religious garb for science? please, no!

Joan Roughgarden’s attempt to restate the theory of evolution using stories and concepts pulled directly from the bible in order to get theists to more readily accept the idea. I don’t think that comparing natural selection to Jacob’s wildly weird and obscure attempt to get even with Laban by inducing sheep to give birth to speckled ewes by placing black and white rods in front of them as they reproduce will ever convince staunch christians of the respectability of the scientific theory.

In this case i would actually side with Dawkins, who

Christians’ beliefs in the literal truth of the bible are wrong premises that inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. Science would do much better to try and find out why certain people cling so hard to fundamentalist ideas and then figure out some way of weaning them away from this easy milk and supplying them with a more appropriate fare. Science must stick to what it does best – and that is not dwadling in magical metaphors. Science understands things so that it can then change them, if necessary. Science needs to do religion, not by talking religious nonsense but by understanding religion and fixing it.

Don’t mix science with religion. Alonzo Fyfe uses the analogy of repairing a ship at sea, and encourages us (though he will have no part in it) to repair religion one piece at a time. He is right that religion has been slowly evolving and adapting itself to new ways of thinking.  But describing science in religious terms won’t do. There are planks in the religious ship that must be simply jettisoned because they are completely rotten and useless. We must not encourage christians to take silly stories seriously.

We must not either, à la Dawkins, raise scientific atheism to the status of a religion. That irks the religious for no good reason. We must rather diffuse the tension between science and religion by distancing both of them, by explaining that they have little to do with one another and that Genesis has nothing to do with biology – just as science has nothing to do with god. It is the belief that religion is supposed to be scientific and the just as wrong belief that science answers religious questions that is causing all the trouble. We must enforce a separation of science and religion just as we have successfully and happily enforced a separation between church and state. And that goes for both christians and atheists alike.

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3 Comments to “religious garb for science? please, no!”

  1. I find it odd that you would object to using a story about animal husbandry or a story about seeds landing on the ground as methods of explaining scientific principles.

    However, you do not object to using a story about repairing or refitting a ship at sea as a way of explaining the how beliefs change over time. In fact, you even go so far as to use this story, rewriting it in such a way so as to explain your differences.

    When I took science class in the 9th grade, they explained the properties of electrons with a story that had electrons orbiting atomic nuclei the way planets orbit the sun. When I took physics in college the teacher spoke of massless strings and frictionless surfaces. None of these things were true, but they were useful ways of explaining things.

    By the way, I speak about throwing away planks and replacing them with better ones in my posting. What I speak against is throwing away the whole ship – something that simply is not possible. We can speak about how great, grand, and wonderful it would be to get Christians to throw out the whole ship of their beliefs and adopt completely new and different ways of thinking, but it will not happen no matter how much we wish it.

    You might as well insist on teaching atomic theory to 9th graders by beginning on day one with quantum mechanics.

    Cultural beliefs will, in fact, be changed one plank at a time, just as it always has done. Those who can accept this fact can more efficiently help the process along. Those who insist on a course of action that is, in fact, impossible, will be of little help.

  2. i obviously did not hear Joan Roughgarden’s talk and might be barking up the wrong tree. And yes, i did re-use your very nice analogy of the high-sea boat repairs (which my college profs also used all the time).

    If all that Roughgarden wanted to do is to say natural selection is sorta like Jacob and Laban’s story, then i won’t complain. The problem i am worried about is not in using familiar stories to explain the rudiments of an unfamiliar phenomenon. That is a very valuable educational technique. I am much more worried about people trying to make science acceptable (instead of simply understandable) by cloaking it (instead of rephrasing it) in religious jargon.

    The problem with your 9th grader example is that the teacher can expect that the students _want_ to understand, that they already believe that what s/he is saying is true. Our theists are certainly not convinced that evolution is true and actually _want_ to believe it is false; they will not give their teacher the benefit of the doubt. Neither do they fail to comprehend the theory of evolution because it is too complicated. They think it is _morally_ and therefore scientifically wrong. (But i suppose it can’t hurt to try.)

    In the end, all i want to avoid is scientists saying, look “science is like religion”, “the bible preaches natural selection”. Mixing the two will only mix people up.

  3. Science and Religion will be connected always, given they arise from the human desire for meaning and understanding. At their highest levels they are often intertwined. The ongoing search for “the theory of everything” that capitvates theoretical physicists is a continuation of Einsteins search for a Unified Field Theory… Einstein’s quest to “understand God’s thoughts”, motivated by what he called “cosmic religious feeling”, his God was an impersonal, mysterious God.

    Words do not do justice, they are only approximations strung together to describe that which is, in the end, intangible. Science and Art strive to illuminate, always incompletely. Institutionalized Religion, always oversimplifying to reach the masses, always corrupts that which sired it.
    We humans are feeble and need to invent stories to remind us of important truths; hopefully science, art and religion can open eyes, rather than close them — instilling a sense of humble curiosity, wonder and kindness rather than the acrimonious forming of factions

    On Isaac Newton:

    “Throughout his life—and by no means only during his nervous breakdown, as some have maintained—Newton was highly interested in theological, chronological, and alchemical studies. It is estimated that he wrote some two million words on these subjects, a total far surpassing that of his writings in mathematics and physics. Much of this material, particularly that on alchemy, consists of the writings of others that Newton copied for his own use, but he also wrote books of his own on these subjects. It may even be true, as Newton himself seems to have hinted, that his real interest lay in a wide and comprehensive knowledge that he hoped to acquire through alchemy and theology, and that he viewed his scientific studies only as amusing diversions. Since he could not, in general, be accused of excessive humility, we may have to understand in another light a well-known remark he made toward the end of his life: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of Truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    Newton certainly believed in the prisca sapienta, an ancient wisdom that had existed among priest-scientists such as the Chaldeans in Babylonia, the brahmans in India, and Moses and Pythagoras among the Hebrews and the Greeks. He believed that this wisdom was now largely lost, that he, Newton, was one of an esoteric brotherhood extending back to ancient times, and that he was redisclosing this knowledge in a new form, more mathematical than metaphysical or mythological. “Newton was not the first of the age of reason,” the economist John Maynard Keynes concluded after examining Newton’s alchemical papers. “He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and the intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”

    Newton was a staunch monotheist and strongly antitrinitarian. Perhaps owing to this, he never took holy orders and could not become the master of Trinity College. His antitrinitarian sentiment, however, was a dreadful secret that Newton tried desperately all his life to conceal. He himself often maintained the philosophical autonomy of nature and revelation, but for himself he certainly regarded his work in natural philosophy to be a gloria and a study of God’s works. Future generations, in denigrating religion and exiling God from natural philosophy, were more influenced by the science and its mechanistic implications, a science of which he was the supreme representative and symbol, than by Newton’s own example or beliefs. This trend would have horrified Newton, who felt an emotional, personal relationship with God. In fact, Newton himself would have wished to be regarded as a prophet of God.”

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