Category Archives: Science & Religion

Science and Religion: A Not So Sympathetic View of Religion

Science and Religion portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).

In response to Alhazen’s views covered in my last post, Professor Darrell Arnold penned this thoughtful reply.

You make various points in your post, underlining the value of a religious, or perhaps we should say spiritual, mindset. Your main point seems to be that scientific and religious explanation, or religious life, inhabit different domains and fulfill different needs. And you argue, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I agree with you that religion in some cases serves functions that you allude to. Some people are deeply committed to religion because they see it serving fundamental needs that science doesn’t serve. These are needs for a personal sense of connection with something greater than themselves or for connection to a caring community.

However, religion all too often it doesn’t seem to serve those purposes at all. For Jason, for example, and clearly for many others, religion has largely been oppressive, undermining free-thinking and even empathy. Jason may wish to speak for himself. But his experience of religion doesn’t appear to be like the one you talk about. His experience is that his religion supported racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and more. Further, it didn’t support intellectual development or curiosity. Rather, it claimed a dogmatic solution to every problem. Jason’s experience with religion is similar to that of many others. Now having this experience, are you suggesting that Jason or others like him should nonetheless continue to look within religion for some reserves of truth because those are uniquely provided by religion?

I do not doubt that some — with strong religious impulses — feel a need to continue on some kind of religious quest, and possibly to rely on religion to address some of life’s questions that evade science. Various people seem to me to do this with a spirit of honesty. But I guess I don’t think religion is necessary for these purposes — as the source of connection or meaning, or for building community, or certainly for ethical action.

I do think one of the issues with secularism is that it often does not do a very effective job of helping to meet some of the needs that religion does meet for some — of providing a sense of purpose, or a sense of belonging within the world, or a sense of community. This failure means that some secularists retreat from their communities and only are concerned about taking care of themselves. This doesn’t seem to have afflicted Jason. But in any case, I don’t agree that religion is the only way to address those failures. And in fact, many forms of religious life don’t solve but exacerbate the very problems mentioned. Think of the high incidence of suicide among transgender and homosexual religious youth.

Looking at the demographics of global population growth, I don’t expect the eclipse of religion anytime soon. So I hope that religions more seriously take up the needs that you mention than they now do and that they play a less adversarial role with science. If there are two domains, religion, too, needs to respect the one of science.

Unfortunately, a look at demographics doesn’t lead me to think that religion will generally develop in these ways. Rather, it will develop much more in alignment with the way that opponents of religion see it working. It will all too often continue to offer simplistic dogmatic answers to questions scientific and non-scientific. It will all too often continue to defend bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia in the name of God and truth. It will offer insular communities. For that, I’ve little hope that the world will become increasingly secular, with populations of people with mindsets apparently similar to Jason’s, such as we find in Scandinavia. That’s a pity because it is, on the whole, those nations that have the most social forms of political and economic development and that have taken up climate change and environmental concerns seriously.

I’m with William James that religion meets a unique need for some, one not met by science. These tolerant forms of non-dogmatic religion will surely play a role for many in our immediate future as well. But many of the most humane people I have known have found no need for the kind of experience of the transcendent that James talks about. And they’ve no need for the kind of malformed community that religions all too often form.

For some of those, forms of community are lacking. Secularists need to do more to facilitate such forms of community and to emphasize possibilities for collective action in organizations like the Sierra Club or other such groups. The world we also be a better place if more people did what John does and tried to write clearly and approachably about questions of meaning from a secular perspective, so that those who find that religion does not resonate with them have some non-religious insights to draw on — the way apparently Jason has — in ways that give them a greater sense of a meaningful life. One of the most regrettable realities is that when people are going through individual crises, it is often fundamentalist religions that are first available to offer them (thoughtless) answers and entry into (malformed) communities.

To get back to your baby/bathwater analogy — if an analogy of that sort is appropriate, I’m not sure how much of religion is in the bathwater. Maybe meaning and value beyond instrumentalist reason are. But this, it seems, can be found in various ways.

Science and Religion: A Sympathetic View of Religion

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry (France, early 15th century).

I received the following comment from Alhazen, concerning my recent post “Letter from a Former Student.” This response agrees (roughly) with the independence model regarding the science/religion debate. While I reject most of what Alhazen says here, I reprint his thoughts, without further comment, for my readers.

