Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Are you a scientific or religious fundamentalist? Quite sure that science and religion are incompatible? No problem. Much good work has been done over the ages by people committed to one or the other world view. The certainty that you are right concentrates mind and energy.
Others believe that science and religion are complementary. They have also done much good work over the centuries. Which is it?
Come along and explore the strengths and weaknesses of science and religion---the two major ways humans have explored Reality.
A. Incompatible or Complementary?---maybe two ways to explore reality?
B. Similarities between science and religion---more than you may think
C. Grab Bag---I’ve been a wild eyed mystic and a hard-headed scientist
INCOMPATIBLE OR COMPLEMENTARY?
Maybe two ways to explore Reality?
In the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, this paper considers the strengths and weaknesses of the two great interpreters of reality in our culture, science and religion.
An honest dialogue is often made toxic by atheists and fundamentalist Christians who cherry pick history, straw man the other side, and indulge in sad, mean-spirited ad-hominem attacks.
For instance, atheists I have known who accept science as their criterion of Reality greatly enjoy trivializing and making fun of religion. Along with the hopelessly brainless literal interpretations of the bible, the horrors perpetrated by religion in the name of love are pictured in detail and living color.
The politics of the far right is seen as an attempt to return to the good old days. A time when rack and stake put the fear of Almighty God in the hearts of Satan and his minions---and anyone else who didn’t grovel low enough.
And the examination of religion is usually left there---a fervent commitment to the fight for rationality and freedom wherever ignorance and superstition are found. Such fine words indeed stir the soul.
Religious fundamentalists I have known point out that science has no morality. Even worse, the tools of mass destruction created by Godless scientists have caused more suffering and death than all of the religious wars put together.
The picture of all those scientists spreading terror and pain, and threatening all life on this beautiful planet is not pretty. And imagine the terrified last moments of all those millions upon millions of innocent, little babies---dying in horrible agony, sliced apart by doctors trained in the scientific tradition.
More than ample justification for an even greater commitment to the Holy Crusade to spread God’s Love and Mercy to all mankind.
The ideologues on both sides trivialize, demonize, and easily knock down the abominable straw men they create---what fun stomping the stuffing into the mud.
There is some truth in how each views the other but the selectivity and exaggerations are a little less than honest. Hopefully the following will be a bit more even-handed.
Religious fundamentalists are correct---science has no morality. It deals with theory, methodology and data, and has nothing to say about values and how one should live. Information provided by science may help in deciding how to live, but the data itself is completely neutral.
Atheists are fond of saying you don’t need religion to lead a decent life. That is of course correct. A fair question can then be asked, where do their guidelines for living come from?
Those who answer usually point to the Enlightenment. And where do you suppose the philosophers and statesmen of the Enlightenment came by their morality? Did John Locke and Thomas Jefferson invent love and compassion, justice and truth?
The freedom to question enjoyed by the philosophers and statesmen of the 18th and 19th centuries was possible because they lived within a society grounded in a commonly accepted morality, codified by Christendom.
Human morality is very likely biological in origin and present in our hunter-gatherer, pack-animal ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti. It has been codified over and over again through the centuries, to increase tribal bonding and survivability.
There is another fundamental problem with science, however, along with not providing a basis for morality. Objectivity is the cornerstone of its methodology. Data must be gathered under controlled conditions, without the feelings or agenda of the scientist influencing the outcome in any way. Of course that is impossible but an ideal worth striving for.
But this striving for objectivity has a serious downside. The objective stance may numb a scientist to the possible consequences of his work. People and animals more easily become objects, and the horrors of animal research and the medical experiments at Tuskegee and Auschwitz result.
In sharp contrast to the objectivity of science, the heart of religion is the personal experience---the ecstasy of a Christian bearing witness with closed eyes and raised hands---a coven dancing the light of the moon.
A scientist may allow himself to experience such moments, and call his findings anecdotal, but his colleagues will not be impressed. In many academic settings he will be in serious danger of losing any hope of tenure.
So we face a strange situation. Many who rely on science to define reality have used all kinds of ways to denigrate the religious experience---mass hysteria, out of whack biochemistry, brain damage, or just plain self-serving lies.
This assumes, even though they have never had a religious experience, they understand it better than someone who has. It’s like someone has studied the physical characteristics of a guava, but never tasted one, and asserts he knows more about a guava’s taste than someone who enjoys it every morning for breakfast.
Reliance upon personal experience rather than objective data is religion’s greatest strength---and its greatest weakness. There is no way to determine the validity of the experience.
The religious experience can be one of the most compelling and meaningful moments in one’s life---and kill a beloved child when the message received is to trust in the Lord, rather than seek medical treatment.
