The Debate Over Unscientific America

Last night, I went out with a friend from high school. Let’s call her… Bob. Bob’s an engineer and she’s religious. At some point, conversation turned to God (I swear, it always does when I’m around…) and I mentioned that I’d been reading a lot of the back and forth over Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.

The authors make a claim that scientists hurt their own cause when they say you can’t be both scientific and religious.

I really want to support what Mooney and Kirshenbaum say. It’d be great it that were true, because it opens the door for extremely religious people to also share in the joy of science. My friend, who doesn’t get involved in a lot of religious debate, thought their position was obviously right. She believes in God, and she accepts science. She wondered: Why is that so hard to do?

So what about the virgin birth? I asked. That’s an example of something that directly contradicts what we know about how babies are made.

Bob said that was true… but she didn’t really believe in the whole virgin birth thing. Crisis averted.

So what about Jesus resurrecting himself three days after he died? Surely, that goes against anything science has shown us about the nature of death.

Bob wasn’t sure about that one.

But she wasn’t about to let go of the God concept.

And that’s really the gist of the argument. Ultimately, if you think good science can be trusted to predict what’s going to happen in certain situations (and what happened in the past), then you can’t accept that God will intervene. That would undermine everything we know about science.

How can you reconcile the two? By compartmentalizing faith and science, treating them with different gloves.

That’s why people like Francis Collins can accept evolution while believing God started the whole process. He believe in different kinds of evidence — one that involves logic and reason and another that I guess involves whatever makes you feel happy.

M & K offer this suggestion:

The public’s willingness to reject science for religious reasons is certainly lamentable. But by arguing that science contradicts religion and makes it untenable, many atheists reinforce the very concerns that are keeping people from accepting science to begin with….

A far better approach is to work with religious believers to help them separate their personal religion from everybody’s shared science, and move toward a much needed middle ground.

I think they’re right in one point… if we say science contradicts religion, it does indeed make it difficult for the religious to accept science.

But it’s their loss, not ours.

While we can bend over backwards to show them ways the two areas can reconcile, we’ve already gone too far. At some point, we have to be able to say that there’s no evidence that God plays any role in the world as we know it, no evidence that Biblical notions of Creation and miracles are true.

It’s virtually impossible to find a “middle ground” because religious people constantly want to draw the line further into the realm of science — where it doesn’t belong.

For the Intelligent Design proponents, “shared science” includes the notion that evolution is bunk. They’re not about to accept that it’s just part of their “personal religion.”

If M & K really want their book to have an impact, here’s what they should do:

Stop going to bookstores for the book tour.

Go to churches instead. (Good luck getting invited.)

Make the case that Christians ought to embrace science and explain what that entails — acceptance of evolution, climate change, and the age of the earth, to name a few. Tell them that it’s possible to believe in God and those scientific concepts.

See what the response is like.

Try to avoid getting lynched.

If they can do that successfully a few times, I’ll take them more seriously.

And when that doesn’t go well, it’s not the fault of pro-science/anti-religion advocates like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. I guarantee most evangelicals have never heard of either. The problem is that scientific facts contradict popular religious beliefs, and the other side is not about to compromise.

I doubt an army of Neil deGrasse Tysons and other great science communicators can fix that.

  • http://blaghag.blogspot.com/ Jennifurret

    Your conversation with Bob is identical to one I’ve had with my mom. Blah.

    I’m concerned more with truth than with coddling others. I’m not going to pretend that science and mainstream Christianity are compatible, because they’re not. You know what? Understanding evolution did lead to my atheism, as did learning how to think critically and scientifically about situations. Religious people who claim to support science yet hold unscientific beliefs are making exceptions that just do not make sense. I don’t support doublethink.

  • Wes

    Chris’s and Sheril’s position is based entirely on tactical and ideological thinking. They’re talking in terms of promoting science as an agenda. Whether science is actually compatible with religion does not matter from that point of view. It’s more important that people are more willing to accept the “science and religion don’t conflict” motif, regardless of whether or not it’s reasonable.

    Personally, the only way I can see to reconcile scientific findings with religious beliefs is either 1.) compartmentalizing, or 2.) watering down religion to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish from atheism. Religion is more than just the beliefs, though. I think there’s no conflict at all with preserving the traditions, practices, community, etc. associated with religion. But believing in virgin births and resurrections and such will always contradict what science tells us about the way the world works.

  • Mike

    I think M&K hold a very academic view of religion, and that’s why they don’t get it. They don’t get where the public hostility towards science comes from.

