Friday, August 1, 2008

Science as religion

Obviously this is a debate in which I have considerable interest.

Writing in Salon, Karl Giberson reflects on the new atheists and their elevation of science to the status of, well, religion:
The grand creation story at the heart of this new religion of science inspires reverence among those invested in its exploration. The world disclosed in this story rests on a foundation of reliable and remarkable natural laws. These laws -- gravity tethering our planet to the sun, fusion reactions producing sunlight, chemistry enabling our metabolism -- possess the capacity to bring forth matter, galaxies, stars, planets and even life, all within a framework of natural processes that we can understand. And as we decipher these processes, their marvelous character only enlarges. No matter how well we understand them, they still evoke awe and surprise. The modern scientific creation story is so much more than a mere alternative to the traditional biblical myth of Adam and Eve; it is a genuinely religious myth with an astonishing depth.....

The other pieces of the new religion also fall naturally into place. Our existence is a gigantic miracle, billions of years in the making, and way more interesting than any magical conversion of water into wine. The atoms in our bodies were forged in the furnaces of ancient stars that exploded, seeding our galaxy with rich chemistry. Our planet and its life-sustaining sun formed from this recycled stellar debris. "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon."

The scientific creation story, unlike the parochial accounts in our religious texts, belongs to all of humanity; it is the story of the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Christians, the Confucians, the readers of PZ Myers' blog. We share this story with otters, giraffes, hummingbirds and the stars overhead. Atheist theologian Loyal Rue sees in the universality of the scientific story hope that a fragmented and suspicious humanity might find common ground on which to build a global village of trust and cooperation. "We are, at the moment, in many different places, with many histories and hopes," he writes in "Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution." "But we are now called together to one place, to a shared history and to a common vision of enduring promise. If there are saints enough among us, we shall survive."

Wow, sounds like a religion, doesn't it? The religion of the rationalist? But be careful, Giberson warns....

Could we be sure, for example, that this new scientific religion would not give rise to the extremism and aberrant behavior that plague conventional religions? Would concern for the diversity of life, for example, inspire vegetarians to blow up slaughterhouses, and run the local butcher through his or her own meat grinder? Would reverence for the cosmos reinvigorate astrology? Would appreciation for natural selection bring eugenics back out of the closet? In other words, if science dismantles the traditional religious content that people use to satisfy their impulses -- many of which are quite passionate -- will we really be better off?

I suppose if humans were truly capable of reasoned and rational behavior, the answer would be "no", but that's clearly not the case. Our tribal instincts to divide into "us" and "them" occurs regardless. And if you want passion, go to a science meeting where two investigators have divergent viewpoints on the structure of some molecule or other--veritable fireworks between them, and slash-and-burn savagery under the protection of anonymous peer review.

Giberson further reflects,
I am worried that attempts to treat science as if it is a religion will only drive the big, abrasive wedge currently between science and religion even further into the chasm of misunderstanding. What we should hope, instead, is that science can become a more congenial guest in the house -- church, temple, mosque -- of religion and not be so determined to proselytize or even evict all of the current occupants. There is much in religion that need not trouble the scientist and much that the scientist can value. Scientists must learn to live with that.

I would add, so must the religious learn to live with the scientist. The mystery must be on both sides.

In order for many of us to truly feel at home in the universe so grandly described by science, that science needs to coexist as peacefully as possible with the creation stories of our religious traditions. I share with Myers, Dawkins and Weinberg the conviction that we are the product of cosmic and biological evolution, that Einstein and Darwin got it right. But I want to believe that, through the eyes of my faith, this is how God created the world and that God cares about that world. Does this belief, shared by so many of our species, make me dangerous?

Once again, I come up with the idea of ambiguity: no bright lines, but shades of gray receding into foggy uncertainty. I think that humans WANT something they don't understand and can strive towards. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, wrote Robert Browning, or what's a heaven for?

