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.)

Nov 192009

Star TrekMy first recollection of Star Trek wasn’t its philosophy or its depiction of a positive future of heroes and adventure.  It was being frightened at the image of Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver”.  I was only six or seven years old after all.

Despite that I was an avid fan of the show since it first aired I have seen every episode of the original series too many times to count.  But as I grew up I began to be just as much a critic of the show as a fan.  Sure it was great entertainment, projecting a positive sense of life into our homes on an almost daily basis (once it was syndicated) but it was also full of contradictions.  It is, after all a TV show and the writers are just that, writers, not philosophers or great intellectuals, but writers for television with the goal to entertain and sell a script.  There are bound to be inconsistencies and contradictions.

Some of more glaring contradictions involved the show’s treatment of deities in such an advanced society.

God and religion featured prominently in many episodes of the Star Trek canon.  The second pilot to the series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” had crewman Gary Mitchell develop the powers of a God only to be killed by Captain Kirk.   In “The Paradise Syndrome”, Kirk himself fancied himself a God (Kirok) when he lost his memory among a tribe of North American Indians.  In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine the Bajoran’s have their Prophets with Captain Sysko as their Emissary.  The Jem’Hadar and the Vorta regard the Founders as Gods. In Star Trek: The Next Generation the Edo of Rubicun III worshipped an orbiting lifeform as their god.  The Klingons killed their Gods as they were “more trouble than they were worth.”  The Starship Voyager was considered a god called the “ground shaker” to Kelemane who offered it fruit in the hope that the “God” would stop shaking the ground.

In the original series episode “Bread and Circuses”, the crew find themselves on a world identical to earth where Rome never fell.  Some of the inhabitants describe themselves as Sun worshipers and we are led to believe that they are actually deifying the sun in the sky.  As the show ends, though, Uhura lets the Captain know that it wasn’t the sun up in the sky that they worshipped but the son of God.  “A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood” says Dr. McCoy.  Well I don’t know where he got that notion but if you ask me which one I would I rather worship, the sun in the sky or the Abrahamic God in whose names millions have been killed and tortured to this day, I’ll take the sun in the sky please.

The crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation would more objectively and correctly consider primitive alien cultures who worshipped deities as just that, primitive.  This was a refreshing treatment of the supernatural which most likely arose with the easing of sponsor censorship and a liberalization of our society’s approach to religion.

If anything, these little morality plays certainly would make a person reconsider their notion of the God concept and I believe that Star Trek is probably responsible for a great percentage of atheists in the world; if not atheists then certainly a great number of skeptics and free thinkers.  This is a remarkable accomplishment.

If only the writers had a better grasp of Capitalism.  Their first attempt to portray what they regarded as a race of pure capitalists was the Ferengi, an ugly goblin-like, squat race of deceiving, conniving, untrustworthy con-artists who brandished whips and kept their woman naked and at home.  Around the same time we had Captain Picard declare that

“People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. “

From what I saw, Picard possessed a lot of ‘things’ from the clothes on his back to a saddle, to a star ship.  Apparently, everyone in the 24th century is on the dole.

Once again Star Trek contradicts itself in DS9 when we see that the Federation actually used a system of ‘credits’ or gold-pressed latinum to trade with.

I may be nit-picking, but sometimes when a great show like Star Trek comes along you expect perfection and forget that thousands of different people from all kinds of philosophies and backgrounds came together over the last 40 odd years to create this epic.  It could never be perfectly consistent.

Some of the things you might think we would all agree on I have my doubts about.  What about the Borg?  Nasty, right?  Who would want to be a Borg?  Well really if you think about it the only thing about the Borg which was frightening was the lack of choice when it came to being assimilated (no trifling item to be sure).  But I was thinking the other day (when I went and bought a bluetooth earpiece for my cell phone so as not to run afoul of the new law banning hand held devices while driving) that we, as a culture, appear to be getting closer and closer to the technology of the Borg.  We were glasses to improve our vision; we have headphones to talk to almost anyone in the world at any time; we have prosthetic limbs, cochlear implants, artificial hearts, and the Kindle and iPad which allow us to carry a good chunk of the total knowledge of our species in our pockets.  In many cases, at least with the bluetooth earpiece while driving, resistance is futile.

Here is another little contradiction in Star Trek.  In the episode called “The Savage Curtain” Abraham Lincoln calls Uhura a charming Negress but is ashamed when he realizes that he might have offended her.  She replies that people in her time have learned not to fear words, and yet Captain Picard gets a dagger through his heart in the episode “Tapestry” when he takes on a Nausican for calling him a coward.  Didn’t he watch the original series before he joined Star Fleet?

I could go on.  I haven’t even mentioned “Spock’s Brain”.

All in all there have been 726 episodes of Star Trek (if you include the animated series) over 30 seasons.  There have been 11 feature films (If you include Star Trek V which I would really rather forget).  If you sat down and watched everything Star Trek from “The Cage” to the latest film, 24/7, and didn’t take a bathroom break (remember there are no toilets on the Enterprise) you would spend over 30 days glued to the tube.  Anybody who has seen all the episodes at least once is going to be altered by what they have seen; some for the better, those who are comforted by the show’s acceptance of atheism, and some of for the worse, those who believe the show’s definition of capitalism.  It is no doubt great entertainment but we should view it critically and in the immortal words of William Shatner we should “Get a life.”

(Originally aired on Just Right #129, November 19, 2009)