Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Religion and Science

with 2 comments

Last night I got to thinking about the peculiar fight about the theory of  evolution, which is as well established a scientific theory as, say, gravity. Why is it such a big deal for some (though certainly not all) religious people?

It occurred to me that it’s part of an on-going struggle for control of explanation. One component of the origins of religion was an effort to find reasons for why things were and why things happened. Where did everything come from? What were those twinkling lights in the night sky? What was the sun? Why did that storm happen to us? Why did the plague or the drought or the flood or the earthquake happen to us? (Note the “to us”—the implicit idea that we are the reason for things. I’m reminded of a profile of Marty Zuckerman I read in the New Yorker. He and a guest were in his private plane when it hit an air pocket, raising them both a couple of feet in the air before dropping them back into their chairs. “Wow!” said Zuckerman. “Did you see what just happened to me?!”)

One of religion’s roots was the effort to have answers for those questions, and so religions have creation myths and stories of God(s) punishing people with floods and plagues and earthquakes and the like.

Then along comes science and starts to look at evidence and to test its explanations with experiments designed to demonstrate the explanation is false. If the explanation isn’t proved false, one can trust it a bit more—but further experiments are always possible and in fact done.

And it turns out that, in general, the “to us” and the “for us” part of the question is, generally speaking, irrelevant: barking up the wrong tree. We’re not the reason for everything, as it turns out, though certainly we’re the reason for some things. For example, it was found that careless handling of city sewage does cause outbreaks of illness.

Some of the religious were reluctant to let go of the explanatory role of religion, even when the new technique proved to be markedly better: better explanations, more understanding, and the ability to build upon the explanations to do new things.

Yet religion still had other components that science didn’t touch: social justice, for example: how we should treat one another, individually (person to person) and as group (government/organization to person). Indeed, as you read the teachings of, say Jesus, they seem focused on social justice and how we should relate to one another and to God. Very little natural explanation (and that, predictably, wrong: illness caused by demons, for example).

This, I think, is why religion wants to argue with science: they’re working the same territory. Notice that religious issues don’t come up that much in, say, mathematics: the territories are different.*

Of course, issues of how we should treat one another—and explanations for why we treat one another the way we do—are gradually coming under the sway of science, in psychology and neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology. So far, though, the advice given by religion—to treat others as we would like to be treated—seems to be (in general) consistent with what we’re learning when we approach the question from a scientific direction.

* A famous exception: the value of π. In mathematics, π is a transcendental number (not the solution of any equation with rational coefficients), and in the Bible it’s 3.0. In describing Solomon’s temple, several articles of furniture are described.  One of these pieces is “a molten sea.”  II Chronicles 4:2: “Also he made a molten sea of ten cubits from brim to brim, round in compass, and five cubits the height thereof; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.”

This so impressed the state legislature of Tennessee that a bill was proposed to make (by law) π equal to 3.0. (Unfortunately, that would make one a transcendental number.) The bill did not pass, but still…

Eager to show that the Bible contains not a single error, some have worked out explanations for this discrepancy.

Written by Leisureguy

3 December 2007 at 9:49 am

2 Responses

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  1. mike, if i’m following you, i think you’re onto something. the operative phrase above is “center of things”, for me at least, because — with man’s brain able to reason, the obvious outcome in dogma narratives — as you seem say above — is to make man the center of things.

    however, have you touched on the matter of life after death, which many religious seem to be concerned about?

    i remember a news item from the recent PA school board election — concerning the teaching of evolution — where one woman declared to a reporter that, with evolution, the belief in an afterlife doesn’t make sense any longer, and without an afterlife in her future, life wasn’t worthwhile, or something to that effect.

    for me, an example like this is your evidence of the drive of the religious to be the “center of ….”


    Raymond McInnis

    3 December 2007 at 10:11 am

  2. Anything that is a threat to the god myth is fair game for the god-believers. Consider how far some fundamentalists go to get Wal-Mart to display xmas items and explicitly promote the christian holidays. Or consider the teacher in Chad this week who was brought on charges of merely naming a teddy bear after Muhammad. Remember the Norwegian(?) cartoons and the raff that caused?

    Evolution cuts to the heart of the Bible’s first myth (story). It’s only a problem if you take the Bible literally. Otherwise, evolution is the alternative explanation that — of all scientific theories — has yet to be disproven in almost 150 years! At this point, it’s effectively a scientific law. If the Bible (literally) has the origin story wrong, then it follows that all over facts therein must also be questioned.

    That is what god-believers cannot abide. Letting their religion resides in the Wisdom and poetry books like Psalms and Ecclesiastes is not enough.


    Zaine Ridling

    4 December 2007 at 2:28 am

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