Feeling one with the love of Christ can be overwhelmingly powerful and real, and can change a life for the better overnight. But sadly, humans are pathetically suggestible, and not much skill is needed to evoke religious passion. Once evoked, secular and religious leaders use it for the most noble and the most ignoble of purposes---as of course the same people use and misuse the discoveries of science.
In contrast to the unknown validity of the religion experience, the great strength of science is falsifiability. There is no way to contest someone asserting he has seen the Virgin Mary. There are numerous ways to contest a scientific assertion. People can disagree with the methodology and interpretation, and can attempt to replicate the work.
And they can criticize loudly and frequently without fear of exile or the rack---except of course those evil people who deny global warming.
Over time the openness of science to criticism and the ever present possibility of contrary data have turned out to be an excellent method to accumulate useful knowledge about humans and planet earth.
Religious “truth” is usually determined by who wins the war.
To describe externals, you become a scientist.
To describe experience, you become an artist.
Science is the search for factual knowledge. Religion, the search for satisfying experiences and significance.
Science assumes an objective stance. Religion relies upon subjective experiences.
Science has faith that the way to knowledge is to rely on our basic senses--- either directly, inferentially, or by mechanical extensions. Religion believes it has access to a reality beyond what is available to our five senses---a reality far more important than the shallow, spirit-less world of science.
Big problems start when either side feels competent to judge the validity of the other. Religion is in no position to question the results of scientific inquiry---unless it obtains contrary results using scientific methodology. And looks foolish when it tries.
Scientists look foolish when they make assertions about religious experiences and beliefs. Science by definition cannot study, and therefore cannot comment on questions of reality beyond what is available to the senses. When they do so they are no longer scientists.
What a powerful learning experience it would be if the anti-religious would join an evangelical group for a month or so and experience the power of religion first hand. Even if they never have a religious experience, at least they will notice members of the congregation are in the main decent people.
And anti-science fundamentalists should study Darwin and do a few experiments under the guidance of a scientist, to experience the power of the scientific method. They might also notice that scientists are decent people, not Spawn of the Devil. It is so sad such a proposal sounds so preposterous.
What a wonderful world it would be if the two ways of gaining knowledge about Reality were seen as complementary rather than incompatible---alternative ways to explore Reality.
A more direct acquaintance with religious morality can increase a scientist’s sensitivity to the effect of his work on real people and the world.
Science can add a much needed increase in awareness among believers that faith is nice, but scientific evidence that faith is justified is even nicer.
On the other hand, maybe we need True Believers.
The tension between science and religion has been an important source of Western Civilization’s marvelous and wonderful adventure of ideas---especially since the enlightenment.
So like in a court of law, let the ideologues defend their faith and sharpen the differences---let others fulfill John Stuart Mill’s dream of an open and honest discussion where alternative ideas and beliefs are encouraged, and competently and forcefully presented.
I have noticed that a sense of awe is experienced and highly valued by both atheists and believers. Share their deep communion.
More than you may think
1. Wonderful Experiences
2. Data and Logic
3. Noble and Ignoble
4. Demand for orthodoxy
Science and religion serve much the same very important function in people’s lives. Their beliefs, metaphors and rituals evoke and give meaning to life. They make life worth living.
It might be the glory of candle light and music at Easter. The rush of a scientist finding a new way to interpret his data. A Zen master becoming one with the sound of a waterfall. The joy when a scientist finds that the correlations between important variables in his experiment are highly significant.
The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whosoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.
The experience itself is what is important. The particular maps of Reality, belief systems, setting, and metaphors used are secondary. You interpret your beautiful experiences using what you have available.
Of course belief systems, maps of Reality, sometimes create a dysfunctional life, such as by drifting too far from Reality. Not good.
Ayn Rand knew the danger:
You can ignore reality
But you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.
Data and Logic
Both religious people and scientists use data and logic to explore and justify their beliefs. The critical thinking of scientists is based on logic and objective data---as interpreted within the particular theories and paradigms they accept.
The critical thinking of religious people is based on logic and subjective experiences---as interpreted within the particular religious dogma they accept.
Noble and Ignoble
Religion has caused an immense amount of suffering and destruction over the centuries. Be careful with the word caused. I would rather say that religion has been used over the centuries to cause much suffering and destruction.
Leaders of all kinds, whether totalitarian tyrants or petty politician, use whatever belief systems or ideologies available that they believe will help them gain and keep power.
Religious dogma was a favorite for many years. In the last 150 or so, however, economic and political ideologies have been much more popular---communism versus capitalism---democracy versus fascism. Any ideology can be used nobly or ignobly.
