Monday, April 17, 2006

Science, religion and lucre ...

John Horgan sends along this link to Anjana Ahuja's Science Notebook: I'm so sorry, you fellows, but I always religiously avoid your sort (this also contains a link to a piece by John that I linked to and commented on a while back).
There is one evident difference between the two cases: Ahuja did not accept the invitation and hence got no money.
It does seem reasonable for someone dogmatically opposed to the reconciliation of religion and science not to take money from an organization whose aim is preciselysuch reconciliation - though apparently it didn't bother Richard Dawkins, who was at the conference John attended and spoke in his usual uncompromising fashion.
It still seems to me that John and Ahuja are implying that scientists who are religious are intellectually dishonest. Indeed, if science and religion are incompatible and irreconcilable, that must be the case.
I also wonder if John would have had similar qualms, back in the day, about accepting funding from, say, the old Soviet Union, given that communism had in a relatively short time wreaked at least as much havoc as any religion has. In fact, the anti-religious ideologies of the 20th century were far worse than any religion. And religion gave us some good things - hospitals, manuscripts, glorious art, music, and literature. I don't recall any such benefits accruing from communism or fascism.


  1. Anonymous6:24 PM

    And religion gave us some good things - hospitals, manuscripts, glorious art, music, and literature.

    I agree and I'm an atheist. Religion has given us some very beautiiful things as well as a tradition of contemplation whether you're talking about the monks of Tibet or the Medieval monks of Shropshire.

    I don't believe though that religion holds the answers to the mysteries of the universe. If we are ever to solve even 1% of those mysteries, it will be through the conscious use of our reasoning minds.

  2. Well, I certainly don't think that religion has much to do with the study of atoms or cells. It's not science and shouldn't be employed as such. I think people might start with Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, which investigates the experiences of awe recorded in all sorts of societies around the world. I think it also intreresting to look at the unusual degree of agreement among mystics of all faiths. And what Karen Armstrong refers to the axial period.
    If someone rushes at you with an ax, various biochemical events will take place in your body. But those events do not explain the experience of the man coming at you with an ax. The latter explains the biochemical reactions. Likewise, biochemistry doesn't explain religious experience; it registers it.

  3. Anonymous5:25 AM

    This is true. Science looks for answers to how and why things happen while our experience of life is through our senses and emotions, but this doesn't mean a divine force is manipulating them. They are our senses and our emotions.

  4. Frank, there was a guest a few months back on a National Public Radio program (I believe it was on "Fresh Aire," from right there, in Philadelphia) who argued that science and religion were NOT exclusive, but complementary ...

    He explained it by saying science answered the question, "How?" ... while religion answered the question, "Why?" ...

    Same subject of inquiry, but different questions ... and an incomplete answer if one only relies upon one at the exclusion of the other ...

    I believe he was a physicist and an author ... I wish I could remember his name!!!

  5. Hi Jeff:
    Physicists seem more inclined to adopt something resembling a spiritual view of things than biologists are - for whatever reason - though Teilhard de Chardin certainly had a mystical view of evolution (it's worth remembering that Julian Huxley wrote the introduction to the English version of The Phenomenon of Man - and that the Internet makes Teilhard's concept of a Noosphere seem at least plausible).

    Hi Noel: I would hope that there is no divine force manipulating our senses and emotions. I think it is interesting that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett both had religious upbringings rooted in Calvinism (Dawkins some low church evangelicalism and Dennett Congregationalism) and that both have merely switched from a personalist predestinarianism to an impersonalist one. I was taught that God created us as free individuals, including free to accept or reject God. Think of God as the author of the world - only the world he imagines is real and the characters are both real and free - and take it from there.

  6. Anonymous10:00 AM

    I was raised an Irish Catholic in Ireland. It became apparent to me when I was 14 that the priests were lying and didn't have any answers at all. I stopped going to church against my mother's wishes. I have studied religions since then and have enjoyed studying them since I believe they are a valuable and interesting part of our history.

    The problem is a straightforward one: the universe is not our playground. It was not built especially for us apes. It just is. There are so many creatures on this planet alone. In our own galaxy, there are billions of stars with billions upon billions of planets orbiting them. In this universe, there are billions upon billions of galaxies. That our tiny insignificant speck of cosmic dust was imagined by a God for the sake of man is not something I can accept, particularly in the absence of any evidence to support it.

    Religion is said to teach humility, but in my experience it teaches self-importance. I do not believe that I on this tiny planet lie at the center of the universe with the stars, pretty baubles, lit one by one every night for my personal pleasure. I believe I am a very small part of something much bigger and I do not believe that something is divine. I do not believe this because I do not believe that any man-made religion is a substitute for knowledge.

