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Old 01-30-2009, 08:57 AM   #1
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An Incompatibility Between Science and Religion?

A rich essay by Jerry Coyne
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Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809--the same day as Abraham Lincoln--and published his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, fifty years later. Every half century, then, a Darwin Year comes around: an occasion to honor his theory of evolution by natural selection, which is surely the most important concept in biology, and perhaps the most revolutionary scientific idea in history. 2009 is such a year, and we biologists are preparing to fan out across the land, giving talks and attending a multitude of DarwinFests. The melancholy part is that we will be speaking more to other scientists than to the American public. For in this country, Darwin is a man of low repute. The ideas that made Darwin's theory so revolutionary are precisely the ones that repel much of religious America, for they imply that, far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.

And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, "Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old."

The cultural polarization of America has been aggravated by attacks on religion from the "new atheists," writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists. Outraged religious leaders, associating evolutionary biology with atheism, counterattacked. This schism has distressed liberal theologians and religious scientists, who have renewed their efforts to reconcile religion and science. The "science" is nearly always evolutionary biology, which is far more controversial than any area of chemistry or physics. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief; the philosopher Michael Ruse produced Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (his answer is yes); and there are high-profile books by theologians such as John Haught and John Polkinghorne. The Templeton Foundation gives sizeable grants to projects for reconciling science and religion, and awards a yearly prize of two million dollars to a philosopher or scientist whose work highlights the "spiritual dimension of scientific progress." The National Academy of Sciences, America's most prestigious scientific body, issued a pamphlet assuring us that we can have our faith and Darwin, too:

Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience. Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith. And many religious people and denominations accept the scientific evidence for evolution.


Would that it were that easy! True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.
Seeing and Believing

It continues in depth, I respect the detail quite a bit.
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Old 01-30-2009, 09:42 AM   #2
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I don't spend a lot of time thinking about this. I can't say I've ever had a problem accepting science and believing in the Christian God or the possibility of a god. I don't see why it's so difficult. One of the wisest people I have ever met is an ordained Presbyterian who has a PhD studying the evolution of apes (specifically, their pelvic bones and their bone structure, how it effects how they walk and how human bones effect how we walk.....super interesting stuff).
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Old 01-30-2009, 09:55 AM   #3
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The meat and bones of the essay is that it isn't impossible for religious people to accept science, but that ultimately religious beliefs cannot fit into the scientific paradigm; they are faith based positions that cannot be falsified no matter what evidence is brought to bear
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Giberson offers another reason for his faith--we might call it the argument from convenience.

As a purely practical matter, I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God, and we attend church together regularly. Most of my friends are believers. I have a job I love at a Christian college that would be forced to dismiss me if I were to reject the faith that underpins the mission of the college. Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.

This touching confession reveals the sad irrationality of the whole enterprise--the demoralizing conflict between a personal need to believe and a desperation to show that this primal need is perfectly compatible with science.

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.

So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.
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Old 01-30-2009, 11:03 AM   #4
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The meat and bones of the essay is that it isn't impossible for religious people to accept science, but that ultimately religious beliefs cannot fit into the scientific paradigm; they are faith based positions that cannot be falsified no matter what evidence is brought to bear
I guess a religious person might see it the other way around. Think of religion as the big circle, and then all the other disciplines like science, humanities, art, etc as the smaller circles inside. I can't think of anything scientifically proven that I can't accept, from a religious point of view.
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Old 01-30-2009, 11:06 AM   #5
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One of the biggest issues on this is when it comes to people believing the world is only 6,000 years old. I heard a man one time say that carbon dating was bunk, didn't mean anything, and others have said the devil planted the dinosaur bones to ruin your faith! When it's reduced to crap like that, it makes those who hang to the 6,000 year thing look very bad. We do have to accept that the world is billions of years old because denying it is ridiculous. I don't see how this damages anyone's faith. God never gave an age for the earth, the 6,000 came from somebody calculation the 'begats' back thru time. But who's to say what happened before that? There's a way to combine the two, say, God did it all, but this (science) is HOW he did it and the seven days were only symbolic. The people who wrote the Bible didn't know what we know today about science. They didn't even know the entire western hemisphere existed. We could say, God didn't want them to know, it was up to us, the people, to obtain the knowledge and learn it in time. Looking at it this way, I don't see a conflict.
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Old 01-30-2009, 11:17 AM   #6
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I guess my feeling stems more from the fact that I just don't care. I don't care how old the earth is or why dinosaurs lived. Give me any scientific answer and it won't change what I believe or don't believe about God. I don't need a religion or a faith that spoon-feeds me answers about scientific theory in explicit detail to decide for myself whether I believe a god exists.
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Old 01-30-2009, 12:36 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Liesje View Post
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about this. I can't say I've ever had a problem accepting science and believing in the Christian God or the possibility of a god. I don't see why it's so difficult. One of the wisest people I have ever met is an ordained Presbyterian who has a PhD studying the evolution of apes (specifically, their pelvic bones and their bone structure, how it effects how they walk and how human bones effect how we walk.....super interesting stuff).
I don't have any problem with science either. Your friend's studies sound interesting! Has he written any publish articles on this topic?
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Old 01-30-2009, 01:02 PM   #8
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I don't have any problem with science either. Your friend's studies sound interesting! Has he written any publish articles on this topic?
I'm sure he has but I've not seen them. He's almost 80 years old. Very wise man with a lot of stories. Raised by white supremecists/KKK in the south, has lived in Liberia and been there about 20 times... I had him for an anthropology class but I e-mail him when I have theological questions or have lunch with him. FWIW I tried looking stuff up but he has the same name as a bunch of other doctors and professors.
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Old 01-30-2009, 02:36 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by AnnRKeyintheUSA View Post
One of the biggest issues on this is when it comes to people believing the world is only 6,000 years old. I heard a man one time say that carbon dating was bunk, didn't mean anything, and others have said the devil planted the dinosaur bones to ruin your faith! When it's reduced to crap like that, it makes those who hang to the 6,000 year thing look very bad. We do have to accept that the world is billions of years old because denying it is ridiculous. I don't see how this damages anyone's faith. God never gave an age for the earth, the 6,000 came from somebody calculation the 'begats' back thru time. But who's to say what happened before that? There's a way to combine the two, say, God did it all, but this (science) is HOW he did it and the seven days were only symbolic. The people who wrote the Bible didn't know what we know today about science. They didn't even know the entire western hemisphere existed. We could say, God didn't want them to know, it was up to us, the people, to obtain the knowledge and learn it in time. Looking at it this way, I don't see a conflict.
There are many Christians though who don't take the seven day creation as being literal though. If I'm correct, the ancient word used for "day" doesn't totally equate to a 24-hour period of time.
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Old 01-30-2009, 02:37 PM   #10
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I don't have a problem with science either. I think they work together more than people on both sides of the fence realize.
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Old 01-30-2009, 04:47 PM   #11
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God working through science raises two important points;

