Archive for the 'Science & Religion' category

Intelligent Design is Scientific Fraud AND It's Bad Religion

I'm posting this just to make sure the record is clear: I don't like Intelligent Design. The people who push it are culture warriors with a religious agenda that involves the denial of science. People who believe it are either confused and have been sucked in by those with an agenda, are cynical culture warriors who want to see science attacked, or are legitimate honest backers who really don't realize that by backing Intelligent Design, they're rejecting the fundamental basis of science.

I hope that's clear.

The reason I say this is that there is a post on the Intelligent Design blog "Uncommon Descent" that includes a quote from an earlier post of mine that appears to be supporting their argument. I reject their argument, and I reject the Intelligent Design behind them. The basis of their argument is that the "Darwinists" (a bad term, as it conflates science and religion) themselves can't agree about whether relgion is consistent with science, and so therefore you can't trust that it is. This, of course, has no logical basis. Hell, look at me and look at Uncommon Descent: thesists also disagree! What does that tell you about the issues behind them? Not very much. Trying to figure out what is true based on finding subsets of those who argue about it who have one thing in common but disagree on something else doesn't tell you a whole hell of a lot.

Looking at the post my quote is from, in retrospect, worrying that the ranting frothing of New Atheists is going to hurt free software is silly (Oracle, the closed gardens being built by the likes Apple and Facebook, the patent lawyers at Google, Samsung, Apple and others in the smartphone business, the MPAA and RIAA, and rhetoric over cyberterrorism don't need help from any form of atheists). However, I do stand by my rejection of the position on science and religion held by the New Atheists— those atheists who insist that modern acceptance of science requires atheism, and that having any form of religion is inconsistent with it. Not all atheists think that.

Any more than all Christians think that the Bible must be read literally, or any more than all Christians think that you must reject biological evolution.

So do NOT take my quote in the "Uncommon Descent" blog in support of what they're saying as any kind of support whatsover for the position taken by that blog.

Evolution is extremely well-established science. It is one of the cornerstones of biology. You can reject it, but in so doing you're rejecting the basic methodogy and mode of sciecne. And, I think that the evidence around us, the many huge successes science has had in describing our world and allowing us to manipulate it, makes rejecting science as a way of constructing reliable knowled rather absurd. New Atheists are sometimes befuddled by theists like myself who believe that there is wisdom in the Bible but reject things like the creation story as literal truth; how can you "pick and choose" is usually the sophomoric comment made in blog comment threads. Part of the reason of that is that in the intellectual mode of thought represented by science, you can't pick and choose. You can, and all of us are, be more convinced by some lines of evidence than others. Dark Matter is assuredly real, for instance, but Dark Energy, while I think it is probably real, may instead be a pointer to cracks in our theories. But you can't reject some lines of science because you don't like the results philosophically, if the scientific evidence is there. And the evidence for evolution is there, completely and overwhelmingly. Reject evolution, be it by being a classical creationist or by being an Intelligent Design supporter, and whether you know it or not you are rejecting science itself.

As for why I say it is fraud, that is well documented. While there are trained scientists out there who believe in Intelligent Design, honest ones who've managed to confuse and convince themselves that there's something to it, that's not where Intelligent Design came from. This has been well documented, in the case of the Dover trial and elsewhere. The lobbying organizations who push Intelligent Design and those behind the movement aren't scientists who beleive that they have a better theory, or even highly confused pseudoscientists like the backers of Plasma Cosmology, but they are (at least in the USA) Christians who think that science is a threat to their form of their religion. Intelligent Design was cleverly designed as a strategy to package creationism in such a way that it might be able to slip into school science curriculums where raw creationism was not able to. This is the way in which it is scientific fraud.

As for why it's Bad Religion— I covered that five years ago in my post Intelligent Design: a trap for Christians. Precisely because it's designed to sound scientistic, it allows Christians who think that accepting Christianity means that you can't accept modern science, including Evolution, to think that they're accepting science without having to reject their Christianity. But it's a trap, because as I've already said, it's not only bad science, it's fradulent science.

