Sunday, November 6, 2011

Science Vs. Religion

It seems that this debate will never end. I think part of the problem is that there are actually two very different perspectives that people tend to argue from without being aware or acknowledging it. Those who insist that there either is no conflict or does not need to be one tend to argue from an individualistic perspective while those that insist there is and must be a conflict argue from an institutional perspective.

When approaching the question of whether science and religion oppose each other from an individualistic perspective the answer becomes as varied as there are individuals making the argument. It is true that from this view the two do not need to conflict. However, it is very subjective and misleading. We, as human beings, are capable of rationalizing and harmonizing what ever we want. This does not mean the conflict does not exist it just means for specific individuals the conflict does not exist. A scientist may be very good at conducting research within their given field without ever mixing personal views into it. It is possible to compartmentalize different aspects of our lives. It amounts to keeping two aspects as separate as possible. If they never intermingle or only mix to the slightest degree then avoiding conflict is rather easy.

If you look at the argument from an institutional perspective there really can be no argument. The two conflict and must conflict. In most respects science and religion are opposites. In terms of structure, religion is top down while science is bottom up. Most religions do not allow the average believer any say in who leads the religion or in what doctrines or rites are to be followed. It is determined at the top and those below are simply expected to adhere. Without multiple individuals and groups constantly conducting research and experiments there is no science. Constant testing and review by those within a field create the consensus that leads to further developments. It is this process of constantly reviewing what has come before while seeking further information that makes science what it is.

Science is as much a process as it is a body of knowledge. It is constantly self-correcting and therefore changing, progressing. Religion does change but very slowly and usually with a great deal of resistance and difficulty. It is not self-correcting. In fact it tends to be self-insulating. It frequently claims infallibility and that it possesses eternal unchanging truths. When forced to change most religions rarely admit to error they just make a preposterous claim that it has found new insights or perspectives based on the old one. Usually, this new "insight" amounts to a semantics game. The terminology and presentation change but the underlying philosophy is essentially the same.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Science does not have any sacred texts. Origin of the Species is not the bible of evolutionary biologists. It is an important work for historical reasons but the theory of Evolution has progressed far beyond what that one book contains. Every work of science no matter how important a role it may have played is subject to scrutiny. Virtually every religion has at least one sacred text. Religions may seek to interpret the text in slightly different ways over time but in the end it is never question that the text is divinely inspired and therefore must contain truth. Scrutiny is generally avoided if not outright forbidden. In science, the very notion of "received wisdom" is abhorrent. Wisdom can not simply be handed out like a door prize. Simply following a text, doctrine, or leader is no way to discover what is true.

Science has no holy men. Those who are afforded considerable respect are done so for their work. If they do not follow the strict standards of scientific research they will lose respect. Clergy are given respect simply because they are clergy. They need never demonstrate any insight or skill. That isn't to say there are not talented clergy. I know there are but that is not the same as earning respect rather than having it handed to you simply because of the position you hold.

In the end the knowledge gained from science is tested and reviewed constantly. It is based on objective standards. the "knowledge" from religion is based on faith. it is based on blindly following those who happen to be in leadership positions or have gained a following. Religion is highly subjective and therefore with little foundation. From an institutional perspective, science and religion really are opposites and do conflict. In this way the argument is foolish. Individual rationalizations do not make religion rational. Religion is simply a matter of opinion and can never rise beyond it. Its structure does not allow it to ever rise above its own subjectivity.

Science must conflict with religion. I only hope that it will eventually supplant religion entirely. Religion is one of our species dead ends.

1 comment:

  1. In stead of supplanting religion, any religion that exists must conform to that same criteria of scrutiny to be considered authentic knowledge. And it may already be happening!

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is spreading on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new 'claim' is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, "correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries." Like it of no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment, evidential criteria now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution appears to be getting underway. And all sides of the God question have it wrong!

    More info at