Questionable Motives

October 12, 2010

Why aren’t science and religion friends?

Filed under: bioLogos,Jerry Coyne,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 8:53 am

From USA Today comes Jerry Coyne’s article that is a summation of his reasons why Karl Gibberson over at BioLogos is wrong about his series of critical articles against Coyne over the compatibility of science and religion. I have posted the entire piece because I think it succinctly addresses the core differences between the two ‘ways of knowing’:

Religion in America is on the defensive.

Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America’s fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.

But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a “New Atheist,” there are many others attacking the “movement” and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident. The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.

As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.


“But surely,” you might argue, “science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious.” One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.

Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.

Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.

Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

And this leads to the biggest problem with religious “truth”: There’s no way of knowing whether it’s true. I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can’t rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It’s the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you’re right if you can’t tell whether you’re wrong?

The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible “truths” about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as savior, you’ll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God’s son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there’s no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity’s miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.

In contrast, scientists don’t kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.

But don’t just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it’s amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book, Science vs. Religion. Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We’re No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they’d reject that science in favor of their faith.

‘Venerable superstition’

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. His latest book is Why Evolution is True, and his website is


  1. We now know that the universe did not require a creator(tildeb)

    And we know this with 100%, 80%, 40%……..certainty?

    Comment by Titfortat — October 13, 2010 @ 6:08 pm | Reply

    • A swing and a miss!

      What this means is we now have the means to begin investigating the cause without needing to invoke supernatural intervention for what we don’t know. In other words, there are new avenues of inquiry available using methodological naturalism. As for answers you seek and their probabilities of likelihood? They are pending.

      Comment by tildeb — October 13, 2010 @ 7:42 pm | Reply

  2. “We now know that the universe did not require a creator(tildeb)

    And we know this with 100%, 80%, 40%……..certainty?”

    The important thing here is that we know the universe did not require a creator with more certainty than its creation with a creator – because we have observable evidence, which matches our mathematical models and calculations from which we can predict events and other observations.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 14, 2010 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  3. It is important to note that not all concepts of “creator” are religious or supernatural. It seems to me perfectly rational and logical to suppose something intelligent started this all off. Afterall, evolution is pretty damn creative. 🙂

    Comment by Titfortat — October 14, 2010 @ 5:48 am | Reply

  4. Why does it have to be intelligent?

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 14, 2010 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

  5. I guess it doesnt have to be, but, when I look at the complexities of life I suppose its origins are based from some kind of intelligence. It just seems pretty damn smart how everything fits together. And we do know that if there is minute changes in the universe, life on earth doesnt happen. So, is that because its just a fluke or because something intelligent made it that way? Hmmm, will we ever really know?

    Comment by Titfortat — October 14, 2010 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

    • If there is no evidence of any kind of interventionist agency, and we have a perfectly good explanation that is both natural and brimming with ongoing evidence to support how the cause and effect actually works, then I see no reason to suggest that there is some other intelligence at work. In fact, to hold fast to the notion that there very likely could be some invisible agency at work I think undermines the very foundation of methodological naturalism that works to fully inform EVERY OTHER AREA OF KNOWLEDGE. For example, there could be an invisible agency that maintains gravity to remain constant (unless effected by some other force). But why go there? A lack of evidence suggests it must be invisible? There could be an invisible intelligence that directs germs and viruses to do their work, but why go there? A lack of evidence suggests it must be invisible? Why insert this agency where it has no reason to be and no evidence to lend the superstition any merit to make it anything more than another empty assertion about Oogity Boogity?

      Comment by tildeb — October 14, 2010 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

      • Jesus Christ Tildeb

        Its all invisible until you prove it and then it becomes science. First we suppose then we look for evidence, right? Im not suggesting you swallow, hook, line and sinker, but please allow me to not just “believe” that this is all just a fucking fluke and the wonder of life and its intricacies just evolved indiscrimantly. PLEASE, really?
        Im not suggesting a theological guarantee, but I do believe it ridiculous to think that it is random and without purpose. I can believe Oogity Boogity and still search for evidence and whatever that entails. To suggest otherwise is just plain arrogant.

        Comment by Titfortat — October 14, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

      • First we suppose then we look for evidence, right?

        Right. Let’s go with that. Let’s take your supposition about a designer, some previous intelligence and then let’s look for evidence. After a couple of centuries, perhaps it’s beginning to dawn on at least one of us that there isn’t any.

        Now what?

        Let’s suppose that what we have is “just a fucking fluke.” That’s our universe and everything in it. Let’s look for evidence.

        As far as life on earth goes, in 150 years of looking for evidence, we have tons of it. Libraries of it. Every avenue of inquiry but especially in biology. It’s all consistent. It’s all mutually supportive. If there was any other agency than the “ridiculous” notion “that it is random and without purpose” then it could show up somewhere in any of these inquiry avenues. We could find something – anything – that allows us to also maintain the supposition that it doesn’t have to be this way. So far? Nada. Nothing. It seems it really does have to be this way.

        The reasonable conclusion? We have cause. We have effect. We have a brilliant mechanism known as evolution. It all fits beautifully. All the evidence points to it.

        Now along comes Titfortat who says this conclusion is ARROGANT. It rubs him the wrong way. It has the audacity to directly compete – to be antithestical – with his beliefs.

        So what?

        Either you respect what’s true or you do not. You either respect what’s reasonable or you do not. You don’t suspend these principles of supposing and then informing a supposition with evidence that withstands a 150 years of scrutiny to favour some superstitious need to cling like a suckling baby to the teat of some discredited theological ideas that simply don’t line up with the OVERWHELMING evidence that has passed all muster. Now comes the test of intellectual integrity: are willing to ‘dance with the one who brung you?’

        So yes, we live in a universe that best qualifies as one that is filled with randomness and purposelessness. Now how are you going cope? Sticking fingers in your ears and saying “I can’t HEAR you!” to all those who have dedicated their professional lives to filling out your supposition with stalwart evidence? How is that tack NOT colossal arrogance as well as intellectual duplicity?

        Come on, Titfortat. It’s time to put away childish things, put away the notion that the universe is designed by a benevolent supernatural critter to hold you in its loving embrace, concerned about your foreskin, and preparing you for eternal life in some magical realm with a set of incoherent beliefs. There is a very strong likelihood that this is it, this is your one shot at life, to make of it what you can, to create your own meaning and purpose as you see fit. You’re already a lottery winner many times over as far as beating the odds to be alive in this place at this time. But it seems to me that you fail to appreciate just what that means; instead, you hold this knowledge at arm’s length and pretend that it somehow reduces what life should mean from a fairy tale about a Sky Daddy. You might be angry that a fairy tale turns out to be just a story, but getting angry that some tells you as much is hardly reasonable.

        Comment by tildeb — October 14, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Are you serious? 150yrs. Again let me reiterate, 150yrs of science that shows me that evolution is it? I agree with evolution, but tell me what that has to do with original cause? My fingers are not in my ears, in fact, I pretty much agree with all you suggest. I just EMPHATICALLY disagree that its just a fluke. I also believe that my supposition will one day be proven. Unfortunately it wont be in a lifetime that I can get you to buy me a beer as an apology. Also, I wish I had my foreskin back. As far as science can tell sex is much better with it intact. Now that is something worth praying for. 😉

    Comment by Titfortat — October 14, 2010 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

    • Then you need to examine this notion of what constitutes a “fluke”. Once you understand that a ‘fluke’ is your word for an extremely probable event, then perhaps you’ll be able to wrap your head around it a little better.

      As for the foreskin returning, now that would be some remarkable evidence!