The real truth is that you can do what I have done, what Guy Consalmango (the Vatican Astronomer) does, what Ken Miller does, and what all the signers of the Clergy Letter Project do: accept modern science for what it is! Yes, some put an interpretational spin on it— evolution, you might say, may be part of God's engine of creation or some such. The difference, though, is that you don't have to deny the utterly rock-solid scientific truth of biological evolution, of mutations mediated by natural selection leading to change in species and the development of new species over time. Yes, you will find lots of Christains out there who say that you're fooling yourself by thinking you're still Christian (or a follower of whatever other religion— again, I talk from my point of view). Yes, you will find New Atheists out there who will hurl all sorts of insults at you about being intellectually dishonest because you haven't accepted the one true religion of atheism in your heart. (And you will be a bit struck by how the similar the fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians sound. Indeed, look at that Uncommon Descent post I linked to— they're agreeing with the more annoying and frothy New Atheists such as the Jerry Coyne that things like Evolution Sunday and the Clergy Letter Project are no good. There's more common ground between the New Atheists and Uncommon Descent than there is between me and Uncommon Descent!) But there are lots of us out there— probably not a majority, given how sadly strong the right-wing religion movement in the USA is today, but probably a plurality!— who are in the same position, the position of fully accepting modern science while recognizing that one may be an atheist or one may be a theist at the same time.

If you're Christian, do not fall for the trap of Intelligent Design.

And if you're atheist, don't fall for the trap of New Atheism.

And, in any event, don't take my arguing against Intelligent Design as evidence that I'm a New Atheist or that I hate religion, and don't take my arguing against New Atheism as evidence that I'm in any way, shape, or form accepting of Intelligent Design.

10 responses so far

Why I don't like the term "Gnu Atheist"

You will say that a group has the right to call themselves whatever they want, and you will be right. I just wish they hadn't chosen that term. It extends this group's screwing up cultural battles that don't need to be fought into yet another realm I care deeply about, and as with the first, it can only make things harder and more complicated.

Who are the "gnu atheists"? Well, first, a word of warning. If you try to define them, they show up and accuse you of choosing a definition for purposes of setting up a straw man. However, most of those in the movement formerly known as "New Atheism" seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word "reason" as a synonym for "application of scientific reasoning", thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren't in a science or engineering department, but they tend either not to realize that they're doing it, or to downplay that.)

Beyond that, a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed "reason", citing the names of logical fallacies the way fundamentalists cite scripture. They will assert that they know the Truth and that therefore it's perfectly justified for them to say frankly insulting things, and then say that others shouldn't be offended by the Truth. They seem to think that non-fundamentalist theists are prevaricators who "pick and choose" from their religion, and thus are somehow misrepresenting their own religious beliefs. I generally think that this is because they'd prefer to argue against fundamentalists, for it's extremely easy to show how fundamentalists are at odds with science. But, it's very disheartening to see somebody who wants people to accept science then criticizing a theist for not being a fundamentalist. It is the behavior of this subset that leads me to the conclusion that "fundamentalist atheist" is the best term for this sort of atheist. Most atheists, thankfully, are not like this, but there is the subset that argues that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by reasonable people who accept science— much as fundamentalist Christians argue that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by people who are good and "saved".

What is the first cultural battle that these "gnu atheists" make more difficult? Well, obviously, the whole religion/science debate. Given that a substantial fraction of the USA is religious and values their religion, it should be pretty bloody obvious that if self-styled defenders of science are out there saying that science is incompatible with religion, it is only going to put up more barriers against the bulk of the population accepting science. Of course, sometimes obvious things are wrong— quantum mechanics is full of examples. And the new atheists are fond of pointing this out, arguing that there is no evidence that what they're doing is harmful. Of course, there's also no evidence that what they're doing is helpful... but they don't seem to think that a lack of evidence coupled with what is obvious disrespect and very plausibe harm is enough for them to question their behavior. What's more, when you do present evidence, they will often dismiss it as anecdotal, or not clear statistical evidence, or not enough evidence, in a manner that frankly reminds me of this comment on Phil Plait's blog by a creationist who insists that without complete timeline of all mutations in evolution, one shouldn't accept evolution. (Aside: despite having the same first name, I did not write that comment!)

These "gnu atheists" will attack defenders of science such as the Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshbaum, or Josh Rosenau, for pointing out the obvious harm that their tactics could do to our shared cause. They will argue that the National Center for Science Education shouldn't be saying that science and religion are compatible, because if they're really about "science" they shouldn't be saying anything about religion at all. This last tactic is particularly annoying, because of course they themselves will not hesitate to go out and say that science is incompatible with religion. After all, the way that they've defined things, they're just telling the truth, and anybody who claims to defend science and says that religion might be OK is venturing into off-limits territory. They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious— on the basis that it is incompatible with their philosophy, and therefore non-atheist scientists have something wrong with them (they're "compartmentalizing", or "intellectually dishonest", or some such).

