Science vs. Religion: A Race to Destruction?

First things first: with all due respect to interim host John Oliver, I for one am thrilled to have Jon Stewart back on The Daily Show.  I know it is sad to say, but I actually missed him while he was on summer hiatus.  Welcome back, little buddy!

Last night, Stewart interviewed Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,”  who was promoting his newest title, “An Appetite for Wonder.” the most interesting moments in the interview revolved around Stewart’s question to Dawkins about whether science or religion ultimately would be responsible for hastening our journey down this path of apparent self annihilation. What followed was a fascinating, if not entirely satisfying, dialogue about the “downsides” of both disciplines.

Basically, Dawkins split the difference in place a fairly equal amount of blame on both science and religion in his prophetic imagining of how things will go down in the future.  Although he was convinced that religious extremism ultimately would lead to our downfall as a human race, he conceded that the tools to do so would be afforded to them by advances in science.

Stewart challenged him on this, suggesting that historically, so-called “secular” governments have seemed perfectly adept at self-destructive behavior, independent of any significant religious influence.  And beyond weapons of mass destruction, which seemed to be the axis around which the conversation revolved,  there is the matter of global warming, overcrowding and other secondary byproducts of scientific and technological progress.

In the end, it seemed that Stewart felt Dawkins gave far too much credit to organized religion for its destructive potential in today’s world.  And granted, destruction takes many forms, from apocalyptic war-type scenarios to increasingly chaotic climate systems, and even the wrenching of the social fabric often caused by ideological fanaticism and division.  but I think that both of them failed to touch on a common theme underlying both science and religion, which tends to  lead to either or both being more destructive than beneficial.

In a perfect world, both science and religion should be means to desired ends. With the former, it is a vehicle by which we can advance human knowledge and potential. With the latter, it is a system that can help us better come to know ourselves as creatures composed of some admixture of body and spirit. However, as humans tend to do, the appreciation for such systems can tend to breed dependence. And in justifying our dependence, we tend to elevate the system that was simply meant to be a tool to a sort of godlike status.

Once we worship a system like science or religion, we become willfully blind to its shortcomings, its potential for damage, choosing only to see the things we want to see. Our ambition for the advancement of a cause or an idea becomes, in itself, fanaticism.  Science for the sake of science, or religion for the sake of religion, nearly always possesses within it the potential for great danger, especially if the humanity that both were meant to serve comes second to the ideas and ideals of the system we have come to worship.

Although the conversation between Stewart and Dawkins was frustratingly short, I was grateful for the fodder it left me with afterward.  any time I can turn on the television and, in turn, laugh, think and be challenged, it feels like time well spent.

Welcome back, Jon.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    I thought the most interesting part was when Dawkins agreed that it will not be just religious fanaticism that will destroy the world. But it will be a combination of both bad science and fanatical religion that will destroy it. In other words, he wasn’t pointing the finger at religion as being the only problem as he has knowingly done in the past, but has now included science as a part of the problem. I applaud Mr. Dawkins for his new found humility.

  • Nick Gotts

    With regard to climate change, there is a consensus among the relevant scientists that it is happening, is due to human action, and requires urgent remedial action. Religion – in the form of the religious right – is one of the greatest obstacles to that action.

    • Jakeithus

      Of course Science also has blame to shoulder, for giving us the internal combustion engine and the ability to harvest vast amounts of fossil fuels. It also may provide a solution as technology reduces our reliance on carbon dioxide producing techniques. In the same way religion encourages people to care for our planet and our fellow humans.

      What’s clear is that trying to place the blame on one area or the other is often more difficult that it appears.

      • Nick Gotts

        religion encourages people to care for our planet and our fellow humans

        Its role in the suppression of women alone far outweighs all its preaching about playing nice; and historically, it has had little to say about caring for the planet (it’s not ours). Oh, I know you can find isolated phrases here and there, but by and large the message of the Abrahamic religions at least has been that the planet was made for us to exploit. Bringing these two points together is the opposition to women’s control of their own fertility; while population growth is not the main engine of environmental destruction, it’s certainly a significant contributor.

        • Jakeithus

          Once again, population growth has science to thank for its advances bringing about an increase in life expectancy, increase in available food, and decrease in infant mortality, far more than any religious injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”.

          I’m perfect comfortable referring to the planet as ours, in the same way I refer to the place I live as “my city”. It’s where we live and have a stake in, it doesn’t refer to ownership. And while I can’t deny that Abrahamic religion has been used as justification for exploitation of this world, I believe a truer reading is one of stewardship and care.

          We can go back and forth, although it’s pretty clear you’re looking for any negative you can find when it comes to religion. I think it’s far more accurate and fair to say that both science and religion have been used to harm and benefit, and it takes a far wiser person than you and I to make a determination beyond that.

          • Nick Gotts

            That both science and religion have been used both to harm and benefit is trivial; the question is one of the overall balance, and I have no doubt at all that that favours science overwhelmingly. Before the rise of modern science, people’s lives were overwhelmingly, to truncate Hobbes’ phrase, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Religion never made much impression on that. I’d say anesthetics, aseptic surgery and vaccines are each worth far more than all the supposed consolations of religion; and while science has certainly provided new ways to kill people, this does not seem to have increased the probability of violent death.

            In the case of science, the increase in population is a side-effect of something unequivocally good: a longer, healthier life for billions of people, and a huge drop in maternal and neonatal mortality. In the case of religion, it’s a side-effect of something unequivocally bad: the suppression of women. Improving the status of women is probably the single most important contribution that could be made both to social justice and to environmental sustainability, and in that political struggle, religion is overwhelmingly a negative influence.

