Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah

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A perennial question, a constant product of the click-bait-and-outrage factory known as internet, that has been, and perhaps forever will be posed, answered, yelled about, and generally used to beat the life and enthusiasm out of so many reasonably evolutionary biologists is “CAN RELIGION AND SCIENCE (PARTICULARLY EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY FOR SOME REASON) COEXIST??!?!!?!!?”

The answer is a simple no, and yes. That’s it. No, because religious belief systems often tend to include specific factual claims about the material world that turn out to be total nonsense. For example, the earth and everything on it was not created in 7 literal days. Therefore, one cannot hold both this belief and the belief that scientific inquiry was a fantastic way of generating useful, more-or-less objective knowledge about the world, because actual scientific evidence absolutely refutes such a notion.

On the other hand, yes, because arguably the most important elements of religious belief systems involve claims about immaterial things, such as the existence and nature of the human soul. On these topics, science literally has nothing to say. One cannot measure with calipers, a telescope, a mass spec, an Illumina Hi-Seq or any other tool devisable by humanity, a divine presence purported to pervade all existence. The hypothesis that a God of any sort exists can be rescued from any and every contradictory empirical finding.

Perhaps you can tell, but I’ve written this rant because I’m sick and tired of the web-traffic generating mutualism that exists between religious fundamentalists and atheists claiming to champion science. They both make equally absurd and unsupported claims about religion and science. Their statements are always absolute.

This was supposed to be a link post, so if you’d like to see the New York Times opinion piece that got me all in a rage about this, here it is. But I don’t recommend reading it.

Postscript: I am in no way religious. I also recognize that certain specific religious beliefs are both widely held, harmful, and in direct contradiction to established scientific facts. I think these beliefs ought to be combated. This does not in any way change my overall tolerance of religious belief.

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3 comments on “Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah

  1. Cathy Newman says:

    As someone who genuinely liked that NYT article when I read it yesterday, I’m very curious to know where you think it goes wrong. I think about these issues a lot in trying to work out how I feel and what I feel comfortable tolerating when it comes to religion. I come from a fundamentalist upbringing, which I think has biased me towards a strong automatic negative response. But in the wake of the numerous religion/atheism/science articles lately, I’ve been struggling a lot more with these thoughts.

  2. Noah Reid says:

    Hi Cathy,

    My problem with the article is that the three issues that he says pose a problem for religion, don’t really, if you’ve accepted the thesis of “Noma”. As both the author and I agree, there are religious claims that are flatly incompatible with science (7-day creation), but if you are willing to take a more liberal view of your religion, i.e., one that might allow you the flexibility to interpret texts metaphorically instead of literally, then here are the ways I think his arguments are irrelevant:

    “Evolution undermines the argument from complexity”: this is a pretty straight creationist belief, and an attempt to prove the existence of God. If you accept any form of scientific knowledge about biology and still hold onto religion (and are honest with yourself), you’ve probably already come to grips with the fact that, if a god existed and is responsible for all “creation”, it has acted in ways compatible with physical laws that we do not have a quantitative understanding of.

    “The illusion of centrality” Again, if you are even slightly reasonable, and still hold onto religious belief, I don’t know how evolutionary biology really challenges this. Humans have long recognized physical similarities between animals and ourselves. Does a sophisticated believer of any religion believe that the physical human heart is really so much different from a dog’s heart? And if you wanted to believe that humans were somehow special, even in the face of evolutionary biology, you really don’t have to look far beyond our bodies, or our place in the tree of life. I mean, is there any evidence that any other creature on earth is even capable of contemplating nature of existence? We ARE special. I wouldn’t argue that specialness is ultimately a result of divine will, but I’m not religious.

    Lastly, the idea that evolution challenges theodicy. I find this to be just silly. Again, if you’ve accepted that naturalistic explanations exist for physical phenomena, but still believe that an omnipotent, benevolent god exists, evolution provides no more of a critique of theodicy than every other observation that horrors seem to be randomly distributed around the world without justification. And the horrors generated by evolution are benign compared to things like the holocaust.

    So, to me, what it comes down to is that he’s suggesting that evolution challenges religion because it challenges literal readings of religious texts. I think at this point that is a trivially true statement, and it doesn’t really apply to the vision of religion the non-overlapping magisteria argument is based on, so I find it to be a specious argument against the compatibility of science and religion.

    So, to reiterate my position, religious claims about the material world are often provably false, and thus incompatible with science, but a religious claims about the nature of existence, morality and how to derive meaning from life are outside the scope of science and thus theoretically compatible. Any claims that religion is wholly rotten because religious texts contain demonstrably false statements about the material world I find to be silly and reductive in the same way I find claims by religious fundamentalists that “faith” in empiricism will turn western society into an amoral hellscape to be silly and reductive.

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