The Sullen and the Silly: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part II

By Adam Frank | January 27, 2008 11:18 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

Not surprisingly, I managed to piss off a few people with my last post , as well as generate some thoughtful responses (including Sean Carroll’s highly relevant thoughts). What I was thinking out loud about is the need for a different perspective on science and religion. The times demand both it, and our creativity. But getting anywhere new requires getting away from those ways of thinking that stopped being useful or interesting a long time ago.

The public debate on science and religion has two dominant forms: the Sullen and the Silly. The Sullen are the snarly legions of Fundamentalists, Creationists, and Literalists who have clogged the courtrooms and airwaves for decades. They drive the endless, pointless debate about evolution vs. scripture. We’ll push that rusted hulk an argument off a cliff in the next post.

The other mode of public debate—the Silly—focuses on new age enthusiasms for “quantum” spirituality. I’ll be happy to dance on that grave after we deal with the Sullen.

But before we get any further, we have to make sure we properly spread the blame, like manure, where it belongs. In case anyone thinks the goal is here is a snarkfest about the ignorance of the scientifically unsophisticated I’ll remind you of sciences’ own prejudices.

There are real and legitimate concerns that scientists have about discussions of the gray areas of human spiritual aspiration. But science as an institution has its own blind spot when it comes to this subject. From graduate school on, there are places we scientists are subtly taught it is best not to go. You don’t often see scientists admitting to a deep and abiding sense of the world’s inner life among our colleagues. It would be profoundly uncomfortable—kind of like getting hit upside the head with a basketball in seventh grade gym class and then bursting into tears. It’s a place everyone learns not to go (especially if you grew up in Jersey).

These prejudices limit science and its response in the science v. religion debate. If we are not careful, we run the risk of being just as biased as those we condemn in their dismissal or disregard for science. Yes, the term “religion” is often colored by the taint of power and politics, but the lived experience of a spiritual dimension in human life is so common that to ignore it is just foolish. It’s an old, old feeling that speaks to an aspect of human being that is elemental. People encountering a sense of the sacred in the world represents a fundamental experience that has been constant across 50,000 years of culture. It is also an experience shared by millions of open-minded, thoughtful people today.

There are many who experience “spirituality” as a lived presence in their lives, but are also touched by the beauty and power of science. (In a future post I will deal with definitions of words like “sacred.”) They are the ones caught between dogmas of both sides in the public debate between science and religion. These folks are open to seeing their own religious traditions as part of a worldwide continuum of spiritual longing. Most importantly they know their way is not the only way. They also experience the dimension of their lives as something real and present.

It is this reality that the institutions of science may appear to deny, just as the institutions of religion so often police the borders of belief. It is this reality that the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins completely ignore in their (justified) beef with the Sullen.

So yeah, religious literalism is dumb and dangerous. Lots of us get that. But that point does not even begin to exhaust all that can be said about science and human religious experience, or all that can be said about the true and the real. So it is time to move off the desiccated evolution vs. creationism axis and create a new direction in our thinking. Science’s vision is so powerful and arresting that seeing it as part of something larger and grander does not diminish it. It is time to go orthogonal and reach for some higher ground, to give us a better view of where and who we are.

Next up: the blogger wrestles with the forces of Sullenity…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (45)

  1. Why do we need a new viewpoint? Are you suggesting that the current discussion points are invalid? The truth is the truth whether it is old or new or believed or not believed.

    I, for the record, am a scientist. I hold a degree in two sciences and have begun work on my MS in science. I work as a scientist. I have very scientific ways of thinking about thing. I, also, am a Christian. I’m not a religious person, I am a Christ-follower.

    You state that science and religion cannot be blended. I disagree 100%.

    Your previous entry stated (and I paraphrase) that the more you look into science the more you can discredit religion in your own life. I am the opposite. The more I study science, the more I appreciate the work my God has accomplished here on earth.

    Why can’t the two studies agree? Why can’t we accept that God created the earth and everything in it, including the laws of physics and quantum mechanics?

