If you believe in both science and religion, you are not doing either properly

by Michael Nugent on February 19, 2013

This is my speech at yesterday’s debate in University College Cork, on the topic ‘That you can believe in both science and religion.’

The question is can we believe in both science and religion, and I suggest that if you do believe in both science and religion, you are not doing either properly.

They are fundamentally different ways of approaching the truth about reality and approaching the truth about morality.

Religion makes overt claims about the natural world as as well as about the supernatural world.

You can claim to believe in both, and indeed you can to an extent believe in both, until you reach an issue where the two approaches clash, and then you have to choose.

And when it comes to that clash you will find, historically and consistently, that science advances the search for truth, and that religion corrupts the search for truth.

You have to choose between science and religion

When religion tells us that miracles happen in the natural world,
And science tells us that they don’t,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that Jesus rose from the dead,
And science tells us that people don’t rise from the dead,
Then you have to choose between science and religion

When religion tells us that Mohammad flew on a winged horse,
And science tells us that there are no winged horses,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that a person is possessed by an evil demon,
And science tells us that the person has a mental illness,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that humans have a special relationship with the creator of the universe,
And science tells us that the universe consists of a hundred billion galaxies, and that’s just the observable universe, each of which has a hundred billion stars like our sun, and you see how insignificant humans on the planet earth are,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that humans, and only humans, have an immortal soul,
And science tells us that humans are just another species of animal on the planet earth, mortal like all other animals,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that a fertilised egg is a human person,
And science tells us that it is a cell a fraction of a milimetre in size,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that being gay is unnatural
And science tells us that being gay is perfectly natural
Then you have to choose between science and religion

When religion tells us that prayer works,
And science tells us that not only does prayer not work, but that it can have harmful consequences,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

When religion tells us that religion is good for society,
And science tells us that secular societies are far stronger in terms of quality of life indexes in a range of measurements,
Then you have to choose between science and religion.

How science and religion approach truth

But it is not merely in terms of the outcomes of what we believe that we have to choose between science and religion.

Because what is more significant is the way that we approach these beliefs, and come to these beliefs.

Science approaches truth by observing reality, proposing hypotheses and experiments and explanations and predictions that can then be tested, and then relies on the outcomes of those experiments.

Whereas religion approaches truth by imagining realities based on supposed revelations from supposed imaginary supernatural beings, and ignores the evidence of reality when the evidence of reality contradicts those already-reached conclusions.

Science knows that we will never reach the truth, but that whht we do is gradually come closer and closer to it, by discarding theories that evidence has shown to be inconsistent with reality.

Religion claims to have already found the truth, and proclaims it based on authority rather than on any evidence, and tries to maintain that illusion, by ignoring whatever evidence contradicts its already-reached conclusions.

Most significantly, science advances by trying to prove its theories wrong, whereas religion stagnates by insisting that its theories are correct.

With science, just one inconsistency is enough to rule a theory as being wrong. With religion, any number of inconsistencies can be explained away by whatever theological arguments that theologians choose to come up with.

Science has no vested interest in any particular outcome to its search for truth, whereas religion starts with the outcome and then works backwards.

Scientists don’t pray about the truth of their conclusions, or start wars with rival scientists when they disagree, and scientific theories are not protected by blasphemy laws.

There are so many differences in the method of approaching truth between religion and science that are as significant, if not more significant, than the outcomes, where you have to choose between science and religion, when the two clash.

Claims that religion is ‘compatible with science’

There are other areas where religion claims to be compatible with science.

Rather than saying that they can prove what they are saying is correct, they say that it is compatible with science, science can’t prove it wrong, and therefore it is a credible belief.

But ‘compatible with science’ is not a sensible test by which to decide what you believe.

It is ‘compatible with science’ to say that I went to Paris yesterday and dismantled the Eiffel Tower and crushed it down to the size of a matchbox.

It is ‘compatible with science’, but none of you believe it, because it is an absurd claim. Being ‘compatible with science’ is not a good enough reason to believe something.

It is ‘compatible with science’ to say that this University does not exist, and that we are all in an elaborate TV reality show hoax, but none of you believe it, because it is an absurd claim, even though it is compatible with science.

The idea of saying that something is ‘compatible with science’ and therefore you should believe it is not a sensible way to approach the search for truth about reality or indeed about morality.

I am going to touch on three areas where arguments for God are based on this compatibility theory, the idea that you can’t prove it is wrong therefore you should believe that it is correct.

The first cause argument for God

The first cause (or cosmological) argument for god is based on the idea that everything that begins must have a cause, and the universe began, therefore the universe must have had a cause, and that cause is god.

There are a couple of problems with this argument.

Firstly, the universe as we know it began at a subatomic scale, and we know that the laws of cause and effect do not operate the same way at this scale as they do when particles combine together to form large or medium-sized objects.