    Understanding science is largely corrosive to religious belief (not always, but often). There’s stats that back that up, but also many of our own personal anecdotes. Once I had a good grounding in evolution (from my catholic HS bio class no less) I started slipping from deism toward agnosticism. Enough physics classes to understand big band cosmology and that was it. I’d estimate that my fellow physics students had about a 60/40 favoring the godless, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

    Further, M&K really don’t get why it wasn’t the fault of the big mean scientists when the reclassified Pluto. That part of their book (link) was just plain insulting to those of us who use it as a teaching opportunity ever chance we get. I still get asked all the time why Pluto was demoted, and every time, it’s a chance to explain about planet formation, exoplanets, the fact that Pluto orbit is subordinate to Neptune just like many asteroids are subordinate to Jupiter. The media, who didn’t care about the “Why” questions were far more to blame than the scientists or the public. And that’s representative of “the Intersection” of science and media in which they claim to be experts.

    I can’t even figure out which side they’re on. The belief in belief article kind of hit home after following the back and forth with them. I’m really on the verge of dropping their blog from my reader out of shear frustration with their anti-scientist self loathing. Next thing they’ll want drag queens out of gay pride parades to make it more palatable to “middle America.”

    Do I sound frustrated with them? I am.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    Much as I would like M & K to be right, and for there to be a perfectly rational way in which religion could be compatible with science, the facts are plainly as you have outlined. Many religious claims (the Resurrection being the most obvious example as it seems to be a core Christian belief) are diametrically opposed to what we know from science.

    Commentators such as M & K can deny this till they’re blue in the face, but the magisteria continue to overlap regardless, as Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, et al continue to point out.

    It’s understandable that some people should want to reconcile science and religion. Having different disciplines saying mutually incompatible things can be uncomfortable. Many people don’t like the antagonism inherent in the argument, and would prefer it if we could all agree. Failing that – and this is what it seems M & K might be suggesting – we should ignore the elephant in the room and pretend that we all agree.

  • http://sudolife.org/ Josh Charles

    Great Post! This is the first one in the fray that I’ve completely agreed with. I think the suggestion for them to tour in churches is right on, and would hope that they at least try it once and let us know how it goes.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    My friend, who doesn’t get involved in a lot of religious debate, thought their position was obviously right. She believes in God, and she accepts science.

    This is The Doctrine of Joint Belief. We know that people can believe two incompatible ideas. Therefore, the example of people believing two ideas cannot be considered evidence that those ideas are actually compatible.

  • TC

    The problem with the religion v. science debate is that the two have entirely different ways of evaluating truth claims.

    Religion will declare something true if it’s in their holy book, even if it contradicts evidence. Science will declare something true if the evidence supports it, even if it contradicts established work.

    It’s a completely different method of evaluation, leading to no end of problems. That’s why we often talk past one another – we’re asking and answering different questions from different starting points.

  • J. Allen

    When atheists say that religion and science do not mix, it’s usually in response to religious people disagreeing with science facts. If they refuse to even look at evidence there’s little to be done. It’s not like Richard Dawkins is saying ‘don’t bother learning science if your a christian, you’ll never grasp it.’

    The thing I’ve been thinking about is making Critical Thinking as important as Mathematics in our schools. If we could teach the kids why evidence is required for knowledge our society would be much stronger, and snake oil salesmen would have less business.

    Often teachers must teach critical thinking on their own time, and not everyone will have great teachers who are willing to challenge students and demand they be able to rationally justify their knowledge.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I agree mostly with what you said, Hemant, save for one sticky bit:

    But it’s their loss, not ours.

    This is only true on the micro scale. On the macro, we run into situations where the religious use their beliefs to try to create laws, such as those who would prefer to ban stem cell research. Choosing faith over science can definitely have effects outside of the person who holds the faith.

    The problem I have with M&K is primarily that, in a book about how the American populace has an anti-science bent, they’ve targetted the “new” atheists. This gives fuel to those out there in the religionist camp who love to crow about how irrational and unscientific atheists are.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    I tend to agree with MikeTheInfidel. Would we really care if those who hold scientifically incompatible religious views did so only on their own time?

    To take a somewhat frivolous recent example, a Jewish couple claimed they would be imprisoned in their holiday apartment on Saturdays because the landlord had fitted a sensor to switch on the lights. It’s laughable, but the other tenants could end up paying legal expenses due to this inanity.

    Relevant to this case (but off-topic), I’ve never understood why people who adhere to scriptural rules never bother to ascertain the reason for those rules. A rule book is intended as a short-cut, a handy reference, a list of “rules-of-thumb”. By definition those rules will not be appropriate in every single case. Sometimes you need to look behind a particular rule to determine its intent.

  • skinman

    Science and religion are most definately incompatible. The advance of science almost always means the retreat of religion. That is difficult for many to accept. And the process can be flat out dangerous when those of faith attempt to dig in their heels in an effort to prevent their god from shrinking further. But it is better to press forward than to return to the dark ages.

    I like M&K’s blog. But this whole stink has completely extinguished any interest I might’ve had in their book. And they completely misunderstand the atheist community as a whole. We are freethinkers. We are independent. We aren’t good at following the crowd. And when we’re told to quiet down and play nice it doesn’t really sit well with many of us.

