The "F" Word

By Chris Mooney | May 29, 2007 10:36 am

FAITH

bart-n-god.jpgSeveral folks have emailed asking why I’ve yet to write about RELIGION. Simply put, what I believe is that faith has no place in science. Will someone please stand up and explain the circular argument, the rhetoric, the tomfoolery and fiddlesticks that is the age old debate on how these two worlds converge? Convince me, and I’m ready and waiting at my laptop to jump in.

I admit I’m no expert here. Although I studied religion as a Classics major, my perspectives are predominantly influenced by an inundation of our own cultural norms, societal movements, American education, and the art of Groening and MacFarlane. Regardless, I don’t think a true savant could possibly exist on the topic given that belief is just that: FAITH. It need not be proven nor understood by anyone other than the individual holding it. What is fascinating to consider in the discussion is how religion currently shapes life on this planet with arguably every bit as much force as the biological processes driving evolution, adaptation, and extinction.

contact_ver2.jpgSometimes I wonder whether my interest in Complex Adaptive Systems theory could be considered a religious undertaking. I’m certain it’s possible to argue so. Carl Sagan and I are both intrigued by π and whether meaningful significance may be hidden within the sequence. Along the same lines, when I look to nature and consider derivable patterns in branching trees and dendrites, migration processes, fish and flock behavior, and symbiotic relationships evolving over time, I’m left feeling as if there’s something to all this math. Detecting observable order out of chaos begs the questions: 1) Is the universe ‘constructed’ so that it ascribes to specified geometrical axioms? 2) If so, do these relationships result in early trajectories forward? 3) If single points of origin determine where we came from, are they concurrently acting upon where we are headed?

It’s certainly starting to sound as if I’m invoking that old ‘intelligent watchmaker’ analogy, doesn’t it? I’m not. In fact, I’m choosing to refrain from touching on my beliefs or lack there of altogether. It’s of no significance here or in science.

What I know for sure is that no matter what you believe, invoking the “F” word often provides justification for nearly 99% of the planet to tune you out. Regardless of evidence you think you have, it’s a loosing battle as soon as you threaten someone’s fundamental beliefs. Instead, our responsibility in this field is to engage everyone to think for them self, ask why, and be open to explore new ideas. Scientist need not equate with Godlessness. Period.

posted by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

Hope you’ll all join me in welcoming Chris back home to The Intersection. Many thanks to all who have emailed, read, commented, and indulged me in exchanging ideas over past week.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (19)

  1. Sheril, you secular devil, you!

    You sign off with a topic guaranteed to get an interesting discussion going.

    (If you want to know what Sagan thought about the topic, click my name for a recent review of his recently published 1985 Gifford lecture series, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan, edited by Ann Druyan.)

    Personally, I think religious practice can have value, just as meditation and exercise disciplines like yoga and t’ai chi can have value. In ways that probably can be scientifically quantified, I think they may provide some people with a useful balance to the chemical and electrical flows within their bodies and brains.

    The “believers” among my friends, family, and neighbors need a deity in their lives, and they would be different people without it. I appreciate them for who they are.

    I even practice a religion (Reform Judaism). I know a bit about the rituals and the literature. I enjoy discussing the Bible (“Old Testament” in Christian terms) and other literature based on it. My personal human values are shaped by its ethical teachings, though I find the deity part of of the discussions relevant only to others. I suspect that most of my fellow discussants share the same sense of irrelevance when it comes to God in their lives, but they are less willing to admit it, even to themselves, than I am.

    FAITH is part of religion, but it is also part of nonreligious actions. Whenever I investigate a question, scientifically or otherwise, I need a certain amount of faith in its inherent value and in the value to be gained in the quest. My life is too limited to spend its resources on things of dubious value. Sometimes, I have to act on a vague sense of that value, and my choices are based on what I would call a personal faith. Certainly, not everything in my life is measurable or quantifiable.

    Fatih doesn’t bother me, but another F-word does: FANATICISM. People who rail against religion (e.g., Dawkins, whom I respect but disagree with on this topic, and Hitchens who I think is pompous to the point of being counterproductive) attack what happens when fanatics take over, but they can’t see that religious impulses bring out the best in certain kinds of people.

    Fanaticism is usually accompanied by intolerance. I see it as the sum of absolute, unreasoned faith (religious or otherwise) and intolerance.

    Dawkins’ latest book has been described as atheistic fanaticism. I haven’t read it myself, so I won’t comment. However, I do believe that atheistic fanaticism is just as dangerous to human discourse as religious fanaticism. We have seen totalitarian states guided by both types, and I see no reason to choose one over the other.

