Science and religion

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.


Roy Harrod about John Maynard Keynes 

Science is what scientists do. It is difficult to find a better definition of the word. No one agrees completely on what methods and rules should make up science. But there are still aspects of science that are generally agreed upon and that make more sense than others. One goal, if not the only goal of science, is to find facts and explain the world as it really is. Science is searching for truths rather than lies and untruths. Interestingly, a whole field of intellectuals work and live as scientists without actually having a clear definition of the word science. But it is not given that we need a strict definition. We generally know what people are talking about when they say something is true or false. Our language often works perfectly fine in conveying such vague ideas “truth.” Leaving out deeper philosophical considerations, words like truth, reason and fact actually make sense to most of us. It is true that the earth is round (or more correctly closer to an oblate spheroid) and it is false that the earth is at the center of our solar system. Natural selection is a fact and so the creation of all living beings by a god is a lie.

Dean Ornish
Whenever I write about many of the “scientists” in the field of nutrition, I often feel compelled to put the word “scientist” in quotes. I know they work as scientists, but are they following scientific principles? Are their results, scientific results? Is, for example, Dean Ornish a scientist? Is his work focused on finding truths and facts based on logic and reason? Because it seems to me that he disregards a great deal of data when he comes to his conclusions and that he has a great ability to cherry pick and interpret any cherry picked data to fit his existing world view. This makes many of his conclusions wrong, and many have argued correctly that he is in fact wrong about many things.

Ornish works as a scientist, even if he has not always followed agreed upon principles designed to filter out the truth. Should I then disregard anything he says? No, of course not. That would mean to disregard basic aspects of human nature, one of which is our great ability to screw things up. We all do, but unfortunately, some more than others. Thus, I have to consider anything Ornish has to say. This does not, however, mean that he has earned my trust.

Ornish is just an example here, and is in no way unique in his field. Scientists regularly work in unscientific ways. As Thomas Sowell puts it:

The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink… 

Although scientists should always put new theories to the test and assess their validity, this is not always done. Ideas are often accepted more on the basis of resonance with peers than empirical verification. In fact, as Sowell puts it, scientists act just like the rest of us:

If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general- and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world. 

The fact that ideas are wrong does not mean they can’t be accepted by a great many people, and even sometimes by the majority of people. The ideas of Hitler, Lenin and Mao for example, was and are still accepted by millions as being very good ideas indeed, despite their lack of logic and empirical testing. The belief that humans are cured of illness because needles are jammed into immeasurable magical energy points or that homeopathy makes any sense at all, are also beliefs with numerous followers despite being completely devoid of reason. Religions, as the prime example, gather millions of followers without being in anyway rational.

By no means does working as a scientist or working in a scientific field mean that you are a reasonable person. Religion is in many ways the opposite of reason as it usually requires a lack of, or disregard of reason to exist. It is then difficult to understand how someone can work as a scientist or in a scientific field and at the same time believe in a higher power when there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a higher power.

An important part of science is the falsifications of hypotheses. Not every theory needs to be falsified, but many theories will be nonsensical if they cannot be falsified. The existence of a god cannot be falsified, that is, one cannot prove that there is no god. That, however, does not make the existence of a deity any more plausible. Although the existence of a god cannot be falsified, we do know enough about the human psyche, the history of the earth and the universe and the history and evolution of religions to say that any of the proposed gods are extremely unlikely to exist. I will not do the whole discussion of why religion is nonsensical. Others have done so before and have done so far better than I ever could. I can, however, recommend and refer to writers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet. (Here is a short talk by Dennet, and while at TEDs, make sure to also watch Dawkins talk on militant atheism.)

Writing critically about religion is going to hurt many people’s feelings. Religion is personal. It is at the core of the identity of many, and challenging religion is challenging who people are. But religion is a part of human existence. It affects us personally and as a society, and most importantly, there is no reason to think that religions are benign or that they do not affect the wellbeing of humans negatively. So religions should be discussed and I am taking the side of the critic.

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? 

Douglas Adams
Although Norway is one of the least religious countries in the world, I am afraid that the recent atrocities in Oslo, which turned out to be a one man crusade against both democracy and Islam, will make it even harder to publically being critical towards religion. Suddenly one fears being grouped with such lunatics. But falling silent is not a good response. Nothing has changed, but being the critic still has its dangers. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, has written some wonderful literature and is an extremely intelligent person, but she is also openly criticizing Islam and has thus been forced to live large parts of her life in hiding and under protection. There are many like her and openly criticizing religions, especially Islam, can often be a death sentence.

Even in countries like Norway where freedom of speech is a virtue held high, being publically critical of religion is severely frowned upon and like in so many other countries, blasphemy has long been a crime. Norwegians in general are naïve people and are often so afraid of stepping on any toes that we are willing to sacrifice even a freedom of speech to avoid it. Monty Pythons “Life of Brian” was originally banned in Norway. When finally released a few years later it was with an NC-18 rating and a text on the cover explaining that Brian was not really Jesus.

Religion, and any other unsubstantiated beliefs, should be put under the same scientific scrutiny as a scientific claim, or any claim at all for that matter. Reason and objective analysis tells us that religions greatly differ in their ability to make as many people as possible as happy as possible. Thus some religions must be characterized as better than or worse than others and some thus pose greater threats to our well-being than others, despite all being equally devoid of reason. To say that one religion by nature is better or worse than others is perhaps the greatest tabu. It is still a reasonable conclusion.