So. We've got a cause that a lot of us care deeply about— mainstream acceptance of science, scientific reasoning, and the scientific method. We have those out there— fundamentalists of various religions, most obviously— who want to reject much of science, and who have a distressingly powerful voice in public political discourse. And, we've got a broad population who are religious and care about their religion, but who are capable of accepting science. Then, we have a subset of those arguing for science who also argue that accepting science means having to reject religion... which of course provides direct support for the fundamentalists who argue that scientists are cultural warriors trying to take away everybody's religion. That's not true, but the fact that some scientists are out there saying that makes it much harder for people like the NCSE to argue that the scientific establishment really doesn't want to destroy religion.

In other words, I'm annoyed at the "gnu atheists" in the first place; not just because many are so blinded by their love for their own philosophy that they can't see that it isn't necessarily objective truth, and not just because many are frankly rude and insulting while thinking there must be something wrong with me if I find them rude and insulting. I'm annoyed at them also because they're getting in the way of a cause I care about, mainstream acceptance of good science and scientific reasoning. There are a lot of religious people out there who have no problem with evolution or the Big Bang, and there are a lot more who wouldn't have any problem with it if they really learned about it and learned how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science. Those people are people we should reach out to. Telling them that religion is idiotic, or intellectually dishonest, and that the real people who accept science must all be atheists, isn't going to help.

What's the second issue? Open source and free software. "Huh?" you may say? To be honest, I don't know the etymology of the recently-arisen term "gnu atheism", but I'd wager that it's taking the term "new atheism" (which caused all sorts of boring pedantic and semantic arguments) and riffing it together with Gnu of the Gnu project. The Gnu project is one of the original projects that pushed the notion of open source and free software, long before the term "open source" was coined. Much of that movement today would not exist without what the Gnu project had done. A lot of the core software you use on your Linux system was written under their auspices. But, more importantly, the Gnu project gave people like me, people who have a strong ethical attachment to the notion of free software, a central place to rally around. And, crucially, they provided the Gnu Public Licence, or GPL, one of the most important and most widely used free-software licenses.

Of course, there are some in the business world who see free software as a threat. So, there have been, and will continue to be, disinformation campaigns that try to link free and open source software to other dubious and/or Unamerican things, such as communism, computer crime/hackers, rampant disrespect for copyrights, etc. It's a complete misrepresentation to say that there is a conflict between "the interests of business" and free software, but that is a narrative that's out there floating about. What's more, those who tend to care about "the interests of business" are likely to be, at least in the USA, on the "right" side of the political spectrum in the common but flawed one-dimensional model of political opinion. Those who are religious and worried, or potentially worried, that the scary scientific mainstream is trying to destroy religion are also more likely to be on the right side of the spectrum.

Put it together. You have this movement out there, the subset of atheists whose stated goal is to destroy religion and who assert that complete and intellectual consistent acceptance of science requires a rejection of religion. That is a movement that people who aren't already atheists are likely to view with suspicion. Now, they've taken a name that seems to link them to something that is completely separate, open source and free software. It bugs me already for aesthetic that these guys have hijacked the term "Gnu". But it can't help but create a link in some folks' minds between this crazy hippy dubious philosophy about sharing software you've written to attacks on religion. In sort, free software may now be perceived as having something to do with yet another cultural assault that, frankly, has nothing whatsoever to do with free software. "GNU public licence? Isn't that related to those scientists who want to destroy all religion?" Sigh.

Life is hard enough for those of us who want the world to accept science, and for those of us who want the world to at least be compatible with free software. It only gets harder when some act in a way that is basically the caricature of what our opponents already claim we are.

104 responses so far

One-Slide Explanation of Tides

I realize that this Bill O'Reilly quote is two weeks old, which in Internet time is a substantial fraction of the age of the Universe. And, the Internet being what it is, a top conservative commentator can't say something this butt-ignorant without having bloggers jump all over him within seconds. So, yes, I realize that I'm way, way behind the times, sort of like somebody getting all snarky to the dinosaurs because they didn't invest in programs tracking near-Earth asteroids. But, still, I think it bears repeating, to remind ourselves collectively the kind of people who are shaping the agenda of an entire political party in the USA right now.

Here's my one-slide explanation of how the tides work:

Click image for larger version

This slide does go along with some speaking, normally. Indeed, it is one (of 28) slides that I'll be using in the talk I'm giving in Second Life in about half an hour, all about interacting galaxies and whether or not they're connected to the phenomenon of active galactic nuclei. (Really, tides are relevant to this story!)