I am happy to admit that I don't think we will ever understand everything. I like endless possibilities. I don't feel the need to fulfill them with God; your mileage may vary. But truly, can't we all get along?


fear not said...

Gilberson writes: "reliable and remarkable natural laws" - is what science is discovering.

Well.... what about quantum theory? Where at some moment... that can't be predicted... all the quanta (in the entire universe!) all "leap" together. However, there is no predicting in what direction they will "leap" - and is it part of a wave or a particle? Depends on how you measure.

So, to me, this is part and parcel of "Holy Mystery." Something links all the quanta in the universe. They are all in sync with this Something. That, to me, points to the Holy One.

I too am in love with the gray areas. Ambiguity. Uncertainty. And I personally think the tolerance of gray is a mark of Wisdom.

Mystical Seeker said...

Myers's response to an earlier comment by Giberson, as Giberson relates in his article, is really telling. Myers went completely off the deep end and attacked Giberson for refusing to toe Myers's party line. It just confirms what I had already suspected about him--he is completely off the deep end, rigid and intolerant and fundamentalist.

There is something ironic about a proponent of science, which is ostensibly involved in inquiry and opens itself to criticism and testing and revision, being just as dogmatic as the religious mindset that he attacks.

James said...

I agree -- give me grey areas! Let me postulate on the possibilities. But for my two pence, science enhances faith. I have such a problem with any view point that excludes any other possibilities. Thanks for posting this IT. You should go read my atheist friends' experience at holy hour. I thought of you as I wrote the comment.

dr.primrose said...

OT. Story in today's L.A. Times about out-of-state funding -- both pro and con -- connected with the California initiative that would repeal marriage rights for same-sex couples -- Funding for California ballot initiatives flows in from out of state:

"At least 39% of the $3.3 million supporting Proposition 8's proposed ban on same-sex marriage has come from outside California -- much of it from Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs group headed by conservative Christian James Dobson.

"Opponents have drawn 52% of their $5.7 million from outside the state."

Anonymous said...

I wish I were more of a scientist so that I could say something more illuminating about the relationship of science and religion. I guess my lay perspective on the difference is even though science may lead some to awe and wonder, that awe and wonder still seem to be rooted in the question known as "how?" The religious question is closer to "why?" When the two questions get mixed up, it seems to me that we either get the "creature" confused with the "creator" (science as religion) or the "mind of the creator" confused with the "mind of the creature" (black and white religion). Give me a good question instead of a firm answer any day, and I'll be happy.

Apologies if that's either pure pablum or completely off-base in this discussion.

cany said...

Bravo, IT! I was trained in the sciences (both life and physical) and I think Scott's post pretty much sums it up for me, in a secondary way, as well.

I, too, am fond of gray:) The black or white realities hold little to consider.

From an atheist's point of view, I suppose Christianity is more trouble than God is worth, at least that is how I often read the POV. And the reverse might be true, also: That God is more trouble than Christianity is worth. I think the former reflects, perhaps, Christian action (e.g. "911 happened because of gays, feminists, abortionists...), and the latter more of a "rules, rules, rules!" way of thinking!

Both science and God have their beautiful mysteries which is why I find their combination even more enticing!

JCF said...

I like endless possibilities. I don't feel the need to fulfill them with God.

I find it interesting that, as most theists (I would think) view God as infinite, you (IT) see God as closing off your "endless possibilities".

I wonder: is it something about that short, Anglo-Saxon word "God"? If we claimed the universe(s) were created by Endless Possibilities [NB: I add the capitals only for nominal personalization!], would that feel less limiting? ;-/

johnieb said...

Well put, IT, and very close to my own understanding, for what that's worth, and, as you allude to so eloquently, that's quite a lot.

Fred Schwartz said...

What a great post. Ambiguity generates curiosity generates research generates learning generates ambiguity.

RudigerVT said...

Brava, altissima.

One thing to note: a tolerance of ambiguity is itself a personality dimension. Some have it; others do not.

Those who do not are ill-equipped for the reality of science, which is both chronically ambiguous and rigorous.

