On Science and Religion, part 1

Hi Folks. This installment has nothing to do with traveling. It is an outlet for my own thoughts. I’m trying to understand issues of faith, and not belittle those who choose to believe in God. If you are offended by anything I'm writing, then enjoy the photographs, leave a comment, and tune in next time.

To a Theist, the entire world is proof of God's existence. Here is a conundrum that my friend and I have tried to understand on many long walks: Two groups of people can look at exactly the same evidence, and come to wildly different conclusions based on it. This Creationist Birding site was particularly poignant to me, because they believe that birds are ultimate proof of God’s handiwork, whereas I look at the same birds and see the ultimate display of evolution.

Fossil evidence shows stepwise divergence of birds from dinosaurs, the transition from solid to hollow bone structures, from toothed jaws to beaks, and selective advantages of having feathers before powered flight evolved (e.g. insulation). In living birds, I see adaptive radiation in beak design according to diet, variation in wing shape according to habitat, and variation in feather color according to the types of pigment molecules available in the ecosystem. I see runaway sexual selection in the form of ridiculous plumages and aerial acrobatic displays. I see 15 different species of Dendroica wood-warblers equipped to feed from different parts of the same tree in accordance with niche partitioning theory. I see three visually identical flycatcher species that can no longer interbreed because their different songs have separated their gene pools, making them sexually incompatible.


On Bermuda there is a sub-species of White-eyed Vireos that are almost exactly the same as their mainland cousins, except the Bermudian race has shorter wings because they wound up in a place that does not require migration. On one of the Galapagos Islands, beak size of ground finch populations varies measurably between years according to the size makeup of the previous year's seed availability. These examples demonstrate natural selection and its outcomes in real-time. They begin to categorize Natural Selection as a self-evident axiom instead of a “hypothesis.”


I look at all the evidence in the natural world, especially the birds, and plainly see that natural processes easily and intuitively account for the wonderful diversity described above and in these photos. I see the scope, scale, power, and leverage of natural processes, and see that my own body fits squarely inside the spectrum of outcomes that nature has already demonstrated possible. Natural processes have created 400-foot-tall trees, volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, coral reefs, and the annual circum-planetary migrations of Arctic Terns, so my own presence seems perfectly plausible, if not pallid by comparison.

  A Theist looks at the same pieces of evidence and sees the work of God. Yet these processes can stand alone without Supernatural input. An example: Christian doctrine says that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years. In this paradigm, God fashions the world into its present form. However, all you have to do is entertain the plausibility of Earth being 4.5 billion years old, and the state of our planet can be explained by regular, irrefutable natural processes: plate tectonics, natural selection, principles of chemistry and physics, and time. This non-Theistic paradigm is easier for me to understand because it does not require any leaps of faith. In my paradigm, my Big Questions are answered logically and systematically, because that is how I am personally wired to think.

As humans, we seek satisfactory answers for the question "why and how are we here?" I choose the word "satisfactory" carefully: we do not seek truth. We seek peace of mind, familiarity, and organization. We do not need to be right, we just need things to make enough sense that we feel right. Religion's purpose is to provide answers to this question in a way that can deliver the peace and organization we seek. I look at Nature with logical reasoning and scientific training, and the world makes sense to me. A Theist looks at the world according to their faith, and it makes sense to them. At the end of the day, we’re both looking birds at our feeder. 


This demonstrates that there is a wide range of individual variation in reliance on logic and reasoning. Many people believe in things that have inherent logical disconnects. For example, Christianity has some gleaming logical gaps, and I doubt that any Christian would sincerely disagree. Still, devout Christians are faithful, and their beliefs make sense to them even if they are not logically bulletproof. Faith fills in where logic is absent. Until recently, this upset me to no end. How can someone believe in something based on faith alone? I still don’t know, because I may not be capable of it, but the billions of devout Theists prove that most humans can engage the Big Questions without needing logical consistency.

