On Science and Religion, part 2

Rather than respond to some of the previous wall comments with more comments, I thought I’d start a fresh post so I can expand my thoughts relating to your discussions. This post is based entirely on the discussion found in the comments here.

Justine- Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think that science functions as a religion, and those who treat it as one propagate the confusion underpinning the clash between faith and science. Good science requires no leaps of faith, and is not in the business of explaining on faith that which cannot be studied. Connecting logical sequential gaps with leaps of faith is fundamentally unscientific. The scientific method cannot answer some things (staunch rationalists would add the word “yet”, but not me), and does not pretend that it has absolute answers for them. Quantum physics sometimes creates hypothetical scenarios in order to derive “real” theories from them and test current hypotheses against them (i.e. imaginary numbers in math, multidimensionality, string theory), and I think this is the closest thing to faith that we see in science.

In bringing up quantum physics I’m realizing that the breadth of “Science” is about as broad as the breadth of “religion.” I am enjoying the references to eastern and native religions in our discussion, and would suggest on the same grounds that “Science” should also be viewed as a heterogenous institution. All science is grounded in observation-based logical inquiry and the scientific method. Similarly, religion is grounded in the core notion of the existence of a guiding supernatural entity. These are apples and oranges, so the similarity stops there, but it’s worth considering. I mention this because in a way, letting quantum physics represent all of science is like using Buddhism to represent all of religion. Anyway, this is starting to treat science as a religion, which is deplorable, and, well, unscientific.

Getting back to the comment that “There are some things still unexplained by the scientific approach.” I have 2 good analogies, one from a Vassar Cognitive Science professor, and the other from David Wolpe, a prominent Rabbi and speaker: 1) You can’t teach your dog calculus, no matter how well you train it, and even if it is the smartest dog in the world. Now, why do we assume that humans are at the end of the spectrum of cognitive understanding, and not somewhere in the middle? 2) A neuroscientist is born and raised in a black and white room with black and white furniture, and watches nothing but black and white TV. That neuroscientist can come up with some pretty solid and true theories on light reception on the retina and in the brain, light perception, optical arrangement, etc. There is nothing wrong with her theories; they are just incomplete because she has never seen a color TV. These thought experiments suggest that humans cannot understand everything out there. However, the neuroscientist knows everything she needs to know in order to function perfectly in her world, and the dog would be no better at being a dog if it happened to learn calculus.

To tie together Justine and Emi’s comments, I think that the eastern and native religions you bring our attention to are much less controversial in society precisely because their spiritual traditions are based on observation and not doctrine issued absolutely from the supernatural. That’s not to say that these religions aren’t also rife with logical contradictions, but at least they don’t create incompatibilities in understanding that which lies outside their teachings. Again, I wish I knew more on the matter. If you don’t mind, I’d love some suggestions of reading material!
Which brings me to…(after a brief, unrelated photo interlude)...

(Arctic Terns)

(Bronx Zoo, 2009)

Heidi- First, THANK YOU for your thoughts, because otherwise this discussion would be fairly one-sided. This is a great and well-reasoned defense of non-literal bible interpretation. I think that you demonstrate the positive result of religious faith after claims of unknowable knowledge are largely ignored. Unfortunately, many Christians and many denominations do interpret the bible literally, and these people have not only held powerful positions (Ted Haggard, George Bush), but have become the face of Christianity at-large (sadly, Terry Jones). I know people that literally think the devil is real and walks among us. I know people that think Hell definitely exists as a doomed fiery eternity, and I will be ending up there because I do not accept the lord as my savior. Those are the types of unknowable truth claims that bother me.

You have shown that it is possible to validate the scripture when people attack the bible based on its contradictions. Acknowledging that the Old Testament is largely prose, oral tradition, and poetry, however, is an incomplete defense. If we conclude that Genesis “does not have to be a literal history of the world,” then Christians no longer have to reconcile things like 7-day creation, a 10,000 year old planet, literal Adam, Eve, and Eden, etc. Phew. But common arguments use this logic to cherry-pick scripture. For example: “Genesis is a metaphor, but Jesus was still definitely the son of god, and definitely rose from the dead.” If some of the bible is up for investigation and interpretation, then all of it must be. For instance, the 10 commandments are the divine moral imperatives, but the story of Moses is just prose? That is confusing to me. Also, where does one draw the line between “word of God,” and “word of the authors?” It seems like there is a big spectrum of this in the Bible.

