Apr 082010

science vs religionSince Galileo there has been a battle between science and religion to see which is the better way to discover the truth about the universe.

Before I get into this I better clarify what I mean by the terms science and religion.  The word science comes from the latin “scientia” meaning “knowledge” and science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on a method of gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.

Religion is a bit more difficult to define succinctly because it can mean different things to different people but by religion I mean the belief without evidence, that there exists a personal God who created the universe and takes a direct interest in the goings-on of everybody on this planet.

Recently, we have seen attempts by both sides to blur the lines between the two views.

In an article in the Globe and Mail Saturday, April 3rd, by Erin Anderssen entitled “Scientists investigate if atheists’ brains are missing a ‘God Spot’” we find that

An international scientific network has been formed to collect research on atheism.  Pitzer College in Los Angeles is expected to announce the first secular studies department in the world this spring.”

It would seem to me that any University is a place of reason, insight, research, rationality and therefore is almost by definition a place of secular study.  To have to actually set up a department of secular studies only goes to highlight how universities are failing us and have, to an increasing degree, become places of mysticism and irrationality.  The lines are blurring.

From the same article

Last December social scientists gathered at the University of Oxford for a conference on atheism.”

It is well worth noting here that the vast majority of scientists are atheists.  Fully 93% of members of the Academy of Sciences in the US are atheists (meaning they don’t believe in a personal God which interacts directly with human beings).

During this conference they posed the question, “If religion or spiritual belief is the human default position, how does atheism happen?”  This question can only be gotten away with in Universities of today.  If there is a “default” position at all it is atheism.  A child is born with no inherent, or default, knowledge of any religion, God, or spirituality in a religious sense.  Newborns are cognitively tabula rasa.  They may, as they grow, develop a sense of wonder and awe at the world around them but that is not the kind of spirituality these scientists are questioning.  A child must be taught about a God.  Quite often religion is taught in a disciplined environment where any contrary beliefs are punished either physically or psychologically, for example you try to understand and adopt the beliefs of your parents in order to please them.  So religion is NOT the human default position.  To put It briefly we are born atheists and the majority of us are quickly indoctrinated into a religion by mere happenstance of where we are born.

With this faulty premise in hand the social scientists are asking such questions as “Do atheists’ brains work differently?; Are atheists smarter than people who believe in God?; Is religion innate?”  These questions point to a complete lack of understanding about epistemology.  Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with the science of knowledge and how we know what we know.  Higher order concepts such as God, religion, or spiritualism do not come from any special part of the brain.  There is no ‘God Spot’ any more than there is a Liberal spot or a Santa Clause spot.

This kind of research, while scientifically futile, is also understandable because it has happened before.  There has always been research to try and prove neurological differences in the races or the sexes.  Some of the research is actually valid but to suggest that that atheists’ exist because they lack a ‘God Spot’ in the brain is a futile attempt to dismiss the different philosophies without looking into why people believe the things they do.

Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md. has actually done research on believers while they prayed and found that the areas of the brain involved were the expected areas of memory and feeling; no special section was suddenly activated.  In other words there is no ‘God Spot’ no special part of the brain which distinguishes believers from non-believers.  Of course once you consider that since there are atheists who once believed in God and likewise believers who were once atheists you quickly realize that you could have easily predicted the outcome of Dr. Grafman’s experiment.

The question “is religion innate?” is interesting because it is not simply asking about belief in a God as such but in the common observation that people want to attach some kind of meaning to phenomena we can’t explain.   Of course it is only natural to want to attach meaning to the unknown and before science and reason it probably would have been natural to consult a priest, shaman or soothsayer to come up with the answer.  Before priests and shamans in would have been common to concoct some other fictional character as a causal factor in unexplained events like Apollo, Zeus, the angry volcano spirit.

Today of course science has provided us with many of the answers to many of our questions and has, as it should, come up with many more questions for us to answer.  But today we no longer find it natural to turn to mystics for answers but to science.  At least I would hope so.  Religion has historically been an invention of man to establish an order to society; to group individuals under a common set of values and moral codes in order to facilitate community.   For this I say that religion has served a useful purpose.  But to continue to use religion as a social ethical glue is no longer necessary and given our understanding of science and reality can be harmful.

Ayn Rand said that “Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.  But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy.  And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points.  They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very —how should I say it? — dangerous or malevolent base?  On the ground of faith.”

Current statistics on the growth of atheism prove that man can live moral, peaceful, cooperative lives without belief in a deity.

80% Swedish

50% British

33% French

23% Canadians

5-9% of Americans

If there is anything to learn from the growth of science and the increasing number of atheists it is that as a species we are evolving.  We are maturing philosophically.

Science trumps religion as a means of discovering the universe.  Religion is static, unyielding, resolute, fixed.   Like the 10 commandments holy books could be written in stone.  While certainly there are many Christians, Muslims and Jews who interpret ‘sacred’ writings in different ways there are billions of human minds closed off to science and discovery because they take the words in these books to be the ultimate in truth.  There is no room for discover, inquiry, or growth.

Religious people often describe atheists are being arrogant, know-it-alls who think they are superior and more intelligent than people who have faith in a personal God.  The exact opposite is true.  For any scientist to continue to go to work in the morning it is with the belief that they are ignorant, they lack knowledge, they have yet to answer a question, and they have yet to discover something.  This is a form of humility.  Contrarily there are legions of religious people who make it a career to preach to people, to convert, to proselytize.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #146, April 8, 2010.)