God, eh? What’s that all about then? In this post I want to talk about the uneasy relationship between science and religion in the modern world.
I don’t think that science and religion have ever made particularly cosy bed fellows, and I doubt they ever will. But in many ways I think that this could, and should, be a non-issue. Just to lay my cards on the table, I’d consider myself a fairly staunch atheist. It would, quite literally, require a miracle to turn me into a theist. Now, contrary to what you might be expecting, I am not actually going to launch into an anti-religious screed. Probably.
Religion means different things to different people. For my purposes, we’re going to loosely define it as a belief in one or more deity. If we start with this basic premise, it is probably impossible to argue conclusively that a deific entity of some kind does not exist. Good. Fine. Problem solved.
Of course, there are those on the atheistic side who might argue otherwise. As far as I can see it though, no matter how many naturalistic laws science can describe which would, in and of themselves, account for the Universe as we observe it, you will always be able to regress one step and say “those laws must have been created”. For example, Stephen Hawking argues in his latest book that the necessity for a deity has been negated by modern cosmology (the book is actually broader in scope than this, but it was the point that was most heavily publicised). Whilst I agree with this, I also accept that you can always place your god of choice as the original “first cause”. There’s just no concrete evidence for this supposition.
In essence, this is precisely the issue that many theists have with Big Bang cosmology: how did the fundamental forces of nature which were behind it come into existence in the first place? Whether this is something we can ever truly be comfortable with, I doubt. Speaking personally though, mind-warping as the idea of these fundamental forces existing with no logically satisfactory answer is, it only compounds the bewilderment to add a level of complexity such as sentience and intelligence and call it god. This just means you’ve pushed the concept of something always existing back into someone always existing. And that is even less satisfactory. But on this issue, I’m happy to say each to their own.
However, the real “conflict” between science and religion arises from fact colliding with a theology based upon demonstrably false precepts. It might surprise you to hear this, but there is actually no such thing as an atheistic science, for precisely the same reason that there cannot be a theistic science. Science is about what is testable and what is measurable. Science is about working out how the universe works. It is not about advancing an agenda. The cloak of science has been used to promote agendas, such as the suppression of the facts about smoking and cancer by the tobacco industry. In the scientific world, competing groups will always be ready to demolish shaky science. Agenda-driven science doesn’t survive long in the mainstream. Eugenics anyone?
Consequently, science is actually agnostic. In fact, even that is overstating the case. Science is utterly apathetic to divine entities. That is precisely why you get scientists of all faiths: religion doesn’t feature in science. Just as a car mechanic doesn’t rely on the existence or otherwise of a god to fix your old banger, science just reports what it sees and tests what it predicts.
When science and religion do collide it is invariably as a consequence of particular theists trying to dictate the physical world based on some interpretation of a “spiritual” issue. The simple fact of the matter is that most people of a religious persuasion are fine with 99% of science 99% of the time. Much as the Creationists of the USA might not like to admit it, they are actually a minority cult of the Christian community globally (of course, when I use the term Creationist I am referring to someone who believes in a literal 6/7 day creation probably with 6-10,000 years ago). Living in the UK I had actually not heard of the concept of Creationism until I was about 18, and I was initially raised Catholic (nominally at least) before later attending a Church of England school.
And it is on issues such as this that the arguments begin. The key here is that it is actually religion that enters into conflict with science because certain believers have made an aspect of the physical world a central core of their religious faith. And unfortunately, facts, to quote Stephen Colbert, display a “well-known liberal bias”.
So lets take the Creationist argument as an example. In America around 50% of people believe that the world is only 6000 years old and that Tyrannosaurus rex was just one mean looking vegetarian (I’m not even making that up for comic effect). And the reason that they do this is that they have confined their faith to an interpretation of one of the Genesis creation stories and one of the conflicting genealogies in the Bible. Now to begin with, this seems like fairly weak theology. But it also brings them directly into conflict with the REAL FUCKING WORLD and, consequently, with science. In the United States of Jesus so-called Bible Belt of the US this has led to attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution and the attempt to enforce the teaching of Creationism Intelligent Design. That’s right, Bible-thumpers are attempting to dictate the teaching of accepted science in a goddamn science class. It’s like asking Mel Gibson to determine the teachings of the Torah.
This state of affairs is unfortunate as those who actually care about science are forced to fight back. Thus a conflict is born. Ironically, the Creationists, in this case, seem to go about arguing their side with straight, flat-out lies. They use and reuse the same tired arguments over and over. The one that really gets me is the “Teach the Controversy” bullshit. They claim that there is an ongoing dispute in the scientific community about whether evolution is accepted. This is flat-out rubbish. But it sounds good, though doesn’t it? After all, in a fair world surely two equally valid scientific theories should be taught to students. The dishonesty here of course is that there is no dispute in the scientific community. Yes, the specifics of a mechanism within the theory might be debated and revised. But the overall theory? Sorry, but there is no controversy. It’s manufactured to crowbar religious ideology into classrooms.
It was the same sort of thing with Copernicus, Galileo and even Einstein (for some reason some people don’t like Relativity, mainly due to misunderstanding the semantics of the name). Conflicts between science and religion erupt when particular flavours of faith in the supernatural make demonstrably incorrect statements about the physical universe. But there are no problems for millions of people who consider themselves religious and don’t take science as the enemy.
Science is not inherently atheistic. Yes there are the militant atheists, like Dawkins (sorry, I agree with much of what you say, but not with the way you say it), who are also scientists. But personalities are not the same as the enterprise of science itself. Science is just, by its nature, against twisting and denying facts and evidence. If that is a problem for your faith then yes, we will clash. Other than that science has no real interest in religion. I am an atheist because I’m an atheist, not because I’m a scientist.