Secondly, even if we assume that the universe had a cause –

(which isn’t really controversial from an atheist perspective, if we are talking about the universe as ‘our universe’, as opposed to the universe as ‘everything that exists’ – it is not controversial to suggest that the universe in which we live in, which we call the universe in the same way as we call atoms ‘atoms’ even though the original word meant uncuttable and we now know they are divisible)

– there is no route from that assumption to the idea that the cause is a god, and certainly no route to the idea that it is a god that wants us to behave in any particular way. These are purely matters of personal opinion and preference.

Thirdly, if the universe was caused by a god, then what caused that god to exist, and what caused whatever caused that god to exist? And if you come back to the argument that god was there forever, you can just as easily argue that the universe – as in ‘all that exists’ – was there forever.

The design argument for God

The design (or fine-tuning) argument for god is based on the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life, and in particular for human life if you believe in the Christian God.

And again there are problems with that argument.

Firstly, very few parts of the universe are actually possible for us to live in, and indeed very few parts of the planet Earth are actually suitable for us to live in.

And we are only going to be able to live on this tiny little speck in the middle of the universe for a short period of time, in the context of the amount of time that the universe will exist.

It is not the case that the universe was fine-tuned for our existence, it is that our existence is fine-tuned for the tiny parts of the universe in which it is possible for us to live.

Secondly, we don’t know how likely or unlikely it is that the laws of physics have to be as they are, because we have only one sample set to examine: the universe in which we live.

You can’t base likelihood and probability on the basis of examining just one sample set.

Thirdly, physics, chemistry and biology all demonstrate how it is possible for the illusion of design to gradually evolve by natural means without any conscious designer.

Fourthly, even if you accept that the universe was designed, which I don’t, there is no route from that to the belief that the designer is a conscious being that wants us to behave in any particular way.

The moral argument for God

The moral argument for god is based on the idea that moral laws exist, and therefore there must be a moral lawgiver, and that moral lawgiver is god.

There are any number of problems with that argument, but I am going to start by hypothesising that there isn’t a god, and looking at what morality would look like if we believe that there isn’t a god.

And whatever the detail, I think most of us would agree that morality is not about rocks or stones or trees. It is about how conscious, sentient, thinking beings interact with each other.

It is about whether we work together to minimise suffering and to maximise wellbeing, or whether we do the opposite.

Now, that is a pretty tricky task, because we don’t know what the impact of any of our actions is going to be, because there are so many interacting consequences down the line, so ll that we can do is make our best guess and act as kindly and as ethically as we can.

But what religion does to that already-difficult task is that it adds in a corrupting factor, of saying that even if a particular act is going to minimise suffering, or maximise wellbeing, you shouldn’t do it.

Because the creator of the universe told somebody 2,000 years ago, or 1,400 years ago, or whatever timescale your particular preference is, that you are to do something different anyway.

And so religion enables good people to do bad things while thinking they are doing good, and thus corrupts our natural sense of morality.

The other religious arguments for morality include the Pascal’s wager argument, which is that you should believe in God because

If you believe that God exists, and you are correct, you gain everything, and if you are mistaken, you lose nothing.

And if you don’t believe that God exists, and you are correct, you gain nothing, and if you are mistaken, you lose everything.

There are a lot of philosophical counters to that, but I am just going to go with the one from Homer Simpson in the Simpsons, when he said to Marge when she wanted him to go to church:

“But what if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re making god madder and madder!”

And that is the main difficulty with the Pascal’s Wager argument, is that it depends not only on a god existing, but on it being your preferred god out of the thousands and thousands of gods that humans have invented since time began.

Conclusion

Finally I want to say that the big difference between science and religion, and why you should not believe in both, even if you can believe in sections of both, is that not only do they clash but believing in religion corrupts your search for truth.

The scientific method constrains us to saying that we are only going to believe what seems to be most likely based on applying reason to the currently best available evidence.

Whereas religion just gives us permission to believe anything.

Once you accept that the laws of nature can be changed on a whim by the creator of the universe, to suit you and whatever you want at any given time, you can literally believe anything, and religious people typically do.

So not only is it wrong in a factual sense to say that you can consistently believe in science and religion, but it is also unwise to do so.

What happens in reality is that every generation we find out more and more, by using the scientific method, about how the universe operates naturally.

Every generation, the bits that we don’t yet understand, religious people ascribe to God, and every generation there is less and less and less for this God to do.

So it moves from being an all-powerful God that created the universe out of nothing, to a God whose main task today seems to be appearing on pieces of toast.

And every generation we move closer and closer to the truth that we will never ultimately reach, but that we will gradually come closer to by using science than we ever can by using religion.