I am not commenting here on the nature of the relationship between a student and his teacher. I wholly salute the well-intentioned and honest transfer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes between the two. This relationship, in my view, remains sacred and private. However, I’ll be commenting on the nature of the lesson learned by the student from the teacher which, in a nutshell, is; what science says about the world is true while what any particular religion says about it is false.

Science builds models of the world which, predict and can be utilized to engineer utilities. One obvious limitation of these models is that they tell you how and why within the confine of the model but inevitably hit two limits; first, the why of the fine structure of matter-energy and the fundamental laws of physics in the model prompting physicists to just say that they have found the universe to be so. And second, the why of the beginning or the Big Bang, prompting them again to say that there was just a beginning of time, space and matter-energy some 13.7 billion years ago.

“Laplace presented to Napoleon a copy of his work on the mechanics of celestial bodies. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of God and Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace drew himself up and answered bluntly, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Napoleon was greatly amused by this.

But of course, there is no need for God in the model. The model was designed in order to avert such a necessity.

However, nothing in the model can close those two gaps or dress those two wounds. Therefore, in my view, the true agnostic is not the one who is not sure if God exists or not but the one who is willing to not forget the gaps in the model, leaves them open and lives with courage with this unknowing.

Some scientists and philosophers escape from facing those two limits by claiming that such questions are not valid, which is true, but only in the sense that our model of the world was not designed to address those questions. However, those questions remain valid within themselves. Therefore, scientism which claims to answer all questions about the world is false in this sense.

Religion is also false by trying to answer questions about the natural world without evidence. However, the impact of religion upon man’s history goes far beyond providing an explanation of the natural world and should not be looked at from this angle. Bypassing logic and the established status quo, religion has had transformative effects on people. As an example I am familiar with, consider what the advent of Islam had done to the weak and scattered warring tribes of Arabia. With it, the tribes united to forge a great force of transformation in world history. The same can be said about many other religions. In this sense the philosophies of the enlightenment are religions, capitalism is a religion, communism is a religion and scientism too is a religion.

Man has always been creating myths to close the gap between his experience of the impersonal universe and his need for some kind of meaning.

Those myths have the power to forge together a large number of people’s thoughts, literature, and actions in order to lift the community from a stagnant status quo to a new level of being with people finding meaning in their struggle or efforts to achieve a better end; Enlightenment is from irrationality of the dark ages to the rationality of philosophy and scientific thinking. Capitalism; from feudalism to free labour. Communism; from ruthless capitalism to socialism which eventually led to capitalism with a human face as in welfare states. Scientism; from myths and miracles to science as the grand explainer.

There is a baby in the dirty tub water of religion; don’t throw it away with the dirty water. Find it, take it out and nurture it, and only then throw away the dirty water. I don’t know what or where this baby is, but tentatively it appears to be close to the mystic and dogma-free paths which I see in some religions.

Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 5, 2016.)

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks” A Brief Critique of the Public

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 4, 2016.)

“Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks”
A Brief Critique of the Public

A recent piece New York Times article, “Building a Better Human With Science? The Public Says, No Thanks,” reports on a new survey by the Pew Research Center which show public skepticism about improving the physical and intellectual life of the human species. As reported, “Americans aren’t very enthusiastic about using science to enhance the human species. Instead, many find it rather creepy.” Of course a visceral sense of disgust—what philosophers sometimes call the “yuch” factor—isn’t a good reason to reject new technologies. Antibiotics, in vitro fertilization, and countless beneficial technologies also elicited negative visceral reactions before their use became widespread. And, in the social realm, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia also emanate from deep inside our ape-like brains.

The survey also “shows a profound distrust of scientists …” a particularly painful finding. The public seems unaware that science is the single best means humans have ever had to uncover the truth about the world, as well as being the primary source of human progress. Without science half the people reading this sentence would have died of childhood diseases, and those surviving would have had a short and painful life without clean water, dentistry, vaccinations, antibiotics, and an adequate food supply for billions. And this is to say nothing of planetary communication, computers, air travel, indoor plumbing, etc.

The survey specifically asked the public about three futuristic technologies: 1)using gene editing to protect babies from disease; 2)implanting chips in the brain to improve people’s ability to think; and 3)transfusing synthetic blood that would enhance performance by increasing speed, strength and endurance. The finding weren’t surprising, but were nonetheless depressing: “The public was not enthusiastic … even about protecting babies from disease. Most, at least seven out of 10, thought scientists would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” I’m glad such sentiments were less widespread in the early part of the twentieth-century when childhood diseases were virtually eliminated.

