in conflict. In other words, religion addresses questions of truth and goodness, but science only addresses questions of truth, therefore religion is superior. This is both ludicrous and arrogant. The validity of religious dealings of goodness does nothing to imply the validity of religious dealings of truth. Buddhists believe it is wrong to kill. That is a moral (i.e., goodness) issue. This does not guarantee that it is true that the Buddha was born from his mother's side instead of her vagina. Christians believe it is wrong to steal. That does not absolutely guarantee that it is true that a guy named Cain killed his brother Abel.

I know many people who are both religious and scientific (including everybody who will read this). They all understand that the two branches are separate and can be used in conjunction to provide a more complete world-view. Sadly, it appears that such moderate viewpoints are either silent or outnumbered. I can't really tell which.


At 11:13 AM, Anonymous JJ said...

Many Christians, especially fundamentalist creationists, learned "facts" about the world from their religion.

I wouldn't say many... I would say that the literalists are pretty much limited to the fundamentalist creationists. And they are definitely a minority. They just make the rest of us Christians look bad because they are louder and more obnoxious than us (and that always gets attention), and they are well represented in our government.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous JJ said...

Sadly, it appears that such moderate viewpoints are either silent or outnumbered. I can't really tell which.

Well, sure... we're in the majority, so we don't have to be very outspoken. It's only the fringe believers that have to shout to get heard.

I think that's one of the reasons that moderately lefties (such as myself) like Michael Moore so much. Sure, he's an arrogant ass, and sure he completely spins the facts to favor his point. But... he's our arrogant ass. And the conservatives are pissed because we've finally found one.


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