      Comment by tildeb — October 14, 2010 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

      • Actually, supposedly you can re-grow a foreskin… with lots of stretching exercises. Skin growth can be stimmulated by tension, after all. That is how fat people pop out of all their clothes except the suit they were born in. I suppose you’d have to endure some discofort while, uh, practicing.
        I am quite thankful that my rents were not motivated by some weird superstition to chop mine off, though. Obviously a case of a broken watching being right every now and then…

        Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  7. On randomness – science is always looking to falsify this, a current example is which is building an array to check that the universe is random (according to inflation theory) – if it is not then there will be some serious revisits to many theories.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 15, 2010 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  8. I think titfortat, you need to understand mathematics better…. religion, like the lottery, is for people who do not understand numbers, and replace that misunderstanding with wishful thinking.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 15, 2010 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  9. misunderstoodranter

    Pretty appropriate name, where oh where do I talk about religion? Because I suppose that the origin of our universe has some intelligence, does not mean I am religious. I do not adhere to any religious doctrine. Oh and by the way, someone does win the lottery eventually. Until we have proven the origins, we’ll just keep playing this game. 😉

    Comment by Titfortat — October 15, 2010 @ 6:00 am | Reply

  10. Really – I thought this post was about religion… attempting to separate intelligent design from religion is as shallow as it is vapid.

    Yes, I am open to the probability of the universe being created by aliens – (woopy! – that’s deep radical idea that I have never heard before [sarcasm – lashings of it!]), the trouble is what created the aliens, or the other intelligent designer – that your wisdom into alludes to?

    God or the creator must be an Atheist.


    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 15, 2010 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  11. This article, and the PZ Meyers one from earlier, are both eye-openers for me. Thanks for posting them, t.

    Not the divide between religion and science. Any exposure to history can give examples of that. I’m talking about the atmosphere in America. I’m a northern neighbour (Canadian) and I never had any experience in my education of such dueling foolishness.

    In High School, God was not part of the curriculum, especially in the sciences. And I’m pretty sure that if I brought up God in any of my university classes I would have been quietly taken aside with a sincere but professional suggestion to consider changing concentrations or visiting the Theological Hall.

    We have evangelicals and fervent believers, but they just aren’t given such weight in the nation’s mood. And I don’t think they have such boldness.

    America never ceases to amaze. I’m seeing the complexities of the issue more and more and more.

    Comment by Andrew — October 21, 2010 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for stopping by and posting, Andrew. Much appreciated.

      I, too, am Canadian but much of the family is divided between the US and Canada. What’s remarkable to me is how those members of the family living in California, Ohio, and Florida have melded their values over time into far right wing Republicanism Tea Baggers along with becoming evangelical christians. It’s an eye-opener! The risk this shift brings is real, and its a huge problem for the rest of the world. I don’t like what the US is becoming – a third world country with first world weaponry influenced by archaic beliefs – and I see it happening within my own family so I care a great deal.

      What did you think about Calgary electing our first muslim mayor?

      Comment by tildeb — October 21, 2010 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

      • Is that Naheed Nenshi? I don’t know much about him but he looks like a young, happy, hip kind of guy. Is he Muslim by orientation/history or by belief/devotion? (Not that a politician would likely come out and say anything explicitly honest, mind you…)

        Another Canuckian, eh? That’s awesome! That’s what the world needs right now — a few Canadians to bring back some sense to it all. 🙂

        Comment by Andrew — October 22, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    • To be elected in Calgary, you know he is going to be, at the very least, a Red Tory. :>

      Comment by The Arbourist — October 23, 2010 @ 5:21 pm | Reply

  12. First let me, a self-proclaimed (if on somewhat shaky grounds) deist, distance myself from all creationists. They got shit for brains. No doubt about it. Second, I do not see any serious reason to believe that much morality comes from religion. I mean, of course there does, as much as from any other social institution. After all, only institutions that create order and rules stay for any appreciable length of time. That includes religion. And all religious morality, like all other morality, is subject to change. Wait long enough and what God supposedly claimed to be eternaly true is understood by all but the most backward barbarian as appalling evil. Back when it was written “an eye for an eye” was progressive, curbing excessive retalliation and stopping endless feuding. Now we can all agree that it is still excessive and very bad behaviour.
    So, if all you are attacking is silly “Christian Scientists” and as silly “Moral Majority Conservatives” you got me in your boat. No argument here.
    But if you extend your attack on the personal experience of the transcendent (what I would term “God”), well, I gotta disagree.
    But then, I disagree with you that leprechauns are supersticion.
    I’m not firm enough on Irish mythology to argue the point in that particular case, but it is a principle matter, so I am confident I can include them. I’m a bit more knowledgeable of the greek myths, so I can use them to illustrate my point:
    Take the story of Artemis and Actaeon for example. Artemis, Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and young girls, is seen naked by the hunter Actaeon. She forbids him to speak about it. When he defies her she changes him into a stag and he is torn apart by his own hounds. Do I believe that there once was a real, historical human being who encountered the corporeal form of a goddess in some glade, talked to her, and was later physically transformed into an animal and killed by his dogs? Well, let me get back to that.
    What I do believe is that there is something out there that encompasses raw, sexual beauty and wild innocence that touches those who behold it in whatever form or shape they may encounter it. And that attempting to compress such an experience into the constraints of language or even to abuse the experience by turning it into a boast, a mere tawdry tale to impress your peers, is tantamount to reducing your soul into something animalistic, beastial. And that the world will shred an essential part of yourself, a part there to partake of joy and fullness of life, to pieces, leaving you crippled or in many cases spiritually dead. I know a lot of peeps who are this sort of dead – and unhappily dead – zombies.
    But that’s only metaphor, I hear you say? Well, d’uh, of course it is. Just like talking about waves and particles is metaphor for what electrons “really” are. But electrons are provably real. The soul isn’t.
    Yeah, well, maybe “science” hasn’t looked at what I would call the soul long enough. Psychology is a pretty poor excuse for poetry. And poetry is nothing but the art of saying true things through metaphor. But as anyone who has ever laughed or cried, loved or grieved, hated, yearned or frothed with anger knows, the soul is bloody real. It is so real that damage to it can physcially kill you – or what do you think suicide is?
    As to the historic reality of a physical Actaeon. In any way that would make sense to your line of reasoning, no, he never was “real”. But in the effective impact his “life” and “death” have had on later generations, he was indubitably much more real than 99% of those who would have been his contemporaries has he existed physically. There are museums full of statues and paintings depicting him. Physical manifestation of the influence the, hm, shall we call him “memetic” Actaeon? Ideas shape reality in as corporeal and physcial a way as bricks or bullets.
    Artemis however, I am utterly convinced, really exists. She does because the emotional mystery of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and young girls continues to taunt, vex, call, challenge, enrich and destroy human lives. How much more real could anything be?
    And nothing of this belief in any way challenges or interfers with a scientific worldview or the scientific method, mate. There is no conflict. Just ignorance.

    Comment by FreeFox — October 22, 2010 @ 11:56 am | Reply

    • Hey FreeFox,

      That’s quite the rant! It’s good to see there is a few people out there with eyes wide open still. Have you heard of Jordan Peterson? He’s got a book called, “Maps of Meaning” that might be up your alley. It’s been on my to-read list but distractions have been getting the better of me.

      Comment by Andrew — October 22, 2010 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

    • Like you, I am huge fan of myths. Like you, I think they (can) import great wisdom and teach in a unique way about the human condition. It is irrelevant in this sense whether the nouns in the narratives are ‘true’.