To be confronted, daily, with the fact that your facts are inherently provisional is either something that motivates or irritates.

If it irritates, then you're on a fast road to burn-out or misconduct (faking the data to clean up reality so it fits your 'reality.')

It is my armchair-psychologist's observation that the same is true in the realm of religion organizations (not to be confused with 'religious,' as so many are not, IMHO). The people who are, in fact, LOW on tolerance for ambiguity, trend in two separate directions.

First -- and obviously -- toward dogma, received wisdom, and so-called eternal truth in the form of detailed laws and behavior codes (which, allegedly, are perfected and apply for all times, in all places, to all people).

Second -- and at least as irritating -- toward a complete and total muddle. The ambiguity-intolerant cannot abide the spectre of putting out something that is principled and general (let alone possibly in need of later revision), because then they are left to face the fact that, in stating such principles, you are owning up to the very possibility that makes them so antsy: it's ambiguous.

I can have compassion for such people. But I don't have to be part of organizations where they are in charge (ie, most religion organizations). Such organizations come to reflect the leaders' inclinations and then attract like-minded folk.

Again, compassion for them, but I don't want to be around them (in large numbers) and I certainly don't want to be subject to their rules. Getting things done in such organizations is impossible and pointless. And after a certain moment, their very suffering is uninteresting: the same depressing results from doing the same things the same way.

This is why, generally, I prefer the quirks of scientists and ambiguity-tolerant religionists. Better? No. Better fit for me as I am and as I want to be? Yes. I'm sure.

If -- as may be the case -- the ambiguity-intolerant gain the upper hand in TEC, okay: so be it. Sayanora! There's only so much I can do to head that off. It would be a redirection, as it's been the organization's course for a long, long time.

This is not a threat (do it my way or I'm out of here). And it's not meant to be an indictment of any developments in TEC. But I simply do not accept the proposition that any organization's evolution is proof of God's will, the influence of the Holy Spirit, or even of natural selection (ha).

Meanwhile -- thank you, God -- there's science. Perhaps I'm now one of those who treat it as his religion and invest it with faith. If so, uh, was that supposed to be an insult? Are there really people (ambiguity-intolerant relgionists) who think that my profession of such is an admission of sin?

My faith in science is not bound up in the certainty of Truth, but in an adequate degree of confidence that, as currently construed, given the currently available options, it's the best show in town. I'm reasonably confident that it will endure long enough for me to put in another good, oh, 30 years.


Josh Indiana said...

Ah, glorious atheism, with its deification of the goddess Ambiguity!

Believe whatever you can and will. But many millions of us are drawn to "religion" not because of holy texts and ancient myths, but because of a relationship with a most real Person, here and now, today.

If you don't get that, you don't get anything.

IT said...

No, Josh, I don't "get it". Your "real Person" is to me, frankly , a ficitional character in a mutual mass delusion. I'm trying to find a common ground for coexistence. Clearly you don't think such a common ground is possible, or even desirable. You don't "get me" either. The difference is you don't care to try. Oh well.


JCF said...

"mutual mass delusion"

Or perhaps, a mutual mass illumination?

A lot of this comes down to epistemology: what is "real"? What is "True"?

If the standard is empiricism, then faith loses every time.

For some of us, au contraire, empiricism has its limits. ;-/

IT said...

Granted, and I am willing and able to concede that. We all have our "limits" to empiricism. Remember I'm the one who quoted Browning...

But don't get me started on the neo-constructivists.

I just found Josh's comment rather dismissive, which I try not to be.


JCF said...


I'm not hep enough to philosophy to get that one. Tell me more? (w/o a Wiki link! ;-p)

Josh Indiana said...

If there's anything dismissive in this thread, it's IT's summary declaration that faith in God, the most real Person of all, is a "mutual mass delusion."

If I am deluded, it's all quite personal, not primarily the result of group behavior, nor of sacred texts, nor of any other of IT's bugaboos.