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{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason February 19, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Michael. This ‘truth’ you speak of puts you on very philosophically shaky ground. Mistaking religious ‘truths’ as empirical facts seems to be both the mistake of religious zealots and the New Atheist brigade. Not all religions couch their truths as ‘faith based’ either but as paths to be taken and tested (see Buddhism) – morality too requires an element of metaphysical framework even from a scientific perspective ( the theory of reciprocal altruism for example) – the fact is, claiming science is better than religion at finding ‘truth’ is like comparing a fork to a spoon.

I am an atheist but I can see that religion has tried to deal with the existential suffering that we as sentient beings are forced to face into because we know that we will eventually die. The truths that are found along this path are not empirical truths but true in the sense that they try and do lessen our suffering and that of those around us. Or that should be the case….it is the literalists on both sides that turn these insights into sticks to beat each other with.

I’m so tired of the philosophical laziness of the new Atheist movement. Waving around their arms in uproar over blasphemy laws that have little relevance to 99.9% of the population as if they were saving the planet. The argument is over – science has won. Now we need to look at what we have lost…

2 Michael Nugent February 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Jason, I’ll respond to your philosophical points, which are interesting, when I get time, but I want to quickly address your suggestion that it is unimportant to combat blasphemy laws.

There is a constant pattern in Islamic states of people being threatened, attacked, arrested, jailed, and killed because of blasphemy laws. Those victims that are still alive need both local and international support.

The Islamic states at the UN have been trying to get international endorsement for global blasphemy laws, and have been citing the Irish blasphemy law in support of this campaign.

Combatting blasphemy laws is an essential priority for any ethical approach not only to secularism but also to protecting and promoting human rights.

3 jason February 19, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Michael – re the blasphemy laws I should have been clearer. I was thinking more in relation to our own laws. I agree, what is happening in some countries is still worth fighting for considering the injustices done. I just can’t help feeling that the hectoring tone in Atheism today sounds like the boring old uncle at a family gathering who wont let an old argument die.
It’s not that certain issues are not there to be addressed – for example gay marriage or abortion – I’m with you on all counts when it comes to weeding out the influence of religion in these issues but that’s not really the point of my previous comment.
Holding science up as the primary way in which to understand reality does it no favours and indeed deifies it – there is no ‘truth’ in science – it is a provisional understanding of the natural world with a utilitarian purpose. I think athiests need to accept that religious cosmosolgy is dead in the water for most educated people but it does not stop some of them being religious – and they do not use religion to try and understand the world in an empirical way. It’s this lack of subtle understanding that grates when I read your words above. Please I suggest delve a little deeper into the reasons people are religious and why in some cases it can actually have a positive and formative influence on theirs’ and others lives.

4 qwerty February 20, 2013 at 1:37 am

I listened to your talk on PZ Myers blog.

I especially liked your ending when god’s current function seems to be an occasional appearance on a piece of toast.

5 FrankB February 20, 2013 at 2:07 am

The beneficial aspects of being in a religious community are all due to the dynamics of human communities. None of it is due to religious dogma. The only thing you will get from authoritarian religion is authoritarian beliefs and practices.

Science does not tell us what to do, it merely informs our choices. But religion blinds our choices, it stops science. There is nothing that religion can tell us other than be negative example.

6 Christian February 20, 2013 at 4:32 am

I disagree with two points here:

“Science has no vested interest in any particular outcome to its search for truth, whereas religion starts with the outcome and then works backwards.”

It is a falacy to think that science has no vested interest. Science is political. Scientists have biases, funders have agendas. Scientists would be better served to admit their political influences, and how they are dealing with them, than by claiming “Science is not political!”

“Scientists don’t pray about the truth of their conclusions, or start wars with rival scientists when they disagree, and scientific theories are not protected by blasphemy laws.”

See Edison vs. Tesla. That was a war of politics, not merits. Throughout history scientists have accused each other of every crime in support of their pet theories. Scientists are human, just like the rest of us.

7 Charles Sullivan February 20, 2013 at 8:53 am

You need a better microphone. I’d like to play this to my Critical Thinking class in the States, but my American working class students would be hard enough pressed to grasp an Irish dialect (but with a proper microphone and no bouncing echo, they probably could grasp it, easily).

I do hope the sound system this Summer in Dublin is better than this.

8 Richard Hart February 20, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I have saved your article (and its accompanying video clip) into a folder on my desktop named “Outstanding Atheistic Commentary” as your piece is quite excellent.

I have to agree with you when you say “Science has no vested interest in any particular outcome to its search for truth.” Sure, scientists may (and quite often do) have vested interests, but science taken as a whole does not. That’s why Tesla won the “Current battle” with Edison, Alternating Current being the better choice.

9 Ant February 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm

@ Jason

“ I just can’t help feeling that the hectoring tone in Atheism today sounds like the boring old uncle at a family gathering who wont let an old argument die.”