    I’m really quite shocked at how ill prepared M&K were for PZ’s reaction. Go after Dawkins and you get one of those old-time boxing matches, where everyone fights repectfully and proper. Go after PZ and you get a knife fight in a dark alley filled with broken bottles, smelling of booze and urine. In my opinion M&K haven’t held up well against him.

    I’m glad our Friendly Atheist has finally commented on this debate. I was hoping you would. And I also agree that M&K should tour churches. I think that is a fantastic idea. But you made another point that I think is very much overlooked:

    “And when that doesn’t go well, it’s not the fault of pro-science/anti-religion advocates like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. I guarantee most evangelicals have never heard of either.”

    I would go so far as to say that most christians haven’t heard of them either. I know my catholic mother wouldn’t bat an eye at either name. In that respect I think M&K have misread the effect “new atheists” (a term I hate almost as much as “brights”) have had on the decline of scientific literacy. As PZ pointed out, scientific literacy was on the decline well before the new atheists appeared on the scene. I personally believe that the new atheists are our only hope of reversing that trend.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think M&K should be shouted down. And I won’t stop reading their blog. But I am disappointed with their attempt to accommodate those that are uncomfortable with the advance of science. In the end I guess I can only hope they’ve learned something from this can of worms they’ve opened. And maybe someday, when I find their book at a used bookstore, maybe then I’ll read it.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    So what about the virgin birth? I asked. That’s an example of something that directly contradicts what we know about how babies are made.

    —snip—

    So what about Jesus resurrecting himself three days after he died? Surely, that goes against anything science has shown us about the nature of death.

    Translation: Miracles can’t happen because miracles can’t happen.

    Come on! Why are you begging the question when sane arguments against miracles are available?

  • David D.G.

    And when that doesn’t go well, it’s not the fault of pro-science/anti-religion advocates like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. I guarantee most evangelicals have never heard of either. The problem is that scientific facts contradict popular religious beliefs, and the other side is not about to compromise.

    Telling M&K to conduct their book tour sessions in churches is a freakin’ brilliant proposal, Hemant, and the follow-up comment is a spot-on analysis of the dynamics of the situation. Beautiful!

    ~David D.G.

  • SarahH

    Chris’s and Sheril’s position is based entirely on tactical and ideological thinking. They’re talking in terms of promoting science as an agenda. Whether science is actually compatible with religion does not matter from that point of view. It’s more important that people are more willing to accept the “science and religion don’t conflict” motif, regardless of whether or not it’s reasonable.

    Word.

    I’m glad you weighed in on this, Hemant. I’ve been following it too, and it’s been disheartening and astounding watching M&K sink further and further, IMO. It’s also reminded me of all the reasons I hate the term “New Atheists” and I started a rant thread about it in the forums.

  • Adam

    I’m starting to wonder more and more if there is such a thing as a reverse Poe? I’d hate to think that these two somehow slipped through the cracks and are really religious people posing as atheists to try to break things down from the inside but I’m really starting to wonder…

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    I would also like to believe M&K’s premise and I also enjoy their blog. However the evidence is not on their side.

    Non-overlapping Magisteria is a great principle and some people do get it right like Ken Miller. However when religion pushes into science or refuses to accept science (creationism is the obvious example) then to my mind it’s the duty of the scientific community to call them on it even if it hurts feelings. To do otherwise or to pussy foot around things that people may be emotional about (like with Pluto) does a disservice to science and to the public. I’m all for the popularizing of science and getting more people educated about it but not at the expense of watering it down so it’s more comfortable.

  • Kaylya

    I think science and some forms of religious belief can be somewhat compatible.

    There are religious people who make claims about the world (i.e. it’s age) that go directly against what we have discovered through science. That form of belief is not compatible with science – a serious amount of cognitive dissonance has to be going on.

    But is belief in a divine being who in some way instigated the creation of the universe (e.g. set off the Big Bang), perhaps set off the transition from non life to life and then let evolution take its course, and who very occasionally intervenes in the world through miracles that defy the normal functioning of the world something that science can really disprove? An awful lot of people, including presumably “Bob”, believe something along those lines. I can argue about how unlikely and unnecessary that all is, but I can’t disprove it..

  • ATL-Apostate

    The answer is simple. Just answer a couple of simple questions:

    Does science make claims about reality?
    Does religion make claims about reality?

    The answer to both is yes.

    Do the answers that science and religion provide differ?

    If you answer “yes” to the final question, then it should be obvious to you that science and religion are not compatible.

    Case closed.

    The authors could have saved a lot of time if they’d just asked me before publishing this drivel…
    ;-)

  • Mark C.

    Hemant, you should definitely follow Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” blog, as well. He deals with Mooney all the time these days.

    Also, if you’re interested in some philosophy and psychology, take a look at this. The link to the paper is in the third comment.

