Comparison of Science and Religion

This talk by Ron Herman actually proved to be an interesting one. A key topic revolved around Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria,” something many humanists reject. The domains of metaphysical and natural philosophy began to diverge with the ancient Greeks; the dichotomy really crystallized with an 1874 book by John Draper, A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. On the other hand there are “unifiers” who seek to bridge the gap, such as Francis Collins, the genomic scientist who writes about his Christian faith. But most religionists actually only accept one “magisterium.”
Herman stressed that science is not equivalent to just philosophizing, instead following a clearly defined protocol of applying reasoning to observed and experimentally derived facts in order to develop theories. Science, of course, does not rely on faith, which is an emotional commitment to a belief (in something that deserves no belief at all—FSR).
Herman: While both science and religion seek to explain the natural world, science—through a long history of hard work—has at this point succeeded in explaining almost everything we can think to ask. Religion—well! (An audience member commented that there is here an epistemological difference—does truth come from examination of the actual world, or from something imagined to be outside the world?) And, while it’s said that people who believe in both science and religion are “compartmentalizing,” Herman used the word “schizophrenic.”
Are both subject to error? Science, Herman said, does not claim infallibility; it’s religion that claims absolute truth (a little more humility might be in order for religious believers—FSR).
Is religion needed for societal reasons? There’s nothing religion does that isn’t provided by other elements of society. Secular ethics are more soundly based than anything religion offers.
Herman concluded that religion is “the greatest fraud in history.”


6 Responses to “Comparison of Science and Religion”

  1. Drona K Says:

    Sankhya philosophers (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) explored matter, intellect, higher cognition, ego and mind and their interactions and from there went on to explore the uncertainty of perception (perhaps an early precursor to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). The Vaisheshika (Hindu)school theorized atoms and other characteristics of matter and further human perception. The Nyaya school (Hindu) explored logic. Interest and study of these schools of spiritual thought were limited to the Brahminical caste. These schools of thought led to speculation on the fabric of the universe, existence (life, afterlife) versus nonexistence (death, something else?) perception (reality, illusion). These concepts could have led to enlightenment (in the nonspiritual sense) thousands of years ago.

    However, the average person just wanted something to explain the origin of the universe in simple terms (God). He also wanted a guarantee that he had some control over the future and ability to maintain the order of the universe through ritual. Rulers wanted a way to control people through the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule (found much earlier in the Analects of Confucius) and then with the concepts of reward and punishment in this life or the next with the rewards of heaven and the miseries of hell. Rulers also justified their reign through the Church. These motivations led men to discard most of the speculation that came from spiritual analysis which could have advanced mankind much earlier in history.

    We were left with religion. Which is, certainly, for the most part, fraud. The Romans, British, and other major empires were not the only ones guilty of this manipulation of the masses. The founding fathers looked at Christianity with disdain for themselves and many followed their Deist concepts. They did promote Christianity for their constituents as it would promote law and order!

  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Anthropological studies have led me to conclude that religion was one of the earliest (perhaps the first) attempts by human society to make sense of the world around them. Religion would also have functioned as a social glue, uniting people in a way that the simple struggle for survival never could. As such religion would become a survival trait, enabling humans to procreate more successfully.

    This hypothesis suggests that modern religion is entirely of human construct, and so must eventually be relegated to the ranks of mythology, just as we did for the early religions of the ancients. The hypothesis also suggests that religion came about because of a human need for some kind of moral value structure, rather than the other way around. In other words, the need for moral structure is more primary than the need for religion, which implies moral values stem not from religion, but from a more basic instinct.

    Moral values can, and do, stem from sources other than religion. You can observe this in nature where social animal species develop rudementary codes of behavior designed to maximize the survival chances of their group. With humans, religion is primarily a means for communicating moral values to members of society.

    So. religion is not required to have good social moral values, but it has been a useful vehicle for disseminating those values. It seems the big question is: do we still need religion to perform that function in the modern world? Well, in a democracy, everyone gets to decide that question for themselves. So I guess religion is still needed until no one needs it any more. But most religions have a big problem — they are in conflict with many truths revealed by modern science.

    The conflict between religion and science can only get worse, until one side or the other gives in. Science, by its very nature is a self-correcting process. Over time, science produces a larger and larger volume of inescapable truths about nature (a note to Intelligent Disign proponents — evolution is real, but this fact doesn’t prove or disprove your contention that the hand of God was involved). Every time a new scientific revelation conflicts with religion, the pressure increases.