Demand for orthodoxy
Science and religion vary in how strictly they demand orthodoxy from their followers.
Fundamentalist Christian’s tend to demand a high degree of adherence to dogma. Buddhism requires you to find out for yourself:
When you hear that some great Master has appeared in the world to liberate all beings, immediately clap your hands over your ears. If you don’t know for yourself, you are just swallowing other people’s spit.
Science also varies in how strictly they demand adherence to current theories and paradigms. When I was a psychology student behaviorism was the orthodoxy. Objective measurements of behavior were required. There was little value given to experience.
That created a wonderful joke that went the rounds. After lovemaking a guy turns to his girlfriend. “That was great for you. How was it for me?”
I’ve been a wild-eyed mystic
and a hard-headed scientist
2. Science---hard and soft
5. The intellectual arrogance and blindness---of Western anthropologists
Ways that world views affect my life
I have lived three world views during my long life. A good Catholic. A wild eyed mystic. A hard-headed scientist.
I started life warmly embraced by Catholic doctrine and ritual. The good Sisters of the Sacred Heart were kindly, and great teachers. I was a year ahead of the other kids when I hit high school.
Later I became a wild-eyed mystic. I lived the belief that the physical world was only a small aspect of a much greater reality. Good rapport with the physical world is of course essential for survival on planet earth, but there was so much more to Reality. And, that greater Reality could be reached with the proper mind set and hard work.
I have also been a hard-headed scientist. The physical world is it! There are no wonderful alternate realities. Just a bunch of self-absorbed people spinning self-serving fantasies.
The three belief systems create good and bad psychological effects on my life.
A good Catholic
Pros: Warm and safe. Community. Wonderful experiences of the beauty and power of religious ritual, such as candlelight and music at Easter and Christmas. No need to struggle to find the Truth. I already have the Truth. Assurance that there is life after death. Rewards in Paradise for those who follow the teachings of the Church and spread God’s love and mercy to all mankind.
Cons: Heavy filters constricted ability to experience and think about the nature of Reality. It also greatly constricted my ability to explore life styles outside the Catholic community. Warmth and safety have a price.
Pros: Huge freedom of imagination. Anything possible. Wild creativity. Gratifying sense of wisdom. Some control over physical matter and the laws of nature. That control increased health and vitality, and the quality of the physical world around me.
My conscious awareness survives the disintegration of my physical brain. Will reunite with friends and family.
Cons: An awareness that my thoughts and behavior have unknown consequences. For instance a fear that a thought might affect the well being of another person, or change my past or future lives for the worse. A distracting need to be on guard.
There was sometimes a price paid when not enough attention was given to the “real” world.
No empirical data to support the belief in alternate realities.
Pros: Complete responsibility for my thoughts, feelings and actions. No intrusion from past lives, or the stray thoughts of someone slamming into my awareness. That allows me to cope more effectively with the “real” world. No more sloppy mix of fantasy and reality to cloud perception and analysis.
Less need to guard my thoughts and feelings. They might affect others when with me, but not at a distance or across time.
Massive supportive empirical evidence. Humans would have died out long ago if their basic beliefs about the nature of reality on planet earth were not valid.
Cons: Not nearly as much fun. No longer living wild worlds of Reality just a short distance away. Wisdom gone. Little or no control over physical matter and the laws of nature.
My conscious awareness dies, dead, when my brain disintegrates-upon death, and when friends and family are gone, they stay gone.
Anybody know a way to blend the three
into a harmonious whole?
Science---hard and soft
Hard---science is the only method to obtain valid information about the nature of Reality.
Soft---science is the most valid method humans have found to learn about the nature of Reality, but other methods, such as subjective experiences, may also provide valid information.
Let's unpack the word valid. The hard version is the one sciences like physics and chemistry use and scientism favors. A measurement is valid if it has a high correlation with whatever it purports to measure. For instance, is the measurement of my weight on my bathroom scale a valid measurement of my weight? It is if it correlates highly with other objective measurements of my weight. Two or more objective measurements
Sciences like psychology and sociology use the soft version. They accept subjective experiences as valid, usually in the form of a self-report, when significantly correlated with objective criteria. I report seeing the letter A on the eye chart, and it is the letter A on the eye chart. Self-report and objective measurements.
Most scientists agree that subjective experiences can be the start of scientific inquiry---anecdotal evidence.
I support a third definition---everything I experience. The content may or may not be valid using the other two criteria, but the experience itself just is, and the fundamental basis of everything I am and know.