  2. Jason Heldenbrand

    Christine:

    “Why can’t the two studies agree? Why can’t we accept that God created the earth and everything in it, including the laws of physics and quantum mechanics?”

    You cannot accept anything as ‘truth’ until it has been proven as evidence. Isn’t that the process scientists are supposed to follow? Evidence cannot be taken on the basis of discredited texts and evidence (as modern miracles and the Bible have been), nor on ‘gut feelings’. As such, religion is quite the opposite of science. Religion explains the unexplainable by stating that ‘God’ did it, thus leaving us in the dark about what -truly- caused it. The sun rising, diseases, and thousands of other scientific truths to this world have been identified through science as our knowledge increased.

    Every year that passes we learn something new. For instance, life on Mars. If the methane being released there turns out to be biologically produced why is it there? Fundamentalists who claim God created everything would argue that God did it for reasons we cannot understand. Much like a parent telling a child they don’t understand. Scientists would attempt to identify the precise type of life that is creating it, if that life is similar to life on earth (giving rise to more evidence to a stellar ‘seeding’) or if it is entirely different. How did it evolve? What can it tell us about how its alien environment shaped it? Can it tell us more about the history of Mars?

    Religion would stop with one question. Science would never stop asking them.

    If you choose to worship God, I have no grudge against you or anyone else who chooses to have the same practice. I hold a grudge against anyone who would attempt to gag science behind dogma, or blind our children to facts by muddling them with nonsense like intelligent design. Perhaps there is something ‘cold’ about science and the facts, lacking the warmth and comfort of religion, but I don’t think the comfort of religion is worth the blindness its dogma inflicts. That’s just me.

  3. Another reason we need a new perspective is that we are about to add 3 billion people to the planet over the next century. Unless you expect them, and the other 6 billion already here, to all accept your particular version of your particular tradition there needs to be a way of understanding what happens at root of ALL religions and its relation to science.

    The species has gone global in every sense of the word.

  4. Huh?

    I may have been overly harsh in my earlier post; I’d love a more civil discussion between science and religion. But the only religious voices that you are including in this discussion are those who don’t believe in God, who don’t believe in divine revelation, who don’t believe in miracles, who don’t believe in anything but a vague sense that some things in this purely material world are somehow “sacred.” Science will tell us what’s real and true, and all religion is permitted to do is capitalize science’s findings; it’s now Real and True.
    What if God is real? Then revelation and miracles are possible. We may be wrong in identifying them, and they will always be outside the realm of science, but isn’t science guilty of the same arrogance and dogmatism it accuses religion of, when it denies that they are even possible? When every organized religion is assumed to exist for no reason but control, when trust in any specific divine revelation is condemned by the one chairing this discussion as “dumb and dangerous,” what real discourse is possible? You’ll just be preaching to the choir, to people who already agree with you that science is god and religion is just a quaint way to worship your god.

  5. What will you say to the Hindus and the Buddhists and the etc, etc? Are they out of the picture because their view of a God or Gods or lack of a God differs from your own? You can’t force science to fit into any one particular tradition because of its very open ended nature. What you can do is ask where and how the long tradition that forms science braids with the aspirations driving human spiritual traditions. That would the basis of something inherently civil and really interesting.

  6. Reginald Selkirk

    I’m with Sean on this one:

    If you substituted the word “emotional” for “spiritual” in the above, I could probably agree with you. But when you use words like “spiritual” and “sacred,” even if you personally do not mean them to cover the supernatural, they will be construed to do so by others.

  7. Brian Mangravite

    I am a Christian but that doesn’t stop me from respecting the views of others. Hindus, Buddhists and Atheists, alike. Hindus, perhaps, have the right idea, what most people think are many gods in the Hindu pantheon are all, actually, representations of ONE god. They simply recognize that a supreme being cannot be grasped/represented by one image. I, as a Christian, have no problem with that. Closed minded believers are a threat to rational thought, no doubt. But you have no right to condemn all who believe in God simply on the basis of that belief. You cannot disprove the existence of God with your science anymore than I can prove His existence with my faith. What came before the Big Bang? You don’t know and you probably never will know. Just because we’ve explained many imponderables with science that used to be attributed to a diety doesn’t invalidate that there are things we will never know. Why not accept that this might be one of them? I don’t insist you believe. Why do insult anyone who does believe? What a pompous and self-righteous attitude.