17 responses so far

The Difference Between Religion and Woo

In one of my first couple of years as a physics professor at Vanderbilt, fellow astronomer David Weintraub introduced me to another faculty member we ran into at lunch. He was from one of the humanities departments— I forget which. When David introduced me as somebody who worked on measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, this other fellow's immediate response was that the only reason we astronomers believed in the Big Bang theory was because of our Judeo-Christian cultural bias that there was a moment of beginning.

I was quite taken aback. I tried to talk about the Cosmic Microwave Background, light element ratios, and so forth, but he waved them all off. I mentioned that his assertion wasn't even historically correct: earlier in the 20th century, the steady-state model (the Universe has always been as it is now) was if anything the dominant cosmological model. His response to hearing the postcard description of the Steady State Universe: "I like that one better." Scientific evidence be damned....

It was really quite an eye opener. I had run into a living stereotype of the post-modernist deconstructionist, who believes that absolutely everything is a social construction. He had quickly judged the intellectual output of a field of study he was ignorant about based on his own bias and methodology. While I suspect that scientists have overreacted to post-modern deconstructionism, this fellow showed me that at least some of what we overreact to is real. There are those who have convinced themselves that absolutely everything is a social construction. Thus, the only people who are studying what really matters is those who deconstruct said social constructions; everybody else is ultimately fooling themselves and playing around with their "science" and so forth while ultimately being trapped by their cultural blinders. Of course, this is a load of hogwash, and I am led to understand it's not even really what most post-modern deconstructionist types really believe.

Why do I mention this? Because I see a lot of those who call themselves skeptics making exactly the same mistake— judging another field of intellectual inquiry on what they believe to be the one true way of reason. They dismiss things as trivial or childish based on criteria that fail to be relevant to the field of human intellectual activity they're trivializing. Specifically, there are a lot of people out there who will imply, or state, that the only form of knowledge that really can be called knowledge is scientific knowledge; that if it is not knowledge gained through the scientific method, it's ultimately all crap.

When I was in first or second grade, I wrote a story about a boy named Tom Tosels who found a living dinosaur. It was very exciting. It was also, well, a story written by a 7-year old, and not one who was particularly literarily talented. Now, from a purely scientific basis, it's difficult to distinguish this story from the poetry of Robert Frost. It's words, written on a page, out of the imagination of a person (a person named Robert, even), telling a fictional story. What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7? It's not a scientific question, but it is a question that is trivially obvious to those who study literature, culture, and history. And, yet, using my 7-year-old story to dismiss all of literature as crap makes as much sense as using the notion of believing in a teapot between Earth and Mars as a means of dismissing all of religion.

If you cannot see the difference between Russell's teapot and the great world religions, then you're no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.

Phil Plait has written three blog posts on his famous "Don't Be a Dick" speech to TAM, a meeting of skeptics. (The posts are here, including a video of the talk, and here, including links to bloggy reactions to the talk, and here, including personal reactions to the talk.) Some of the comments on the posts— including, ironically, many of those who accuse Phil of being too vague and denying the effect he discusses really exists— are excellent illustrations of what he's talking about. Some of these comments (and even some comments that are supportive of his general message) illustrate the philosophical blinders that you find on many in the skeptic movement. In the third post, there is a picture of Phil hugging Pamela Gay, a prominent pro-science speaker, a leading light of the skeptic movement... and a Christian. There are a number of responses that express the sentiment of commenter Mattias:

When will we see Phil hugging a medium — calling for us to include them in our mutual skepticism about moon-hoaxers, homeopathy or, lets say, dogmatic religion?

There are quite a number of skeptics who openly say that they cannot see the difference between religion and belief in UFOs, Homeopathy, or any of the rest of the laundry list of woo that exists in modern culture. Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don't seem to think there's any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism, or even things like UFOs, mystical powers of crystals, psychic powers, and so forth. The assertion is that being religious is a sign of a deep intellectual flaw, that these people are not thinking rationally, not applying reason.

It's fine to believe this, just as it's fine to believe that the Big Bang theory is a self-delusional social construction of a Judeo-Christian culture. But it's also wrong. Take as a hint the fact that major universities have religious studies and even sometimes theology departments (or associated theology schools, as is the case with Vanderbilt). Now, obviously, just because somebody at a university studies something, it doesn't mean that that thing is intellectually rigorous. After all Cold Fusion was briefly studied at universities, and ultimately it was shown that there was basically nothing to it. But it should at the very least give you pause. The fact that these studies have continued for centuries should suggest to you that indeed there must be something there worth studying.

Creationism is wrong. We know that. But the vast majority of intellectual theologians out there would tell you that creationism is based on a facile reading of Genesis, a reading that theology has left as far behind as physics has left behind the world-view of Aristotle.

