Thursday, October 20, 2005

Science vs. Religion

As the case involving the reading of an anti-evolution statement to 7th-grade students in Dover Pennsylvania continues, I have read a number of accounts in which individuals have said, "I am religious, and I believe in evolution." From this, they infer that the theory of evolution has no religious implications -- that religious belief and belief in evolution are compatible. This further implies that there are no religious implications to teaching evolution and that the practice is consistent with separating church and state.

Really, that argument does not work.

The fact that Person A's religion is compatible with evolution, does not imply that Person B's religion has the same compatibility. Nor does it change the fact that teaching evolution in science classes involves teaching that religions that are compatible with evolution are better than religions that are not compatible with evolution.

More generally, the claim that science and religion are distinct and separate realms, and that science has nothing to say about religion (or that religion has nothing to say about science) is nonsense.

If one's religion states that the earth rides on the back of four elephants that are, in turn, standing on a giant turtle, then science has a great deal to say about that religion. It's wrong. It's hypothesis that earthquakes are caused when these creatures move is also wrong. Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates moving over, under, and past each other.

If one's religion states that a solar eclipse is caused by some divine creature devouring or destroying the sun, and that innocent people must be sacrificed to this god in order to bring the sun back, this view is mistaken. The eclipse is caused by the relative motions of the sun and the moon, and will come back on its own.

If one's religion states that lightning bolts are Thor's weapon and thunder is the pounding of his hammer, then science has created a problem with this religion. Science has shown that thunder and lightning have more to do with the static electricity that is generated by water and ice crashing past each other in the atmosphere.

If one's religion states that the earth is at the center of the solar system, and that saying anything contrary to this so offends God, that the offender must be burned at the stake to appease this angry and vengeful God, science tells us that this view is mistaken. All planets revolve around the Sun, since it contains most of the mass (and, thereby, the gravity) in our solar system.

If one's religion says that strange behavior is the result of demonic possession and that exorcism is the appropriate treatment for this behavior, science tells us that this is wrong. Strange behavior is caused by the way the mind/brain sometimes gets wired. It advises us to respond to these cases with medication, surgery, or behavioral modification therapy, or to simply leave these people alone to live their lives as suits them (if they are no danger to themselves or others).

If one's religion states that disease is caused by a rejection of God, and that prayer and sincere expressions of faith restore health, then science has shown this to be incorrect. Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses, or internal organs that cease to function as they used to because of physical processes. Acceptance of God is a far less reliable road to health than antibiotics, surgery, diet, and exercise.

If one's religion states that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, science has proved that this religious view is incorrect. Teaching children this nonsense will perpetuate ignorance of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, climate, ecology, and a number of other fields that we must understand if we are going to make intelligent choices that keep people safe from these natural disasters.

Science is not neutral with respect to religion. Science is constantly coming into conflict with religious beliefs. Teaching science in junior high and high school means teaching a way of thinking that is incompatible with at least some religions. It means conveying the message that "those religious views that are not compatible with these scientific findings are mistaken.

It means putting children in a position where they must choose to either accept the scientific findings and reject their religion, or accept their religion and reject the scientific findings.

Establishing Religion

The next question is whether teaching science violates the Constitutional provision against attempting to establish a religion. Science classes coerce students into religious beliefs that are compatible with scientific findings. It promotes evolution-compatible religions over evolution-incompatible religions. It promotes old-earth-compatible religions over young-earth-religions.

It takes the business of treating physical and mental illness out of the hands of the priest and puts it in the hands of his leading competitor, the physician. That physician may still believe in God, but he does not believe in the same religion. One religion prescribes prayer, the other prescribes anti-biotics, and science classes tell us that the latter is better than the former.

This creates tension. It is a tension that some people want to deny. Glossing over these issues by saying that science and religion are distinct and separate realms really involves just as much denial as ignoring the evidence that the earth is over 4.5 billion years old. Everything that science says is an invitation to young students to adopt a religion that is compatible with this reported fact, and to reject a religion that contradicts the scientific claims.


So, what does this mean about teaching science in public schools? Does the prohibition against establishing a religion prohibit the government from teaching that earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates rather than turtles, the static-electricity theory of lightning where it conflicts with the Thor's hammer theory, or 4.5 billion year old earth where it conflicts with the literal interpretation of The Bible?

Our country would be in a sorry state if we did.

One of the key features of science is that it allows us to better explain and predict what is going on around us. It makes the results of our actions less a matter of chance and blind luck, and more a matter of choice.

This is not an accident. It is the very essence of science that it strives for better and better ways to explain and predict what goes on around us. The very criterion for determining which theories to keep and which to toss out is that of better explaining and predicting the world around us.

To toss out science for religion means to toss out the ability to explain and predict the world around us, the ability to make intelligent choices, to avoid misery and suffering and choose, intelligently and deliberately, fulfillment and happiness.

The only reasonable option is to teach science in school – teach children the ideas how to predict and explain the world around them. Then, let people do whatever they want to or can to try to reconcile their religious beliefs with scientific fact.

“These are the facts, world. Do with them what you will.”

Many religious people reshape their religious beliefs around scientific facts. It is as if they say, “When science says that the earth is not the center of the solar system, they do not burn the scientist at the stake, they say that their interpretation of scripture must have been mistaken – because scripture cannot be wrong, and if scripture actually said that the earth was the center of the universe, it would be wrong.”

Others are less flexible, demanding that science confirm their religion.

Science is not neutral between these two religious perspectives. It clearly favors the first over the second.

That is a fact. Do with it what you will.


Anonymous said...

wow good job I agree with you 100% on this one. If there were more people like us in the world science would advance alot quicket without religion holding it back.

Anonymous said...

God intends us to seek and work on our science.