      Why are myths such powerful teaching tools about wisdom and how is this accomplished? At this point we have to leave the myths behind and move into neurology. Science really does have a lot to say about how and why myths are effective… regardless of the specific myths themselves. Our brains are built for narratives, built for translating sensory data into patterns and patterns into symbols. Our brains are built to manipulate symbols into meaning and compiling meaning into understanding/knowledge about the world in which we find ourselves. Again, the nouns of the myth are unnecessary to reach this mother lode of what’s true, of answering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about importance and effectiveness of myths.

      The message of the particular myth is assembled not by the author but by you the listener. You are the one who translate the sensory data into patterns and the patterns into recognizable symbols. You are the one who manipulates the symbols into meaning and tests that meaning against the world to find out if it makes sense, if it works, if is useful and practical, if it helps you in some way make meaning of a chaotic world. You are the one who translates the narrative of the myth into personal meaning.

      An ancestor may have translated danger into a wild animal to populate her myth. Your grandparent may have translated it into a blaring klaxon of an air raid for his fiction. You may translate danger into a red light saber for your entertainment. In each case the symbol of what’s dangerous has to be familiar enough for it to make sense to evoke an appropriate response on an emotional level to fully engage the brain. The theme of danger is universal and timeless for our species; it simply doesn’t matter what form it takes as long as it is effective in these teaching narratives to help us make sense of proffered advice on how to cope with it. That ‘answer’ remains constant. I think this is what you are referring to when you write saying true things as a contrast that is just as relevant as saying what’s factually and empirically true about what is said. But these are not divisible approaches to coming to know what we know in some because of the delivery method; both are absolutely founded on the physiology of the brain. And this includes the meaning we make from poetry and music and architecture and sculpture and painting and dance just as much as it does from math and engineering and physics and chemistry and cosmology and and so. They are not divisible.

      It is this sense of divisibility that I take great issue. We are one species with one kind of very capable brain for our environment. It is from our brains that all the gods spring and give birth to supernatural agencies. It is from our brains that all values spring and give birth to morals and ethics. It is from our brains that all rational thought springs to give birth to philosophy and science. All that we are, all that we create, all that we love, all our experience lies here in the landscape of our brains. How we interpret and make meaning from all these experiences is very much a scientific pursuit of what is true not only on a biological level of the brain but if our descriptions of the veracity of the data to which we are subjected is practical and trustworthy. The veracity of the nouns we use along the way to describe the data are not important in and of themselves; what’s important is coming to know.

      Comment by tildeb — October 22, 2010 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

      • You might have seen me mention on Mr. Shore’s blog that I’m helping raise a kid. The little tyke is 10 months old now. The mother is not my girlfriend or anything, merely someone I feel responsible for. I am in no physical sense involved in the procreation there. How she came to be pregnant is a rather fucked up, perhaps tragic story. And it came at a time, last year, when it was quite a lot more than, hm, inconvenient for her and me (as I felt obligated to stand by her.) I know a wee bit about most biological, medical, and technological issues involved in human procreation (and a lot more now than I knew back then).
        And yet, in spite or maybe because all of that, there have been few moments in my life – a life not exactly sparse in extreme experiences I might add – I felt as much wonder and joy and, well, divine presence as when I first beheld, on the monitor of an ultrasound device, the little blip-blip-blip of that unborn creature’s heartbeat, a human being still smaller than the fingernail on my pinky at the time, that a few weeks before hadn’t existed at all.
        No, neither knowledge nor science dimish wonders or miracles in any way.
        But they do not negate the existance of the divine any more.
        So, neurology takes a look at poetry. Fucking brilliant. Seriously. This is all very fascinating stuff. I love it. But I cannot share your conviction that there is the disproof of God, or gods, or the soul, or, indeed, magic in any of it.
        Yes, the exact form the divine – or the infernal – might take changes with the world and the experiences of every generation, from beast to tank to, if you will, laser sword. Hence the commandment not to create idols out of God. To kill the Buddha when you meet the Buddha. Of course all those who cling to outdated imagery or interpretation of religion are dead wrong. But still, how does any of that invalidate the experience? In what way isn’t “God” or “Goddess” still an appropriate term for that complex force of creation and meaning that touched me through the entire experience?
        A chemist can tell me exactly the material composition of the physical Picasso painting “Guernica”, just as a physicist can explain to me how light and the lenses in my eye transfer it’s image into my retina, just as a neurologist can explain how this image is then transferred into my brain and processed there. A historian and an art historian can tell me a lot about both Mr. Picasso and about the Spanish Civil war and how they both came together to create the painting. And you could probably tell me why and how viewing the picture comes to move my heart to tears when I see it. And knowing none of that dimishes the power of the painting. Indeed some of that knowledge will increase my appreciation.
        Taking apart the soul of the painting does not invalidate it’s existence.
        Explaining how the Gods, and Powers, and Spirits move us, does not invalidate their existence.
        I don’t want to argue for arguments sake. I am just taking exception to your claim that science and religion aren’t friends. I think we do see thinks largely the same, and we both are enemies of false, calcified, brainless religion.
        Still, maybe *you* are certain that our brains were first, and the Gods sprang from them like Athena, Goddess of war and wisdom, from the mind of Zeus. *I* see no reason not to believe that the Gods and Goddesses were first and we evolved organs able to experience their touch. In the end, does it really matter?
        When we walk the road of life, we DO meet the Buddha. We have to, otherwise all the science, all the knowledge is nothing but dead ink on dead paper. It is only in life that they acquire meaning. And when we meet the Buddha, we have to kill him. So we can meet him again. ^_^

        Comment by FreeFox — October 22, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  13. I agree FreeFox, life is amazing, and most (but not all) people feel a wash with emotions, which some label as spirituality or a soul. But I take a different view altogether, I think the feeling of self, and spirit, is a natural product of our evolved brains – we have these feelings because we are at one with nature.

    I think this is what has been hi-jacked by the religions of the world – these feelings are not of a separate spirit or a more wise spirit, and neither are they outside of observable nature. Religion is a con trick that has been used by people all over the world to gain power and authority over others by convincing them that these feelings are given by a god or a spirit that is separate from the physical being.

    People who take psychoactive substances such as LSD, or Psilocybin experience an unbelievable demonstration of the power of the mechanics of the physical brain. So much so that they talk to spirits, see faces and physical objects bend and disappear in front of their eyes – but it is all in their head; all caused because a chemical has been added to the blood stream that causes the brain to confuse signals from the senses: sounds can be seen, and sights can be heard, tastes touched and so on. These experiences are as real to brain that has been drugged as your computer screen is to your un-drugged brain – the difference is that they are not real to the people who have not been drugged.

    The magic mushroom, probably evolved to produce Psilocybin, to prevent animals from eating them – so both the cause and effect is explained by nature: no spirits or ‘magic’ needed.

    We know for a fact that brain chemistry has an effect on the ‘soul’ and consciousness of a human; we test it every day in operating theatres, and doctors’ surgeries. We have isolated substances that can enhance brain performance, or degrade it, or make people happy, or sad, or numb, or unconscious. We also know that human body creates natural drugs that interact with the brain throughout the day which help to alter and temper mood – ever felt sleepy after a dinner?, or energised after exercise and fresh air?

