Science vs. Religion   3 comments

I’m taking a break from my usual photography/travel blog to put down some thoughts on this conflict.  Ever since science came to the fore during the Renaissance, the two ways of making sense of our world have been engaged in a running battle.  Granted nearly all scientists and a great majority of the faithful don’t pay any attention to it at all.  But a good number of the world’s religions and (despite their denials) some scientists continue to be rankled by the other’s views.

By the way, enjoy the pictures.  I am giving  a break to viewers and if you can manage to download copies to your computer, go right ahead.  But please do not use them for any other than personal use (wallpaper is good).  They are copyrighted, so please do not use them in advertising, your website, etc.  This goes for these pictures only.  Clicking on those in other posts on this blog will take you to my website where purchase can be easily made.  Thanks for your cooperation and interest!

Early morning in the Botswana veld, as clouds begin to gather in preparation for the rains. The end of drought was (and still is) placed in the hands of God.

Some would say that science vs. religion is a straw man issue, that it points to flawed thinking even to consider the two as rivals.  There are also some who think the argument is over, that science has successfully separated itself from the question, and that most religions have reconciled science with their faith.  There is some truth to this, but by no means is the conflict over with.  Strangely enough, the controversy surrounding climate change has stoked the argument, and of course the argument over evolution and its teaching continues to elicit raw emotions on both sides.

Many people don’t realize how religion got its start.  Also, most don’t realize how science was practiced in relative obscurity for centuries before it ever attained enough power and influence to give religious leaders cause for concern.  But as soon as science became important, as soon as it was able to be distributed to a wide segment of the populace, religious hierarchies were threatened.  The history of this conflict points to how inevitable it was for the two camps to fight, and how difficult it will be to resolve the conflict in future.

Religion at its origins was most likely a way to make sense of the vagaries of nature:  crop failure and devastating storms, premature death and sudden, unexplained sickness.  Science at its beginnings was a way of thinking that relies on observation, inference and deduction to rationally explain the world around us.  Even though religion has matured greatly over the centuries, bifurcating many times, it remains at its core a way for people to take comfort in the face of adversity, to have faith that God(s) or a spiritual equivalent is behind the making of the Universe.  Science is much younger, having gotten a false start with the ancient Greeks, then only expanding during the Renaissance.  But in recent times science has become much more influential, explaining the Universe at ever earlier times, almost to the very instant of its origin.  It remains a way for us to explain nature.

A storm breaks up over the Absaroka Mountains of Montana.

Although most scientists maintain that the two should never be thought of as competitors, I think they essentially tackle the same questions.  Science does go about it in a wholly different way than does religion, often trying to answer small questions that would never concern a spiritual person.  But those small questions, it should be clear to anyone by now, lead to the big ones:  Where do we come from?  How was all of this created?  What is the destiny of the world?  Religion for a long time was convinced that science would never get close to answering the ultimate questions, but it is very clear now that science is rapidly heading in the direction of answering all or nearly all of the fundamental questions.

The battle has essentially been won by science.  Big decisions in the power centers of the world are no longer influenced to a large extent by religious leaders (there are some exceptions).  Meanwhile science drives technology, which in turn drives the advance of humanity into its future.  For example, evolution is regarded by most educated people as the only real explanation for the existence of all life, including us.  Those in the Bible Belt and in other regions around the world would not agree with this statement, but they are “drinking the koolaid” as it’s said.  Whenever the question gets to the courts, it is proven beyond doubt that among the powers to be science wins the day.  Polls consistently show that most people agree with those court decisions.

Because science has gained the upper hand in recent times, there are many scientists who now wish to disavow the reality of the conflict.  They naturally wish to minimize the religious point of view.  They want to get back to business, which is understandable.  Science is difficult enough to practice without distractions like defending it against fundamentalists.  It requires undistracted attention for an entire career.  Stephen Jay Gould complained on numerous occasions that he had wasted too much time defending evolution.  But being an eloquent man, he was constantly called upon (and he felt an obligation) to do so.  Tragically, he died too young, proving his point that scientific careers are much too short.  But among millions of those who have a fundamentalist bias in their faith (again, understandable) the conflict is by no means over.  They believe, rightly I think, that their way of explaining the basic questions of existence to their countless followers is threatened by the rise of science and rationality.

This argument is not going away, even though I think it will take long breaks where the media ignores it.  At their cores, religion and science continue to explain the fundamental questions.  They continue to go about answering them with radically different ways of thinking – science with what’s called the scientific method (even though most of us don’t understand what that really is) and religion with moral-based faith.  Of course, many would argue that religion focuses on guidelines for living while science has taken over the business of explaining nature, and this is a relevant point when speaking of SOME religions.