The finding that was most interesting to me was that:

Religiosity affected attitudes on these issues. The more religious people said they were, the less likely they were to want genetic alterations of babies or technologies to enhance adults. The differences were especially pronounced between evangelical Protestants and people who said they were atheists or agnostics. For example, 63 percent of evangelical Protestants said gene editing to protect babies from serious diseases was meddling with nature. In contrast, 81 percent of atheists and 80 percent of agnostics said it was not fundamentally different than other ways humans have tried to better themselves.

These results confirm what I have experienced teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades. When students maintain a religious, usually Christian, worldview, they overwhelming oppose scientific and technological progress and innovation; whereas when they don’t hold a religious worldviews, they are generally receptive to scientific and technological advance. The reasons for this are straightforward. If you believe an omnipotent super-being fashioned a good creation then there is little need to significantly modify it. Furthermore, if said super-being governs that creation and demands respect, then we best not meddle with either the creation or the super-being. On the other hand, if students believe that whether such super-beings exist or not it is up to human beings to determine their own fate, then they typically find ideas like enhancing our bodies and minds much less problematic.

The public also expressed the typical concerns about how such technologies meddle with nature, a version of the “let nature take its course” argument. Again, not surprisingly, it was religious believers who adopted this viewpoint much more often than non-believers. There is much that refutes this argument, but suffice it to say that almost everything about modern medicine is about meddling with nature; it is about not letting nature takes its course. Letting nature take its course means that when you contract an infection your immune system either destroys it or you most likely die. In the past, simple infections were potentially deadly and amputation was a common medical practice. So do you really believe that we shouldn’t meddle with nature? And does doing so follow from a belief in the gods? Why wouldn’t the gods want us to use our reason to improve the world?

In fact the results of these surveys are amazing if you think about it. The majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! I suppose either they believe we should not try to make things better—a truly astonishing claim—or they believe there is a better way than science to make the world a better place. And what way would that be? Would constant petitionary prayer to the gods eradicate cancer? Would fervent belief in Jesus or Mohammed do the trick? Of course many religious people accept using science to improve the human (and post-human?) condition, but there is something about religious belief that makes scientific and technological progress harder to accept.

But the most important point is this. While there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if one is serious about making things better, they should use scientific knowledge and its application as technology to do so, for those have been the most successful means of improving the human condition in the past.  Science is the primary reason we live longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before.

Religious Belief Might Bring About the End of the World

I recently did a book review of Phil Torres‘ important new book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. Here is a sample of my effusive praise for the book:

… Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science.

This praise was ever so slightly mitigated by my concern that the “secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology … We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial . . . [so]. . . consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion.”

Torres replied with a powerful response that I’ll reprint in full:

I would agree that the book doesn’t adequately deal with apocalyptic scenarios brought about by phenomena that are “non-religious” in nature. In one of the appendices, I do mention how eschatological beliefs imbue and animate strictly-speaking “secular” ideologies, such as Nazism and Marxism. The point of the book, though, is to specifically focus on the potential connections between religion and existential risks — to show that these two topics are mutually relevant, and therefore that the secular community and the x-risks community ought to be speaking to each other. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious terrorism is the leading motivator of terrorism today, and as I attempt to argue in a forthcoming Skeptic article, I think there are fairly robust reasons for thinking that apocalyptic terrorism — arguably the most dangerous kind — will actually increase in the future. (Several terrorism scholars that I’ve sent the paper to share my conclusion, as it happens!)

Furthermore, while human irrationality — the ultimate danger here — can take many forms, such as nationalism, radical anarchism, and so on, I take it that religion offers perhaps the most compelling instance of bad epistemology in the world today. It’s also an immensely pervasive social-cultural phenomenon that, according to Pew, is projected to grow this century. Reasons like this are why I focus on religion in particular. But the ultimate point here is a very, very good one: there most definitely are other phenomena that could nontrivially increase the probability of an existential risk. (Is North Korea motivated by religion? Arguably, yes, a “cult of personality.” But there’s a lot more to be said here about this ongoing, and possibly increasing, danger, that doesn’t immediately fit into the categories that I discuss.) As John mentions, we could be greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, territorial, and so on. So the point is definitely understood, and further exploration should be a focus of future work! In the last chapter of the book, I note that there are few shoulders upon which to stand when it comes to x-risks studies, simply because the field is a mere 20 years old, at most (in my estimation; starting with John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Once the field emerges a bit more from a “pre-paradigmatic” state, perhaps a more comprehensive analysis can be given.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that Torres’ book is extraordinarily important.