Science and Religion — What The Other Side Get Wrong

Okay, there are actually three sides here: the side that thinks religion and science can be compatible, the side that thinks science shows religion to be false, and the side that thinks religion shows science to be false. I spend too much time arguing against creationism, so I’m going to ignore them.

The important issue that those who beat religion with a scientific stick usually fail to address is this:

Religion derives little of its importance from its truth claims. It is powerful because it provides identity, community and meaning.

And none of those three rely on the truth claims for their potency, except meaning, and even then I’d argue it is a minor thing.

If all churches in the world, tomorrow, admitted that their doctrines were not empirical. They all renounced all their claims for God’s detectable intervention in the cosmos. In short if they conceded that science and religion were incompatible and science won. Membership would drop undoubtedly. But I suspect it would not be decimated. Most catholics would still be catholics, most anglicans still anglicans, most orthodox still orthodox. Most people would modify their beliefs and not lose their faith, and some may come into the church as a result.

I know quite a few Christians who’s beliefs are indistinguishable from mine. They are Christians. Why? Because they chose that to be their identity, they chose that community to be their community, they choose that mythology to be the lens through which to see meaning in the world.

And that’s why, when non-compatibility folks launch into a devastating dismantling of Christian truth claims, most Christians don’t give a fig. In fact most Christians who are professional scientists don’t give a damn.

I’ve heard Richard Dawkins describe this with obvious frustration as a compartmentalizing in religious scientists. They simply won’t let themselves look at their religion with the same eyes they do their science. It doesn’t surprise me. Most scientists don’t look at most things in their life that way. It would make for a shakey marriage, for example. No, religious folks understand, by and large, that while empirical claims may be part of the machinery of religion. That’s not what religion is really for. At least that’s not what they use it for. So all the scientific and logical arguments in the world will sail irrelevantly by most believers.

The real question is, and one I’d love to find the answer to, can we bootstrap the same power of identity, community, and meaning, from where we are now in our western culture, without the doctrines of religion? Can we figure out how religion works its magic, not to dismantle that magic (because people need identity, community and meaning), but to replace it with something that has fewer negative side-effects? That question is empirical, and would take some really interesting work in social science to answer. That is a science vs religion conversation worth having.


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9 responses to “Science and Religion — What The Other Side Get Wrong

  1. I agree. Interestingly, Pastors may try to drill it into their parishioners that the truth claims mean a lot, but most folk sitting in the audience are after community, meaning, identity, status and plain old earthly things like that. They may mouth what their pastors tell them but their real reasons are much more concrete — even if they don’t know it.

    If the pastors admitted that God was not detectable, did not interact, did you give what they promise, I think the numbers would be far more than decimated (decimated only means lose 10%). The false promise is part of the trick, part of the hustle. Sure, the parishioners may not believe the hustle, but they pretend they do — the pretending is what makes the community in large part. For if they disavowed the magic and just became Unitarians, they would certainly lose far more than 10% — as Unitarians show us. Few of your Christian friends whose beliefs are indistinguishable from your are running to Unitarian Universalist churches for good reasons — they prefer the magic show. (Well, unless, of course they are already UUers).

    I think you are right, they don’t give a fig, but only because they don’t care to go any further and check out their inconsistencies. They are very happy with a compartmentalized life.

    But my question is “Does religion really offer that much anyway” — why do we need to boot strap the identity, community and meaning. Does religion really offer it in a measurably positive way as opposed to societies that have little. Don’t we naturally find it even in a secular society?

  2. darn, forgot to follow — but you did not comment in the last post so probably not important. sniffle

  3. Ian

    Sorry about not responding – this post was scheduled ‘cus I was busy. Some points:

    1. I meant ‘decimate’ in its quotidian sense, dictionary definition #1

    2. I’m not sure the alternative is UU or Quakers. One can still be dedicated to the same story, to one story, to the Christian story, even if one understands it differently. I’m not talking here about giving up all truth claims, just about science and religion. There’d still be claims about who God is, about life after death, and so on. The stuff that the Christian comapabilitists rightly focus on when they say “science has nothing to say about this”.

    3. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a compartmentalized life. Not a perfect analogy, but let’s say there is a growing body of science about why I love my wife, and what kind of mental and emotional tricks she plays on me (and I on her) to gain what used to be an evolutionary advantage when we were nomadic peoples a 250k years ago. In fact, science can say that the ‘love’ I feel for her is a combination of little mechanisms that she trips in me and that I could, if I wanted, not fall for it. Would I? No. I would compartmentalize. I would choose to believe in love, and choose to believe we have it, and choose to believe in the moral limits that being in love demands of us. I would choose this even if I knew for certain than in 50 years, this scientific knowledge would have radically reshaped human relationships.