And yet that which is personal is also validated in the experience of millions of individuals over thousands of years who encounter God as a living Person - to our complete shock.

IT's "fiction" is to others the most important reality of all. I grieve that IT is unable to perceive this or explain it in anything more than stereotypes; they drank the Kool-Aid. Boy, isn't that a simplistic explanation for the complex phenomenon of faith.

One would think a scientist might dig a little deeper, but no. If IT can't see it in a telescope or a microscope, it doesn't exist. The efficacy of the scopes cannot be questioned; that's an article of faith.

Coexistence with atheists has vexed the faithful for centuries, and led to Calvin's very crude notions, declined by most Anglicans, that God "elects" some people and rejects others. Faithful people don't see how this could be so when our experience of God is of pure embracing love. How could God reject the scientist? It isn't possible. Many scientists have been persons of faith; God doesn't reject whole categories. God doesn't reject anyone (or she'd have rejected me).

Still, IT hangs around here in Anglican Land, two toes in, eight toes out. She is a friend of Jake.

Yet Jake was also one who was certain that faith isn't a matter of sacred texts, but of relationship. God rescued him over and over and finally made him a priest to keep him in line. That's Jake's testimony.

His faith is incarnational, which is a fancy way to say he got collared before he could steal any more hubcaps or unleash any more switchblades.

I am glad for IT's two toes in. All I'm trying to do is refute the claim that ancient myths and "mutual mass delusion" have anything to do with why many of us believe that Jesus Christ is It, The One, the I Am.

Sometimes I've got eight toes in, sometimes only two. But I will never walk away from this Living Water.

IT said...

Now, that's more like it, Josh. My comment about "mutual mass delusion" was purely in response to your somewhat snarky first comment. If you read my original post, I was trying very hard not to insult believers. Though like many believers, you have no problem insulting non-believers as simplistic and rigid fools. And you don't like it when the tables are turned. Point made.

I have no problem with you believing, Josh, the point is whether YOU have a problem with people who don't. My participation here is to find that common ground. I'm married to a believer. I share a world with believers. I'm interested in how intellect and faith intersect in th modern world and how belief and non-belief can co-exist. The others seem to welcome my participation. you do not. Go figure.

IT said...

Neo-constructivists, JCF, believe that there is no such thing as an objective reality apart from the bias of the observers. Or so they tell me. (I don't understand all those trendy terms that are used by my colleagues in the humanities).

Before the rest of the world caught onto the internet (back in the day when us geeks labored on chat boards via our mainframe accounts) I had quite a long conversation with one such. Now, I will be first to admit that the observer (the scientist) brings inherent bias to the process. The question is whether there is a fundamental truth there to be found. I asked my correspondent whether he was saying that the enzyme RNA polymerase functions differently in Chicago and San Francisco--not whether some measurements differ, but whether the thing itself differs. he said "Yes".

A great exposé of this was published by a physicist a few years ago. Here's a lovely description of how George Sokal showed that this trendy viewpoint is a load of bollocks.

JCF said...

Hmmm. That sounds like Subjectivism...

...and I plead guilty.

DO "enzyme RNA polymerase functions differently in Chicago and San Francisco--not whether some measurements differ, but whether the thing itself differs"?

I honestly don't know.

...however, I can see why it would be a conventional presupposition to assume that they do not. Because such a presupposition would be useful. (Instrumentalism?)

But I also believe our concepts of "usefulness" are, in themselves, subjective. (But if a constant of enzyme RNA polymerase functions could ever keep me alive, then Kewl!) Perhaps Josh believes a "constant of perceived deity-relationship" just as useful you do, IT, w/ enzyme RNA polymerase functions (I do, anyway. I think *g*). I hope that helps.


Question, IT (if you don't mind answering publicly---otherwise, feel free to email me): do you remember a time of ever believing the RC faith you were raised with, then losing it, or is it your memory that you never really believed in the first place? [I'm going to assume you never had a relational faith, as Josh indicates above---correct me if I'm wrong?]