  8. Actually I am big fan of the inherent mystery of being. I do not think that the fundamental strangeness of being present, of having presence, will ever be corralled by science or any theoretical system. As Rilke says (to paraphrase) “Its the questions you should love. Then, perhaps, you can live your way into an answer.

    Piet Hut of Princeton puts it nicely when he says “OK we have the natural sciences. Now what else do we know”. The question to go forward with is “what can we agree we know.”

  9. Also it sounds like you are one of the people I am referring to with the sentence,

    “These folks are open to seeing their own religious traditions as part of a worldwide continuum of spiritual longing. Most importantly they know their way is not the only way.”

    I am not hostile to your belief as long as you don’t force it on others and even if I chose not to respond to the inherent mystery in the same way.

  10. Huh?

    I’ll civilly discuss with Hindus and Buddhists why I believe my God is the one true God, approaching them from the common ground of believing in something beyond this material world, and then I will respect their decision to agree or disagree. I won’t say, “Let’s move past this ossified debate by just assuming you’re wrong; your beliefs are dumb and dangerous. And only my views are worth discussing.” I don’t want science to teach or even accommodate my religion. I want it to do its job: seek the best explanations it can find for physical phenomena based on natural laws and processes. But also humbly admit that if truth and reality are not purely naturalistic and materialistic, then its answers will not be correct, and truth and reality do not lie where science can find them. I want it to teach the big bang and evolution, but without ridiculing other, supernatural theories of origin. I want scientists to respect religion not just as a philosophy or for its sense that some things are “sacred,” (and not with the kind of respect you give a dangerous madman), but as seekers of the truth, even if they seek the truth in places that don’t fit your worldview.
    “What you can do is ask where and how the long tradition that forms science braids with the aspirations driving human spiritual traditions.” I would welcome that discussion, if it could be conducted without asking everyone to assume there is no possible truth or reality behind any of those human spiritual traditions.

  11. I read this post high, so forgive me if my response seems a bit off. Science cannot give us all the answers. It is then that people divide into two main groups: those who chalk the unexplained up with a supreme being (or any other deity), and those who submit that science may never reach those heights, but don’t feel the urge to explain it away by saying “God did it”. I am, personally, with the latter. But my belief in God (that God is, essentially, everything we see/experience-and NOT a separate being who shat the universe out in a few days) does not restrict me from accepting science….the more I study it, on the contrary, the more spiritual I become. It’s not like spirituality and science are not compatible…rather, evolution has shown me just how special we humans really are….especially on a cosmic scale. And if that does not elicit a spiritual outlook, than I don’t know what will.

  12. Joe Shelby

    I still see you as totally missing the point about those who want their religion to trump science. I almost think you’ve never read The Wedge Document (much less Dr. Forrest’s analysis of it).

    The attack on science by the literalists is for POLITICAL gain. By diminishing science’s role in knowledge, they can substitute their version of things and use that to “unite” their followers into a larger political union and eventually take over the country through changing the laws.

    They act to deny, misrepresent, and misappropriate science just as they do history (“Christian nation”, “Madison supported church involvement in politics”, “Washington was Christian”, “Jefferson went to church”, and many other lies as codified by the historical distortions of David Barton and friends).

    Trying to reconcile science and religion is useless to these people because they have already committed to the idea that science is the enemy of their POLICIES, therefore it is the enemy of their religion.

    You’ll never get science to support the policies these forces want, and therefore you can never get science to “fit” with their religion.

    Never.

    So I REALLY think you’re barking up the wrong tree here. Moderates who can accept science and religion together already have. The handful that don’t know the political motivations of the science denialists will need to be taught the source of their denial – that the denialists want political control over their lives.

  13. Mayhem

    I (coming from an Eastern background) personally don’t understand why the Abrahamic religions have issues with sciences. Eastern religions embrace sciences with open arms.