    How can this dilemma be resolved? Only one way that I can think of. Barak Obama was right when he said that religion must reformulate it’s arguments into secular terms. It’s not enough to argue a particular Christian moral value should become law just because it says so in the Bible. Religion needs to use science to advance it’s causes (and not the psuedo-science represented by Intelligent Design, I’m talking about good science here).

    Religion needs to reconcile itself with science. It needs to recognize that the world around us is as we find it, not as they imagined it might be after reading the Bible. There is nothing inherently in conflict between science and religion. For religion’s part, it’s only when the most literal interpretations of the Bible are applied that conflicts arise. And as for science, it says nothing at all about whether a supreme being exists. Science is all about describing what we can see. Both science and religion can live together. It just takes a bit of a relaity check for religion to make this happen.

  3. Drona K Says:

    As opposed to most religions, science is a self-correcting process. It is self-correcting over the long term, yet dogmatic in the short term. Scientists believe what the most senior scientists at the time tell us to believe.

    Therefore we believed that electrons orbited in fixed circular orbits around the nucleus as opposed to the present “belief” that the electron may be found in certain regions around the nucleus with high probability and in other regions with low probability.

    One of my old biochemistry professors loved to tell the story that his old professors’ professors believed that the nucleus of a cell was a depository for the waste products of the cell. It was considered foolish and almost “heresy” at the time to think of it otherwise.

    We often laugh at those who do not accept current scientific thinking or dogma. As many theories have come and gone and the correction process goes on, it is foolish for us to believe that everything we as scientists “believe” is “true.”

    For that matter, what is “truth?” The truth about many a scientific question changes from generation to generation.

    Quantum “spookiness” is an almost religious concept that we accept today (although notables like Einstein thought it was nonsense, at least early on) with “certainty.” It doesn’t make sense to even the casual dabbler in physics and can be extended to allow us to believe that stepping on a crack will truly break your mama’s back…yet my mother’s back is not connected in any way to the crack in the sidewalk. If this is true then concepts such as karma can be true as well.

    So, where does this leave us? It leaves with the “truth” that what we as scientists “believe” may or may not be true tomorrow. In fact, what scientific beliefs we hold today may be considered as stupid as the belief of “spontaneous generation” or “use and disuse.” It is good that this is a self correcting process.

    I did use the terms truth and belief above as most of us do “believe” that scientific principles are true although we do not really know what the “absolute truth” is and we tend to accept scientific principles which may be soon overturned just as religious zealots believe the bible.

    FSR COMMENT: The real point is that — unlike in the case of religion — scientists don’t believe in the current theories concerning electrons, or quantum mechanics, as matters of faith, or as eternal truths. In fact, “belief” is the wrong word to apply. People of science accept these theories because they are the best theories we currently have to explain observed facts. (So it is absolutely NOT “just as religious zealots believe the bible.” That kind of belief is a very different animal.)

  4. Drona K Says:

    I have had professors and colleagues who “believed” in certain scientific priciples with great zeal – as if it were a “faith.” I think these folks were worse than religious zealots. Whereas the religious zealots base their beliefs on easily debunked mythology, the scientific zealots abuse the “current” understanding of science and often confuse theories (regardless of how close they may be to “fact”) with fact. It is even more ridiculous when a politician gets a Nobel Prize for a theory that is not even his because he is its prophet. Perhaps worse is the great verve with which conservatives and liberals argue about global warming when neither side understands what they are talking about. Although the current understanding of climate change seems to be the best fit theory it may or may not be “correct.” It is easy to see the zeal with which the two sides argue this point on television. I disagree when some deny that scientists do not believe in the current theories as “eternal truths.” Newton’s “Laws” are considered eternal and true! Newtonian mechanics were considered eternal, universal, and true. Of course, we then decided that Newtonian Mechanics were applicable only at certain levels and that Relativity applied at the cosmic level while Quantum Mechanics applied at the subatomic level…of course when we try to put these theories together to come up with the magnificent “T.O.E.” or Theory of Everything they break down. The quest for the T.O.E. itself is the quest for the “eternal truth” you speak of.

  5. Tony Says:

    Hello, you used to write great, but the last several posts have been kinda boring… I miss
    your tremendous writings. Past several posts are just a little out of track!
    come on!

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    THANKS for your comment … and prod to maintain a high standard.
    But I am a bit puzzled because you appended your comment to a post that was written YEARS ago (indeed, one of my earliest).
    In any case I assure you that I expend considerable effort on my blog posts. It is a real challenge to come up with good stuff on a regular basis.
    Best regards

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