In “The Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values”, Sam Harris argues that if our goal is to maximize the well being of humans, then religions fall severely short of science and reason. In particular, religions are horrible moral guidelines. This, of course, will strike many as odd, given that they believe religion to be the only place to look for moral guidance. Writes Sam Harris:

For nearly a century, the moral relativism of science has given faith-based religion – that great engine of ignorance and bigotry – a nearly uncontested claim to being the only universal framework for moral wisdom. As a result , the most powerful societies in on earth spend their time debating issues like gay marriage when they should be focused on problems like nuclear proliferation, genocide, energy security, climate change, poverty, and failing schools.

In his “The year of living biblically” experiment, A.J. Jacobs attempted to follow all the rules of the Old Testament (view his talk on TED Here). This proved an impossible mission, as it would have made him into a murdering lunatic. He did however give some of the rules a try, such as not shaving the corners of his beard, stoning an adulterer, not sitting in a place where a menstruating woman had sat and only wearing clothes made from the same fabric.

Religion does undoubtedly not originate from reason or science, but from the lack of it. There is thus no way religion and science can coexist in a person without being at conflict with each other. Says Sam Harris about the oft perceived unproblematic uniting of religion and science:

…this is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas and bad ones is possible. 

Francis Collins
How then should we respond when a person like the director of the National Institutes of Health, physician-geneticist Francis Collins, described by the Endocrine Society as «one of the most accomplished scientists of our time», head of the Human Genome Project, goes religious, publishes a book about his strong faith in the Christian God and claims that science points to the existence of God and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe? 

When Collins, in 2006, published “The language of God” the result was remarkable. Rather than being an intellectual suicide, he continued as before and received praise for his attempt to reconcile and unite science and religion (or rather Christianity). Collins probably has more responsibility for biomedical and health related research than any other person on earth. He is controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion, and yet he believes God created the universe some 14 billion years ago, that breaking God’s moral law will lead to the estrangement from God and that Jesus is the solution, that God created evolution and that a virgin gave birth to the son of God and that Jesus was actually resurrected some 2000 years ago.

The insanity of all of this is overwhelming. You can see it live here, and you can see him make an ass of himself for Bill Maher here.

According to “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders» (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, delusion is a “false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.”

According to this definition Collins is delusional. The fact that others around him also firmly sustain this belief does not make it less delusional, although most scientists are not religious.

The problem here is not so much that Collins is delusional but that the system allows him to be delusional in the position he holds. Would he still be in his job had he been a devout Muslim or Hindu? Of course not. Because the religion he happened to fall upon was a type of Christianity approved of by a majority, no one much cared that Collins would take the texts of the bible as certain proof just as he would laboratory observations.

Most any time someone is critical towards religion, opponents invariably bring up the “but-why-does-it-matter-that-some-people-are-religious «argument and the «they-are-not-hurting-anyone» argument.The quick answer is that, although they may not be directly hurting anyone with their belief, there is no reason to think that religious belief is benign. Religions are without reason, and Collins will and do argue falsely and irrationally when discussing religion while arguing rationally and logically when discussing many scientific matters. That affects people.

“So he found God and faith. Good for him?” Yes perhaps, but bad for us. Because it means that he is willing, in some respects and circumstances, to put aside reason and logic and believe in farfetched ideas despite all the evidence pointing to the contrary. Collins judgment cannot be trusted.

A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position, but Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration.

Steven Pinker

It is reasonable to ask why Collins was not fired from his position when he turned Christian when he definitely would have been fired had he claimed to believe in Thor or Zeus.

Being open to the possibility of a intelligent higher power is in itself not that big of a threat to reason. On can for example be open to the possibility that such a power started what lead to the known universe. This cannot yet be disproved, but it still makes no sense. Why choose to believe this over non-theist explanations? But if a person believes that the universe was created by any of the already know gods, that belief comes with a package called religion. A package containing farfetched beliefs in magic rituals, nonsensical moral laws and a whole range of extra beliefs that flies in the face of logic. This is what Collins do when he assumes the universe is created by the christian god and he must also then accept and buy into (which he admittedly does) the other parts of the christianity package.

The fact that we do not know something is no reason to conjure up a god as an answer. In addition, the belief that a god created the universe may take away the curiosity and incentive to try and figure out, using science, what actually did start it all. In this way religion is corrosive to science.

Science is also corrosive to religion. There are far more atheists and agnostics amongst the highly educated and especially those educated in the natural sciences, then amongst the general public. Religion is corrosive to science and reason. Of course we cannot leave important decisions about future human flourishing and well being, like for example that of how to use embryonic stem cell research, in the hands of a devote Christian or Muslim. Religious people will often believe in a soul, no matter how unlikely the existence of such a thing might be, and they will also believe that embryonic stem cell research is wrong simply because writings from a primitive Bronze Age community are interpreted to mean that an almighty god says it is wrong. No logic or reason required. It is simply wrong. When Francis Collins was appointed head of NIH, the Times featured a story where many prominent scientists spoke up against it. Writes The New Yorker:

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.” 

Collins, who founded the BioLogos Foundation dedicated to «the integration of science and Christian faith,» sees no conflict between science and religion and believes that God is outside of time and space, or put in more reasonable terms, nonexistent. In his work to unite religion (Christianity) with science he undermines and mocks the very key concepts of science he should be representing. 

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