Astrology is bunk, because it makes predictions about the world that have been shown to be false. Likewise, Creationism is bunk, because it makes statements about the history of the world and the Universe that have been shown to be false. But religion in general, or a specific instance of one of the great world religions in particular, are not the same thing. It is true that lots of people use religion as a basis for antiscience. But there are also lots of people like Pamela and myself who are religious, and yet fully accept everything modern science has taught us. There are people— theists— who study those religions whose studies are based on reason and intellectual rigor that does not begin with the scientific method. Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can't be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist. Pamela Gay is a grand example of this.

Don't be like the post-modernist so blinded by how compelling his own mode of thought is, that you come to believe that the only people who are intellectualy rigorous and not fooling themselves are those who use exactly that and only that mode of thought.

43 responses so far

Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

[T-Shirt Image]

You've probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic "primate turning into human" motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn't even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can't help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn't mean that it's true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there's also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school "associates itself" with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn't necessarily lead to bad science. It's just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn't say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the "politically correct" argument. Yes, usually one associates "politically correct oversensitivity" with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it's just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn't agree with this doesn't make it any less true. If we're going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.

3 responses so far

My message to creationist Christians about faith and science

Aug 10 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

You can still accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, while accepting all of the wonderful things that modern science has taught us about our Universe.

I know there are many Christians out there who believe in Biblical inerrancy— that it is the literal word of God, and that each and every word must be literally true. What I want to convince you is that you can take a broader view without losing what is essential about being Christian. You need not abandon your faith in order to accept Evolution or the Big Bang, but you will need to think about it in certain ways.

The wonder and beauty of our Universe is amazing. And, by this, I'm not just referring to the tremendously beautiful images we've seen come out of astronomy. Rather, I'm referring to the beauty that is inherent in what all fields of science have discovered. The fact that we can understand how natural processes work, that we can make predictions about them and learn about things that happened millions of years ago, is astonishing. Science is a creative human endeavor, the greatest works of which are on par with Beethoven's 9th symphony. Indeed, that there are harmonies intrinsically pleasing in music is in fact the result of one of the observations of science— that mathematics is the language that seems to describe the mechanisms of the natural world. Musical pitches come in resonances as a result of the mathematics of wave mechanics. Similarly, the fundamental things about our world that we know to be true are beautiful when understood. That protons, neutrons, and electrons can combine together in ways not just to produce the fascinating and complicated things that we call atoms, but can on larger scales produce elephants and trees and waterfalls, is mind-boggling. What's even more amazing is that we can understand how all of this works through science, and through science we can come to more deeply appreciate the beauty of our Universe.

There are some things science has taught us that make clear that all of the Bible cannot be read as literal history. Humans as a species evolved from earlier species, as did all other species present on Earth today. The Universe is billions of years old, several times older than the 4.5 billion years that is the age of our Solar System. Evolution and the Big Bang are two of the main things that creationists object to. Yet, they are lynch pins of their scientific fields, biology and astronomy respectively, without which much of the rest of the field doesn't make sense. Everyday experience— be it modern medicine, or the unmanned spacecraft we've sent through the Solar System— indicates that these fields are on to something, for we've been able to use them to great effect.  It just doesn't make sense to throw out these lynchpins, and then, by necessity, much of the rest of those fields.

However, just because the Bible cannot all be literally true does not mean that it cannot be true. Before the wedding of a good friend of mine, the Episcopal minister told a parable about Biblical literalism. He said that, suppose after they've been married a few years, Mike gets home from work before Margo, and is tremendously moved watching a very beautiful sunset. When Margo comes home, Mike wants to convey this to her. Does he say, "because cross-section for scattering of light is higher at shorter wavelengths, a greater fraction of longer wavelength light was transmitted through the atmosphere, allowing a preferentially red hue to reach the clouds overhead"? No... that doesn't really convey how he was moved by the sunset. Rather he says, "The sky was on fire!" Does he literally mean that there was a runaway exothermic process of Oxygen combining with other molecules in the sky above? No! And, yet, the latter statement better conveys what he is really trying to say than does the factually true statement.

Jesus himself taught in parables. Humans frequently learn and pass on understanding through stories, and we frequently are able to internalize and relate to lessons when they are taught in the form of stories. As such, there is truth in many of the Bible stories that we know from modern science cannot be literally true. If you think about it, the Bible becomes more interesting, and indeed worthy of greater thought, if you realize that the divinely inspired Word of God need not be a mere dictation of historical events, but rather are stories that we are meant to think about and learn from, and to bring new things to as we come to understand more about our Universe.