So, you’re a tone troll. That don’t impress me much.

“It’s not that certain issues are not there to be addressed – for example gay marriage or abortion – I’m with you on all counts when it comes to weeding out the influence of religion in these issues but that’s not really the point of my previous comment.”

Well, perhaps it should have been. Anything that privileges religious opinion over secular opinion and faith over empiricism and reason must be opposed. Not doing so makes weeding out the influence of religion in those important issue so much harder.

“Holding science up as the primary way in which to understand reality does it no favours and indeed deifies it …”

If science is not the primary way in which to understand reality, what is? What other approach can provide as accurate models, as complete explanations, or as successfully make predictions about the universe we live in? While science might not be the only way in which to understand reality, nothing else even comes close.

“The truths that are found along this path are not empirical truths but true in the sense that they try and do lessen our suffering and that of those around us.”

Ah, this must be some definition of the word “truth” that I wasn’t previously aware of. Equating “lessening suffering” with “truth” is ridiculously facile.

It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful, and not because you think it’s true.
— Bertrand Russell, tv interview (1959)

/@

10 jason February 20, 2013 at 10:40 pm

@ant

‘Tone-troll’ – sounds like a good name for a band…

The point of my previous comment as I said has nothing to do with the necessary fight against religious intolerance. However I’m obviously not a fan of the New Atheist approach – I don’t like it’s tone.

As far as I’m concerned I’m against bad and destructive ideas and for good and useful ideas. If I see the latter in religion then I believe it can be of use. If I see the former in science well then I have no use for it. New Atheism has framed religion as ‘the enemy’ and made it into a cartoon punch bag – hey read Michaels speech above – it proves my point!

Religion has plenty to offer in terms of how we build and ethical framework around a post-god secular society. Contemplative religious traditions and in particular buddhism has huge insights to offer in terms of human psychology and yes – the lessening of suffering. My use of truth here ( with a small ‘t’ I might add) refers to the practises of mindfulness meditation and it’s related ethical practises. These are true in that the work in lessening suffering or at least helping to frame suffering in a way that allows a person to lead a better life. With depression and mental health issues becoming one of the biggest causes of early death in the western world we shouldn’t withdraw from the pragmatic use of these methods.

Holding daft metaphysical claims is not the reserve of the religious either – we should apply our skepticism evenly and even towards science…Phrenology anyone?

11 Ant February 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

@ Jason

Yes, yes, and the Tooth Fairy putting money under a child’s pillow lessens the suffering of losing a tooth, so that’s truth too.

/@

12 jason February 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

@Ant

Well no actually – I said nothing of the sort. Using ‘supernatural’ ideas as as false consolation is not what I am refering to. It proves you are not even reading what I have written – but I’m getting the feeling that this is not the forum for any sort of intelligent discussions so I will sign off for now…

13 Ant February 21, 2013 at 9:45 am

@ Jason

But you did! Earlier: “The truths that are found along this path are not empirical truths but true in the sense that they try and do lessen our suffering and that of those around us.” Why is the Tooth Fairy not true in that sense?

That it is true that some religions have stumbled across insights and practices that can lessen suffering is not an argument that religion can reliably help us understand reality. (You should also consider that religions include ideas and practices that increase suffering.)

And to hold up phrenology as an example of skepticism unevenly applied to science… How do you think it is we now know that phrenology is bunk?

I am reading what you have written and it’s mostly risible bafflegab.

/@

14 Ruairí February 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Christian said:
““Science has no vested interest in any particular outcome to its search for truth, whereas religion starts with the outcome and then works backwards.”

It is a falacy to think that science has no vested interest. Science is political. Scientists have biases, funders have agendas. Scientists would be better served to admit their political influences, and how they are dealing with them, than by claiming “Science is not political!””

Just want to co-sign this 100%. The idea that “Science” is a neutral, objective force in and of itself is absurd. It is a methodology carried out by human beings.

Or as Stephen Bond said (here – http://www.plover.net/~bonds/nolongeraskeptic.html)

“The scientific method generally involves observation of reality, hypothesis based on observation, and experimental testing of hypothesis. All of these elements, particularly the first and third, involve the use of human perception — which, when building models of objective reality, can introduce a dangerously subjective element.”

15 Ant February 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm

@ Christian, Ruarí

Who is Stepwhn Bond that we should be mindful of him?

Ooh! A dangerously subjective element can be introduced!!

But science – through repeated observations and experiments by independent researchers – minimises those.

Similarly with any political biases.

How do you think it is that we now know that Lysenko’s argricultural practices are bunk?

/@

16 Ant February 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm

*Stephen [bizarre typo]

17 Ruairí February 21, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Stephen is like me or you, just a person with an opinion, one I happen to think is informative.