    So the spirituality that you speak of is just normal down to earth brain function; it is an experience that your consciousness registers because it has to in order to survive within the environment in which it evolved.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 23, 2010 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

    • Hey, “misunderstandingranter” ;). I have taken a magic mushroom – fly agaric, or at least the psychoactive part of it, in tablet form – under the supervision of a Sami shaman (okay, a shaman-in-training), and did meet my spirit guides, and a whole lot of other shit. Pretty horrific, painful, enlightening, disillusening, nightmarish, healing experience.
      I know that it was some weird chemical reaction in my brain that caused these “visions”. So? Being in love is a weird chemical reaction. Having sex is a lot of weird chemical reactions. Watching the bloody telly or enjoying a burger and a coke, it’s all chemicals, hormornes, enzymes, synapses, electricty, and electrons chasing through the void…
      When you hit your thumb with a hammer, that’s not “really” pain, you’re feeling, right? Just an electrical signal passed through nerves from your extremeties to your brain, and interpreted there in a complex bio-electro-chemical process. Does knowing that make it “hurt” one bit less?
      Sure, it’s good to understand these things. You can take an analgetic when you hit your thumb. I wasn’t forced to rely on my shaman guessing how big a bite of the toadstool I shood take, but could deal out the precice measure necessary and yet harmless depending on my body weight. Brilliant.
      It was still spirits I talked to. It is still love I feel for my man, and for the tyke, and for his mum.
      And it still is the spirits, and the love, that give my life meaning.
      The chemicals just help.

      Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

      • The problem here is understanding that the nouns like ‘pain’ and ‘love’ and ‘spirits’ are not separate entities that are in existence somewhere out there. They are single words we use to describe sophisticated biological experiences. And these sophisticated experiences are interpreted into meaning in the brain. The meaning is our own. These interpreted meanings are not in an of themselves any kind of authoritative reflection or evidence of external agency or some ethereal force acting upon us.

        Comment by tildeb — October 23, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

      • “The problem here is understanding that the nouns like ‘pain’ and ‘love’ and ‘spirits’ are not separate entities that are in existence somewhere out there.”

        EXACTLY. 🙂

        Like me, you, family, nation… actually, all organisms, no matter if trees or humans, are not only complex entities interacting on many levels with the world around them, they are all composit beings that include many bacteria, sometimes fungi or even more complex life in symbiontic, inseperable systems. Hell, in every cell we have mitochondria – alien life – without which we couldn’t exist for one second. And yet, it is not only common but actually impossible not to refer to all these essentially undefinable parts of larger systems by single nouns. Like me, you, family, nation, human, or tree.
        How tedious would language be, if we had to express everything in mathematical notation. How much intuitive understanding would be lost if we had to process it entirely by complete analytic reason before we were allowed to make statments?
        The words are not the things they refer to, nor our thoughts about the things, but only, only signposts to the thoughts about the things.
        So we continue to speak meaningfully (if often marred my inevitable misunderstanding) of one another, of love, and pain, trees, sunsets (just think what a complex system of images, memories, experiences, associations, assumptions, and interpretations lies in that simple word!), and of God, and Gods, and Spirits.

        Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

      • “The meaning is our own. These interpreted meanings are not in an of themselves any kind of authoritative reflection or evidence of external agency or some ethereal force acting upon us.”

        Are you certain that this statement in itself isn’t just your personal interpreted meaning? Can you really authoratively speak of external evidence for your conclusion here?

        Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    • Um, actually, please excuse the lame name-calling joke in the beginning. I had already signed off, but in my mind I sort of replayed that, and it seemed to sound a lot more hostile than it was ever meant to be. No offence, man, okay? I enjoy this sort of discussion, and while obviously dead wrong, or at least miles from the point – from my p.o.v. 😉 – it was a good reply that I should have treated with more respect. Sorry for that.

      Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

      • I point out this problem because it’s a really important source of misunderstanding about the nature of the universe and how we can come to know what constitutes it.

        Although we exist subjectively inside the universe, we can understand its component parts objectively. The method to do this is widely available and has yielded giant strides in our understanding with substantial gains made in practical and applicable knowledge that works consistently well. This method of inquiry is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Yet against this backdrop of how to obtain reliable knowledge that works comes the strange notion that this method is inadequate for overcoming our subjectivity. Too often especially well meaning liberals fail to appreciate this achievement and assume that because we experience the universe subjectively, therefore everything in the universe is subjective in relative terms to our understanding of it. This brings about a state of such open-mindedness that people’s brains metaphorically fall out.

        We reach dizzying heights of folly in the name of relativism by pretending, for example, that we can’t possibly be tolerant ourselves if we don’t fully embrace and accept with open arms the intolerance of another, and so on. This leads people to incorrectly assume that our subjective experience truly represents the subjective universe we think actually exists, that our subjective meaning represent the subjective meaning of the universe we think actually exists. Books full of this shit, like The Secret, become mega-best-sellers, touted by the so-stupid-it-burns talk-show icons who marvel at the quantum-babble deepities of a Deepak Chopra who speaks in such obfuscating terminology that it must be wise. What is forgotten is that when these deepities are subjected to honest inquiry using our best objective methodology that we know works and works consistently well, we find nothing to substantiate these kinds of subjective claims out there in the universe. But does that stop Deepak from appearing yet again on another dozen talk shows or writing another article prominently promoted on HufPo? Of course not. His audience is huge because they fail to use their critical faculties to understand that the quality of the ontology is dependent on the quality of the epistemology, and when you screw up the epistemology as badly as a Deepak Chopra or a Pope Palpatine or a Jenny McCarthy or a Pat Robertson, what you end up with is intellectual shit. And this shit isn’t idle; these beliefs promoted as if they were objectively true have real world consequences.

        So when you suggest that you believe in an interventionist god as if it were as objectively true as the cat you’ve just stepped on but rely on your subjective experiences to back up the assertion they are both as real externally to your brain, you can’t then hide behind the subjective shield of metaphor and pretend like you use the same kind of subjective epistemology to verify each as objectively true. The signposts used by the best method of inquiry we have are quite clear on this: the scream of the cat and the bite marks on your leg indicate additional objective evidence that the cat exists independently of our brains, a creature that is verifiable as real and responsive to a sudden change in its environment caused by your inconsiderate stepping. No such independent objective verification comes from this supposed agency that you assert causes love. For that, the same best method of inquiry we have indicates that the agency for love resides in our brains. In this regard, the language trick about what actually constitutes ‘love’ is the same as what constitutes ‘cat’, as is the epistemology to identify objectively the causal link between external object subjectively experienced.

        Comment by tildeb — October 23, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  14. For me life has plenty of meaning without the need to conjure up imaginary friends.

    If you want to call God, nature, then yes we are on the same page – nature is everywhere, but it is not sentient (other than in the beings that are sentient) – it does not judge people, speaking and praying to it will not make any difference to any outcome. Nature just is. It is possible to feel love, and emotional fulfilment without need for religious worship. The issue for me is that religious people, think they are the only ones that have these feelings – they are not. Religion was invented after these feelings evolved and not before. I get insulted by religious people who claim that religion is the guide to morals (and that atheists do not have them), and I also get equally annoyed when people state that feelings of love are of a supernatural origin – it does not. Love is an evolved emotion, it has purpose and reason, it was not designed or invented by anything other than the same evolutionary process that gave you your hands and feet.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 23, 2010 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I get that a lot from atheists, lol.
      And the stupid way all those stupid religious nuts before me have abused reason, and have infused most relevant words with so much nonsensical wring values, that it feels as if I have to type out a definition of what I mean by any such word when I use it, to avoid understandably being typed into the same category of braindead Jesus-hugger that you no doubt encountered so many times before.
      I am sorry. 97% of those who claim to believe in God really DO only believe in an imaginary sky buddy. To claim that religion is necessary to develop ethics (in my understanding of the world, morals are only a peer-enforced system of ethics) would only make sense if one expended the definition of what religion was to the point to include all systematic attempts to frame one’s mortal, limited self in a system one experiences as infinite (the physical universe doesnt have to be infinite for me to experience it as virtually infinite when I look up at the night sky.) So, no, atheists can of course have ethics, and everybody who lives in a human society automatically is subject to morals. Even peeps in Stalinist Russia had morals, of course. And “organized religion” is in my experience almost always mere idolatry. False religion, if you will.
      I do not want to argue you on any point regarding evolution, or biology, or neurology. Within the frame of reference of creating a historic chronic of physcial events, of course the brain evolved before love or religion. Without the brain, neither love nor religion could be experienced. And it did evolve most likely according to the simple, brilliant principle of genetic trial and error, followed by selection of what worked.
      What I am mainly trying to say is that just as there is a complex phenomenon called “love”, that is very important to our lives if they are to be fulfilled and meaningful, so are there complex, meaningful phenomena that are correctly and effectively described by words like “vision”, “insight”, “spirit”, “divinity”, even “magic” and “prayer” (but only in the meditative sense of listening inward and experiencing being part of a vaster system, not in the silly, simpleminded wishing well sense of inane bible-thumpers). Yes, without doubt all these complex phenomena can be analyzed. Of course they all are based – like any other thought, feeling, or experience – deeply in neurological processes. There is nothing whatsoever supernatural about any of it, and when we encounter something apparently inexplicable in such a context it is only because it might be a process yet not fully understood either because of lacking research, data, or the technology to acquire it, or because the system is too complex to be fully grasped (yet). That is all.
      It’s like a Koch Snowflake: It’s all set within the finite boundary of natural laws. And yet, it doesn’t preclude the presence of the infinite.