  14. Brian Mangravite

    Mayhem…(by the way — cool name) believe it or not, and despite what many of the bloggers here would have you believe, the Catholic Church has a long history of embracing science. They use it to guide their position on abortion, for example, as to when life begins. There have been obvious issues in the past (burnings at the stake, little stuff like that) but for the most part, harmonious. The issue began with certain fundamentalist protestant groups that insisted on a literal word-for-word interpretation of the Bible. No Jew I know would insist that the world was created in 6 days as the Old Testament states, but there are fundamentalist Christians who do. And those individuals feel that any scientific statement against that belief is an attack on them. Science responds with a, not entirely unjustified, attack on “ignorance” (to put it kindly). My issue with the science based bloggers here is that, all too often, they attack ALL believers as if they were of the same ilk, which we are not. And their attacks frequently devolve to insults.

  15. Joe Shelby

    I disagree with Brian here to a degree. The repressions of science are much more common over the Catholic Church’s history, starting with Copernicus, as well as the repression of logic as interpreted from Aristotle’s writings during the counter-reformation.

    In addition, while the church today seems to embrace physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology (to a point), and other “hard” sciences, they openly ignore and reject science when it differs with their policies towards pretty much ALL birth control. In spite of all of the warnings of social scientists to the problems of overpopulation, to the health benefits of birth control, and the health and psychological benefits of “a good sex life” in a marriage, they insist on condemning contraception.

    http://www.catholic.com/library/Birth_Control.asp

    There it is, black and white: sex for any purpose other than procreation is unnatural.

    And THAT is a bluntly unscientific claim.

  16. Mayhem

    Keep in mind I understand the principles of Christianity, I’m not that versed in the differences. So kindly fill in the gaps or correct me if I’m mistaken. So as I understand it, Muslims believe that God is everywhere and thus can’t be in human form. And Mohammed talked to “god” as a prophet as what they think Jesus did as well. Christians and Jewish believe that Jesus was either the son of “god”, god himself, or prophet…or all of the above.

    So let me get this straight, the Hebrew Bible is where Genesis came from. But the Jewish faith doesn’t take it literally from what I understand. However some Christians do? Are these specific to sect…say Baptist or Lutheran (just examples, just asking since I’m not versed)? And when you all refer to creationism, you are talking about Young Earth theory being taught in US schools.

    I remember when my school in Georgia back in the 80s offered Bible Studies as a high school class (with credit but it was optional). I was kinda miffed albeit for the reason that Christian went to church on Sundays. And then they would get tested on how well they knew the Bible during the week and get credit to graduate high school rather than say me taking advanced physics instead. Yes it was a small town, and they were all good folk and even respected that I had a different religious viewpoint…though I guess I would be a heathen. Anyways, I guess my question was more around Young Earth Theory and the different Christian sects…or does it span all sects?

  17. Good points Adam, but I think you also need to express the same point I made in the previous thread: it isn’t just science versus religion, but philosophy is there as both background and competitor to science (in some sense.) BTW philosophy can’t be escaped – even the attempt to criticize philosophy, metaphysics, or religion is philosophy. For example, Dawkins argues roughly that if there was such a thing as a god, the question would be what did that evolve from? He is not proving something or giving evidence about which we can find reliable answers like in science, he is doing “arm-chair philosophy.” He is also likely wrong. Whether something needs to evolve or be “made” or not depends on its nature and circumstances. We needed to evolve because that’s the kind of universe that was here before us. There is no logically universal requirement that a “being” could not simply exist if it was more necessary in some sense than something else. Without an a priori theory of what ought to exist, how would we know? Why is this stuff here, and why is it the way it is? And Dawkin’s conceit is unwarranted in principle regardless of whether such a necessary being exists.