Again, you are neglecting that ‘science’ in and of itself does not prevent bias. Human begins wield it. Human beings are biased.

18 Edmond February 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Wonderful talk, Mr. Nugent, thank you. I also accessed your speech through PZ Myers blog.

@Christian, #6.

Without even taking one step in researching the conflict between Edison and Tesla, I know that this was not a “war” in the sense that Mr. Nugent was using the word. Certainly, no volleys of bullets or missles were exchanged. No territory was invaded. No cities were decimated.

Yes, scientists are human, and as such they are prone to the same human mistakes as anyone. But the wars started by religions are wars in the true sense of the word. Not simply rivalries, not competitions, but all-out forces of death and destruction intended to wipe the opposition completely off the face of the Earth. If only religion could take a cue from science, and conduct their wars in the same manner.

19 Griff February 21, 2013 at 10:27 pm

I find your speech utterly unconvincing. As ever, we have the standard, completely unsupported atheist claim that the human brain can’t “believe in” science and religion without encountering serious areas of logical, moral, etc. conflict. We are to accept that the brain is somehow unable to function reliably as an instrument of thinking and reasoning and moral judgement if it simultaneously hews to diametrically opposed versions of truth/reality.

Yet, as you even concede yourself, it can do so, and does. No matter; you carry on with the usual pop-atheist science-and-religion-are-two-different-things routine, never once attempting to offer a shred of proof that the brain itself is unable to make complete peace with the two. You’ve therefore falsely condensed two distinct topics into one: 1) The conflict between science and faith as ways of thinking and believing, vs. 2) the brain’s ability to negotiate said conflict. Since you’ve given us zero evidence by way of brain science which support your central claim, you’ve given us no reason to believe that claim.

20 Ant February 22, 2013 at 1:48 am

@ Ruairí (& apologies for misspelling your name earlier)

Is Stephen a scientist? Are you?

I explicitly did not neglect that. That was the whole point of my first comment! “But science – through repeated observations and experiments by independent researchers – minimises those [dangerously subjective elements, biases, whatever].”

The whole methodology of science has developed to avoid personal and subjective biases, to reach intersubjective consensus about the models that best fit reality.

Professional scientists know, as Richard Feynman did, that the first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool — “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement [think, “cold fusion” or “arsenical lifeforms”!], you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.” (Feynman; “Cargo Cult Science”)

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21 Ant February 22, 2013 at 1:53 am

@ Griff

“you carry on with the usual pop-atheist science-and-religion-are-two-different-things routine”

Sorry? Are you suggesting that science and religion are not two different things?

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22 Griff February 22, 2013 at 3:36 am

@Ant

No. Not in the least. I’m citing it as a cliche. A true cliche, but one used as a dodge, in this instance. Allegedly, we’re dealing with the question, “Can we believe in both science and religion”? And that question is hardly answered by citing the differences between science and faith, is it? Either the human brain can believe two diametrically opposed views of reality simultaneously without malfunctioning in some way, or it can’t, and given that there are millions of people who believe in both religion AND science, the answer, clearly, is yes, the brain can do that. And more. Since Michael posed the question in a broad and unqualified form (“Can we believe in both science and religion”?), there are only two possible answers: yes or no.

Since “yes” is the answer we arrive at by observing reality, the position taken by Michael and other atheists is one that requires a heap of proof. Of course science and religion are two different things, but that’s not the question. The debate question isn’t, “Are science and religion the same thing?” All I’m asking is for the author to 1) deal with the actual question and 2) give me a good reason to believe his central claim.

23 Michael Nugent February 22, 2013 at 4:00 am

Griff, the question was a motion for a debate, and I did not formulate it myself.

For the purpose of a meaningful debate, it is implicit that the question means can you coherently believe in both, or do they contradict each other.

If you interpret the question in the trivial sense that it is technically possible to believe contradictory things, there would be no debate.

That is why I began by saying:

“I suggest that if you do believe in both science and religion, you are not doing either properly…

“You can claim to believe in both, and indeed you can to an extent believe in both, until you reach an issue where the two approaches clash, and then you have to choose.”

And that is why I ended by saying:

“Finally I want to say that the big difference between science and religion, and why you should not believe in both, even if you can believe in sections of both, is that not only do they clash but believing in religion corrupts your search for truth.”

So that is my central claim, as you put it, and I think I have given good reason for reasonable people to believe it.

24 Griff February 22, 2013 at 4:02 am

And while we’re on the subject of logical dodges, can someone please explain what on earth the existence of God has to do with the central question (“Can we believe in both science and religion”?). We’re talking about belief–specifically, about the human ability to “believe in” science while “believing in” religion. Whether the articles of a given religion are factually true or not is irrelevant to this question.