Once we relax the literal interpretation of Genesis, we no longer believe that it is true. Instead, we accept the text as prose that informs our perspective on the world in meaningful ways. Existence of a supernatural being is not a prerequisite to this, because we all have read texts that re-oriented our lives that did not claim to be divinely inspired. I think faith is powerful in grounding one’s morals and moral duties, but I think Heidi’s comment reminds us that we can gain all the faith-based moral orientation we seek without needing to accept the absolute truths that come along with the strictly interpreted doctrines of those faiths.

(American Tree Sparrow)

Hey this is fun, I should write controversial blog posts more often.


  1. In his introduction to Masanobu Fukuoka's "One Straw Revolution," Larry Korn explains:
    "It is a common teaching device among Oriental philosophers to use paradox, illogic, and apparent contradiction to help break habitual patterns of thought. Such passages are not necessarily to be taken literally or figuratively, but rather as exercises to open the consciousness to perception beyond the range of the intellect."

    I think it is useful to approach most religious texts with this in mind.

    Also, many (good) teachers use this approach to push their students. Example: A friend related this story to me. At a recent Tracker class (duh), Mike Kessler was bent over the tracking box, pointing out an aged human track to a group of students (my friend among them). Another instructor, Bill Marple (billmarple.com), walked up, looked at the box and said, "I don't think that's a track" and walked away.
    Mike spent hours poring over the track, determining sex, height and weight of the person who had stepped in the box. He located her among the students and asked if she'd stepped in that place. "Yes, but over a week ago!"

    If Bill hadn't made that comment, Mike might not have spent so much time and discovered so much about that track.

  2. And to that end, the scientific method would not be as rigorous as it is without the constant need to verify itself against alternative religious claims, however paradoxical they may seem. However, in the Abrahamic religions (to use Nick's useful terminology), contradictions within the religion are not seen as teaching tools, even if they may be an opportunity to learn something about the nature of faith.

  3. Sean: this is scattered, but here goes:
    I agree there are a lot of dumb Christians out there that make the rest of us look bad. I once witnessed a debate about evolution ending with the Christian saying “show me a fossil that is half way between a dog and a cat and THEN Ill believe in evolution!” while that comment made my head explode, I think it highlights much of the problem with these conversations: neither side takes the time to understand the other. So thanks Sean, I think this will help!
    Without starting a whole new debate, I’d like to just say that I do believe in the concept of a hell. The Bible describes hell as complete and utter separation from God. To a Christian, separation from God would be very painful and horrible, thus the descriptions of hell you see in scripture. But to someone who does not believe in God, separation from him is probably their first choice. I think God gives people the freedom to choose their spiritual destiny, and for many that means not spending eternity in the presence of a god you don’t believe in. If you believe in something like, Nirvana, say, then I believe that’s where you’ll end up. But, you will be separated from a God who I believe cares about everyone on earth, which I think would be pretty sad….others probably see it differently, and don’t care.
    As far as your “cherry picking” argument, maybe it didn’t come across clearly enough in my original comment, but the creation story in Genesis is poetry, and should therefore be read as such. Many other parts of the Bible are written as historical prose (prose= not poetry), and should be read as such. I don’t think it’s cherry-picking to say that the creation story should be read as a poem, but accounts of Jesus should be read as history. It’s just a fact: the poetry in the psalms should be read as poetry, the historical account of the Babylonian rule over Israel in the book of Esther should be read as history.
    I think it is more likely “cherry picking” to say that the poetic creation account in Genesis should be read as literal history but the poetry about God’s interactions with nature in the book of Job should be read as non-literal poetry…which is what many Christians say.
    I’m not sure I understand what you are arguing by saying “if some of the Bible is up for investigation and interpretation, then all of it must be.” I definitely agree that the historical claims of the Bible should be investigated. The stories of Jesus found in the new testament concur with other historical documents of the day and are accurate: I don’t think anyone denies anymore that Jesus was a real man, that he really taught in Jerusalem in the first century, or that he really was executed, or that people claimed he rose from the dead. I believe that Jesus was the son of God, and that he did rise from the dead. I don’t think any historical evidence has the ability to address these truth claims, but as a scientist we know that a lack of support does not mean something is not true.
    I guess what I mostly dont understand is what you mean by scripture being up for interpretation. Is your argument: “the creation story should not be taken literally (is up for interpretation), therefore ALL genres of writing in the rest of the bible cannot be taken literally” ? if so, I’d have to disagree and say that you are generalizing too much. I think a more correct statement would be “the creation story is poetry and was not meant to be taken literally, therefore other *poetry* in the Bible should not be taken literally.”
    Anyway, I have a paper to write, so I’ll finish this up quickly, and not in a very satisfying way:
    I disagree with your statement “Once we relax the literal interpretation of Genesis, we no longer believe that it is true”
    I think I agree with Justine that science has become a religion for some people. Or at least a “world view” (akin to agnosticism). For example “Darwinism”
    Anyway, thanks again Sean and maybe I will organize my thoughts and write more later.