You can find some prominent science bloggers who will assert that it is not consistent both to fully accept modern science, and to hold religious faith. They are wrong. Science addresses the mechanisms of the natural world. It is true that in the past, when we didn't understand the natural world as we do today, we used religion to explain how some things happened. Today, however, science has proven to be the process whereby we can understand how the world works. But science does not provide meaning. This is why I am asking you, if you are a creationist, to please consider that your faith can remain an important part of your life, even if you cast away the need to deny things that humanity knows to be true as a result of the efforts of modern science.

Did God create the Universe in seven 24-hour days? No. Did God create humans in their current form from nothing? No. But neither of these need reduce in any way the role of God the Creator, once we understand that God is ineffable, that God is something that works and exists in a way that humans cannot fully understand. It appears that we can fully understand the workings of nature. We don't, but every year we know more. Personally, I think it greatly reduces the role of God as Creator to say that his role was simply to will things into existence. That's such a mechanistic feat. To consider that to be what is meant by God's Creation undermines the mystery of God. It makes God no more than a video game programmer, who wills into existence the worlds of games by tapping away on a computer keyboard for a while, and then lets them go on their way.

I have to admit that I don't fully understand myself what I believe to be God's role as Creator— but then again, why should humans expect to fully understand any aspect of God? God's Creation is something that is ongoing. It's not God reaching in and pushing things about here and there, making things happen like a software programmer debugging his code. Rather, God's Will is a desire for the Universe, a way that would seek to have things become better. Science has given us a view of the Universe that experimentally works, and that view does not include a supernatural entity coming in and deliberately making conscious and directed changes. On the other hand, it's very clear that there are natural conscious entities making changes all the time— us. And, when those changes are for the better, might they not, at least sometimes, be divinely inspired— whatever that really means? To me, the miracle of God's Creation is both just the possibility and potential inherent in the Universe that may come to pass as a result of natural means, and the actions of conscious beings when they seek to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Whether God is the "condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever" (to quote Terry Eagleton), or whether it is an integral property of conscious thinking beings, I don't know, but I do know that God is more than a dude with a flowing white beard who makes stuff sometimes.

In summary, the Universe is an amazing and inspiring place. There is so much elegant beauty in the scientific truths known as Evolution and the Big Bang. There is so much wonder in our world and in our Universe, that it is sad to reject those on the basis of a particular reading of the Bible. You can fully accept God the Father and Jesus the Savior without having to reject these things humans have come to learn about the natural world. I'm asking you to take a broader view of Christianity, to be able to understand the Bible as holding truths that need not always be simplistic literal accounting of events. To seek to further understand the Universe is a wonderful calling. It is not necessary then to hide the light of that understanding under a bushel when it requires us to think more deeply about our faith!

(Afterward: I'm going to be fairly strict moderating the comment thread of this post. I do not want atheists who feel the need to denigrate religion commenting here; this post is not for you. The goal of this post is not to argue in the debate about whether or not it's OK to be both religious and scientific; I personally consider that issue settled, but will continue to address it in other posts. Rather, the target audience of this post is the religious, and in particular creationists, in an attempt in a small way to show how I see Christianity being able to accept the modern scientific world-view.)

13 responses so far

Creationism is not like belief in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ

Jul 18 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

There are some out there who assert that a belief in God is not compatible with accepting science. Some try to put a finer point on it; they assert that belief in either the virgin birth of Christ, or the bodily resurrection of Christ, is not compatible with science. I want to argue that it is.

First, I do not mean to assert that I personally believe in either. I have addressed the latter (bodily resurrection) in a blog post several years ago that is currently offline as a result of a dead disk. I'll dig up the text of that and repost it here at some point. Short form: my answer to "did the bodily resurrection physically happen?" is "probably not." Believe it or not, I am not alone among Christians in thinking that. However, it is reasonable to hold that belief while accepting science, without any need for hypocracy. It's not consistent with "philosophical materialism", no, but that's a question of philosophy, not of science.

Some say that the scientific world view is not consistent with miracles. The reason is that the hypothesis that supernatural intervention happens has not stood up to scrutiny. There is no scientific evidence for it, and in the centuries in which we've been doing science, if it was happening we would have seen the evidence for it. What's more, many things that were previously believed to be the fiat of God have come to have naturalistic explanations (e.g. the ignition of the Sun, the origin of the human species). So, science would seem to rule out miracles.