  • Wes

    Mark C. Says:
    July 16th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Hemant, you should definitely follow Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” blog, as well. He deals with Mooney all the time these days.

    Well, that’s because Mooney attacked his review of Miller and Giberson in the New Republic. Coyne hadn’t really paid much attention to Mooney before that. The controversy arose because Mooney attacked Coyne for writing a well thought out, polite rebuttal to religious accommodation to science in a respected magazine, and Mooney (channeling Barbara Forrest) accused him of being “uncivil”.

    Coyne reasonably responded with something like, “If I can’t make polite criticisms in a respectable magazine, where and how can I even speak my views at all? Are you telling me to shut up?” Mooney insisted he wasn’t telling Coyne to shut up, but he never has explained where atheists are supposed to be able to voice their opinions without being accused of “incivility” or “intolerance”.

    So far, it seems like wherever atheists express disagreement with religion/science reconciliation–on blogs, in magazines, in books, etc–Mooney accuses them of intolerance. And Mooney seems to have adopted the Matt Nisbet strategy for science communication: communicate science by picking out a few individuals to attack repeatedly over something petty (such as writing a book review or desecrating a cracker), and then pretend to be persecuted when they respond in kind.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    ATL-Apostate:

    The answer is simple.

    Boy are those famous last words.

    Just answer a couple of simple questions:

    Does science make claims about reality?
    Does religion make claims about reality?

    The answer to both is yes.

    Do the answers that science and religion provide differ?

    If you answer “yes” to the final question …

    … then you need to pay more attention, because religion is so diverse that the answer is often “depends.” Kaylya described the facts on the ground very well.

    Hemant Mehta:

    It’s virtually impossible to find a “middle ground” because religious people constantly want to draw the line further into the realm of science — where it doesn’t belong.

    Given that you’ve been careful before about treating religious people as human beings rather than some anonymous, homogeneous evil horde, I’m surprised that you wrote that. Religious people are not monolithic. Not even close.

  • http://drunkenachura.wordpress.com/ Rooker

    Whenever someone says they are a scientist and also agrees with creationism or is strongly religious, more often than not, that person is an engineer.

    I don’t really know what the deal is with K’Baum and Mooney attacking Myers and don’t really care. Whenever a blog war erupts, I avoid it.

    I will say this though – Carl Sagan had a lot to do with me coming to the conclusion that everything I had learned from religion was a load of hogwash. I wish we could clone him and put him back to work.

  • Aj

    Kaylya,

    But is belief in a divine being who in some way instigated the creation of the universe (e.g. set off the Big Bang), perhaps set off the transition from non life to life and then let evolution take its course, and who very occasionally intervenes in the world through miracles that defy the normal functioning of the world something that science can really disprove? An awful lot of people, including presumably “Bob”, believe something along those lines. I can argue about how unlikely and unnecessary that all is, but I can’t disprove it..

    Science can’t disprove that fairies aren’t responsible for gravity. That’s not what science is about, we can disprove very little, science shows us how we can know much. Science demands theories that can be falsified and evidence supporting conclusions, religion does not, quite the opposite in fact. This is the philosophy of science, you can be a scientist without accepting it but it’s contradictory and requires compartmentalisation.

    It’s obviously irrational to me to have alternative theories in place until science can explain something. Hypotheses maybe, but then as far as hypotheses go they tend to be terrible, and aren’t even remotely treated as such but the majority of religious people. Perhaps all the evidence that would be needed to discover why the universe and life happened is lost. It doesn’t present a conflict with science to place beliefs into gaps of scientific knowledge, however it does offend reason.

    Believing in miracles is clearly viewing particular events in an unscientific way, and anything can be a miracle viewed in such a way. The question is why do people view particular events in an unscientific way, i.e. believe in miracles? Wishthinking. I want it to be true so it is, strikes me as an antithesis to science. Miracles do conflict with science.

  • trixr4kids

    I’m with Kaylya and J.J. Ramsey.

    Holding on to a puritan “Science is NOT compatible with Religion!” will not get us anywhere. And more important than that, it isn’t necessarily true.

    First of all, we need to define our terms: What is religion? Does Deism count? How about pantheism? What about one of those Buddhist sects that don’t believe in deities?

    If you define religion as WorldWeb Online does: a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny–

    –Then, yes, science and religion are incompatible. But I would argue that there’s more than that to religion, and that religion can potentially evolve beyond such beliefs.

    There are religious people–yes, even some Christians–who don’t believe in any supernatural deity or deities, or in the supernatural, period. To them, the word “God” represents “the ground of being” (Bishop Robinson) or the laws underlying the universe, or the universe itself.