      Comment by FreeFox — October 23, 2010 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  15. Then we are on the same page….(I think).

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 24, 2010 @ 3:49 am | Reply

  16. “So when you suggest that you believe in an interventionist god as if it were as objectively true as the cat you’ve just stepped on but rely on your subjective experiences to back up the assertion they are both as real externally to your brain, you can’t then hide behind the subjective shield of metaphor and pretend like you use the same kind of subjective epistemology to verify each as objectively true.” (tildeb)

    Okay, I have never really understood what exactly “epistemology” describes, so I may have misunderstood part of your argument. But if I understand you right, this is an argument whose (to me) apparent logical hole has always bothered me, given that it usually comes from very logical and smart peeps:

    If we can agree that the only REAL world is the material, physical world ruled by natural laws (and I would say so), and that all “subjective” experiences only occur within the matrix of neurology and biochemistry, how can you then discount such experiences as any LESS real than any other.

    Why is the noisy screech of the hurt cat any more an indication of a real event to you than my verbal expression of the awe of a religious experience? The “subjective” pain of a (metaphorically) “broken heart” is no less real – and manifests no less as detectable, measurable levels of certain hormones and electrical events within the cortex – as the “objective” pain of ulcer-induced heartburn.

    What I call an “interventionist”, even sentient “God”, might in our language be described as a complex gestalt phenomenon that occurs at the junction of interdependent neurological, cultural, and individual systemic events. It joins historic processes, ethical systems, personal compassion and hopes. It IS subjective. But it has many “objective” components: The sense of a divine presence can be measured within the temporal lobe, it can even be triggered by sending electrical impulses into it. The Sistine Chapel or the Cathedral of Cologne are very physical manifestations of such subjective experiences – not only religious, but also economic and political experiences, and even very personal, individual experiences of ambition, hope, greed, devotion, etc.

    I do not believe that you truly place as little importance on the subjective as you claim (and perhaps wish to believe) to: I get the impression that you have very strong ethics regarding for example the value of truth, or regarding responsibility. Ethics – even the most strident utilitaranism – is based in the desire to create a better world for others, not just your own self. (That would be sociopathy.) It is always based in some form of compassion. You can argue that this is based in evolutionary psychology, the fact that humans could not survive on their own and needed to build functioning groups, or that it stems from the imparative to care for offspring and guarantee the continuation of our DNA, but you cannot get past the fact that it always takes a “subjective” route through our brains and emotions.

    Is subjectivity a risky path? Is there a high danger of being sidetracked by personal delusions and wishful thinking, of getting mired in “my subjective experience is better than your” type conflicts? Of course there is.
    Nuclear energy has lots of risks. Personal transportation has a shitload of dangers. The bloody internet has risks. Every single electrical outlet carries some risk. People die falling from ladders. So? We have developed methods to deal with risks. Democracy, due process, a densely networked global free market. All of those have their own risks, of course, but are the best risk-reducers we have come up with so far.

    But when we are part of the natural order, then so are our brains, our culture, and our dreams, hopes, and deeply personal, subjective experiences. Telling right from wrong in this maze is hard. But still, none of it invalidates the experiences.

    I hope you don’t really place me in the same box as Mr. Chopra. I know that there is shitloads of kooks out there. But just as the wanna-be scientific claims of homeopathists don’t invalidate true medical science, so doesn’t the wishing-well pseudo-theology of most self-styled religious peeps automatically invalidate the religious experiences of those of us who do take thinking about them critically and with care.

    (And I apologize that my rants grow so long. I wish I could express it in less words. But I suspect that part of the reason we’ve invented words like God, or love, or Fate, or Heaven, is exactly to create shorter expressions of very complex, important phenomena. After all, nobody truly expects the full theory of relativity to be easily explainable in 100 words or less, especially to someone who comes from a very different paradigma.)

    Comment by FreeFox — October 24, 2010 @ 7:21 am | Reply

    • Our experiences are real to us. But that does not indicate that the explanation of agency we attribute to the experience is, in fact, the causal agent. To determine that requires testing. If our epistemology (the method of how we come to know) does not contain any means to do this, then what our attributions amount to is equivalent to making shit up. Experiences of awe and heartbreak cannot be shown to be the effects caused by a supernatural agency. Attributing these experiences to a supernatural agency is equivalent to making shit up. And I do not place little importance on the subjective experience; I call ‘foul’ when theologies steal these experiences as evidence for a causal link between the divine and humanity by the mechanism called god’s love. That’s making shit up. And nowhere is this made up shit more problematic than in morality.

      How we define morality matters. If we define it as what is pleasing to some supernatural critter, we’re sunk; any action can be justified as long as the goal is stated to be to please this critter. From exercising charity to flying planes into civilian buildings, it’s all moral according to the definition of pleasing god. What is missing from this moral epistemology (as is missing from consequentialism and utilitarianism and so forth) is some means to test our subjective moral templates by objective means towards attaining some obtainable goal. If that goal is as open-ended as ‘pleasing god’ then only if there is some means to test can it be useful to us. Why not agree that human well-being is a much better goal, and much more useful template for our morality in which the methodology of science can play an important role? No useless consideration for supernatural critters is necessary or needed to still have a meaningful moral framework.

      Just as bad science becomes pseudo-science and the spawning ground of what you call kooks, so too is religion simply bad science producing its fair share of kooks. There is a spectrum of ‘kook-ery’, of course, and some are mild and harmless while others are starkers. But I don’t really care about that; I care about people pulling themselves up by their intellectual boot straps and understanding that such unanswerable questions about supernaturalism are best left private and somewhere in the back of the mind rather than front and center in the mind’s driver’s seat where it can cause the most havoc.

      Comment by tildeb — October 24, 2010 @ 10:16 am | Reply

      • I have failed to explain that what I mean by utilitarianism and consequentialism failing to be testable is that that these are way stations to something we call morally right and morally wrong. Utility towards what goal? A consequence towards what goal? It is this goal that I mean remains untestable and not the moral philosophies themselves.

        Comment by tildeb — October 24, 2010 @ 10:33 am

      • Oh boy.