I know I’m right. And you, Theist, you know you’re right. But maybe there are multiple valid perspectives here. Alternative stable states, as we say in Ecology. I think we could all benefit by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. I’ll acknowledge that you, Theist, have found peace in valuable beliefs that I am unfortunate in not being able to understand. In return, I wish that Theists would be wary when their religions purport to know things that cannot be known. The beauty of science is that it is hypothesis-driven. A hypothesis is the best explanation based on evidence at hand, and every new piece of evidence has the potential to modify or drastically change that hypothesis.

Meanwhile, as atheist philosopher Sam Harris wisely points out, “Every religion is beholden to its literature. Everyone has this idea that they have knowledge about the afterlife, the virgin birth of certain people, etc., and these are claims to truth. This is profoundly unscientific because you can’t edit the books!" Religions claim absolute truths within their doctrines, and then create a perspective through which the world only makes sense if these absolute truths are accepted. For instance, according to Christianity the earth must be less than 10,000 years old based on the accounting in the bible chapter Numbers. To suggest otherwise would be to claim that the bible, and by extension, the word of God, is wrong. This, by definition, is impossible because God is infallible. By this reasoning, the earth must be the age that the bible reports. Under this framework, this is the best answer, because nothing else makes sense.

For me, “Because God made it so,” or “because its in the Bible” is not a good enough answer. I prefer my beliefs to be products of my own observations and void of truth claims. I think there is a place in our lives and our society for belief in things greater than ourselves, things that we cannot understand. I think that a strong devotion to these ideas can provide answers to the Big Questions. People use examples of religious atrocities as rationale for throwing out religion altogether. But it seems to me that religious atrocities are the result of irreconcilable differences in the truth claims between two religions. The Christian claim the afterlife is X, and the Muslim claims the afterlife is Y. They cannot both be right, or else the absolute truths that the religions are predicated upon would crumble.

What if the same religious frameworks existed, but the claims of absolute truth were removed?  A religion is a malleable institution. Its texts remain unchanged, but its interpretations are neither static nor limited by logical boundaries. Could Christianity still exist without claiming absolute knowledge of heaven, sin, virgin birth, and fate? I think so, because doing so would require less theological contortion than instead explaining away all the criticism and contradictions that it continually endures.


  1. Good points I think.
    I do have a bone to pick though! I know it is sort of going on semantics, but in this case semantics matter. You seem to be misusing the word Theist as a term that refers to the belief in a creationist God in the Abrahamic (Christianity-Judaism-Islam) sense. And while I am a firm believer in evolution, and much like you, can't really wrap my head around the creationist argument, I do think that it is possible to be a Theist and see nature as God's (and I use the word God in the non-abrahamic sense - I will explain later) work without really ascribing to creationist ideas. By this I mean that perhaps you should consider Asian religions such as Daoism or Buddhism who do not really ascribe to the God-as-creator idea but still look at nature and see God's (or Buddha's or the Great One's) presence. This is mostly because the idea of God has been abstracted into a more collective manifestation. Meaning, we are all Gods and part of God - that is to say, that out there there is something bigger than us, greater than us and at the same time we are part of it (very abstract, I know). I think that Daoist texts and philosophy describe it best in that even the tiniest quark is just as complex and just as important as the biggest galaxy. There is something ethereal in the contemplation of that - proof not of intelligent design but a network of interconnectivity that binds us together as is greater than all of us. To use my favorite line from poetry: "To see a world in a grain of sand" (William Blake).
    Just food for thought...:D

  2. Sean, it amazes me that we are 3,000+ miles away, haven't really talked (except causally) in months, and are simultaneously having the same questions and conversations, and drawing the same conclusions.
    (.. it's like we're related or something)
    The only times I think there may be something akin to a "higher being" is when timely coincidences like this occur. In the last few weeks I've had some GREAT conversations on faith with some evangelicals I met back in Texas. I'll e-mail you some of the highlights in the next few days.

    Beautifully written, excellently articulated argument, fantastic photography.