I would use the strong version when doing a hard science or repairing my car. The weak version when doing a soft science, or driving my car. I'd go experience eating key lime pie made with real key limes, or in the back seat with my girlfriend.
I support hard science. Pushing the approach will very likely produce ideas, logic and data that the soft version would not. I also value the much greater freedom the soft version gives to let my curiosity and imagination run wild---to explore anything.
I love playing both worlds.
Different levels of sophistication
There are many kinds of religions in the world. Their level of sophistication range all the way from a rigid belief in the literal interpretations of the Christian bible to Einstein’s overwhelming awe at the magnificence of the universe: Behind the secrets of nature remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.
Joseph Campbell supports an intermediate level of sophistication:
Clearly, mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. Every myth is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.
Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that.
Factors that influcfence the validity of research
Wittingly and unwittingly
Assumptions and biases
All scientists have assumptions and biases that affect their research. Objectivity is impossible, but an ideal worth striving for.
Research data is meaningless without a context, a theory, belief system, paradigm, practical application, etc. The framework chosen depends upon the assumptions and biases of the scientist. That choice dramatically effects what they choose to study, their experimental design, and their analyses and interpretation of the data.
Our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective “scientific method”, with individual scientists as logical and interchangeable robots, is self-serving mythology.
Stephen Jay Gould
Publish or perish
In academia publications are usually essential for tenure and career advancement. Good teaching is seldom as highly respected or rewarded.
Unless you do exceptionally good work, go for quantity. And, there is often a hot topic with lots of funding. Jump on the gravy train.
Pressure to conform to the dominant paradigm
The pressure to conform is enormous. At stake are careers, departmental funds and perks, friendships, and journal publications.
And best of all you get to go on all those expense paid trips to Zurich and Hawaii to present your paper. The one that so beautifully supports the current paradigm.
The practical needs of the Scientific Publication Establishment greatly affects what is published and what is rejected.
a. Few journals publish negative results. Why make enemies.
b. There is very little replication. No funds! No glory! No friends! When replication studies have been done, usually less than half can be replicated: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/
c. Peer review is often pal review. You don't want to give a bad review because the reviewer may review your paper tomorrow. Sure the reviewer is supposed to be anonymous but it’s a small group of reviewers in many fields, so you can usually tell who did it.
d. Publishers must make money or maintain funding to stay in business. So you look for click bait, and publish what attracts the most readers and citations. Sure, publish a few oddball scientists now and then who might make it. That's the fun part
Political agendas and Noble Causes
Scientists have just as firm commitment to causes and ideologies as anyone. Even the most honest and intelligent cannot avoid their research being affected.
How much depends upon how honest and how intelligent you are. If you want to optimize your career it would be best not to be too honest or too intelligent.
Science used to be the search for truth, now it's the search for research money. The greatest fear of a research scientist is loss of funding. Research depends upon a steady flow of money.
And that steady flow of money usually depends upon the steady flow of research findings that support the biases of the funding source. Especially vulnerable are scientists doing research with political, financial or ideological implications.
The intellectual arrogance and blindness of Western antropologists
One of the most common failings of the anthropologist is the same as that of modern people in general: We believe that what we perceive is the totality of what is occurring in the scene we are observing. Thus, when witnessing a ritual, we observe indigenous people in the sitting position with their heads between their knees, we could say: “After the dances, the members of the group appear very tired and they sat down to rest,” without noticing that those people, far from finding themselves tired, might be engaged in very intense work on a level of reality that we do not even suspect. In our arrogance, we accept as a fact that what we do not see, simply does not exist.
Anthropologists formulate their explanations, discourses and theories, basing them on what they saw and how they interpreted it, regarding it as a fact that things are exactly thus. However, they do not take into account what they overlooked---the Indian informants respond only to the questions asked and Westerners generally do not know how to pose the proper questions relating to the fundamental points of the cosmovision they seek to understand. As a result, the conversation will revolve around those points they believe to be important, rather than necessarily touching upon the real fundamental aspects of the indigenous universe.
To complicate the situation even more, many Indians, particularly those most deeply involved in spiritual matters, are experts in telling nosy foreigners exactly what they want to hear, knowing they’ll be rid of the outsiders that much sooner.
So, in spite of great and sincere efforts, the works and reports about the indigenous universe by expert anthropologists are basically “disconnected’ from the internal happenings of that universe, although they have never realized it. They were there, they asked all the questions, they saw it with their own eyes, but they were never aware of what was really going on, they never found out that they were not aware. Interpretations from the point of view of Western thought cannot show us more than reflections of the very same Western thought projected toward the exterior and then taken as reality.
The entrance to the Spiral Maze