Firstly, if God's actions are indistinguishable from the natural workings of the universe then what point is there assuming that it exists? If it is bound by natural law, which is subject to scientific scrutiny, what makes it special.

Secondly what type of God would use billions of years of sex and death to generate humans. I have trouble seeing how can people accept evolution as a process devised by a loving God? An naturalistic position can integrate such mechanical slaughter, but it really turns natural theology on its head.
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Old 01-30-2009, 04:53 PM   #12
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Secondly what type of God would use billions of years of sex and death to generate humans.
Apparently a God you can't believe in. So what? Why worry so much about it then? Why does it bother you so?

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I have trouble seeing how can people accept evolution as a process devised by a loving God?
I don't, but you do. Again, so what?

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An naturalistic position can integrate such mechanical slaughter, but it really turns natural theology on its head.
No, it doesn't. You see it that way, but I don't.
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Old 01-30-2009, 05:04 PM   #13
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Secondly what type of God would use billions of years of sex and death to generate humans.
Maybe he was bored.
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Old 01-30-2009, 05:43 PM   #14
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God working through science raises two important points;
I guess I don't see it as God working "through" science, as if science is a tool he obtains. Science, to me, is the study of God's handiwork. He created, we study it. I see science is our attempt to understand.

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Firstly, if God's actions are indistinguishable from the natural workings of the universe then what point is there assuming that it exists? If it is bound by natural law, which is subject to scientific scrutiny, what makes it special.
His workings aren't bound by natural law, he put natural law in place. It's there for a reason. It has a purpose, therefore, it's not restrictive in that sense.

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Secondly what type of God would use billions of years of sex and death to generate humans. I have trouble seeing how can people accept evolution as a process devised by a loving God? An naturalistic position can integrate such mechanical slaughter, but it really turns natural theology on its head.
I don't know, why don't you ask him?

You have an incredible scientific mind, but I don't think you can keep trying to explain the existence or lack thereof of God with science (is that ultimately why you so bitterly disagree with the idea of a God?). He's outside of it. Does that make sense? To me, I can see plenty of evidence of a loving God. I also find it harder to believe everything just came into existence without anything behind it or that we're the result of a simple flash of lightening striking a puddle of mud. It just all comes together too well and full of purpose. However, God, if he truly exists, is outside of scientific laws and time. He created them, too.
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Old 01-30-2009, 06:07 PM   #15
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There are many Christians though who don't take the seven day creation as being literal though. If I'm correct, the ancient word used for "day" doesn't totally equate to a 24-hour period of time.
True a lot don't, but a lot do. I have seen them in action myself. I have seen kids in the library being told they can't look at a book on dinosaurs because it's full of 'lies'. I was in school with kids whose parents forbid them to listen or participate in classes where things older than 6000 were being taught, and they had to leave the room. This was excused for religious reasons just as the Jehovah's witness kids were not allowed to make any holiday items, for any holiday. There was also a news report on TV of a religious group taking kids through a museum with dinosaur bones, the group leader literally making fun of the things the museum had written on the display and telling the kids why it was all fake. Some people, too many, really do believe it's all an evil plot by Satan to destroy your faith. I've been told this in so many words.
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