    We have learned a lot in the last two thousand years and I hope we continue to build on that knowledge. I do not want the clocks turned back, the science textbooks thrown out and creationism taught as fact. You can convince children of anything. I tell my children about Santa Claus, but I also tell them the truth when they are too old for fairytales.

  7. Hi Noel:
    I was raised a Catholic, too. I'm half Irish and the tenor of the Catholicism I was raised in was Irish-American.
    I think the universe was built for its own sake and for the sake of everything and everyone in it. But I also think that it is built to a purpose and that purpose, I think, can be discerned in the drama of human life and history.
    The point of Hamlet has nothing to do with the carpnetry of the theatre it is staged in. And the point of the universe has little to do with its mechanics. A mother holding her child in her arms knows - knows - that what she feels is not merely a biochemical process programmed by a selfish gene.
    I think genuine religion has little to do with going to church, though I still attend church, despite the ghastly modern liturgy. Why? Well I'm writing a poem about that. It certainly has nothing to do with an inordinate respect for dudes in Roman collars.

  8. Anonymous5:35 PM

    I think the purpose and meaning of life is to live.

    I'd like to believe that the universe has been specially designed to achieve a mystical purpose and that a superbeing is taking an interest in our drama, but I do not think it is true. Each of us brings our own purpose to life and is responsible for our own life. When you credit a God with providing your purpose, I think you surrender your freedom while absolving yourself of the responsibility for your own actions: the idea that if you kill someone, you can be forgiven, even allowing you to claim that it was your God who commanded you to kill in his name.

    We've spoken before of Einstein. He said something to the effect that when he woke up every morning he understood that his life depended on the actions of a million people; from the milkman who delivered his milk, to the people who managed the generators that provided his electricity, to the fellow who operated his local garage and provided the fuel for his car, and so on. He was saying he was part of a social community and he felt that it was the purpose of his life to give back to that community to the best of his ability and he was grateful for the opportunity to be able to. Maybe there is a higher or more admirable purpose to have in life. I don't know what it is.

    On the "dudes in Roman collars," I've often thought they should have kept the mass in Latin. There was a certain mystery, even romance, to a Latin mass. I think delivering it in English stripped the ritual of much of its mystery.

    I'd be interested to read that poem.

  9. The funny thing, Noel, is that what you cite about Einstein is very much what I think of as genuine religion. There is what Wordsworth called "a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things."
    We get hung up on doctrines and dogmas and rituals - and miss the point of it all. As the Zen master said, we look at the finger instead of at the moon it is pointing at.
    I agree that life is meant to be lived. I object when people try to reduce it to being merely this or that. I think that personality is inherent in being.
    And you may call yourself an atheist, but you seem to me to have a genuine religious sensibility.
    As for the poem, I'll email you what I have.

  10. Anonymous12:50 PM

    If by religious you mean "believing in and worshiping a superhuman controlling power or powers" (the dictionary definition), I am fairly certain that I have no religious sensibility at all.

    Some people believe being an atheist must mean having no moral compass, as though the only way to have one is to subscribe to a religion. I reply that being secular doesn’t automatically mean you are perverse anymore than saying you walk with Jesus automatically confers virtue. I think all of us are born with a moral conscience that guides us in discerning the difference between right and wrong, and which is of course also something parents teach their children. I do not need a church to tell me or my children what that difference is. I’m a family man and I’m a family man not because a church taught me to or because I’m afraid God is watching. I’m a family man because I love my wife and my children and our home.

    I agree that the personality of life is something science cannot explain and may never explain, even though it can explain how life develops and functions. I also agree that a human being is not one brain, two lungs, a liver, a ribcage etc. with an underlying atomic structure made up of subatomic particles etc. Science does not fully describe a human being, or any creature for that matter. However, because science cannot explain life's personality does not mean that what it cannot explain is divine, or that a religion can step in and decree it is such and such without a shred of evidence to support those claims. My objection to religion is that it claims to have answers without having any evidence to support those answers while demanding in the same breath any claims science makes to be provable.

    It is true some form of religion can be found in all cultures, dating from times when we did not understand what we do now about life, when we could not explain what caused disease, for example. If you go in for Islam, Jesus is just one of many prophets, Mohammed being the last and most important, at least to Muslims. If you’re a Jew, you do not believe that a Messiah has come yet. If you’re a Buddhist, you do not believe in a creator God. If you're a Hindu, you have a large pantheon of Gods and Goddesses to choose from. If you're a Taoist, you get your emotional religious satisfaction from inner contemplation and mystical union with nature along with another large pantheon of Gods. Whether you are a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist however, you don’t care much for the bible, old or new. And it’s worth pointing out that a couple of billion people fall into these categories.

