Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#30 - Science and Religion - Revisited

American Heathen:  aired: 02 March 2013

I’ve discussed the relationship between science and religion in past essays (here and here and here and here), but I have another perspective on this to share that’s new to me, at least.  Science is based on evidence and logic, religion is based on belief in supernatural entities – in the absence of evidence other than “sacred” documents, which are no better than hearsay.

However nonsensical their position might be, fundamentalists who accept the literal truth of everything within their “sacred” scriptures have at least taken a logical position that if these texts are literally the words of their deity, then we mere humans are required to live by every jot and tittle therein.  This means a whole host of immoral deeds aren’t only authorized, they’re mandatory for believers:  genocide for unbelievers, incest, rape, misogyny, murder, slavery, human sacrifice, bigotry, and so on.   Although we modern, first-world societies evidently have rejected these behaviors (for the most part) as immoral, large groups of people among us in the USA have embraced christian fundamentalism, as well as the tactic of pushing their religious morality on everyone.  Their sacred book commands them to seek dominion over everyone in the world and to commit what we would consider immoral acts. 

Many of my “moderate” believer friends, on the other hand, assure me that their belief is the true version of christianity.  This means, of course, they evidently have the god-like power literally to define what “true christianity” really is, and it always just happens to validate their cherry-picking.  Furthermore, they clearly deny the literal truth of various parts of their bible, choosing to see the endorsement therein of immoral deeds, contradictions, and late-Bronze Age mythology about the natural world as something to be swept under the rug.  These moderates believe in an ancient Earth, not a 6000-year old version.  They accept the validity of evolution as an explanation for how species came about and the disappearance of older species for which evidence can be found in the fossil record.  They’re just fine with seeing storms and volcanoes and asteroids/comets as natural hazards, not the direct result of supernatural intervention by an angry deity. Despite accepting a scientific understanding as the only valid way for understanding our natural world, they cling stubbornly to religious beliefs for reasons of their own that simply can’t be rational.

I often get a response from moderate believers that not everything in life is rational.  Fine.  I certainly have never disputed that.  But if you accept science as the way to discern truth from falsehood with regard to the natural world, it would seem appropriate to assume that you accept logic and evidence as a valid way to draw conclusions about issues in at least some non-scientific aspects of your life as well. 

For instance, the topic of “History” is not identical to science, but it’s pretty obvious that historians proceed by a process quite similar to the scientific method.  Logic and evidence do have an important role play a role in writing history.  And honest historians don’t lay claim to any absolute truths, just as scientists don’t.  Only provisional interpretations of the evidence.

The arts aren’t bound to evidence and logic – rather, they allow human beings to express themselves on an emotional level.  There’s no need to impose science on art, although science may contribute technologies that permit such self-expression in new ways.

Morality is a fascinating topic of human thought, and one of great concern since it governs our interactions with other people.  Is it rational or irrational?  There’s an emerging group of scientists who believe there are logical, natural processes that operate to create what people mostly agree to be a “code” for moral behavior.  Clearly, not everyone agrees on a single version of what defines moral behavior, but some christians in the USA (and some muslims in the Middle East) are particularly eager to impose their version of morality on everyone.  In my world, that’s immoral behavior!  Religious moral codes are supposedly drawn from the content of the ‘sacred’ texts that underwrite those religions.  If you believe (without evidence, of course) in the literal truth of every word in those texts, then based on your faith, it’s actually rational to do whatever those scriptures command, despite any current version of morality that negates those commands! 

But if you’re not a fundamentalist, then you’ve already admitted that the bible is not the authoritative source for human morality, whether or not you even recognize it!  Your choice is not to be a misogynist, or a slave-holder, or a murderer, or a rapist, or a bigot, or a child-abuser, etc.  Thus, you’re disobeying mandates within your religion’s “sacred” text that’s supposed to be the cornerstone for your morality!  Surely you must have an explanation for your moral choices that’s based on some sort of logic and evidence, rather than justifying it completely illogically, with no evidence.  When deciding what is moral behavior on some basis other than scriptures, is it acceptable to have no justification for your decisions?  Should logic and evidence be considered completely irrelevant in making critical life choices?  I think not.

The problem with belief in an absolute, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity is that such a deity can’t be all those things at once.  Moreover, religions based on absolutes are fragile, coming completely unraveled if you don’t accept everything they say.  If you accept the value of logic and evidence in science, why should logic and evidence be abandoned when they threaten to shake your cherished irrational beliefs?  If you embrace what science has to offer, should the methods of science be avoided when they point toward the absence of any reason for belief in a supernatural diety?  To do so is an error in logic.  You can’t embrace science and religion  without embracing a contradiction – contradictions are unacceptable in logic/science but apparently quite acceptable in religion.  The choice, as always, is yours.  But non-fundamentalist believers can’t offer any acceptable logic for why they’ve rejected logic in their spiritual life.  Basing important choices on faith is inherently a dangerous thing to do, and definitely is not a reasonable thing to do.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.