In fact, it does not, and any scientist who is being careful enough, and precise enough in his language, will say that. Science certainly gives no reason to believe in supernatural intervention! And, it gives many reasons to believe that supernatural intervention is an obsolete concept. However, as with many things that we do not detect in a scientific experiment or an observational program, science doesn't rule out miracles; it merely sets an upper limit on their frequency. In other words, miracles (in the form of supernatural intervention) must happen extremely infrequently and irregularly to be consistent with the body of scientific observations.

Consider creationism. Creationism makes factual claims about the creation of the Universe (created in 7 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, with a specific order of events) and about the origin of the human species (created in its current form by God). These factual claims are false; we know them to be false, because we have extensive scientific evidence that points to other explanations.  Creationism is wrong, and belief in creationism is not consistent with accepting modern science.

On the other hand, consider the bodily resurrection of Christ. Now, we know that biological organisms that have died and stayed dead for three days decay enough that they cannot be revived. (It may well be that one day we will revive some of the cryogenically frozen people we have right now, but I think we can all agree that Jesus was not cryogenically frozen.) However, the bodily resurrection of Christ is a singular event. To believe in it is to claim that once, one guy, was bodily resurrected. (Let's leave Lazarus out of this for simplicity.) Believing in the bodily resurrection of Christ does not claim that this happens regularly. What's more, this belief does not make any claims that contradict any scientific evidence we have. It says that once, there was a miracle, and something that cannot happen according to our understanding of biology, did happen.

Could this be disproved? Probably not. I seriously doubt that if we found the remains of Jesus that we would be able to convince ourselves to any reasonable probability that that is what they were. Likewise, with the virgin birth, if we were to somehow find the remains of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, perhaps we could do DNA comparisons to find out of in fact Jesus is carrying Joseph's DNA. (Interesting theoloigcal aside: he'd better be if he's of the house of David, but then again, I'm not writing about inconsistency in the Bible... inconsistency in the Bible is well established.) But, again, this has not been done, and indeed I would be very surprised if we were able to collect the samples (or, invent the time travel) that would allow us to do that test.

Science tells us that miracles really cannot be happening very often at all. But it sets an upper limit, it does not tell us that miracles never happened. The methodology of science requires us to omit miracles in our explanations; something we cannot explain through naturalistic means remains an open question, at least for the time being, to science. Science tells us that the creation story in Genesis is not history, but it does not tell us anything directly about the specific bodily resurrection of Christ or the specific virgin birth of Christ. Science does not have a mechanism for it, so if it happened, it was miraculous, and outside science as we understand it. Science gives no reason to believe in miracles, and indeed convinces us that they are not happening with any regularity at all. However, because we cannot absolutely rule them out, it is not inconsistent to believe that those specific miracles happened, while accepting the results and methodology of modern science.

23 responses so far

On Science, Religion, and Compartmentalization

Jul 08 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

Sometimes in the debates about whether or not it's OK to be religious if you're a scientist or somebody who accepts science, some will say that those who are scientists but also religious "compartmentalize".  The implication is usually negative, and sometimes is explicitly described as walling off your scientific good sense when considering religion, and walling off the doctrines of your faith when considering science.

Of course, such a simplistic picture is far from the truth.

The truth is, though, that physicists already compartmentalize, even within Physics! Consider fundamental physics. We have two extremely successful theories, which have stood up to every experimental test we've thrown at them: Quantum Mechanics (QM) and General Relativity (GR). Quantum Mechanics does a great job of describing the behavior of atoms, molecules, subatomic particles, solids, and so forth.  General Relativity does a great job of describing the behavior of gravitating systems, such as the orbit of the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, and the Universe. However, we know that they can't both be right, because when you get into the regime where you need to consider both-- a regime where densities are so high that you can't ignore gravity even on small scales, and where you can't ignore quantum mechanics when doing gravity-- everything breaks down.

So what do we do?  We compartmentalize.  When dealing with gravity and the evolution of gravitational systems, we use GR, a continuous theory, and don't worry about QM.  When dealing with the interactions of particles that require QM, we don't include gravity in those interactions at all-- at most, we may do QM on a curved spacetime background.  And, we admit that we just don't know what happens where the two intersect.  There are some-- such as string theorists-- who are trying to work in the region where the two intersect, and, tellingly, there are other scientists who argue that what string theorists are doing isn't really proper science.