    I am curious to know why you believe Christianity and its theory of redemption is the true religion. Thomas Paine (a Deist, not an atheist), had this to say about Christianity In The Age of Reason:

    "If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me. But if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed. Moral justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose justice to do this is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself. It is then no longer justice. It is indiscriminate revenge.

    This single reflection will show that the doctrine of redemption is founded on a mere pecuniary idea corresponding to that of a debt which another person might pay; and as this pecuniary idea corresponds again with the system of second redemptions, obtained through the means of money given to the church for pardons, the probability is that the sane persons fabricated both the one and the other of those theories; and that, in truth, there is no such thing as redemption; that it is fabulous; and that man stands in the same relative condition with his Maker he ever did stand, since man existed; and that it is his greatest consolation to think so.

    Let him believe this, and he will live more consistently and morally than by any other system. It is by his being taught to contemplate himself as an out-law, as an out-cast, as a beggar, as a mumper, as one thrown as it were on a dunghill at an immense distance from his Creator, and who must make approaches by creeping, and cringing to intermediate beings, that he conceives either a contemptuous disregard for everything under the name of religion, or becomes indifferent, or turns what he calls devout. In the latter case, he consumes his life in grief, or the affectation of it. His prayers are reproaches. His humility is ingratitude. He calls himself a worm, and the fertile earth a dunghill; and all the blessings of life by the thankless name of vanities. He despises the choicest gift of God to man, the GIFT OF REASON; and having endeavored to force upon himself the belief of a system against which reason revolts, he ungratefully calls it human reason, as if man could give reason to himself.

    Yet, with all this strange appearance of humility, and this contempt for human reason, he ventures into the boldest presumptions. He finds fault with everything. His selfishness is never satisfied; his ingratitude is never at an end. He takes on himself to direct the Almighty what to do, even in the government of the universe. He prays dictatorially. When it is sunshine, he prays for rain, and when it is rain, he prays for sunshine. He follows the same idea in everything he prays for; for what is the amount of all his prayers, but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act otherwise than he does? It is as if he were to say - thou knowest not so well as I."

    Many of Paine's religious friends understandably objected to The Age of Reason when it was published in 1794. Here are a couple of things he said in reply to them:

    "As I have now given you my reasons for believing that the Bible is not the Word of God, that it is a falsehood, I have a right to ask you your reasons for believing the contrary; but I know you can give me none, except that you were educated to believe the Bible; and as the Turks give the same reason for believing the Koran, it is evident that education makes all the difference, and that reason and truth have nothing to do in the case. You believe in the Bible from the accident of birth, and the Turks believe in the Koran from the same accident, and each calls the other infidel. But leaving the prejudice of education out of the case, the unprejudiced truth is that all are infidels who believe falsely of God, whether they draw their creed from the Bible, or from the Koran, from the Old Testament, or from the New."


    "It is often said in the Bible that God spoke unto Moses, but how do you know that God spoke unto Moses? Because, you will say, the Bible says so. The Koran says that God spoke unto Mahomet, do you believe that too? No. Why not? Because, you will say, you do not believe it; and so because you do and because you don't is all the reason you can give for believing or disbelieving except that you will say that Mahomet was an impostor. And how do you know Moses was not an impostor?"

    What I would like to ask you is how do you know that your God and the story surrounding your God is the right God, the true God, among all of the Gods human beings have invented to explain what they didn't understand, and have believed in and worshiped throughout history?

  11. If I were not at work and facing deadline,I would answer immediately, but I will have to put it off until (I hope ) tonight, because your questions deserve a pretyy extensive answer. One short note, though: I think the Old Testament records a people trying to come to an understanding of the transcendent, and having to revise and revise. I don't believe in a God who is an everlasting Edison or an everlasting Hammurabi. In an earlier post I noted that I had discovered I could be a Catholic Taoist - and that is how I have come to think of myself. I usually find that I don't belive in the God those who call themselves atheists say they don't believe in. But not to believe in a false definition of something is not the same as to not believe in the actual thing itself. What I call the religious sensibility involves a palpable appreciation of the mystery of life and a sense that life and imagination and intelligence are qualities of being. I think that intelligence has been present from the beginning and has continued to manifest itself more fully. As for the atonement, the poem I sent to you at Blood & Treasure touches on that.

  12. Anonymous8:57 AM

    As I said in my e-mail (though I'm not sure it went through), please take your time responding. There really is no rush. Conversations about the nature of the universe can last years, never mind days, which is of course what makes them so much fun.