        Ahem, please ‘scuse me for saying so, but you do have some mighty simple ideas what God is supposed to be – no doubt because most “Christians” around you who talk about God share this unexamined and cartoonish ideas. And I can understand that you do have the desire to fight those ideas, especially as they have such a huge impact on the political and legal life in that big, lumbering and often scary country to your south. I’d fight the Kansas board of Education, too, if it was any concern of mine. Hell, I’ll sign any petition against their kind on sheer principle. They give my “faith” a bad name… obviously.
        The (interventionist, sentient, all-powerful, albeit far from all-benevolent in any meaningful human way) God I keep talking about is not only still non-supernatural, and will remain so, no matter how often you try to bring up this supposed aspect of His (“unanswerable questions about supernaturalism”), but He also has precious little time for morals. (Ethics are a slightly different matter, largely depending on how you define the term.) In my experience He is not at all concerned about good or evil behaviour… and I do not say that there is no good or evil. But good or evil – at least how I would define the terms – have mostly to do with the impact behaviour has on others. And my God mostly cares about, um, let’s say, functional or disfunctional behaviour in regard to, well, what I would call my soul, but what you might term, a healthy psyche, or a fulfilled life, or maybe contentment, bliss, or happiness. (He often shows His care, though, in the form of a cold shoulder or sometimes a good kick to the rear.)
        In other words, He has next to nothing to say on how to run a society, what laws to pass, how to conduct ceremonies inaugurating interpersonal relationships, or what to eat or drink at what time. And yeah, like you, I’d tell anyone who tried to have “their” God dictate laws or social rules where to stick their divine will.
        I do not even necessarily try to please Him. In my personal experience, that isn’t only a rather futile attempt (I have my hands full getting along with my spirit guides, and they have far lower standards), but sometimes I suspect it isn’t even what He does want.

        “…since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all out might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where he sits in silence?” (Albert Camus, The Plague)

        I’m not an existantialist, and my solution isn’t to not believe in God. To me He isn’t silent, either, only, uh, taciturn. 😉 But I agree with Camus that often we’d better struggle against the “natural order” than to live in cowed acceptance. As long as we do accept that it is a struggle we will lose in the end. But then, there is no shame in defeat, as long as the fight was valiant. And I like my antibiotics, thank you very much, and my global telecommuncation satellite network, and I am as awed of the triumphs of science and human ingenuity, as I am of any sunset (I am as awed of any sunset as I am of antibiotics, too, though. Cuts two ways.)

        Before you tell me that my “faith” (that, really, to me isn’t about blind belief, but just an expression of hard-won lessons of experience) is too individualistic to find consideration in your rants against religion per se, I do want to point out that my “faith” is largely a modernized version of (I believe) medieval Gnosticism (mostly by way of Joseph Campbell, to reveal my sources), whose many different shades have been a thorn in the side of the mainbody Christian Church since its consolidation, and whose threat was in the 13th century deemed high enough to call an entire crusade against them. It’s main tenets may be lost to modern American (dumbed down) religion, but aspects of it continue to live in Hindu, Buddhist, Wicca, Sufi, and Taoist beliefs.

        And, yes, my God does indeed talk to me. Quite clearly at times, when I make the sincere attempt to truly listen for Him (and when He has something to tell me, at the time.) And it does very much shape my daily behaviour. Just not in the way you seem to assume. One exmaple maybe, because this really isn’t a theoretical issue to me, but a very essential one:

        For a couple of years I was a thief. Literally. I picked pockets and ran scams. Nothing I am particularely proud of, though I’m probably less rueful about it than some Christian would want me to be. Actually, come to think of it, there is a number of grifts that I still am rather proud of. When I began this, uh, career, I was in a state of non-communication with God. Not exactly disbelief, but probably rather a snit of profound sulking. Part way through this some events in my life got me to talking to Him again. And to be honest, He never bothered me about my crimes. He didn’t encourage me either, but it just wasn’t anything He was particularely interested in.
        In that time there was some peeps I met who knew about my line of work and heartily disapproved of it. One of them in particular tried to talk to me about it from a ultilitarist/consequentilaist perspective. Now, I didn’t understand your p.o.v on morals entirely. In some places it sounds as if you agree with them (“Why not agree that human well-being is a much better goal, and much more useful template for our morality”), while just now you seemed to be critical or at least doubtful of it (“Utility towards what goal? A consequence towards what goal? It is this goal that I mean remains untestable”). To me, however they were simply totally irrelevant. I could see the simple “if everyone did that” argument on the scale of whole societies, but it didn’t seem to be of any importance to my individual behaviour. Sure, if I stole and got caught, I would get sent to jail (and was, actually). That was the real risk. But beyond that, how would it profit me, personally, to not exploit others every chance I got? How would the theoretical social consequences of “everybody” doing it – which simply wasn’t happenening after all, or, depending on your view (re: banks, investemnt brokers, etc.) was happening anyway – be in any way actually different for my life if I did or did not steal? Nah, it’s a nice intellectual game, but it has no prescriptive power over the individual. (Neither did the Christian version of hell deter me very much. In my mind at the time I had committed crimes, not legal, but personal ones, already that would have condemned me to hell a thousand times over. A bit of pickpocketry and lying hardly made a difference at that point.)

        In the medium run, however, it was talking to and – to an extand – following God that that guided me to a point where I realized that by dividing the world into prey and predator, dangerous enemy and stupid mark there to be suckered by me, that I was hurting myself, rather badly. I was cutting myself off from humanity, and that was not protecting me, as I had secretly hoped, but was rather starving, indeed killing my soul, my ability to experience happiness.
        So, I was – as embarrassing as it is to use these words – born again. Several times actually. And it’s nothing to do with white shrouds, standing in scenic rivers and singing hallelujahs (well, maybe except the Leonrad Cohen version.) It was long, dark, painful, frightening, humiliating, and very, very hard to do.
        But there again, it was God and Spirits, that gave me the strength to go on, when all else would fail. Well, God, Spirits and frail, fickle, but ultimately astonishingly solid human friendship.

        The Gnostics said (in the 11th or 12th century, I believe) that Jehova fell, Himself, when He forgot that He was a metaphor, and thought of Himself as real. That was, when He became Samael, the demiurge, the rex mundi.

        You said in this thread somewhere about myths that “It is irrelevant in this sense whether the nouns in the narratives are ‘true’.” I would say that it is irrelevant if they are real, in that ‘scientific’ meaning you seem to demand of them; and – as I said before – I would agree that their “reality” includes brain chemistry and neurological processes. But I do hold that they are TRUE indeed, and that exactly that matters about them.

        And I still say that your title-assumption of this blog post, that science and religion cannot be friends is like Harry’s claim that “men and women cannot be friends” (When Harry Met Sally…). It is only true if you use a very stunted definition of what religion (and, actually, science) is. 😀

        Comment by FreeFox — October 25, 2010 @ 3:40 am

      • FF, you continue to assert that something out there or in here is god, but that it reveals itself or is the cause of various emotional responses that appear to you to be in some way related to awe or other deeply felt emotion. Your belief does not make this so. Assuming as I do that you think god is some kind of agency that is more than the neuropathy of your brain, I fail to see any reason or evidence to back up your assertion.

        Your belief in this non-interventionist non-supernatural agency is your own business, of course, but it seems a very confused belief when you say stuff like “He has precious little time for morals,” and “He is not at all concerned about good or evil behaviour,” and “He often shows His care […]”, you are making truth claims about the nature of this god as if he were a real entity, a real agency. Clearly, such claims are not metaphor. They are not allegorical. You have used both to explain your concept of how this agency sort of works behind the scene of what’s real for you (and by extension me) in time and place as well as the emotional responses you (and I) feel. By suggesting that believing in such an entity for you adds something to the ‘natural’ world (the world of death according to your quote of Camus) is still highly problematic in terms of the validity of the inquiry – of the questions we have and want answered about what’s real and important through figuring out what’s true – that lies at the heart of the discrepancy between the methods of inquiry used by science and religion. For although you can be the nicest guy in the world and your god the nicest god in the neighbourhood, there is no epistemological difference between the claims you make about the nature of god and the claims that motivates the mass murdering of 7/7 and 9/11. There is only the niceness factor.