Given that physicists compartmentalize themselves, it should be reasonable to suppose then that a degree of compartmentalization is not only necessary, but eminently reasonable and rational when dealing with science and religion.  I don't mean "on Sunday, I believe God created humankind in its present form, and on other days I believe in evolution."  That's a pathological compartmentalization.  What I mean is that we know there are some things at which science excels describing, specifically the mechanisms of the natural world. And we know that there are some things addressed by religion, and by processes that cannot be described as scientific-- specifically, the existence of God (there being no scientific reason to suppose God exists), human spirituality, morality in the context of a traditional belief system, and faith. Religion may hold no meaning or use for some, and that's fine. But for people for whom it does hold meaning, there are clearly realms that religion can address which science cannot. Likewise, there are clearly realms that science addresses and which religion has tried to address, and where science has without exception proven to be superior.

So we compartmentalize. If we're talking about the processes of the natural world, we look to science, because science has proven over the centuries to be the right "way of knowing" to understand those processes, make predictions about them, and harness them. If we're talking about spirituality and faith, we look to religion, because the sorts of questions one asks there by and large aren't even meaningful scientific questions. And, unsurprisingly, there may be areas of grey overlap, areas where we aren't sure whether science or religion fully applies. As we understand these areas better, we may come to understand that something we once thought ineffable is in fact well within the domain of science. So we adapt, and adjust our compartments.

Just as it's entirely possible to be a completely consistent physicist while using both GR and QM, it's entirely possible to be a completely consistent rational person while accepting the roles of both science and faith in your life. The key is understanding where each applies, thinking creatively about how they overlap while understanding that it will be controversial and hard to decide, and being willing to adapt your understanding as the human race learns more.

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The Silent Majority : It's OK to be both scientific and religious

Chris Mooney over at The Intersection has a post where he talks about The Silent Majority— the fact that there are a substantial number of people out there who have no trouble reconciling religion and science. The debate is dominated on one side by religious fundamentalists, who deny reality in their efforts to stay faithful to a literal (and, frankly, nonsensical) reading of the Bible. On the other side, that side which is loudest and most strident in the scientific blogosphere, are the militant atheists, the types who think that any form of religious faith whatosever is evidence of stupidity, ignorance, or childishness, and that any form of religious faith is incompatible with good scientific judgement.

However, the truth is, if you talk to the faculty of a science department at just about any college in the country, you'll find that a substantial number of them (probably well less than half, but not a trivial amount) are regular churchgoers. I suspect you'd find that most are agnostic. You'd find that those who are atheists by and large don't have a problem with their religious colleagues. There are people who have religious faith, but aren't fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn't have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they're good and rigorous scientists, but they haven't mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.

There are a lot of people out there either with religious faith, or without faith but willing to admit the intellectual worthiness of those with faith, and who also have no problem with the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for global warming, the face of the billions-of-years-old Unvierse, and all of the rest of the things that modern science has taught us. Chris Mooney is on the atheist side of this; I'm on the theist side of this.

Chris asks why the reasonable sorts who don't feel the need to "hit the rails" and go to one extreme or the other of the debate, aren't heard from more. Probably because of the Rush Limbaugh effect: those who have an extreme position that involves disdain for those who disagree are able to express it ever so much more entertainingly than those who see value in accomodation. Indeed, I made some posts about my own views on science and religion back when I was in, and when I did so I would receive many vicious attacks from the commenters there-- those who are to the militant atheist bloggers as "dittoheads" are to Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever you are convinced that you are absolutely right about something-- not pretty sure, not even very confident, but absolutely right-- you should question yourself. If the vast majority of people who've thought deeply about it agree with you, there's a very good chance that you really are right. For example, I am absolutely convinced that I am absolutely right in believing that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, as the vast majority of people who have seriously looked at that evidence would agree. However, when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God, and to whether acceptance of science forces you to the latter conclusion, look around and acquire some humility-- many people have thought a lot about this, and they aren't all coming to agree that science must equal atheism. Perhaps it is compelling to you, and that's fine... but if you think that therefore any thinking reasonable person would come to the same exact beliefs that you have come to, the weight of evidence indicates that you're kidding yourself, just as assuredly as a fundamentalist theist of any stripe is kidding himself about the absolute and universal truth of his faith.

11 responses so far

An atheist whose attitude on religion I appreciate

Mar 27 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

You gotta like Phil Plait.  He makes no apologies about being an atheist.  He's honest about it, clear about it, and doesn't squirm on his position.  On the other hand, unlike some other well-known atheist bloggers, he's able to recognize that people who are religious are capable of being rational, reasonable, thinking people.

Here is a post of his where he expresses this.  And, by the way, I really like the video he's embedded, and I agree with it fully.  Creationism is bad science-- well, it's not science at all, but it's in conflict with science.  That much is bloody obvious.  But it's also really clear to me that creationism is bad religion, that it's bad for Christianity, for all of the reasons described by the video Phil embeds.  Check it out.

One response so far

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