Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Irreconcilable differences

The optimistic amongst us talk about a reconciliation between religion and science.  "You can believe in a higher power, and still accept science as valid," they say.  "There's no reason why religion and science have to be in opposition."  No less a thinker than evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould felt that the "two ways of knowing" could peacefully coexist, because they are designed to study different realms.  In his essay "Non-Overlapping Magisteria," he says:
The position that I have just outlined by personal stories and general statements represents the standard attitude of all major Western religions (and of Western science) today. (I cannot, through ignorance, speak of Eastern religions, although I suspect that the same position would prevail in most cases.) The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains—for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly...  I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA [non-overlapping magisteria] solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance.
Much as I would like to agree, I think Gould is wrong.   Religion and science are, at their bases, incompatible with each other.  For people that exclusively derive their ethics and morals from religion, and their understanding of nature from science, there may be no conflict; but this is not the situation for a great many people, including Christians who are biblical literalists (which includes most Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, various "Full Gospel" sects, and others, not to mention a significant minority of "mainstream Protestants" such as Methodists), fundamentalist Muslims, and orthodox Jews.  For them, the two "ways of knowing" do come into conflict, on a variety of grounds (natural and ethical), and however Gould might hope for a concordat between them, it is impossible.  Science and religion get at the truth in opposite ways, and if they are in conflict with each other, you have to choose one or the other.  There is no possible way to reconcile them.

Let me illustrate with a story that I read recently on Hemant Mehta's wonderful blog The Friendly Atheist.  In his post called "After Teacher Preaches in the Classroom, Superintendent Reveals Himself to be a Creationist," Mehta describes the controversy around Wynnewood (Oklahoma) Middle School social studies teacher Betty Carter, who taught her students that the bible was the sole source of proper morality, that the U. S. Constitution derives directly from the bible, and that evolution was false and evil.  She also had numerous posters with biblical verses in her classroom.  Clear case of violation of separation of church and state, right?  Well, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation brought the situation to the attention of the district superintendent, Raymond Cole, he responded with an email that said the situation had been "taken care of," but ended thusly:
A couple of questions I would ask you is;
If you believe in evolution, why did we stop evolving? I mean, people are generally larger today than 2000 years or millions of years ago, but we haven’t lost a toe or little finger, etc.
What happens when you die, if you”re wrong? If I’m wrong, when I die I just die, but if you’re wrong, when you die….

I have a degree in science and I’ll admit some things were very confusing, or hard to understand, but in the end my faith in God forms my belief. I have seen God work in my life and I truly feel his presence. There have been many times in my life where I have fallen short but I know in my heart that God loves me and forgives my short comings, or sins.
I dont want to jump to any conclusions, perhaps you and many of your group are Christians and are just trying to keep Church and State separate. I would submit that the single greatest reason for the violence in our schools today is this so called separation, and that the further we separate God from our schools the nearer we bring violence and evil.
Well, the FFRF weren't going to take that lying down, and their spokesperson, Andrew Seidel, responded with a blistering rebuke that took Cole and Carter to task for acting in an unconstitutional fashion and for discriminating against the children who were there, in Carter's captive audience, and who didn't believe the nonsense she was spouting.  Cole, probably sensing a losing battle should the issue go to court, backed down, and sent out a blanket email to all staff instructing them not to make religious statements in the classroom.

Now, so far, we simply have yet another in the long line of people trying to sneak religion into public schools; what of it?  I think this illustrates the impossibility of reconciling a naturalistic/scientific way of knowing with a religious one.  Because, given Cole's and Carter's belief in a religious worldview, how did you expect them to act?

Here's what I mean.  Suppose you really, honestly, and sincerely believed that there was one source of Truth out there; and the way the universe was set up, if you don't believe that Truth, you are going to be doomed to an eternity of horrible torture.  Furthermore, there is an evil agency that is capable of acting through humans, many of whom do not realize that they are not acting under their own power -- that this evil agency is using them as unwitting pawns.  So wherever the dictates of this Truth conflict with any other understanding, however it is derived, the Truth is going to win; the risk of making a mistake, of being fooled, is just too high.

Now, let's say that you were a teacher or school administrator.  You presumably got into the field because you care deeply about children.  And because of your beliefs, you see before you, every day, dozens of kids who are in danger of falling into the trap of disbelief.  You look at their innocent faces, and picture them being subjected to torment, not just for a little while, but forever.  What would you do?  Wouldn't you do anything in your power to try to prevent this from happening?

And that said, do you really believe that the victory scored by the FFRF will be any more than a temporary advance?  If I were a betting man, I'd bet a significant amount of money that within a couple of months, Carter will be back at it -- perhaps in a more subtle way, but still pushing her beliefs on her students.  Given how she sees the world, it really is the only moral choice open to her.

This sort of thing is why there never will be a reconciliation between religion and science.  It's why mountains of proof will never sway the True Believer.  Religion teaches that you arrive at knowledge through faith; science that you arrive at knowledge through evidence and logic.  If they give different answers, you are forced to decide between them.  It's also why once you've bought that the theistic worldview is literally true, that trumps everything; since evidence is no longer the touchstone, anything contrary to what your faith tells you is immediately suspect.  So Gould was correct -- but only for those religious individuals (I would suspect that they are the minority) who derive nothing from their religion but their ethics and morals, and who let "science be science."  For the vast numbers of humans who see religion as the foundation of their understanding of the entire universe, there is no middle road.  Science and religion are fighting for the same territory.  It's either keep your feet planted where they are -- or abandon ship entirely. 

1 comment:

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