  4. Sean:
    Suggestions on reading material: While most people would suggest going out and reading the Daodejing or something of that nature, I think that a lot of the Daodejing would go over most people's head if not presented and read in proper context. That being said, I think that the Zhuangzi is a much better introduction and explanation of Daoism in particular. They're mostly parable-like story things so they're a good read too. There's one about the Emperor's visit to a butcher that is probably my favorite as it really illustrates what a Daoist life is about.
    Anyways, I think what Justine mentioned is a good approach to religious texts in general. As she aptly points out, most of them are meant to inspire reflection and growth rather than provide truths (although I am of the opinion they might be able to).
    I also agree with the comment made by Heidi (and I guess Justine) that science has become a religion for some people - and when looked at it in that way can sometimes become very detrimental to their own growth and worldview. On a personal example, my dad is a man of science and brought my brother and I up to approach things in a very scientific fashion (to pose a question, formulate a hypothesis, and then test it) however, in recent years I have come to notice that his adherence to the scientific method has warped into an "if someone hasn't proven it is true, then it is not true attitude" which I find conflicts with his ability to expand his world view. For example, he refuses to believe in global warming because some of the evidence has been suspect and refuses to even the possibility of the existence of what we currently consider paranormal activity or fringe science because there is no conclusive evidence. And while it is healthy to maintain a certain level of skepticism, to altogether deny the possibility of something being true because it has not been proven to be absolutely true is the warping of this scientific worldview into a dangerously religious tone. What I mean to say is that taking the scientific worldview to the other extreme can be just as bad and altogether detrimental for the advancement of science since it limits our minds and what we could consider as being possible.

  5. Emi, I quite agree that many scientists can be as dogmatic as many religious people. If a true scientist encountered evidence for the existence of, say, ghosts, he would have to take that into account. But many scientists would dismiss it because they have already concluded that ghosts don't exist. That's not very scientific! However, I'd be cautious about calling it religious. It certainly makes it absolutist and dogmatic, but I don't think those are the primary characteristics of religion. After all, both you and I have been arguing that religion doesn't have to have these qualities, so let's do religion a favor and not use them to define it!

    On the other hand, don't forget that we are dualists by upbringing and tend to find things more digestible if we can put them into opposing categories. But in a broader sense, science and religion are both ways of learning information that helps us relate ourselves and our lives to the world around us. They both look at the world, ask "why are things like this and how did they get this way?", and then go about finding the most satisfying answers according to their own criteria. So are they really so distinct in the end? Is comparison between them really so deplorable?

    Anything by Malidoma Somé is bound to offer an interesting and perspective-broadening view of indigenous spirituality. I know Graham Harvey has done a lot of work on animism, though I haven't read it myself.

    And I have a request of my own for Heidi. Can you direct me to any Christian literature written by such thoughtful and open-minded believers as yourself? Like most non-Christians, I tend to judge the whole group by a vocal and cantankerous subset, and I would be very interested to read some more ideas such as those you have expressed.