    Religion can provide many things that have nothing to do with supernatural deities: a way of honing in on and focusing on what matters (think Buddhism), a set of metaphors representing deep feelings and connections that are difficult to express rationally, something that offers community and ritual, and perhaps a forum for people to collectively express their awe at grandeur and mystery. Science explores mystery; religion can acknowledge the human feelings that mystery evokes, and the two can be perfectly compatible (as long as religion stays out of science’s way!)

    I would say, science is incompatible with supernaturalism. Religion can be something else again. If we grant that supernaturalism is a dispensable part of it, then we should be encouraging, not the end of religion, per se, but the end of faith–in the supernatural.

    Whether or not nonsupernatural forms of religion would ever catch on, that’s another question. Maybe they’d just be a stage on the way to the extinction of religion; or maybe they’d offer something many people would find worthwhile. In any case, I’d love to see religion “evolve”, and I think we should help it to. If we simply oppose it, we’re being too simplistic.

  • Nemo

    Science and religion have been mortal enemies since before the time of Galileo. And I do mean “mortal”. As in, religious authorities will kill you for being a scientist, for daring to question doctrine. In societies where religion dominates, this is what happens.

    Even today, in America, if they really had their way — Creationists would kill you.

    So yeah, not compatible.

  • Aj

    trixr4kids,

    No, I think it’s a safe bet that Hemant and everyone else is talking about beliefs of the supernatural kind. The only thing connecting all religions is supernatural beliefs. Ritual, community, forums, and metaphor are not owned by religion, they can be found among secularists and in other parts of culture. They cease to be religious if no supernatural beliefs are connected to them.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Nemo:

    Science and religion have been mortal enemies since before the time of Galileo

    Ahem! See here: http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/science-and-religion-in-the-early-middle-ages/

    Aj:

    Believing in miracles is clearly viewing particular events in an unscientific way, and anything can be a miracle viewed in such a way.

    That depends entirely on the level of evidence for the miracles that one believes in.

    The question is why do people view particular events in an unscientific way, i.e. believe in miracles? Wishthinking.

    Wishthinking. Or because one thinks (rightly or wrongly) that the miracles have been properly evidenced. Or being brought up to believe that particular miracles happened.

  • Miko

    Relevant to this case (but off-topic), I’ve never understood why people who adhere to scriptural rules never bother to ascertain the reason for those rules. A rule book is intended as a short-cut, a handy reference, a list of “rules-of-thumb”. By definition those rules will not be appropriate in every single case. Sometimes you need to look behind a particular rule to determine its intent.

    That depends on the religion. Buddhism, for example, devotes a large section of the Tripitaka to commentaries and explanations on how its rules arose, as well as repeated stressing the importance of acting wisely as opposed to merely following rules.

    Jewish tradition (and so all offshoots such as Christianity and Islam), on the other hand, arose as a way for tribal elders to justify the war crimes that they committed (which, as with all actions in war, were committed against the people on both sides) by passing the buck to a god that supported their aggressions. As such, in this tradition, the rules have no deeper significance. They’re just a bunch of quasi-random mystical pronouncements intended to teach people to be obedient to political authorities and create fear of something which didn’t exist (i.e., their deity).

    You’re using the word “rules” imprecisely. While a rule can be a handy reference, it can also be legislation imposed by a ruler with steep penalties for transgression, enforced without regard to the reason or individual circumstances. (The fact that “rules” and “ruler” are linguistically similar is no accident.) Historically, people have followed scriptural rules for the same exact reasons that they’ve followed the edicts of kings, pharaohs, and congresses.

  • Miko

    That depends entirely on the level of evidence for the miracles that one believes in.

    That implies that there is some objective standard for what constitutes a miracle that can be checked or verified independently of looking for evidence. Consider why we don’t consider quantum mechanics a miracle: in a world where we only have the evidence of our senses, that which we have evidence for goes in the bin labeled “science” and that which we don’t have evidence for but nonetheless pretend is true goes in the bin labeled “miracle,” basically by definition of the words. Talking about “evidence for miracles” is a category mistake, unless you’re suggesting that the phenomena was mistakenly classified as a miracle and have simply decided (for notational convenience) to continue calling it a miracle until you prove this classification wrong.

  • trixr4kids

    AJ,

    “The only thing connecting all religions is supernatural beliefs.”

    Except for some forms of Buddhism. And for some important 20th century theologians like Paul Tillich, Bishop Robinson, and Bishop Spong, none of whom believe(d) in god(s).

  • Aj

    trixr4kids,

    Except for some forms of Buddhism. And for some important 20th century theologians like Paul Tillich, Bishop Robinson, and Bishop Spong, none of whom believe(d) in god(s).

    Then either Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy that some religions have adopted, or Buddhism is a religion but some people have stripped the religious element out of it akin to non-religions like the Humanistic forms of Judaism, Chrisianity, and Buddhism.

    And for some important 20th century theologians like Paul Tillich, Bishop Robinson, and Bishop Spong, none of whom believe(d) in god(s).