        You are suggesting that this agency is somehow conscious and aware of human behaviour. Your assertion that such an agency exists implies that our behaviour can enjoy its approval or (somewhat less attractive) perhaps earn some rebuke or redirection. You talk about hearing its voice redirecting your behaviour… presumably because your behaviour did not feed your soul in the way that it could be fed by behaving differently and you attribute this improved understanding to the direct intervention of this agency. Such a belief has very real consequences; in your case an alteration of behaviour that you say brings you more benefit than harm. But how is that any different than the suicide bomber who earnestly believes that he honours god by blowing you up? Not only does he believe that he brings honour to god by such an act, but believes he earns a life everlasting of ease and comfort and pleasure not just for him but for 70 of his chosen relatives? How can we address the root problems that accompany such a belief and reduce the unnecessary destruction and suffering wrought by such a person’s behaviour when we grant your own beliefs to your altered behaviour equivalent veracity because they are beneficial to you?

        The belief in the independent existence of this divine agency is the same in either case, as is the notion that the agency cares about our behaviours. There is no qualitative difference in either case of the equivalent belief that our behaviours matter to this god. Unless we establish if such an agency does, in fact, exist then I think we are delusional to assume that any and all beliefs in this agency are equivalently true. Belief in divine agency must be challenged to either shit and provide evidence that it is real or get off the pot and admit it is made up. If it is real then we must come to a cohesive understanding of exactly what behaviours are acceptable to it and which ones are not. In this age of mass destruction by small means, it’s rather important to settle this issue before, not after, someone decides that the voice he hears is god’s and that most people are on board with him following its advice because it’s perfectly fine to listen to it and then act accordingly… even if it is to rid the world of much of its humanity. I don’t see your position aiding us very much in this attempt to differentiate between a system of thinking that has difficulty determining the moral and ethical downside to genocide in the name of god and one that asks for primary consideration for the well-being of others first and foremost.

        Comment by tildeb — October 25, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  17. This is getting a bit muddled…

    My “position” was not meant to aid anyone in any way to prevent genocide. But I do not see yours doing that either. The largest genocides of history (according to Wikipedia’s list of wars and anthropogenic disasters), i.e. those that had certain death tolls of over a million humans, were the German Holocaust, 1941-1945, the Soviet Holodomor famine, 1932-33, the colonization of the Americas, from 1492 onward, and the Cambodian genocide, 1975-1979. Of those only the colonization of the Americas had any notable religious aspect, and even there religion was at best used to dress up actions motived by very obviously different factors.

    While moral systems do of course need no divinity, I have yet to see any such system that cannot be used to justify terrible horrors in the name of the “greater good”. And all of them are based on some a priori ethical assumption. How do you legitimize wanting to prevent genocide in the first place? It certainly is part of the natural order of things without any human intervention. Why not go with the flow and just let it happen? While we are at it, why create categories of “good” and “evil” in the first place, why divide actions into oughts and ought-nots? If we are just animals – and I for one would argue that from a biological point we are; I do not see how rationality is any more “special” than the power of flight or the organizing/emergent power of hive building insects – why not just let everything run its natural course, until we, like any other parasitic infestation of a habitat, have wiped ourselves out? I’m sure, given a few million years, life itself will recover just dandy.

    Even wanting to create a moral system “that asks for primary consideration for the well-being of others first and foremost” is already deeply biased by cultural concerns. In your case I would argue that your entire wish for such a system is ultimately inherited from the Christian call to “love thy neighbour”. There are many cultures out there that pursue no such goal – warrior-cultures, or strictly hierarchical cultures, that place more value on the well-being of some than of others – and not all of them justify their system with divine will. Many claim to just enforce some natural order.

    I do not doubt that religion (like any other system of moral/ethical rules that I know of) can be used as a destructive weapon. But then, any idiot can turn a car into a weapon. Surely you are not arguing to declare cars immoral because peeps can be killed by them? Where will you stop? Are bricks okay? How about sticks?

    I didn’t know that the desirable outcome of any theory has a bearing on its truthfulness at all. Just like my list of “atheist” (if otherwise ideologically challenged) genocides is no argument against the possible truth of atheism so isn’t your 9/11 club any argument against the possible truth of theism.
    You must have been confronted by incensed Christians trying to tell you that science is evil (and therefor must be wrong, somehow) because of nuclear bombs.

    Well, as has been pointed out in this blog, wishing doesn’t make things true. Wishing nuclear bombs wouldn’t work doesn’t stop them. Science isn’t proven wrong by the pain and horror it can wreak, is it?


    That said, all I was I trying to argue is that your claim that science and religion cannot (under no circumstances, never-ever) be friends is wrong. As you, as a scientist, must know: All I need to falsify such a claim is a single instance of where a clearly religious system does interfer at all in the methods and results of science.

    I have been trying to show you why my religuous belief (and I hope you agree that my beliefs, while maybe muddled and unconvincing to you, are indeed religious in nature) are on quite friendly terms with science.

    Unless you can show how my beliefs are an “enemy” (or whatever would constitute a “non-friend” in this claim) of science, you have been proven wrong.

    I will try once more to explain in what way my beliefs incorporate a soul, spirit beings, and a sentient, interventionist deity, in a worlview that does not challenge the discoveries of science. To be able to do so, though, I must ask you to entertain as a theoretical possibility that the physical world is only a small part of “all of reality.”

    I do NOT mean that there is a “supernatral” world beyond the physcial. Take – purely as an analogy – a hologram. The physical dimension of the hologram is a (more or less) flat piece of plastic. But when you look at it, the interplay of the hologram itself, light, your two eyes that are spaced slightly apart, and your brains ability to create 3-D images our of two 2-D images, can create the experience of an image that is both “behind” and “in front of” the hologram, where in physical reality of course there is only the wall it hangs on and the air between you and it.

    Without the limited physical “thing” of the hologram, the experiencable image wouldn’t exist. It is not “magical”. But it is not a “delusion” either. It is just an effect of the physical thing.

    In that way, those spiritual aspects of the world I try to talk about do not exist in any way outside of the physical, nor are they supernatural. But they are not delusional either. They are just aspects of the interplay of human brains, physical poperties and cultural experiences. But they are REAL because they have real effects on real lives. Just like within a hologram there can be real information, that for example could transfer the knowledge of how to build a new device from one brain to another, or could betray war-deciding information from one side in an armed conflict to another, and could alter the course of history. It’s reality lies in its dialectic interaction with the real world: Both drawing upon it and feeding back into it.


    That leaves mainly the question of the sentient nature of such a system – what you keep calling the “divine agency”. This is a very difficult question. But that is less to do with divinity and much more with sentience. He call ourselves sentient, even though neurology is slowly unravelling the mechanisms of our sentience. In the end, sentience is a rather broad linguistic patch that tries to make manageable a very complex system so that we can function in everyday life. In some ways it boils down to a Turing Test, doesn’t it? If it gives us the constant, dependable appearance of sentience, we must call it that, even though a detailled analysis might reveal its ultimately mechanical nature. Simply because from a certain point of complexity onward, the mental reference system of sentience makes it better to deal with as a willfull agent than as a mechanical system. It’s probably simply a matter of practicality.

    What I call God – a complex pattern of meaning in the events of my life that both acts upon me and reacts to my own actions – has all appearances of sentience. It has passed my Turing Test. I do not doubt that the mechanism of its existance only works through the “hologram” of the physical world. But the meaningful pattern it creates both above and below that narrow field of gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces, still is real in its impact upon my life. Therefor I call it an independent being.