  6. Nick: I have a hard time finding books that I completely agree with as well. There are a lot out there where I agree with 90% of the book, but there are a few parts that just ruin it for me. I've recently been struggling with this a lot because I have a friend who is very interested in Christianity and has been reading a lot of those sorts of books. He tends to disagree with the same things I disagree with, but, because a few Christians hold a view he doesnt agree with, then he feels like he cant accept the religion as a whole. I feel that's partially westernized christianity's fault, as it's really packaged it into this "do this, do that, believe this, not that" package. I mean, even things as simple as the “sinners prayer, asking Jesus into your heart" which *everyone* thinks you have to do to be a Christian....NONE of that is in the Bible! ALL the Bible asks is “If you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”….you don’t have to believe in creation or evolution, you don’t have to be baptized, you don’t have to go to a special church, or read a certain translation of the Bible, etc.
    Anyway, I’m getting away from my point.
    There’s a pastor Rob Bell who has some really cool videos out there (the video “she” about the “maleness” of God is particularly good!) And others that you can find on his website, I’ve liked the ones I’ve watched.
    I hesitate to recommend a specific book: ones that I have read and like, because I know there are a few things I disagree with, or ones that I haven’t read but have heard are good, because I don’t want to take responsibility for what’s in them, in case it’s utterly ridiculous. I suppose if I had to recommend a starting point, I really appreciated Lee Strobel’s “a Case for Faith”. I would also say NOT to read his “a case for a creator”….ever. ever.
    I also appreciate the argument in the chapter “Lord, liar or lunatic” in the book “More Than a Carpenter”…I cant remember the other chapters of that book.
    I’ve heard that “Jesus among other gods” is good, but haven’t read it for myself.
    I have to admit, until recently, I have not really read many books dealing with this subject. I read some in High School when I was really trying to figure out what I believe, but I know I have never had the truly “big” questions that others have had. Now that my friend is really getting into this subject, I’ve been trying to read more, so maybe I’ll get back to you with some really great books here soon!

  7. Sean:
    Funny that you should be writing about this. It’s been on my mind too. I’m teaching a unit on evolution and one of my students gave me two pamphlets in Portuguese published by Watchtower (a Jehovah’s Witness publisher). The pamphlets had beautiful illustrations and touched on all of the popular evidence for the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. But, like you said, they were able to look at the same evidence and come to a completely contrary conclusion.

    My students aren't at the level to have a philosophical discussion. They tend to take most of what I say as fact so I had to be careful not to abuse my authority as teacher. Rather than present evolution as a doctrine, I framed it in the context of the scientific method. I was careful to reinforce that in science we make conclusions based on available evidence. Each person has the right to interpret the evidence however he or she wants to. I don’t want to destroy the faith of teenagers living in a 3rd world country. It’s up to them to go back and make conclusions when they’re ready.

    I did, however, want them to be able to appreciate the elegance of the theory of evolution by natural selection and how completely it explains much of the complexity and diversity of life. To me that knowledge is a gift. It puts the beauty of life within range of my comprehension. Life is so much richer when I can start to explain the “why” and “how” of it all. I feel robbed of this opportunity when everything is attributed to the hand of a supreme being. It’s like I must look at life from behind a velvet rope. “Don’t meddle in the work of the creator it’s beyond your comprehension; just enjoy the prettiness from a distance.” How boring! Of course I won’t be able to explain everything, but I think it’s innately human to want to try.

    Evolution is a lens through which we can interpret the world around us, but it’s not the only lens. I agree that “Darwinism,” while it explains a lot of phenomena, is not a complete world view and that some scientists limit the possibility of new insights by shunning other ways of interpreting the world. Acupuncture, for example, can be explained by energy channels and chakras or by stimulation and neurotransmitters. The language is different but both lenses accurately explain and predict the phenomena.

    Sean, you have such thoughtful and intelligent friends! I miss intellectual conversations…

  8. Clancy: awesome! I agree with you exactly "how boring!"
    as a christian I believe God created nature for us to appreciate and explore, because it tells us about himself. I think "believing in" natural selection and exploring all of biology's complexities is like really digging into the work of one of your favorite authors to understand it better....you can read it on the surface and enjoy it well enough, but how much better to dive right in!


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