    I’d question whethey they’re religious at all, and whether they’re actually practicing theology, or in fact arguing about fiction.

    J. J. Ramsey,

    That depends entirely on the level of evidence for the miracles that one believes in.

    Science demands a level of evidence that miracles will never be supported by.

  • ATL-Apostate

    My comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek, oversimplifying the debate.

    But seriously, they’re incompatible.

    :-)

  • SarahH

    They become incompatible when they make incompatible claims. So back before people knew how babies were conceived (on a sophisticated level), before Darwin posited his original theory, back before most modern science was done, they weren’t incompatible – or they didn’t know it yet, at any rate.

    Now, however, we have lots of scientific knowledge about the world that contradicts many religious claims. If you’re religious and you don’t make any claims that contradict current scientific knowledge, then bully for you – your particular flavor of religion might very well be compatible with science! But the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of religious people believe in at least a few claims that flatly contradict science.

    M&K want us to just stop mentioning this, gloss it over, and maybe even apologize for being so discourteous as to threaten someone else’s magical thinking. It’s like saying, “Well, it’s awfully rude of those doctors to keep insisting that the anti-vaccine crowd is wrong! Sure, the evidence is on their side, but they’d better shut up about it if they don’t want to scare people away from all medicine!”

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Miko:

    Consider why we don’t consider quantum mechanics a miracle

    Because quantum mechanics is a theory about how the world normally operates. Miracles are purported exceptions to the norm.

    Aj:

    Science demands a level of evidence that miracles will never be supported by.

    So, according to you, the statement “Miracles don’t happen” is unfalsifiable. Brilliant.

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  • trixr4kids

    AJ,

    “Then either Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy that some religions have adopted, or Buddhism is a religion but some people have stripped the religious element out of it akin to non-religions like the Humanistic forms of Judaism, Chrisianity, and Buddhism….

    …I’d question whethey they’re religious at all, and whether they’re actually practicing theology, or in fact arguing about fiction.”

    You’re begging my question. Whether or not a non-supernatural belief system should be classified as a “religion” is debatable. Given that these exceptions I’ve mentioned are considered by some to be “religious”, maybe we’d be better off being more precise (surely not a novel concept for critical thinkers!) and saying that science is opposed to supernaturalism–in religion and elsewhere.

    Or at least, let’s define our terms carefully, before we go making blanket statements about religion’s incompatibility with naturalism.

  • Aj

    trixr4kids,

    You’re begging my question. Whether or not a non-supernatural belief system should be classified as a “religion” is debatable.

    No… it’s not an argument, I can’t be begging the question, it’s not debatable. Words are meaning carriers, and clearly the “religion” that Hemant was refering to, that most people refer to, implies an element of the supernatural.

    I don’t see a meaning of the word “religion” without a supernatural element. I don’t know what the definition of that would be. I don’t see why would separate “religion” without supernatural beliefs with other secular organisations. I also wouldn’t see a connection between some forms of religion if supernatural beliefs weren’t a part of them.

    Given that these exceptions I’ve mentioned are considered by some to be “religious”…

    I don’t really care, people use words as they wish. There are alternative meanings to the word religion:

    * I’ve heard people like Dawkins being called “religious” because of his joy of the natural world revealed by science.

    * If you were to go to the gym religiously it would mean you’re devoted and scrupulous about going to the gym.

    * A member of the clegy or generic religious leadership position. Which would cover Bishops that don’t actually believe.

    If secular forms of Buddhism are called religious perhaps this is a predictable mistake given the prevalence and history of the supernatuarl forms of Buddhism.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    So, according to you, the statement “Miracles don’t happen” is unfalsifiable. Brilliant.

    Miracles by definition, events outside an ordered universe determined by causally connected events, are not applicable to science.

    Events viewed from a scientific perspective would never be miracles. A virgin birth would falsify what we know about the biological process of human reproduction. New phenomena, falsifying theories is how science progresses.

    It’s through reason that we decide to use science over wishthinking. Even if a person sees something extraordinary for it to be deemed a miracle in my opinion involves spurious reasoning.

    When people decide to view somethings through a scientific perspective and others through a religious perspective there’s no rhyme or reason to it, it involves wishthinking or unjustified authority.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    Events viewed from a scientific perspective would never be miracles.

    If you can’t think of anything that could potentially disprove the proposition “Miracles can’t happen,” then you are holding an unfalsifiable claim, which is very unscientific. You ought to have something in mind equivalent to J.B.S Haldane’s “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    If you can’t think of anything that could potentially disprove the proposition “Miracles can’t happen,” then you are holding an unfalsifiable claim, which is very unscientific. You ought to have something in mind equivalent to J.B.S Haldane’s “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”

    I didn’t make the claim “miracles can’t happen”, you are clearly quoting out of context, and even then it’s a big stretch to make it imply what you’re suggesting.