  3. intriguing discussion! I do have to point out that there are some people *ehem* who are both Christians AND good, evolution-toutin' scientists at the same time :)

  4. Also, it is good that you note that many religions do preach the idea that their truth is the only and absolute truth. But it is important to note that not all religions operate in this fashion. In fact, it is mostly "modern" western religions that ascribe to this m.o. Again, if we take a look at Asian-based religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, etc...many of them do not claim absolute truth. In fact many of them don't see believing in two or more sets of faiths as problematic (i.e. Back in the day a lot of Confucians were also Daoists or Buddhists) mostly because they again, mostly regard themselves as manifestations of something. Also it might be due to the fact that a lot of these religions are also not centralized and controlled by a central religious body. The structure of Buddhism sort of approaches that model, but that governing body is not really seen as the dictator of dogma in the way perhaps a similar figure like the Pope in Catholicism is seen. There are advantages and disadvantages to this of course. In a way these religions are institutes or were institutes at some point, but not in the traditional way we would think of a religious institution as being.
    Again, just food for thought!

  5. Emi- Thanks, and I agree that i'm being western-centric in my claims and my terminology. Criticism of religion is often taboo, and I think that as a result we have not yet developed appropriate terminology to be exact in our arguments. I didn't want to imply that this issue is limited to Christianity, but its hard to be any more general without lumping in eastern religion with it. A debate between Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and some religious leaders, found common ground in the fact that Buddhism and Daoism are not predicated on absolute truths. The fact that one can believe in two or more faiths shows that a religion can be compatible with alternative perspectives if the belief system is not hostage to truth claims. I like your idea that truth claims may be a kind of tool to organize the central religious body. The decentralized nature of Asian religions is very appealing, and I wish I knew more about them.

  6. Heidi- I think you are proof that this religion-science debate doesn't have to be so heated. I don't mean to understand your own beliefs, but I imagine that reconciling Christianity with hardcore biology requires relaxing the interpretations of the bible. What are your thoughts on, say, Genesis?

  7. My Big Question(s) being historically-oriented is:
    The Sumerians created the first true 'empire' in the modern meaning. They were the first to use farming techniques to support a stable population that provided food for themselves, rather than following the food. This is generally a heated statement but, most scholars agree that in biblical terms, the best place for Eden would be near the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This is Mesopotamia, exactly where Sumer was located 7,010 years ago.

    1. So, how come these early people did not believe in our Western conception of god? Surely for an all-powerful being created man in his own image the earliest men would know of his presence?

    2. What happened to Adam and Eve? If they truly were the first humans, they knew of god and of satan, how come their predecessors did not?
    I could go into a much longer history lesson here, but I think I'll save that for a post of my own.

    3. This one has bothered me for a long time: The three big religions were 'invented.' Before the idea of monotheism came about, cultures around the world had multiple gods. The Christians came along and told the Pagans that their singular god (despite having a Holy Trinity, there is just one guy) was bigger, better and just right. This could easily happen again.

    To quote Emi, "Some food for thought"
    I also agree with Emi, I took a history of China/Japan class last year and we talked a lot about Eastern religion. It's pretty interesting, especially since it's still around now in mostly the same form as it was created.