25 Griff February 22, 2013 at 4:16 am

It’s irrelevant whether or not you formulated it yourself!! Good grief. It’s the question being debated, whether you came up with it or not. Hello.

I’m taking the debate question at face value; that’s not reading it in a trivial way, that’s taking a broad and unqualified (and, hence, meatless) question as it was stated. I’m weary of the atheist gimmick of clarifying after the fact. If you want a meaty debate, pose a meaty question.

Please explain what “coherently believe” means. The science behind “coherent belief,” please. A reason to believe that you’re giving us anything more or less than your opinion of how people should use their noggins. Because essays such as yours are presented as if they carried the backing of science. If so, what science?

I’m pro-choice, pro-feminist, progressive, pro-science education, excited by the space program, fascinating by brain science, and I’m a believer. My devotion to, and advocacy of, both areas (religion and science) does not, in any shape or form, favor one or the other. You seem to think such a compromise is inevitable. Why should we think agree with you? Because science and faith are two different things? Because arguments for a supernatural, all-powerful God are invariably circular?

26 Griff February 22, 2013 at 4:18 am

Er, I meant, I’m fascinated by brain science. Brain science doesn’t find me fascinating (nor does it have any reason to be).

27 Michael Nugent February 22, 2013 at 4:50 am

I don’t know what you mean by ‘the atheist gimmick of clarifying after the fact.’ I didn’t clarify after the fact, I clarified in my introductory remarks. And if I had clarified after the fact, I’ve no idea how that would have been ‘an atheist gimmick’.

That said, I don’t think we disagree as much as it may seem. We both agree that we can believe in some aspects of science and some aspects of religion without any problem arising.

We both agree that humans can believe contradictory things. I believe that we should try to not do this. I believe that if we notice that we are believing contradictory things, we should try to identify which belief is more likely to be true.

In the context of religion and science, this happens most obviously when religions make assertions about the natural world, and science suggests that these assertions are more likely to be false than true, based on applying reason to the best currently-available evidence.

28 Jeez loueez February 24, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Einstein, raised a militant atheist and probably not even circumcised, claimed that the more he engaged in scientific inquiry, the more he became convinced of the existence of god.

However, people with no scientific background, but who are called to pontificate at parliamentary hearings, would know a lot more than
he.

Individuals with damaged hearing can no longer detect the high notes.

But just because they can’t hear those notes doesn’t mean those notes
don’t exist.

String theory, quantum physics and numerous other high pitched tonalities may one day shatter atheism’s glass house.

Scientific discoveries, particularly in the field of theoretical physics, don’t always reinforce the case for atheism.

In fact, they often undermine it.

Einstein himself eventually became “spooked”.

29 Griff February 24, 2013 at 5:40 pm

@Jeez,

Good grief. Your post is a God-of-the-gaps poster child.

And an example of, “Just because you can’t discount it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” The burden of proof, reversed.

As Michael noted, when we reduce God to Those Things We Don’t Know (as opposed to Those Things We Weren’t Meant to Know, which Boris Karloff was always tampering with in his Universal flicks) we create a very tiny God, don’t we? And one quite easily brushed aside by a nanosecond’s rational consideration.

First and foremost, God is a human construct. In popular, mainline Christianity, God functions as the idealization of our best, most charitable aspects (and a renunciation, however loving, of the other kind). A God who can’t even control the will of Man is hardly a God fit (or able) to run the universe.

If Einstein had thought, for a moment, that all the answers to the universe were just around the corner, he wouldn’t have been much of a scientist. And we know that he was one hell of a scientist. But thanks for helping we theists look like the usual idiots. I mean, when the other side has set a mile-wide rhetorical trap for us to fall in, what can we do but happily leap in with both feet, screaming “Yeeee-haww!!” Well, I could name some options….

30 Jason February 25, 2013 at 7:12 pm

As a Bahá’i, I do not believe that science and religion contradict each other. However I certainly agree that, in terms of what the term ‘religion’ refers to today, there is an inherent contradiction between the two. This article sums up what the Bahá’i-faith has to say about the unity of science and religion; a very interesting read: http://info.bahai.org/article-1-3-2-18.html

31 Ant February 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm

A very interesting read? No. Not really.

A religious leader simply declaring science and religion to be compatible by fiat doesn’t make them so. In fact, by doing so, he rather proves they’re not.

/@

32 Griff February 25, 2013 at 11:27 pm

@Jason,

Okay, I’ll bite. What does “the term ‘religion'” refer to today?

