“Unholy cow” (Science and religion)


When it comes to the conflict between science and religion, I argue that, on linguistic grounds, there is none. That’s because a conflict indicates there are two hostile parties. Yet here, the assault is unilateral. No biologists are trying to force churches to teach evolutionary science. No cosmologists are calling for equal time in Sunday School class. By contrast, some activists with a religious agenda make unceasing attempts to foist mandatory creationism and Bible study classes onto public education students.

A second reason why there is, in a strict sense, no conflict is because science and religion are concerned with separate questions. Religion concentrates on rituals, dogma, and attempts to solve moral dilemmas.

As to science, it is a process that attempts to explain the natural world and those who inhabit it by following this method: 1. Define the question; 2. Develop a hypothesis; 3. Make a prediction; 4. Test that prediction; 5. Analyze the results using proper statistics; 6. Attempt to replicate findings; 7. Submit findings for peer review; 8. Share data. The process doesn’t end there, as other scientists use the same method to further test if the conclusions are sound or mistaken.

Religion has its literal sacred cows, while there are no figurative ones in science. The field goes where the evidence leads and positions its thinking accordingly. University of Chicago biology professor emeritus Jerry Coyne writes that, “Religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith, defined in Hebrews 11 as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ In science, faith without evidence is a vice, while in religion it’s a virtue.”

One problem with relying on faith is that different religions make competing claims. Without witnessing the claims in action, without examining them, without testing them, without experimenting on them, and without utilizing the Scientific Method, it’s impossible to assess their validity.

There are up to 4,200 religions to choose from, and these are forever dividing like cells that some of those religions are probably denying the existence of. There are 37 varieties of Baptist and more than 100 offshoots of Mormonism, which itself an iconoclastic take on Christianity. Judaism ranges from the ultraorthodox, whose adherents hold dim views of gays, women, and other religions, all the way to reform denominations, which emphasize individual autonomy, pluralism, and evolved ethics, and which reject strict beliefs and practices. In between those extremes are orthodox, conservative, and liberal Jews, with each of these categories being broken down to even more specific strains.

Likewise, there are many schools of Buddhism, from saffron-robed, shaven-headed monks who believe in assorted deities and the power of prayer, to Phil Jackson’s form of Zen, which is little more than a leadership and success philosophy served with a side dish of meditation. The massive problem, then, with deciding things on faith is that one has to presuppose that their specific religious view – which they likely were instructed from preschool to adopt – is the correct one.

Yet, no religion has proven or disproven the existence of any god, goddess, demigod, angel, demon, miracle, or fulfilled prophecy. Coyne asks, “How many gods are there? What are their natures and moral creeds? Is there an afterlife? Why is there moral and physical evil? There is no one answer to any of these questions. All is mystery, for all rests on faith.”

Meanwhile, were it not for successful employment of the Scientific Method, you would not be reading this right now. Science has also yielded benefits in the form of medicine, food quality, safety, transportation, and so much more.

Still, some persons chide science for previous errors, but this is to misunderstand the scientific process. It is a means of continually questioning its findings, trying to disprove itself, with an end goal of increasing our knowledge of how things work. It is a self-correcting process. These detractors might, as one example, belittle science for once thinking that asbestos was safe. But these folks are inadvertently admitting that science works because it was through the trial-and-error method which defines the field that we came to know asbestos is dangerous.

Additionally, admitting errors and adjusting a position as justified by the evidence is admirable. That’s a much better response than being proudly stationary and unbending, and remaining incapable of being moved by any evidence, reason, or persuasion.

While some on a religious bent criticize science, they are selective in this derision, as they will latch onto a point if it seems to further their religion. Science blogger Bob Seidensticker told the story of Catholic priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who suggested that the universe is expanding and formulated what became the Big Bang theory. When strong evidence for the Big Bang emerged, Pope Pius VII noted Lemaître’s Catholicism and declared the Big Bang to be affirmation of Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.”

Lemaître responded by calling it a poor strategy for Christians to intermingle science and religion. Because to be consistent, they would also have to embrace science when it contradicted their faith. Such as what happens when one considers the geologic column in light if Genesis, which if taken literally, teaches that fully-formed animals were spoken into existence in their present form 5,000 years ago.

The Dalai Lama said if science and Buddhism collide, you have to go with the science. From the reasonable, supple positions of Lemaître and the Dalai Lama, we venture 180 degrees to find Christian apologists such as Ken Ham, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, and Frank Turek. Cosmic background radiation and the amount of light elements provide strong evidence for the universe being 13.4 billion years old, yet even that amount of time would be insufficient for Ham to make the same concession about his religion that the Dalai Lama made with Buddhism.

Ham and the rest have zero interest in the truth and are only interested in furthering an agenda. As Seidensticker noted, “The last thing they would do is say, ‘If you show my scientific claims to be false, then I will no longer believe.”  Ham admitted as much in his debate with Bill Nye. They arrive at their conclusion first, seek out confirmatory evidence, and dismiss anything that disproves their idea.

Craig, Strobel, and Turek are not submitting work for peer review, are not increasing our understanding of the natural world, and are not collaborating on papers with biologists, astrophysicists, and chemists. Instead, they pose questions that might make for intriguing parlor games, but whose answers rely not on experiment or evidence, but on faith.

One example would be the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The gist of this logic is: 1. Whatever begins to exist had a cause; 2. The universe began to exist; 3. Therefore, the universe had a cause; 4. The god I believe in was that cause. Other instances are the fine tuning and design arguments, which assume things could only have turned out this way if given a supernatural boost. This is the begging the question fallacy and fails to satisfy even the first step in the Scientific Method. It neglects to even define the question and jumps to the conclusion that the Christian god did it.

The earliest humans invented and rationalized supernatural beings as a way of trying to explain the world around them. It provided a handy answer for wind, lightning, and natural disasters. Later, it might have been used to answer why there was disease, death, or misfortune visited on a tribe or village. As science explained more, there was less need for a deity, and gods were relegated to increasingly-shrinking gaps. Religious believers still issue challenges as to how the first living being came to be or how humans acquired a sense of right or wrong. They insist that if science has yet to find the solution, the challenger’s favored god must be squeezed into the equation. So far, however, neither magic nor the supernatural has ever proven to be the answer.


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