    Events viewed from a scientific perspective would never be miracles. A virgin birth would falsify what we know about the biological process of human reproduction. New phenomena, falsifying theories is how science progresses.

    It’s as if you didn’t bother to read the entire four paragraphs I took to explain my position, and just decided to take one ambiguous sentence to manipulate. Nevermind that the paragraph before and after it would clearly expose your error.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj: I didn’t make the claim “miracles can’t happen.”

    Ahem, you did write, “Science demands a level of evidence that miracles will never be supported by.” You also wrote that people believe in miracles because of wishthinking, that is, belief in miracles is incorrect. Both of those are fancy ways of saying that miracles can’t happen. Piling on four paragraphs of verbiage doesn’t change that.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    Both of those are fancy ways of saying that miracles can’t happen.

    If you can’t tell the difference between “miracles can’t happen” and “miracles can’t have supporting evidence” or “people believe in miracles because of wishthinking”, then I can’t help you. You have a severe failure in logic or language. Lets put it another way, people don’t have justification to believe in miracles.

    You may refuse to read more than one paragraph in my comments but I did explain why miracles can’t have supporting evidence. By definition miracles aren’t scientific theories, they’re unfalsifiable. As such, miracles like all faith, are only limited by human imagination. As many possible miracle explanations can be used to explain a single event and there’s no way to differentiate the ones that are internally coherent from one another in terms of evidence.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    I did explain why miracles can’t have supporting evidence. By definition miracles aren’t scientific theories

    True, but one can have supporting evidence for purported events as well as theories, and miracles are most certainly purported events.

    Aj:

    As many possible miracle explanations can be used to explain a single event and there’s no way to differentiate the ones that are internally coherent from one another in terms of evidence.

    Fixed it for you. The underdetermination problem is an issue even for non-miraculous purported events, and the tool for dealing with underdetermination is the same: Occam’s Razor.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    True, but one can have supporting evidence for purported events as well as theories, and miracles are most certainly purported events.

    Purported events are just events with theories attached to them. Only scientific theories can have scientific evidence supporting them. If you want a lower standard of evidence I have some magic beans to sell you, my business partner has personally witnessed that they work.

    Fixed it for you. The underdetermination problem is an issue even for non-miraculous purported events, and the tool for dealing with underdetermination is the same: Occam’s Razor.

    Miracle explanations aren’t the same as scientific explanations. If something happens that goes against “natural laws” then they weren’t natural laws, one or possible more scientific theories have been falsified. If an explanation is found through science then it would be by making hypotheses, supporting with evidence, and developing theories.

    Miracle explanations work in a different way to scientific explanations. Something happens that seemingly has gone against “natural laws”. People attribute this to a supernatural agency. This doesn’t suffiently answer the question, and adds more questions. The more assumptions, the more questions.

    I’d like an example of competing miracle explanations that can be dealt with by using Occam’s Razor.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    I’d like an example of competing miracle explanations that can be dealt with by using Occam’s Razor.

    Say, for example, that we have a purported healer. Someone examines what he does and witnesses him healing an amputee, and even records the limb growing back. Someone’s eye gets poked out and is restored. Now the healer says that he does his work in the name of Jesus. Now there are several competing possibilities. Maybe he has magic powers that would work regardless of his religion. Maybe he is telling the truth about the source of his power. Maybe the Norse God Thor is behind this. Maybe Douglas Adams has come back from the dead as a healing spirit. Those last two sample possibilities are pretty strained, since no one has even brought up Thor or Adams, so as competing miracle possibilities, they are even more off-the-wall than the first two.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    Say, for example, that we have a purported healer. Someone examines what he does and witnesses him healing an amputee, and even records the limb growing back. Someone’s eye gets poked out and is restored. Now the healer says that he does his work in the name of Jesus. Now there are several competing possibilities. Maybe he has magic powers that would work regardless of his religion. Maybe he is telling the truth about the source of his power. Maybe the Norse God Thor is behind this. Maybe Douglas Adams has come back from the dead as a healing spirit. Those last two sample possibilities are pretty strained, since no one has even brought up Thor or Adams, so as competing miracle possibilities, they are even more off-the-wall than the first two.

    That’s not Occam’s Razor, there’s no difference in assumptions. Each explanation doesn’t really explain anything, just adds questions. No additional assumptions are made over the Jesus or magic power explanation. The explanation from the person supposedly performing the miracles has no more weight than anyone else. The Thor and Adams explanations are bizarre culturally but not unusual in any logical sense.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    Each explanation doesn’t really explain anything …

    Except how this hypothetical healer is so flagrantly flouting the laws of physics.

    Aj:

    The explanation from the person supposedly performing the miracles has no more weight than anyone else.

    Yeah, because of course the performer of miracles would never have an inside line as to how they are performed.