  8. Good thoughts here, very well expressed. You might have majored in English or photography if you hadn't liked science.
    It seems to me that these "Abrahamic" religions we are discussing are in constant conflict with science because they define themselves through it. These religions, for instance, prize faith as a virtue, and you can't believe something on faith if it can be confirmed through observation. So in order for a religion to include faith, it has to be be at odds with science. This doesn't mean all religion is inherently at odds with science, just that some of them are because they want to be.
    I don't want to offend any Abrahamists, but traditionally these religions have defined themselves as emanating from a source beyond the natural world, separate from and superior to it. Nature and the gods are distinct and not necessarily in harmony. Since science derives its answers from observation of nature, it is to be expected that the answers it finds will be different from those derived from religious sources.
    This is how it becomes conceivable and even plausible that a god (maybe Yahweh, maybe Satan) might have intentionally caused nature to contradict religious truth, either to distract you from God or to confirm his superiority.
    I don't mean to say that all Abrahamists believe this; I'm just saying that this has been the traditional attitude of these religions, as it appears to me.
    It also has a lot to do with the whole "absolute truth" thing. It's pretty dangerous to say that you've already figured out how things absolutely are, because what you're basically saying is that you refuse to learn anything new.
    A person who has an interest will find that there have been and still are religions out there who welcome the input of scientists, who shun statements of absolute truth, who don't define themselves by denying the validity of other viewpoints, and who learn what they know through observation of the world around them. Your "Green Man" might have a hint about that, if you ask him.

  9. Careful- science can function as a religion too. There are some things still unexplained by the scientific approach. It requires a leap of faith to believe that science will be able to explain these things- i.e. beginning of the universe. Life.

    "Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people's minds."
    --Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

    Ditto the comment about certain spiritual traditions being based on observation of the natural world, much like the scientific method. They often concentrate on different phenomena, trying to answer different questions (although not always- "what happened here?"). For example: watching bird movements in Himalayan valleys to interpret weather, since the height of surrounding mountains prevent seeing long distances. Requires long observation and, these people would argue, the right spiritual mindset to receive and interpret wild language.

    Remember David Abram, author of Spell of the Sensuous? I was reading this last year, and I think I showed you. Anyhow, he just wrote a new book- Becoming Animal. I loved it. Even if you don't agree with him, he shares some entertaining stories. Think kayaking near a sea lion colony and discovering that you are being perceived as a threat- trying to paddle away, avoiding humpback whales surfacing nearby.

    Sean, hope you're well.


    P.S. Running today behind the golf course, I met a barred owl. We hooted back and forth for a while. Then, I ran to tell Glenn. He was baking cookies in his pajamas, and shared them with me. A good day!

  10. So, the cold medicine has messed with my thought function. 'Predecessors' should be 'descendants.' My apologies.

  11. I think you can still believe Genesis is true without contradicting science, if you understand the literary genre. Many parts of the Old Testament are meant to be historical documents, written in prose. However, the creation story in Genesis (as well as other parts of the Bible) is written as a poem. In the original Hebrew language, it would be pretty clear that the creation account is a poem, not a history, and therefore not meant to be taken literally. Based on this, it's pretty easy to conclude that Genesis does not have to be a literal history of the world. For example, in the book of Job (chapter 38), when talking about God's power, it says that that ice and snow come from God's womb, that he feeds the animals, and brings the seasons. Christians have no problem saying that snow is not literally born from God. And they know that seasons are brought about by earths orbit, etc. but they do not say that this Bible passage is untrue, or that science is wrong because it contradicts this passage... because they know that this passage is a poem!!...yet somehow they have a problem with similar figurative language in Genesis. I think it's silly.
    Another thing to understand about Hebrew culture/Judaism, and in particular their oral tradition (which Genesis was, for a long time) is that many things are attributed to God that “western” religion likely would not attribute to him. Since Judaism holds that God allows all things to happen, he therefore “causes” them. As westerners, we interpret this as God literally/actively doing something to cause an event, whereas Hebrews would not…and therefore would have understood the meaning of Genesis differently.
    I think the main theme of the creation story is to show mankind their "place" in this world, and to give us insight into human nature. God created man for the purpose of caring for and tending the garden/earth. God created people to love each other, and created an amazing bond between man and woman, so that they are a part of each other and not complete without each other. God created man with free will to choose his own path and whether to love and obey God or not. All of this is inherent in the Genesis story, and I believe shows us great truths about ourselves.
    I believe that God is responsible for the first life on earth, and probably whatever atoms/material that caused the big bang….which doesn’t contradict science, since no one has a perfect theory on that anyway. So why not? Science takes similar leaps of faith with whatever theories we have about the first life and the beginning of the universe anyway.
    Finally, I’d like to say that Christianity holds that God is God because he is different that humans. Humans themselves can create things that are static and stay the same. We struggle to create things that can evolve and change and become something completely new (sure, we can sort of do that nowadays with computer programs etc, but not *really*). What better demonstration of God’s creative power is there, than that he created life that has been able to take on so many amazing forms!

