Do Religion And Science Simply Ask Different Questions?

PZ Myers with a solid post on why religion and science cannot meaningfully be said to simply be “answering different questions.”  Short answer why not—because religion is not answering any meaningful questions with anything like meaningful reasons.

An excerpt:

I mean, religion might well be the only avenue for addressing the question of how many bicycles are being peddled by angels right now, but that’s because it’s an irrelevant question that doesn’t affect our lives or the universe in any way, doesn’t have any way of being answered, and is built around imaginary referents, “angels”, for which we don’t even have evidence of their existence. But if religion is a way of knowing, how do they know what the answer is? What is their methodology? How do they verify their answers? Why is it that every religion, and even every individual within a religion, comes up with different answers?

That’s an example of a trivial question, but the same problems apply to the big questions central to their beliefs. How do we even know that we need redemption from sin? Is sin even a valid concept? They can’t answer these questions in an independently verifiable way.

Even when they try to get specific, they are hopelessly vague.

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness. The future of science is a series of imponderables, he concluded, and it may require a set of scientific skills “of which we have no inkling at the moment.”

I think the fruitful conversation we need between science and religion is more of a loud roar from the science side to silence the lies of the faithful. This argument that we need more input from religion comes almost entirely from those already committed to the superstition — personally, I think we could use entirely less babbling gobbledygook from the apologists.

But Conway Morris’s suggestion is pointless. How will religion help us understand the nature of consciousness? Having someone assert that it is the product of ghosts, spirits, or other such invisible manifestations from some non-place outside our universe is, it has turned out, a useless, unproductive, and old, dead hypothesis. Just to suggest that we may need new ways of thinking to approach a complex problem does not imply in any way that a very old way of thinking has some utility.

People like Conway Morris keep claiming that science and religion are not only compatible, but that both are necessary. I don’t buy it. I have two simple questions for those who claim that the two are complementary.

  1. What specific fundamental principles of your religion do you actually use in your science? I don’t mean just general ethical principles, because atheists also have those, but tell me something specific about how you apply your religion to science?
  2. Do you apply scientific principles to your religion, and do you do so consistently? Do you, for instance, test religious claims with experiment?

When you put it that specifically, most of the religious scientists I know would unashamedly and rightly say that no, they practice science in the lab or field without expectation of an intervention by Jesus to change the results, and that no, turning the skeptical tools of science against their faith would be inappropriate, or that god is not subject to our scrutiny. This is not compatibility. This is tergiversation.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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