    So, Sheril, what do you mean by religion and what do you mean by faith?

    I’m more in Sagan’s camp than in Dawkins’ and Hitchens’.

  2. Karl Leif Bates

    If I may, uh, branch off a bit – your mention of dendritic branching patterns in nature and whether there’s deep math behind it is being discussed quite rigorously by a field called “construcal theory,” founded by a mechanical engineer at Duke, Adrian Bejan.

    See http://www.constructal.org/index.html for connections to all the fields this burgeoning idea is reaching, from engineering to animal locomotion to social networks.

    Of special interest to this group would be Treehugger’s four-part series on constructal theory’s applications to sustainability. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/12/constructal_the.php
    And in the comments there, readers quickly get back to matters of faith…

  3. Greg

    This is indeed a tricky one. The obvious problem is that the very idea of faith is unscientific: it cannot be disproven. It reminds me of that old joke about the scientist who’s so proud of his theory and claims that ‘not only is it falsifiable, it’s false’!

    On a serious note, I have trouble with the whole idea of pitting science against religion. To me, they are completely different. Faith in a supreme being (or beings) relies on completely different mechanisms than science does. If someone who’s particularly religious doesn’t agree, just ask them if they’d rather the airplane they happen to be traveling in was built using faith or science. I have yet to see a faith-plane make it farther than 20 miles.

    That said, I think there’s room for both in the lives of those who choose to pursue science semi-seriously. Sheril alluded to the watchmaker analogy, so I guess I’ll allude to the Newtonian notion of deism where God created the universe, set it in motion, and then moved onto other (better?) things. I’m not saying this is what I believe, just that I think this is pretty much the extent to which religion can intrude on scientific study. Any further and I fear that there would always be that cop-out, that ‘God did it’ line that would obviously plague any fruitful scientific endeavor.

    Lastly, for those of you who haven’t seen this, I give you the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster . For those of you less inclined to believe in a supernatural being, I think this might perhaps change your mind and each of you will become Pastafarianisms in no time!

  4. speedwell

    Antheistic fanaticism? Fanaticism in pursuit of the recognition of reality as real is not the sort of fanaticism I want to discourage. Using the word “fanaticism” to describe it smacks of sounding as if you were to say of your elementary math teacher that she was a “fanatic” about the times tables.

  5. SnarlyOldFart

    You’re letting the religious steal the word “faith” as their own. Bad move.

    Try this: Science is based on faith in the evidence. Religion is based on faith in the absence of evidence. This gets at why they cannot ever be compatible.

    I have faith in gravity, which hasn’t failed me yet. I have faith in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. I have faith in arithmetic, which has yet to shortchange me.

    So ‘faith’ should never be a bad word. We have ‘religion’ for that.

  6. Gene Goldring

    Fred
    You seem to have covered well the idea that drinking a beer with your religious neighbour in the carport doesn’t present any problem.

    You may want to venture out from that carport. You’ll find that Faith justifies unreason on many issues that may be avoided in conversation in the carport.
    Embryonic Stem Cell research
    Abortion
    Gay Rights
    Anti-Evolution
    Personal Health

    Richard Dawkins at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia on October 23, 2006 Reading excerpts from his book, “The God Delusion”

    Faith means believing without evidence in something. If you believe in something because of evidence then you don’t need faith.Now if your beliefs are based on evidence, then it’s possible for you to be talked out of them. You know what it would take to make you change your mind.The problem with faith is that if it’s really serious faith, you’re not going to change your mind because it’s not based on evidence.

    There in lies the problem for Richard and many others. Faith is used in place of reason all too often on issues that obviously demand reason.

    You may want to pick up the God Delusion. It isn’t 406 pages of repeated text, Believieving in a god is delusional. Faith needs to be coupled with reason.

  7. Gene Goldring states:

    You’ll find that Faith justifies unreason on many issues that may be avoided in conversation in the carport.
    Embryonic Stem Cell research
    Abortion
    Gay Rights
    Anti-Evolution
    Personal Health

    speedwell writes:

    Fanaticism in pursuit of the recognition of reality as real is not the sort of fanaticism I want to discourage.

    Gene, I think you are conflating religious fundamentalism and faith, which I see as two very different things.

    Most of my friends share my “liberal” views on all of those things, and most of them practice a religion and probably claim to have “faith.”