    This unfortunate dichotomy is seen in the argument between Christine and Jason. Jason says, understandably, that there’s no proof for God etc. and implies we should need proof for warranted belief. Well, as I noted, that very sort of framing claim is philosophy and not science! I don’t agree, I think a good argument is a worthy reason to suspect (maybe not “be sure”) that something is so. Jason also merely pits scientific empiricism versus “texts” as if there was no third way, the long tradition of independently arguing about contingent and necessary being, modal realism (do all possible worlds exist, etc) Er, so is there an experiment which proves that we must have evidence instead of argumentation as grounds for belief? What about fundamental positivism wrangles like, how can you operationally define the claim “things continue to exist even when not observed” and “the universe actually existed in the past, it didn’t just come into existence with apparent evidence of the past”?

    BTW, on the abuse of “can’t prove a negative” I see here and there: If you can’t prove a negative, that doesn’t warrant some special exemption that you don’t need to to make your point. If you can’t prove the negative, you just have to do without whatever advantage would come from proving it, it’s tough luck. Yet I’ve seen so many skeptics abuse this principle. (BTW you can prove some negatives, just think about it.)

  18. Joe Shelby

    Mayhem: you’re talking into something probably too big for a blog comment, as it really does require quite a bit of Christian history, particularly through the 17th century, as John Calvin led a new philosophy different from Catholicism (which has always had its own internal divisions, sometimes resolved through bloodshed) and also different from the leading movements up to that point (Luther in Germany and Cramner in England).

    There’s no clean-cut divide of “sect A is x, sect B is y”. There’s just too many to cut it that simply, and many are subdivided (like the Anglican church, which in America has 1 core church, the Episcopal, but that has had splinters several times over the years the most recent being in Northern Virginia just a couple of years ago). Baptists in Massachusetts are quite different from “Southern Baptists”. Several churches claim philosophical ties to John Calvin, yet are all different in how they express it. Some churches still take Mass, others condemn it as idolotry.

    Biblical literalism is a very small minority, in America at least (and is practically unheard of in churches in Europe). Maybe 7-10% of the population are pure Young Earth literalists, but there’s no one single sect that they belong to. There are Young Earth Creationists that support Intelligent Design as being compatible (and as a key to getting “God” back in the schools in violation of the Constitution). Then there are some Young Earth Creationists that hate Intelligent Design because it isn’t truthful to what they believe (Kent Hovind is one of these, which is why it pisses me off doubly when he-said-she-said journalists go to him to represent the ID side in an article).

    When we (anti-creationists) refer to creation, we refer to any explanation that requires (without evidence or proof) an external entity to be involved. Young Earth, Old Earth (those that take Genesis metaphorically but still believe “God Did It”), and Intelligent Design (the subset of those two more interested in scoring politically to get their beliefs valid in schools). They’re all the same. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/11/13/intelligent_design/ is a pretty good summary of how their methods and tactics have changed in response to legal defeats over the years.

  19. Charles Schmidt

    There are many religions in the world many based on the same text and yet they have many points that they disagree on and some that they agree on. But the focus is not on agreement but on disagreement and then the slaughter starts on both sides (or more) in direct opposition to what they each profess to believe. There are those of science that are killed because some radical disagrees with science, just as those of another religion are killed. To think that you or anyone can change a mind of anyone that has a view of either religion or science or his or her view of the other is at best wishful thinking and at worst arrogance.
    Bringing out facts is good but to think that science has all the answers is to miss the point that science does not even know all the questions and there are some that it knows that it still cannot answer. But I for one am open to hear what you have to say then I can agree or not that is up to me, look forward to your next installment.

  20. Einstein's Ghost

    This sense of “something larger and grander” stuff can easily be reconciled by a strictly deterministic universal model that has some final cause embedded into the energy.

    For example:

    The tendency for the universe as a whole to actively seek thermal equilibrium can, in this case, literally translate to us to mean that “balance is (universally) good”, so we have no choice but to seek to satisfy our basic and idealized needs as a result of this simple order, be it financial, sexual, spiritual or whatever urge you might think that you choose to fulfill.

    But would you listen if you actually got the answer?… I didn’ think so… and neither will anyone else, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

    We followers of Spinoza see out God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.
    -Dr. E.