33 Jay February 26, 2013 at 12:52 am

For those interested some examples of religion reaching outside the supernatural and metaphysical……
http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/
http://secularbuddhism.org/

34 bonny zimmerman February 26, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Perhaps the physical proof of Gods powerful potency will be revealed some day within these 118 material elements our universe is made of. Is not science the study of how the matter within the universe changes and works and religion the study of how spiritual “things” work to change us….you know, a person can choose to change from being nasty and critical and mean spirited to becoming helpful and patient and kind hearted for example. Can we not deal with the issue of does spirit/soul/God exist without fixating on any particular “religion” since the key “religions” were all writen out centuries ago like the Vedas-Upanishads/Bible/Koran etc,for spiritual guidance during the time when most people did not read or write or travel outside of their own villages yet most if not all of these religions acknowledge Gods existence and our own God given individual, personal souls existence. We now know more about what matter is and scientists have done a most excellent job over the centuries of decyphering how intricate the structure of the smallest atom to the smallest dna/rna particles really are thanks to nuclear micro-scopes etc. so the most supreme question these daze is….is Spirit and all “its” various complications as real as this most complicated and facinating material NRG-fire/water/earth/heir,lolololo! Enjoy the inheiritance <3

35 Ant February 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm

@ Jay

According to some definitions – see, say, A. C. Grayling’s Ideas That Matter – without the supernatural elements, those are no longer religions.

@ bonny

No, there is no “Spirit”. Nothing mental exists that isn’t grounded in the material. Our minds are epiphenomena of the lumps of meat in our skulls; there is no evidence of any kind of mind independent of matter.

/@

/@

36 Griff February 27, 2013 at 8:49 pm

@Ant,

I love tough-guy science answers. Lumps of meat. Ooo-ooo.

I also love your absolute certainty–“Nothing mental exists, etc.” That’s my central problem with the pop-skeptical movement, which, back when James Randi was its star, struck me as smarter and, certainly, more humble. Now it has all the answers, as opposed to the most carefully reasoned ones (biiiiig lump o’ difference). I beware anyone or anything with all the answers. I don’t care if it’s someone telling me I’ll go to the fiery below if I don’t literally believe in Bible miracles or if it’s someone convinced that science knows everything. Because, believe it or not, there is an essential difference between “everything” and “everything we know.” The former is absolute; the latter is anything but.

The skeptical movement, as it exists these days, is its own worst promo.

37 Griff February 27, 2013 at 8:52 pm

And, yes, the pop-skeptical movement carries on as if science knows everything. It’s no longer Randi’s movement, which is why I no longer have anything to do with it.

38 Ant February 27, 2013 at 9:49 pm

@ Griff

Of course science doesn’t know everything — else it’d stop. (h/t Dara Ó Briain)

All conclusions in science are provisional. But some are so well supported by the evidence it’s literally irrational to spend any time entertaining contrary notions. OTOH, if you have good evidence to the contrary, go ahead and publish.

/@

39 Jay February 27, 2013 at 10:21 pm

@ant

I take your point regarding ac graylings definition. I suppose it depends on how you define religion – I agree it must be a set of beliefs some if not all un-falsifiable but it can also include practises that come from a devotional or contemplative source equally definable as ‘religious’. I posted those examples to show that some who have a practise (and by this I mean more than just holding a set of opinions) that comes from a religious tradition don’t neseccarily have to have views that are incompatible with science as Michael asserts.

I bow down to the Buddha because he represents a higher ideal not because he can do me any favours. I meditate because it teaches me about my own mind. I try as best I can to follow a path of Buddhist ethics because they continue to add value to my life. I even chant the sutras (Buddhist teachings) every now and again because I admire the message that they teach. I do not hold any supernatural beliefs (there are many in Buddhism notably reincarnation) because there is no loss in doing so as a secular Buddhist. The practise is what is important. I think we stand to lose a lot if we take the polarising views of the New Atheist movement and do not give credence to the wealth of wisdom that exists within various religious traditions. And I don’t just mean pilfering a few Good Ideas. I mean practise, devotion and ethics that can help us become better human beings…maybe even Buddhas ;-)

40 Ant February 27, 2013 at 10:39 pm

@ Jay

Most if not all of the conflicts that Michael describe stem from the supernatural element in religion; that, and privileging faith as a “way of knowing” over empiricism and reason. I recall that Alan Watts was keen to stress that Buddhism was a philosophy rather than a religion.

If Buddhist practices help you make sense of the world without science denialism, that’s just fine. Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement also finds value in Buddhist meditation, so I’m not sure that your criticism is entirely well founded.

/@

41 Ant February 27, 2013 at 10:41 pm

*that Michael describes

42 Griff February 28, 2013 at 1:00 am

@Ant,

You misread my post in precisely the way I predicted you would–congrats. Unfortunately, I set myself up by even mentioning science.

The point I made concerns the attitude of absolute certainty displayed by the pop-skeptic movement today, and how genuine, truly bright skeptics like James Randi avoided absolute certainty by making skeptical challenge/inquiry a matter of “Show me.” For instance, instead of professing to know for certain that the brain is but a blob of meat, a true skeptic says, “There’s no evidence to show otherwise.” Big, big difference.