    Speedwell, your statement reminds me of Barry Goldwater’s infamous retort in accepting the 1964 Republican Presidential nomination: “…extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of freedom is no virtue.”

    Both statements are excellent defenses of an ideology, but both lack a sense of tolerance for the perspectives of other people.

    That’s why I wrote the following when speaking of fanaticism, atheistic or otherwise: I see it as the sum of absolute, unreasoned faith (religious or otherwise) and intolerance.

  8. I forgot to add this in response to Gene’s comment that “Believing in a god is delusional.”

    Some scientists hypothesize that believing in a god is an evolved trait that has contributed to our species’ survival. (Click my name for a review of Barbara King’s Evolving God.) Thus even if God is a delusion, important social traits of our species may depend on its persistence.

    That’s why I think people need to be more tolerant of others’ theistic beliefs. Tolerant atheists could certainly set an example for some religious extremists.

  9. Jon

    An interesting argument many readers raised against the relation of faith and science is that while science is based on evidence, religion is not. This is a substantial claim that unfortunately carries no validity.

    While science observes the natural world and attempts to explain its observations with theories ranging from the simple to the complex, religion also attempts to grapple with existence in much the same way. By observing human nature, our own history, and the way they perceive life to be, ‘religious’ people are simply those who see the world through a certain paradigm that is influenced by scriptural accounts and the evidence in their own lives. Science is no different in this respect. Like faith based religion, science can only seek to propose theoretical explanations for events that stand the test of repeated experimentation and are coherent with other explanations about our universe. There is no unbiased scientific Truth in our reality. Instead, human beings propose answers to questions by merely appealing to the works of those before us and the observations of the present. Just as the great religions continue to do today.

    Take the dynamic fields of Chaos Theory and Quantum physics for example. The deeper into these theories one gets, it becomes evident that these are merely grand, however brilliant, constructions to explain reality as we find it today. Scientists still cannot give a complete explanation to some of the most common physical occurrences, such as the force of gravity. However, science will continue to press on, reshaping itself through new thought and continued observation into the way the world is, expounding on the great minds of the past and pushing onward into the future. Religion, in the right hands, is after the same goal. The gap between faith and science may not be so wide after all.

  10. Gene Goldring

    Comment by Fred
    Most of my friends share my “liberal” views on all of those things, and most of them practice a religion and probably claim to have “faith.”Do they derive their views from Faith based scrutiny or by the faith in scientific evidence? (Refer to my list of examples) Are your friends representative of all moderates?

    Thanks Fred. You removed the context of my comment.You may want to pick up the God Delusion. It isn’t 406 pages of repeated text, Believieving [sic oops!] in a god is delusional.Back to Fred’s commentSome scientists hypothesize that believing in a god is an evolved trait that has contributed to our species’ survival. (Click my name for a review of Barbara King’s Evolving God.) Thus even if God is a delusion, important social traits of our species may depend on its persistence.Everything after the belief in a god has a degree of fundamentalism in my opinion. To what degree is Faith a positive influence in a modern secular society is the question. If it’s conformity of rules the Faithful are after, we have secular laws that are doing a much better job at taking into account the needs of a diverse society. No one religion can do this.

    If it’s a problem dealing with the aspects of death, get a grip, hurry up and do what you can in this lifetime and help others to do what they can in this life time. One kick at the can is all we get. That is the reality of what we know.

    I acknowledge religions help in the past and say thanks for the means and ways to achieve a cooperative society but society can advance from here with a little less prescriptive interference from denominational view points. Society will take religious concerns under advisement along with the concerns of all others. Faith in a creator leading to Faith based reasoning on the various controversial issues facing our society today is not a valid way to make decisions. Over looking the details of current knowledge is a bad mistake and serves no one.

    Sermon ends here ;)

  11. Gene,

    If you were looking for an absolute answer, I have to disappoint you.

    I think my friends are pretty typical of the moderate-to-liberal political spectrum, and I would say that their personal values are informed by a world view that appreciates religious practice in the way that Jon described it.

    Note that I use the word “informed,” meaning that my friends are not guided by fundamentalist doctrine, but rather struggle with moral questions from many perspectives. The Jewish approach is to “engage” with religious texts and the commentaries that came before us. We find insights, whether or not we bring a belief in God to the table.

    As far as picking up Dawkins’ book, I’m just not interested in the premise, which is all I said about it earlier. (I have reviewed his “Ancestor’s Tale” quite favorably at http://www.scienceshelf.com/AncestorsTale.htm .)