  21. PeterS

    While your categories of the Sullen and the Silly are useful explanatory tools I can’t help feeling you have missed another major category, the Snarky.
    The epitome of the Snarky must be Dawkins, with his arrogant dismissal of the spiritual. The Snarky are those scientists, who possessing a powerful intellect and intoxicated by this power, dismiss the spiritual/religious yearning of people in the most demeaning way possible (rather than examining them as evidence of an important process). You seem to be positing a fourth category, the Sensitive where the torchlight of science, revealing unexpected beauty, evokes in us feelings that can be loosely described as spiritual.

  22. Daniel Rose

    In a psychology text book I know of, it is written (and I paraphrase rightly, I think) that the purpose of religion is to help people to understand and live in the world according to how the world actually works. Of course, not everyone who considers themselves religious would agree on that basic definition, because it says nothing directly about belief. Though perhaps that might be implied in how our species approaches what it does not understand. And it leaves open the large question of exactly what is meant by “how the world actually works” (again, my possibly errant paraphrase).

    It may be that understanding and belief are two basic elements that both science and religion share in common. Some modern teachers of religion maintain that the objectives of religion and science are really the same, and that what many think of as religion represents particular sets of practices and observances each of which served a purpose in one time and place, and among certain people, but which have been maintained well beyond their useful lifetimes. They might say that these “rituals” have largely replaced the modes of genuine experience upon which real religious practice might be based, and that in the exploration of real experience, moderated according to the unique needs of people in places today (as opposed to times, places, and peoples past), lies the basis of a genuine religious undertaking. At the same time, they might say that science represents important elements of how one might engage in the exploration of that present experience that could characterize a genuine religious undertaking.

    In any case, it would seem that if there is a useful marriage of religion and science, it lies in the common goal of satisfying essential human needs. Some might argue against my suggestion that science is concerned with human need. I think that depends on how narrowly you define human need. But certainly, where science seeks to pose and answer questions that bear on the survival of the human species, this contention is true. And to this extent, science is seeking to help humanity understand and live according to how the world works.

    Also, in both science and religion, there is a common element of asking and answering questions, seeking the truth. Perhaps one of the limitations of many religions is their boundary on the degree to which, and the sources from which, questions may be asked and answered. Perhaps, this is one of the lessons of science, that there can be no arbitrary limit on how a question may be asked and answered, and indeed, sometimes how a question is asked has made the difference between making a discovery and not making it, especially where others have long since tread before. Science’s own particular problem with belief, namely the problem of assumption and accurate perception, figures prominently here. And in a similar vein, perhaps belief serves a similar, all too limiting, function in religion. So, perhaps contrary to the reliance on belief, religion needs to challenge entrenched belief in order to move forward in its goal of promoting human wellbeing, just as science must overcome limiting assumptions in order to make new discoveries.

    So, I think this entire discussion has many possibilities for exploring science and religion regardless of the popular controversies that have characterized intercourse between the two domains.

  23. Mark

    I think Adam Frank is well intentioned, but this blog misses the point of the “science vs. religion” debate. Scientists themselves run the gamut from very religious to atheistic, yet this does not (usually) interfere in their professional lives. Likewise, most “moderate” believers of all religions do not have any problems with evolution. I think that is because MOST of us understand that science deals with the natural world. It seeks to find natural answers to natural phenomena. Any deity (by definition) is a supernatural phenomenon – it is outside the realm of the natural world and, therefore, outside the realm of science. Science cannot prove that God exists, nor can it prove that God does not exist.
    But here is the problem. Creationists (who make up a very small portion of the world’s believers) are NEVER going to quit trying to force their warped view of reality down everyone elses’ throat. Most scientists would be only too happy to let these dyed in the wool fundamentalists gather in their churches and homes and believe in whatever makes them happy. Unfortunately, the creationists are driven by a need to force their views on all others. That is why they push for laws to either prevent the teaching of evolution (their true goal) or at least allow equal time for their views. So far, although they have made America the laughing stock of the scientific world, the courts have upheld the requirement that science classrooms are for teaching science – not religion.
    There are people that believe the world is flat. There are people that believe the Nazi holocaust never happened. These people don’t come knocking on my door trying to “convert” me. So far, they have not tried to enact laws to push the teaching of their warped views into our geography and history classes. On the other hand, creationists are well funded, and a political force that tirelessly attempts to use their influence to force their views on both religious moderates and science alike. The debate won’t go away, until THEY give up and go away!