          • Jakeithus

            “the question is one of the overall balance, and I have no doubt at all that that favours science overwhelmingly. Before the rise of modern science, people’s lives were overwhelmingly, to truncate Hobbes’ phrase,poor, nasty, brutish and short. Religion never made much impression on that”

            That’s all well and good, although as confident as you may be it’s still just your opinion. One could very well argue that the type of societies that allow for scientific progress at all would never be formed in the first place without religion to act as a cohesive factor (hey look, here’s a book directly along those lines http://www.amazon.ca/Big-Gods-Religion-Transformed-Cooperation/dp/0691151210 )

            Religion’s role in the oppression of women is far more complicated than you make it out to be, as again it is not a simple black/white issue. I’d argue that the value given to women in the western world owes a debt to the women-affirming message that is at the core of our Judeo-Christian religious tradition (as controversial as that may be).

            Our society, good and bad, is built on a tradition of Greek logic/science and Judeo-Christian religious values. To assign the good and bad primarily to one tradition or the other is a less than accurate representation.

          • Nick Gotts

            One could very well argue that the type of societies that allow for scientific progress at all would never be formed in the first place without religion to act as a cohesive factor

            One could assert it, but are there any grounds for believing it? A mere reference to a book, without specific arguments, does not get us anywhere. The gods of ancient Greece, Babylonia and Egypt don’t seem to have been particularly moral or cooperative, nor those of the Maya, Aztecs and Inca, so it’s hard to see how they could have played the role Norenzayan apparently suggests. In any case, as the blurb to the book notes, some of the least religious societies now are also some of the most “cooperative, peaceful and prosperous” – so even if we needed the prop of religion at one time, we don’t now. We most certainly need science.

            I’d argue that the value given to women in the western world owes a debt to the women-affirming message that is at the core of our Judeo-Christian religious tradition (as controversial as that may be).

            You haven’t argued that, merely asserted it. If it’s true, it’s odd that it has been precisely as the hold of Christianity has weakened that the emancipation of women has made progress (with almost all the churches trailing decades or centuries behind secular institutions), along with the rise of the rule of law, democracy, freedom of conscience and expression, and the decline of openly sanctioned slavery and torture.

            Incidentally, I’d suggest dropping this “Judeo-Christian” stuff, which is a very recent fad. One of the most hallowed of Christian traditions is persecuting Jews. Aquinas considered Jews to be “slaves of the Church”, while Luther authored the charming pamphlet: “On the Jews and their Lies”.

          • Jakeithus

            It seems to me this whole debate has been more asserting rather than arguing, since it is a difficult task to accomplish given the medium. I don’t have the time at the moment to go to in depth, but I will assert that you shouldn’t be too quick to equate correlation and causation in when discussing the relationship between the decline in religious participation and the rise in the things you mentioned. You’re speaking like everything is settled fact and common knowledge, when one could argue something else if they wished.

            I’ll probably keep referring to the contribution as Judeo-Christian. My religion is one that values its Jewish heritage, and I like to make sure that contribution is not forgotten given the debt that is owed to them. Or course, Christianity to me is also pro-women and pro-environment, so we likely disagree greatly on what hallowed Christian traditions actually are.

          • Nick Gotts

            Well, there’s really no doubt that historically, Christianity (that is, what actual Christians did, said and thought in the name of Christianity) was overwhelmingly hostile to Jews (and this goes right back to “His blood be on us and on our children”), and regarded women as inferior to and rightly subject to men (going right back to the authors of Genesis, and amply reinforced by Paul of Tarsus), until quite recently. That is simple fact. These things did not even begin to change until the rise of modern science. I agree that the causal links between the decline of Christianity’s political and ideological power, economic intensification, the rise of modern technology and science, and that of democratic, individualistic and egalitarian ideas are complex.

        • James Vincent

          You neither know what the Bible says about the earth or the responsibilities of Christians to protect it! Global warming has been proven to be a hoax and a manipulative one at that! Why don’t you attack China,Brazil,India and other nations who care little about the earth we live on? Christians care more about this planet than any other faith on earth! Some of the countries mentioned above are atheist and care little about the earth! ”

          Genesis 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

          To dress it and keep it means to take care of it and protect it!

          • Nick Gotts

            You are either an ignorant dupe of liars, or a liar yourself. Global warming is not a hoax, and its reality was confirmed just this week by the latest report of the IPCC, which provides the consensus view of the relevant scientific experts – thousands of them. The only people denying it are know-nothings and far-right conspiracy theorists like you. So nothing else you say need be taken seriously. I have not, of course, attacked any nation; but if you actually believe global warming is a hoax, on what grounds do you tell me to attack China, India and Brazil?

            Genesis 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

            Evidently you don’t even know your Bible: later in Genesis, God expels Adam and Eve from Eden.

        • Hanan

          >Abrahamic religions at least has been that the planet was made for us to exploit.

          True, but not to a detrimental end. If you look up rabbinic literature there is a legend dating to Talmudic era that God takes Adam on a sort of “tour” and warns him that the world is his to use but if he damages it , He will not repair it for him. Point of the “midrash” is, be careful as to how you treat the world around you, don’t destroy it.

          • Nick Gotts

            A “legend dating to the Talmudic era” is hardly definitive for the Abrahamic religions, is it? I’m not saying there have not been, or are not, followers of those religions who care about the environment – I’ve campaigned with some of them – but the overall message is as I said: that the planet was made for human use.

  • Hanan

    I have always found it interesting how the Arts deal with this question. Think of anything you have ever read or film you saw; from my experience, if you look at it, it is never religion that ruins the world. There is always some [secular] totalitarianism to varying degrees at play. I’m not even saying that is intentional on the part of the writers, but that it seems that is always the outcome.


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