Does that clarify, hopefully? I’m not taking science to task, or its methods, or its findings. Dig? I’m taking the pop-skeptical movement to task for its rigid, fundamentalist-style certainty. If you feel like commenting on THAT topic, please do.

43 Ant March 1, 2013 at 7:09 pm

@ Griff

Well, I glad you’ve found a way to feel superior. But…

You said, “For instance, instead of professing to know for certain that the brain is but a blob of meat, a true skeptic says, ‘There’s no evidence to show otherwise.’”

But what I said was just this! “Our minds are epiphenomena of the lumps of meat in our skulls; there is no evidence of any kind of mind independent of matter.”

(In any case, it is incontestable that the brain is a blob of meat; the question is around the origin of mind.)

Epistemic humility is all very well, but there comes a point where the sceptical challenge of “show me” is inane theatre. “Show me your evidence for the luminiferous aether!”

/@

44 Griff March 1, 2013 at 8:42 pm

@Ant,

You wrote:

“No, there is no ‘Spirit’. Nothing mental exists that isn’t grounded in the material.”

And my point stands, exactly as stated, that the alternative to claiming knowledge you do not possess (“No, there is no ‘Spirit’), the skeptic notes that there is no evidence for the existence of a “Spirit.” Ditto for nothing mental existing that isn’t grounded in the material.

However, if you know for a fact that nothing mental exists that isn’t grounded in the material, then terrific.

Please note I’ve taken no sides regarding the issue of spirit vs. lump of meat. (In fact, I personally believe there’s nothing beyond the material.)

45 Griff March 1, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Sorry for the mangled English. I should have typed, “Instead of claiming knowledge he or she doesn’t possess–for ex., there is no spirit–the skeptic notes that there is no evidence for the existence of same.'”

I usually proofread my posts. Except when I don’t.

46 Ant March 1, 2013 at 8:58 pm

@ Griff

Well, some of us are fallible. Or uncharitably, this might be revisionism, since your first criticism was surely focused on the “lumps of meat”.

Re my “No, there is no ‘Spirit’. Nothing mental exists that isn’t grounded in the material.” Well, of course: There’s no evidence to the contrary. Cf. the luminiferous aether.

Oh, and please watch out for the dragon in your garage.

/@

47 Griff March 1, 2013 at 10:12 pm

No, my “first criticism” referred to your entire claim. I assume that the lumps of meat claim was meant to go along with, and not stand alone from, the “nothing mental exists…” statement.

Once you’ve claimed that “nothing mental exists…,” etc., all proceeding comments regarding lumps of meat, etc., are part of that claim. The phenomenon I describe is generally referred to as context, and it’s something arguers like yourself leap through hoops in an attempt to escape.

There’s no dragon in my garage. Of course, I have no garage, so maybe that’s the reason….

48 Ant March 1, 2013 at 10:45 pm

& my “there is no evidence of any kind of mind independent of matter” comes at the end of all that!

A pity about your garage; dragons can be so destructive…

/@

49 Griff March 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Okay, in the future, I’ll read your paragraphs piece by piece, drawing no connection between each clause/section/excerpt.

Dragons are good for keeping crooks away. Dragon chow, however, can be pricey.

50 Michael Schmorleitz January 25, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Who or what created matter? It “always was?” That takes a heck of a lot more faith then believing in intelligent design. Your view of science is your religion…I applaud the faith you must have to believe in luck and nothingness.

51 Jimmy March 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm

@ Michael

Can you believe in both science and religion? YES. I understand that science and religion eventually clash, when you bring up the bible and what science tells us. If I say neither or choose science for one debate and religion for another, What does that make me? Your arguments are just specific topics both the bible and science clash over. Which makes it a SCIENCE and BIBLE argument. That’s what separates me from the christian that goes by only the bible and the scientist who feeds off of just scientific evidence. I believe science is a beautiful thing, It’s brought many answers to many questions. I also believe in the impossible, something our minds cannot comprehend. Eventually you cross a point where not even science exist. When you hit that point it becomes an unsolved mystery. For religion as well. Like you said, ” If god created the universe who created god” No matter how far we go back both science and religion come to a point of being unexplained. Are minds here only let us believe what the world lets us. What’s possible and impossible exist only because its what the world created. Are logic thinking, reality, and science limit any such thing of a creator. Out of the billions of planets and galaxies at least one must hold life. Where logic thinking, reality and science are much different from here. Now all of a sudden what’s impossible on this world makes the possible somewhere else. What our world didn’t allow to exist, be our answer? The answer that we may never be able to explain. Something much bigger, the impossible. I’m both science and religious beliefs.

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