    On this topic, I find King’s book more to my taste. As noted, even if God is a delusion, the fact that many people believe in God may have survival value for our species. Because of that, I’m not willing to dismiss theists as less worthy than atheists.

  12. Gene Goldring

    Almost forgot. Welcome back Chris.

  13. RickD

    Fred, I would encourage you to differentiate between “belief” and “faith”. It is impossible to do anything intellectually without having some kind of belief system. But having a belief system and having “faith” are two very different things. It is completely possible to have a functioning belief system that gets one through life without having a religious “faith”. Indeed, I think the word “faith” is denigrated when people accuse atheism of being “just another religion”.

    In my view, “faith” includes the concept of holding to a belief, even when evidence challenges the validity of the belief. If you don’t have this caveat, then “faith” means very little. In contrast, one can have “beliefs” while maintaining the willingness to change any belief if the evidence weighs in against it. I think this is the crux of the difference between empiricism and faith.

    And that’s why faith has no place in science, which is an entirely empirical pursuit.

  14. Sam Boyarsky

    Right on… or perhaps I should say: Preach on ;)

  15. Rick, I think we are turning this into a semantic discussion if we try to make precise distinctions between “belief” and “faith.”

    I do like your statement that “‘faith’ includes the concept of holding to a belief, even when evidence challenges the validity of the belief.” The question is always how strong is the evidence and which aspects of the belief are challenged.

    I am sure we can all think of examples in science and in history where people stuck to their guns in the face of an initial evidentiary challenge and were eventually vindicated. Wegener and continental drift comes to mind, although I’d have to read the history of it to be certain the challenges were evidentiary. They may have been simply the absence of evidence for a mechanism.

    An ongoing example is the case of Meteorite ALH84001 (about which I wrote a children’s book called Martian Fossils on Earth?–note the question mark–described at http://www.fredbortz.com/MFOE.htm ). At this point, the evidence seems to support those who say that there are non-life explanations for the chemical and physical “fossils.” But the authors of the initial paper still believe (to the point of faith by your definition) that the evidence is suggestive of ancient life on Mars.

    Future research may ultimately resolve the disagreement. If the life on Mars explanation prevails, the original investigators’ faith will be vindicated. In other words, I think faith has a place in the motivation for many people in their scientific pursuits.

    That’s enough for me on this topic. I’m glad my thoughts provoked others, and I hope they will continue.

  16. John the Gnerphk

    Ever read Ishmael? :o )
    I know you have, so it’s no use denying it. And yet, you go ahead and write a post like that…

    So it is demonstrable that belief in scientific theory requires as much faith as most plausible religions. Considering the multiple branchings and variances, or even disputes and violent opposition, among even such well-trammeled paths as particle physics, quantum mechanics, astronomy (!), and climatology, I would suggest that faith is essential to even the most dedicated destructive-tester at DuPont or even the TV weatherman (-person).
    But, more to the point, faith exists and is common to the overwhelming majority of us. C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that God does not believe in atheists; I’d not go quite so far, but I do suggest that most of us hold at least a degree of belief in supernatural forces. This being virtually axionatic, it follows that religion and religious topics make up a substantial portion of the consciousness of the populace, and has made a definite mark on the language. As such, reference to faith and/or belief is, I deem, essential for complete communication.
    Sound bites, of course, are exempt from this rule.

    On the other hand, as Sherlock Holmes once observed, the world is quite complicated enough just with flesh-and-blood villains without bringing the Devil into it. And he was right too; one must approach each experiment, each individual observation, as though one holds no beliefs – or indeed preconceptions. Otherwise, the Scientific Method loses all merit.

    On a personal note, however, I ought to just mention one thing: A universe with no governing force, no intrinsic reason, no First Cause…. How lonely. How meaningless. How utterly pointless.
    So I choose to believe. The world is nicer that way. But that has nothing whatever to do with the results of my last testing series…

  17. matthew

    John,

    If you define faith the same way you define “trust” that’s fine, but if you define faith as “belief in the absence of evidence”, then you are very wrong. And how can possibly think that because X many people believe in something that that makes that something true?

  18. Cassandra Papas

    I like what John said: “I choose to believe. The world is nicer that way. But that has nothing whatever to do with the results of my last testing series…”

    Faith and Science should not be compared because they are not on the same plane. Furthermore, one’s faith should not influence their work, nor other’s perception of their work in the sciences. Yet… we live in a world of superficial, society-influenced, and often judgemental “group-thinkers.”

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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