  24. Daniel Rose

    Mark,

    If the goal is to advance truth, perhaps the best that one can hope for is a preponderance of people who share that goal. When enough people perceive the limitations of a belief in myth as a basis for seeking truth, it will not matter if a few do not.

  25. Mark

    I hope that day is near. However, given that the only religions that are growing are the extreme ones, it may still be a long way off.

  26. Cliff Clark

    Be careful about what you mean when you say you are trying to advance “truth”. Some definitions are very much needed here. I won’t go into details, but just refer you to a course offered by the Teaching Company called “Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It”, taught by Professor Steven L. Goldman. As a practicing research scientist I found it somewhat difficult to accept some of the philosophical premises Dr. Goldman put forward, but on the whole found this an extremely well-reasoned treatment.

    Few people, even scientists, apply the whole gamut of scientific thinking, especially critical thinking (a la Michael Shermer and Dr. Jared Diamond) to these issues. I think that the crux of the problem being discussed here is what we CAN know. Too many people give science too much credit; it is, after all, a tool designed and fine-tuned by (human) scientists as a means to explore the Universe. I would expect that anything that is part of the Universe will eventually be amenable to scientific study and that we humans will find answers. One of the answers may be that, in accordance with the principles of quantum physics, sometimes things “just happen”. There may be far fewer patterns than we, as a pattern-seeking species, are often wont to find.

    God, by definition, exists outside the Universe (having ostensibly created the Universe). If He exists, His existence would not/should not be amenable to scientific analysis, which has proven uniquely effective in exploring said Universe. This is a fundamental difference between the two human endeavors, and does serve to separate science and religion at their most basic level. It is amusing to set up a thought experiment in which one imagines the characteristics of an entity existing outside the Universe. Such an entity would not be subject to time – spacetime being a property of the Universe – and would well be omniscient from the point of view of any inhabitants of the Universe. As for omnipotence, it’s anyone’s guess. It is impossible to rule this out scientifically.

    My big beef with all rigid thinkers, especially religious fundamentalists, creationists, and proponents of intelligent design, is that their religion is suspect. Not only do they have an appalling ignorance of the theory of evolution and how evolution works, but they have an even greater ignorance of the history AND teachings of the great world religions, including Judaism and Christianity. Few will have any real appreciation for some of the current thinking on when the books of the Bible were written and on the development of the Hebrew war god El, dominant member of a council of gods, into the single god Yahwe (see any of Karen Armstrong’s recent books). Few of these people read widely on the subject of religion, and probably have missed anything by Bart Ehrman or any of the very good Teaching Company courses on religious topics. These are not people interested in a dispassionate discussion, but those who would prefer to impose their ideas AND ways of doing things on the rest of us. That is the reason that I don’t see any end to the “discussion”, nor any sense in participating further (outside this delightful forum).

  27. May I suggest that parties interested in this discussion might be interested in the web site rational-religion.com. Some of you may find it a skosh elementary, but it has a viewpoint whuch is consistent with learning to leaave eaqch other the hell alone.

  28. Neill Raper

    This thread is probably dead at this point but I could not resist commenting on the accusation that Dawkins ignores the experience of spiritual longing.

    The first paragraph of the first chapter of the God Delusion describes an experience a young boy has. This experience is one of awe and wonder at the world around him. Dawkins goes on to say that this impulse, which led him to science, could just as easily lead another person to religion.

    Since you mentioned that “New Atheists” I should also point out that Sam Harris pretty much wont shut up (not that I would want him to) about spiritual experiences being real experiences and the spiritual impulse being a real impulse and how until we recognize this we will not do anything do diminish the reliance many people have on one religion or another.

    I hate to say it because you are clearly a thoughtful person and I am probably wrong in this intuition, but you give me the impression of someone who has not read the arguments he is referring to. At least in regard to your brief mention of the “new atheists”.

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