    Aj:

    The Thor and Adams explanations are bizarre culturally …

    And also because there is nothing in the context of the hypothetical healer’s activities that would warrant bringing Thor or Douglas Adams into the picture.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    Except how this hypothetical healer is so flagrantly flouting the laws of physics.

    “Magic man did it” is not an explanation, it’s an attributation. Not to me at least, it adds nothing to my comprehension of the event.

    Yeah, because of course the performer of miracles would never have an inside line as to how they are performed.

    If you believe in an “inside line” I have communed with the spirits, and they’re telling me a Nigerian prince is in need of a temporary loan, you will become rich.

    What an individual attributes an event to is irrelevant. Their involvement doesn’t mean their explanation is automatically sound in reason, and justified with evidence.

    And also because there is nothing in the context of the hypothetical healer’s activities that would warrant bringing Thor or Douglas Adams into the picture.

    And Jesus or magic for that matter.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    “Magic man did it” is not an explanation

    Sure it is. We happen to live in a world where it isn’t a good explanation, but it is an explanation.

    What an individual attributes an event to is irrelevant.

    Not true in general. Relevance is dictated by how much knowledge the individual has of the event.

    And Jesus or magic for that matter.

    Um, yeah, there’s nothing about flagrant suspension of the known laws of physics that would warrant bringing magic into the picture. And flagrant suspension of these laws of physics done in the name of Jesus wouldn’t bring him in the picture either.

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    J. J. Ramsey: Sure it is. We happen to live in a world where it isn’t a good explanation, but it is an explanation.

    In the world I live in attributing events to unseen agents is not an explanation, if anything it only adds questions, not answers them. So the goal of an explanation is worse off than if none had been mentioned.

    J. J. Ramsey: Not true in general. Relevance is dictated by how much knowledge the individual has of the event.

    You’re quoting out of context again, I was specifically refer to your example which I quoted. Also the rest of the paragraph makes it clearer what I was writing about.

    What an individual attributes an event to is irrelevant. Their involvement doesn’t mean their explanation is automatically sound in reason, and justified with evidence.

    J. J. Ramsey: Um, yeah, there’s nothing about flagrant suspension of the known laws of physics that would warrant bringing magic into the picture. And flagrant suspension of these laws of physics done in the name of Jesus wouldn’t bring him in the picture either.

    Um, yeah, I agree. The only thing that it suggests it that the person “healing” believes those things. Natural phenomena have been attributed to the supernatural due to ignorance for a very long time.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Aj:

    In the world I live in attributing events to unseen agents is not an explanation

    And that’s because we live in a world where attribution of events to unseen agents has consistently turned out to be either wrong or unverifiable.

    You’re quoting out of context again, I was specifically refer to your example which I quoted.

    You’re crying wolf about being quoted out of context. If you had been specifically referring to my example, then you would have written something like, “It is irrelevant that this hypothetical healer attributes his power to Jesus.”

    Natural phenomena have been attributed to the supernatural due to ignorance for a very long time.

    True, but describing the sort of healing that I was talking about as a natural phenomenon is begging the question, is it not?

    Indeed, isn’t a big part of our disbelief in miracles that we don’t see that kind of healing being documented, or any other unambiguous suspension of known physical laws? Or as Hume put it, “It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days.”

  • Aj

    J. J. Ramsey,

    True, but describing the sort of healing that I was talking about as a natural phenomenon is begging the question, is it not?

    No, not describing. I was making a point that “flagrant suspension” could actually be natural phenomenon beyond our current knowledge. So I wouldn’t even go as far to say that it necessarily would be a “suspension” of said laws, but either mistaken observation or the laws being broken.

  • trixr4kids

    @AJ: “No… it’s not an argument, I can’t be begging the question, it’s not debatable. Words are meaning carriers….”

    How dogmatic of you. It certainly is debatable. It is also debated.

    I didn’t make up the confusion over the definition of religion; there simply is no consensus on the subject. Not among anthropologists (see below);

    not at the Physform Science, Physics and Technology discussion forums:
    http://www.physforum.com/index.php?showtopic=19676

    Not over at the Rational Response Squad:
    http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/17319

    and, evidently, not among “religious” people themselves:
    http://pluralism.org/news/article.php?id=7460

    I do agree that words are meaning carriers. That is why words need to be defined clearly.

    If you wish to say that “If you define religion as a supernatural belief system, then science is incompatible with religion,” fine. Without that caveat, it might be more precise (and intellectually more defensible), simply to say, “Science is incompatible with supernaturalism.”

    From Wikipedia: “One major problem in the anthropology of religion is the definition of religion itself….According to Clifford Geertz, religion is ‘(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic’ (Geertz 1966)[10]…. Anthropologists have considered various criteria for defining religion – such as a belief in the supernatural or the reliance on ritual – but few claim that these criteria are universally valid” Wikipedia, Anthropology of Religion, italics added by me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropology_of_religion


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