    4. Does religion really offer that much? There’s the humdinger question! I don’t know. I think so for community. From my experience of what religious community can do in times of trouble, yes, it does. But my sample size is small, and it could just be I’ve not been at the right golf club or gym. As for identity, that seems self-evident, given the number of people who define themselves, their voting habits, their life choices, etc, by their religion. Meaning? I’d say probably not. I do think it provides a story for why someone shouldn’t find meaning in work (a problem among my peers), and that is important (in a way the tennis club doesn’t). But I personally haven’t found any difficulty in finding meaning that’s at least as powerful.

  4. Ah, “just science and religion”.
    But there are lots of religion stuff that if they give up will have huge impact like:

    (a) true belief will grant you more meaning in life (than the damn atheists)

    (b) true belief will benefit you (prosperity gospel)

    (c) prayer will be answered so children don’t get sick or are healed and accidents don’t happen.

    (d) god will always comfort you — no need for medication

    So I think even the “compatiblists” buy into this stuff silently — it is the magic show that no one wants to ruin.

    I agree about compartmentalization — I never meant to say otherwise. It is not good, nor bad — it is what the brain does. Sometimes it is helpful to see through it and sometimes (usually, perhaps) it is not.

    You said, “4. Does religion really offer that much? There’s the humdinger question! I don’t know. I think so for community. From my experience of what religious community can do in times of trouble, yes, it does.”

    But where religion is minor (mainland Europe) is there no such support? Does the persistence in Great Britain put you all far above the continent in community help?

    As you said, it is an empirical question. And I think even atheists are often still haunted by their old Christian false intuitions when thinking about this issue. Thank goodness for science to help us see past our wrong intuitions. But who knows, you may be right. Have you discussed this with Tom Reese ?

  5. Ian

    Not sure I totally agree. a) I think anything that provides an identity creates an ‘other’ and by not being an other, at some level we think we’re better off: we have a more meaningful, or happier life. I don’t think a demythologized Christianity would have to give that up at all. In my experience it is alive and well in UU, for example.

    b-d) The other three points might be cultural. While I’ve come across people with those views, they would be very unusual among most Christians I know.

    As for the community bit – yes its empirical, but my tentative guess is not intuitive. My intuition I think is that religion is nothing special. But I am forced to concede that I’ve seen, several times, a church mobilize an awesome degree of support and care that I’ve just never seen elsewhere. Again, maybe I haven’t been to the right golf club or gym or workplace. I suspect theres a kind of expectation that you take on when you join a church (not all, by any means). You acknowledge that you’ll be available to some extent. Maybe it is just because in those churches its okay not to be okay, so folks don’t just give the knee-jerk “it’s fine” when someone asks if they can do anything to help. Maybe churches are better at turning round and saying “no, it’s not fine”. I don’t know. I don’t think it is anything other than a microculture, but still, it has been noticeable.

  6. All those are taken in contrast to “if you don’t believe our religion, they won’t happen” –> THAT is the show.

    Of course I agree with you about making meaning etc. Secular society does all that too. That is my point. It is possible to do it without relgion.

    But here is another issue. As the state (government) takes over caring for the poor and such, volunterism drops. Maybe it takes time for the philanthropy done by churches to disappear before other cultural mechanisms pick them up.

  7. Ian

    “All those are taken in contrast to “if you don’t believe our religion, they won’t happen” –> THAT is the show.”

    Okay, I’m no longer sure I’m disagreeing, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

    Gov’t – possibly, though we have a more active welfare state here, and have for 50 years. I don’t think the gov’t is ever going to do that stuff (or could afford to). I do, however, think we’re losing general community. The relationship with neighbours now is quite different to that when I was growing up, for example. Now I think most people don’t want their neighbours to know their problems, but that also means they can’t help when things get rough.

  8. Sabio and I had a nice long conversation on a similar topic and it was very fruitful now that I’m on this side of it 😉

    First, I would like to point you to another Ian’s Four Fold Typology of Relating Science and Religion that you touch on in your first paragraph.

    Your statement about religion being “…powerful because it provides identity, community and meaning.” I think is right on. Empiric claims are fine well and good, but I see the problem coming in on how best to interpret those claims.

    There is a universe and we can track the progress of this universe back to the 10 to the -43 seconds before it came into existence empirically. Great! So what? It was an accident, it was supposed to happen, it was started by a great sky person or flying spaghetti monster, etc. etc. That’s where the rub comes IMHO.

    However, there are resistant communities out there who attempt to ignore science or discredit it as it challenges their prejudices.

  9. Ian

    Thanks Luke, yes.

    I think even asking why questions about the universe is putting oneself in a perilously empirical place. It may be that we figure out why. The why of fine tuning, the why of the big bang, why there is something. It strikes me they are more likely to be answered correctly by empirical enquiry than by the myriad flavours of human theology. And I think Kauffman (mentioned in the comments to the post you reference) has one line of thinking providing illumintion there

    Interpretation is dead right. It isn’t about *why* the universe came to being, but about what do I (or you, or your congregation) do about the fact of their existence, the fact of our isolation in space, about our smallness in time, about the precarious hold life has: a thin green slime on the surface of one tiny world? Meaning is not generated by asking ‘why’, though that is a common mistake, the question we need to ask is ‘so what’?

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