Prayer flags fly in Nepal. Although Buddhism does not rely on a creator, it does attempt to explain the suffering of humanity.

By and large, however, religion still attempts to explain those questions that we begin to ask as children.  It has to if it is to have any sway over people’s lives.  It’s about power over people’s lives, and I say that with no judgment regarding their motivations (I am willing to give religion the benefit of the doubt, i.e. their hearts are in the right place).  With science as well, they are convinced that science is the “real” way to explain nature, whereas religion is out of its element when explaining the world.  Religion, in other words, should stick to teaching children the difference between good and evil and leave the ultimate questions to them.  This I think is a naive way of looking at things.

I believe it would be much more honest for scientists to admit that their way of explaining the world has gained the upper hand in modern times, and that, as a result, religion has a reduced role in that realm.  Perhaps they would be less upset and frustrated when religion comes at them wanting a fight.  Perhaps they would stop accusing the faithful of muddled thinking on the issue.  All it would take, I think, for a rational scientist to understand things better, is for him or her to look into the very earliest origins of religion.  It is, after all, a science (archaeology) that has provided knowledge of those distant origins in the Middle East.

I do not see any good way of resolving faith and religion.  It seems a bit unsatisfying to me, as a scientist, to simply say that they are two different ways of thinking.  Maybe I’m too simple.  I feel that you either answer the ultimate questions or you don’t.  How can we have two different ways of answering them, with correspondingly different answers?  One has to be right and the other wrong.

Perhaps I should be happy, like many religious scientists, to relegate religion to being a guide for living while science explains the Universe.  But I can’t do that without feeling a little guilty.  I don’t like to disrespect another’s viewpoint.  I also don’t resent religion as many people seem to.  I accept the arguments on both sides, but as a scientist I know which side I will always come down on.

Maybe someday the fight will be over.  It certainly should not be carried into issues like climate change, which really don’t have anything to do with religion or faith.  But if I were a fundamentalist Christian, I don’t think I could swallow evolution hook, line and sinker.  I hope scientists will stop and think about the issue as deeply as they think about scientific problems.  I don’t like them piling on.  While Catholicism has largely pulled out of the fight, many religions have not.  So we are sure to see more acrimony in the future.  At the very least, we should never make it personal, never make it about the person.  All of us are merely children looking out at all the wondrous things around us with wide eyes.  Asking questions.

A typical valley sunset in western Oregon brings forth spiritual thoughts.

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3 responses to “Science vs. Religion

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  1. Wonderful photos! As for the question of “Science or Religion?”, I have been thinking about it. Science does an excellent job of explaining how things work, and how they have changed, and much else. But when I think about god, I think, “The world exists. Why does it exist? If god (or God) (or the gods) made it, then WHY?” To this I have my own answer, “The being(s) created the world/universe because it seemed like it would be fun.” I see no point in a deity making a clockwork world that runs predictably…that is just playing with Legos. Nor do I see any sense in a deity creating people so we can be tested to destruction, and then trashed (cast into the fires of everlasting….well, you know). If there is a creator/god/goddess, I think the reason for Creation is JOY. The joy a Robin feels as he claims his territory, the joy a tree feels as the summer sun shines on its leaves and turns energy into sugar (mmm! Sun Candy!), the pleasure water molecules feel as they form snowflakes (they must be having fun…they have done it so much this winter!), and so on and so forth. The bower bird gets some kind of thrill from decorating his bower. The human being gets fun, whether from making mud pies or from designing the Golden Gate Bridge. I think a lot of humans get fun from arguing with each other. When humans join in with their own creativity, that is when we come closer to whatever created this universe…..and it does not matter to that creator whether we create myths, fiction, or science.
    I have been enjoying your comments on the Science News articles. I see your photos, and I see that you take joy in beauty, as well in the science behind that beauty….geology, deep time, light, life, space, and almost everything else.
    And, in case you are interested, I have recently become a more “faithful” church goer, and I realize that while I mostly believe in my own flavor of god, and tend to disbelieve most religions, I DO believe in the people in the little church in my little town. If you ever come to Vernal, Utah, drop in at Kingsbury Church. You WILL be WELCOMED! (Besides, we have some really great landscapes for you to photograph!)

  2. Great post! I, of course, host an atheist themed blog, but i see that more as a cheerleader site for science and rationalism than bashing individual theists. I understand why people cling to these magical concepts. It’s comforting. My real gripe (and fight) is with fundamentalists.

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