  12. Also, I’d like to mention some things that, as a biologist, I think are pretty cool about the Bible:
    -when Solomon asked for wisdom from God, one of the gifts of wisdom he received was that he went out and identified the animal species in his kingdom and learned about them…God values animal life, and obviously thinks biologists are pretty cool and important :)
    -in Jewish law, land was not sold permanently, because they had the understanding that the earth does not belong to man.
    -the Bible talks about the earth being in mourning for all the abuse humans heap on it. God was rebuking humans for being cruel to nature, before we even realized we were doing it! From Hosea: “"Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land…..Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying."
    The Bible says God will one day “set things right”. Included in this is that God will restore nature to the way it is supposed to be, before humans destroyed it.
    The Bible compares nature to the holy scriptures themselves; nature tells us more about God than anything else besides the Bible. Therefore the Bible tells us that nature is to be revered.
    Basically, I think the Bible tells us that the world is not so human-centered as the westernized version of Christianity likes to think. All these verses (and a lot more) have been right under our noses, yet somehow a lot of Christians in the US in particular don’t see the point of protecting nature and taking care of it…even though it was the first command ever given by God to us…you’d think that’d be important ;)
    Here’s one more cool verse from Hebrew scripture: basically pointing out how sweet raptors are, and how mankind really isn’t as singularly awesome as we lead ourselves to believe….plus it mentions raptor migration, so how could that not be cool?
    "Does the hawk take flight by [man’s] wisdom
    and spread his wings toward the south?
    27 Does the eagle soar at your command
    and build his nest on high?
    28 He dwells on a cliff and stays there at night;
    a rocky crag is his stronghold.
    29 From there he seeks out his food;
    his eyes detect it from afar.
    30 His young ones feast on blood,
    and where the slain are, there is he."

  13. Nick- Regarding the virtues of faith and the impasse between faith and logic, I recently heard an interesting point made by Sam Harris in a debate. And yes, i realize that he is a bit overrepresented in my thoughts about religion. anyway:
    [What if someone chooses not to believe in the logical, scientific interpretation of water as H2O]..."What can we say to such a person? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn't share those values, then the conversationh is over. If someone doesn't value evidence, then what evidence are you going to show them to prove that they should value it. If someone doesn't value logic, then what logical argument can you provide to show the importance of logic?"
    Also, your final statement is a powerful one.

    Justine- Thanks for the book recommendation. Once I woke Glenn up from a nap by surprising him at his door. He came out in pajamas and said "it smells like a cat died in my mouth... i'm going to go brush my teeth."
    See my next post regarding your comment.

    Heidi- Thanks for providing your perspective! I've addressed your comment in my next blog post.

  14. Chiming in, super late I know, to mention that this blog post was weighing on my mind today as people reacted to the rapture-that-wasn't (yet?). I was at the Union Square subway stop where there was a large group of Mennonites who were possibly handing out pamphlets (not unusual for the subway), but more unusually singing in a group of perhaps 20 people, and all were wearing clothes that stood out in NYC. I had come in from Williamsburg, where as you might imagine a lot of the establishments had signs poking fun at the idea of May 21st 2011. And while I had previously found the jokes somewhat amusing or even expressed clear disbelief/mockingness at the whole event (even that very morning), the sight of people committed enough to that idea, or at least some of the other related religious tenets, sort of turned my opinion of the idea of the significance of this day as something worth mocking into a very strong negative, reminding me the concept of having a more balanced understanding of others views as suggested in this post.

    An alternate possibility of course, as most of the people who read this blog pretty well know, I just feel bad about everything ever.


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