Religion and the desperation for relevance

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Here we go again.  In this article another religious apologist desperately defends religion. And in time-honoured tradition, a good way to defend a questionable idea is to attack the perceived opposition.

What the faithful like to do is to attempt to tear down science by insinuating that it is also a leap of faith – Barney Zwartz attempts this very thing in this article, albeit behind the cover of quoting others. Here is a sample of the article, and my responses:

For centuries thinkers have been trying to reconcile religion and science.  At first the imperative was to make a space for science in a dominant religious understanding; today it is to make space for religion amid a dominant scientific understanding (in the West, at any rate).

It seems that an endless philosophical discussion continues on this subject, but ultimately it simply boils down to two approaches to the world. We either believe in things we can establish as real, or we believe in the so-called ‘supernatural’ – by definition something not in the natural world and which has no discernable influence on the functioning of the natural world. No amount of mental gymnastics will change the fact that religion is simply a belief. Faith is in fact a central tenet of religion, so there is no dodging it. Therefore the two systems are irreconcilable.

Where Lightman really impressed me was his acknowledgement that science, as a philosophical commitment rather than the specific practice of it, also requires a leap of faith. He talks of the “Central Doctrine of science”: “all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe.”

Thus, the doctrine goes, though we do not know all the fundamental laws now, and what we do know may change (as Einstein’s law of gravity replaced Newton’s), they exist and are in principle discoverable by humans. But of course, as Lightman admits, this cannot be proved. It is, as I said, a leap of faith.

Now, more committed atheists may resent that terminology, but that doesn’t alter its truth.

So, he impressed you, Barney. And with that hoary old ‘science as a leap of faith’ stuff. Simple by attaching the words doctrine and faith, borrowed from the religious lexicon, does not make science so. In addition, Barney, either your quotation from Lightman is wrong, or you have misunderstood. Science simple does not maintain that “those laws are true at every time and place in the universe“. This is simply incorrect. Science simply states that a certain law is our best understanding for a given time and given set of circumstances. The process of science is in updating the time and circumstances as our knowledge increases. This is the humility of science, to be contrasted with the dogma and hubris of religion.

He agrees with scientists such as Francis Collins and Ian Hutchinson, who are Christians, that science is not the only avenue to knowledge, there are interesting questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. “Obviously vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analysed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

Once again, trivialising the process of science does not enhance your argument. Characterising science as the nerd in the corner is just another put-down, correct? Allow me to put forward and alternative interpretation. Using your examples of history and philosophy, and notwithstanding that science has been invaluable in assisting with the elucidation of history, it is possible to see both history and philosphy as systems of belief. If I can confirm a piece of history, oh, by means of, say, evidence, then great. Otherwise, said history is a belief only. Similar logic can be applied to philosophy. Philosophically, the quantum world cannot exist. Evidence proves that is does. In the absence of evidence, all philosophy is simply a belief.

Do you see your problem Barney? Science is not a separate subject – it is a method of thinking, which can be applied to any subject. Religion, history, philosohpy – any evidence to support a claim? No? Then they are beliefs. Yes? Then we have knowledge about that subject.

He also acknowledges that the role of science, as another philosopher of science put it,  is to measure the marks that matter makes on matter. Science is always focused, where philosophy or religion may not be. Lightman says: “At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions.”

Again, more bollocks. Such beliefs are either totally misguided or intentionally misleading, simply to make an argument. For example, theoretical physics has no definite answers. If scientists really behaved in this way, then no discovery would ever be made. And how does one know if questions actually do have clear and definite answers? If ‘clear and definite’ is the only criterion for doing science, then a whole generation of string theorists have been practicing religion or philosophy – anything but science.

Lightman eventually offers a theory of reconciliation whereby religion and science can co-exist if the religion involves a non-interventionist deity who does not enter the natural realms that are the subject of science. I haven’t room to explore that now.

I’m not surprised you’re avoiding this discussion. This betrays such a misunderstanding of the world that it’s breathtaking. If a deity is non-interventionist, and does not enter the natural realms – then how the hell does this deity have any influence at all? What is the point of the being?. And if it is a being at all, should it not have some properties that allow its existence to be inferred? No, this is just lame.

As I have argued before, humans have to see their lives in some sort of narrative, and it is this that provides shape and meaning, whether acknowledged or not.  In the absence of a theistic narrative, science has filled the hole for many people.

More hubris. Religion is the only thing that can fill people’s lives – otherwise there’s a hole, right?. Do these people not get it? Religion is simply not necessary to live, and enjoy life.

So another scholar, Bruce Lincoln, says that, rather than a singular thing or essence, religion is better understood as a form of discourse that makes a claim to a particular kind of authority. What makes a discourse religious is when it claims an authority that is believed “to transcend the human, temporary and contingent, and claims for itself a similarly transcendent status”. Without anyone necessarily intending that to happen, I suggest that for many a belief in science has slipped into that category.

Yes, let’s reinforce the furphy once again. To believe that science ‘claims for itself… a similarly transcendent status‘, is to follow religious dogma, born of desperation for relevance, hook, line and sinker. Science claims no authority other than that all claims are supported by evidence. It does not claim infallibility, for its practitioners are fallible. It simply claims consistency, doggedness and transparency. Importantly, it provides humans with a means to feel that their understanding of the world is advancing and that they have some control over it. Contrast with this the stagnant teachings from pulpit, mired in ancient thinking, and reliant on blind acquiescence and the practice of magical thinking.


3 thoughts on “Religion and the desperation for relevance

    neutralturn said:
    November 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t disagree with any of rationalbrain’s arguments but I do have a problem with what I see as their essential futility. Theists cannot prove there is a god and atheists cannot prove there is not. I think that ultimately people believe what they are comfortable with, even what they enjoy believing. I like the idea of a purely material cosmos, an enormously complex, vast and awe-inspiring entity, operating under a set of laws none the less beautiful for being, possibly, understandable by humans. The idea that all this might be subject to the arbitrary interference of a god, particularly one with the personality of an archaic, vain and autocratic tribal chief is one I find offensive. I like my universe and I don’t like the god universe.

    Others do not like my universe. They feel more comfortable with a universe ultimately controlled by some sort of living being, at least vaguely like them and potentially contactable by them.

    Theists and atheists are defined by these emotional preferences and neither will ever change the other.

      rationalbrain said:
      November 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

      Ah yes, but there is mounting evidence (there’s that word again) that these preferences do change – see my recent posts on atheists in the pulpit. I suspect this is the tip of the proverbial.
      I concede however that there may also be leakage the other way, and I’d be very interested to hear about any such examples i.e. atheists finding religion, but just can’t picture it somehow (death-bed conversions will need to be accompanied by very solid evidence, and those under duress (like Galileo) don’t count). Let’s look into that. My thesis would be that atheist-religion change is a non-commutative process, akin to entropy, where finding atheism is the low energy ‘rest’ state, but going back the other way requires lots of effort. Put another way, I suspect that clear thinking is easier to acquire than to lose.
      Anyway, lunch soon?

    ɹǝɯɐןq (@blamer) said:
    November 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Two words: false equivalence

    occurs when someone falsely equates an act by one party as being equally egregious to that of another without taking into account the underlying differences which may make the comparison patently invalid.”

    So this is another attack on science as if it’s a competing religion.

    Their argument suggests all belief systems (religious or otherwise) are in a competition but that nobody can agree on how to reconcile the conflicting beliefs.

    However academia has produced such a method; natural philosophy. And it turns out it works. We can explain and predict the material world with greater and great precision using the scientific method. And everything else is turning out to be immaterial.

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