    I do not ask you to believe in what I am confident is a real being. I am not discussing here and now what I think are His intentions. But I do ask you how my religious belief in Him contradicts or impedes science!?


    There is one last issue, that has to do with misunderstoodranter’s claim that me bringing Art into this is comparing apples with oranges. You called for a system “that asks for primary consideration for the well-being of others first and foremost.” You appear to make a number of (to me, so far) unsupported assumption what such well-being constitutes. As I, like you, do not believe in a “next world” in any supernatural sense, I, too, would make “being alive” a general pre-requisit for well-being of any sort. But as Schopenhauer, I think, pointed out, there are cases where individual humans (with or without religuous belief) freely give up their own lives out of compassion or conviction, without consideration for their survival-instinct or even the furthering of their DNA. Clearly well-being goes far beyond continued comfortable biological existance.

    I am a friend of laicist constitutions, democracy and due process as methods of minimizing the negative impact of personal convictions on the whole of society (though of course that alone is already the expression of a rather irrational set of values). But this is the lowest common denominator. Thoreau wrote that most men live lives of quiet desperation. Science is a great tool to create a medicine that supports long life. It is a great tool to create devices that protect us from the ravages of nature. It is also a great tool to learn the long-term consequences of our actions on the material world, so that we can modify them in a way that allows us to continue longer and in a more comfortable way.

    I see no indication at all that science is much use to help us lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Peeps do not need the awarenss of some deity for that. Tradition, family, art, community, philosophy… there are many systems that can convey meaning in this sense. I would hold that exactly this is God interacting with humanity, but I can understand how one would either prefer to call it differently or how one might simply not understand it as God. But I cannot see how one can seriously claim that science is in any way a useful tool to deal with this very important aspect of life.

    There are strong neurological/anthopological indications that the power of language (and reason) did not develop to solve problems or seek the truth, but simply to (in the words of Tom Schulman) “woo women”. While this makes it part of the evolutionary imperative to pass on our genes, it also makes romantic poetry the much more important part of human culture than (to get back to misunderstoodranter’s contention in another thread) “E=MC2”. So, in answer to your question, yes mate: Ezra Pound is closer to our true nature than Albert Einstein.

    Comment by FreeFox — October 26, 2010 @ 3:49 am | Reply

    • Lol. Messed up my central argumentative point, didn’t I?
      “All I need to falsify such a claim is a single instance of where a clearly religious system does interfer at all in the methods and results of science.” is OF COURSE meant to be: “All I need to falsify such a claim is a single instance of where a clearly religious system does not interfer at all in the methods and results of science.”

      Comment by FreeFox — October 26, 2010 @ 3:54 am | Reply

    • FF, I never claimed that atheism alone would stop genocides (although it would be a step in the right direction). Genocides, after all, are rarely carried out to promote reasoning. But I do take issue with those who propose that atheism is a root cause of genocide and then assume that religious belief acts as a bulwark against such atrocities. Clearly, the Holocaust was carried out by catholics and lutherans without a single excommunication for this fine bit of work for anyone involved. (The same cannot be said of an 8 year old who has an abortion of twins from an incestuous pregnancy that threatened her life or the girl’s mother. Now that is considered a much greater crime against the catholic god according to the Vatican.) So we know the claim is false. Religious belief does not protect us from carrying out a genocide based on misguided beliefs.

      If you are suggesting that religious belief is equivalent to the optical illusion of a hologram, you’ll get no argument from me. I think that’s a good analogy. But I think is is important to realize that the areas of the brain activated by statements of belief and statements of fact are identical, leading us to understand that on a neurological basis the two kinds of statements are processed identically. This shows evidence that the assertion that belief is somehow a different kind of knowing – at least at the level of the brain – is false. Our brains do not recognize any difference in function. And that has consequences. When we assume that a belief itself is as real as a fact, then we need something more than the belief alone to verify the difference. Religious belief offers us no further avenue of inquiry, whereas the method of science does. And that’s why the two will remain incompatible ways of knowing even if the conclusions from each are identical.

      Comment by tildeb — October 26, 2010 @ 8:26 am | Reply

      • Mate, now you are just pussyfooting around.

        You cannot seriously have read my past post as claiming that genocide was promoted by atheism. Also, I would be the last to exculpate the Vatican or the Lutheran church for their actions or inactions during the Third Reich era (though the the Christian “Widerstand”, esp. in the conservative Eichsfeld area was second only to the communist resistance), but still you cannot blame the Holocaust on religion. Both religious and atheistic people can commit horrible crimes, both religious and atheistic ethical systems can be abused to legitimize crimes. And none of that has anything to do with the question if any such system is “truthful”, nor if they necessariliy contradict each other.

        As for your cheap jab at the hologram comparison: I know just as well as you about the difference between a virtual and a real image, within the framework of optics. They are not the same, but by that standard TV images are “real” and only imbecils and cats think that the race car will come out at the side of the TV when it disappears at the end of the screen. It doesn’t make virtual images delusional. Nor does any of what you have said about neurology necessarily make anything I’ve said about religion delusional.

        Religion, or faith, or spirituality, aren’t at all a different way of knowing. What have I said that makes you even think I would think that? I’m not even saying that science cannot explore and explain large parts of what flows into spirituality. All the neurological processes involved, all the historic confluence of values and cultural associations, all the psychological components of sublimated conflict with our parents, all of that goes into it. No contention. Go ahead, research your heart out.

        But none of it will devaluate the beauty of poetry, the goodness of compassion, the joy and pain of being in love, even if you explain it down to the last micron. And neither will it destroy the personal relationship of a human with the cosmos at large, the challenges being human offers, the choices necessary to navigate the shoals of life, the dialogue between me and creation, and the meaning the world (God, the great Spirit, the Mother Goddess, the Norns, whatever mask this complex transcendent “being” that is composed of billions of years of evolution, millennia of cultural build-up, and a virtual infinity of coincidences and possibilities) offers to one who is listening, and willing to make its vastness comprehensible in human terms by allowing its farthest non-deceitful emmanation to speak through a metaphor that isn’t blinding… like Sophia.

        I haven’t seen you offer one indication that science has even the basic equipment to address questions of meaning or contentment in life. Just as religion hasn’t the first thing to say about how to create new antibiotics or where dinosaur bones come from. Now, before you purposefully misunderstand me again, I am not saying that religion is any way required for a meaningful live (though personally, I would say that God- not belief in Him – is, but in a way that does not challenge physical reality, but merely describes one particular, complex patch of it), nor that ethics have to stem from religion. Only that science certainly does not help on that front… as it isn’t meant to. Something else is needed. And religion, if wielded correctly can address these points, as can other philosophical systems.

        They are talking about entirely different things. And that makes them while not necessarily compatible at least complimentary. And not incompatible. And I dare you to prove me wrong.

        Comment by FreeFox — October 26, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  18. “I would hold that exactly this is God interacting with humanity, but I can understand how one would either prefer to call it differently or how one might simply not understand it as God.”

    Really? I would say it is man interacting with humanity – which is far more real, and encompassing of the human achievements of science as well as art. Art is an idea that can have purpose and no purpose; science is an idea that can have a use and can be useless; both have methods that allow humans to communicate ideas – but only science has integrity.

    “So, in answer to your question, yes mate: Ezra Pound is closer to our true nature than Albert Einstein.”

    I disagree, Einstein didn’t invent his science, he observed it, and wrote it in a language that would allow others to understand what he had observed, so that they could see and hopefully verify that they saw his observations as well. So Einstein saw the true nature of matter, which is the very stuff we are all made from. You don’t get closer than that to reality and it takes a special kind of mind to imagine what he imagined. I also see beauty in his descriptions and theories; the beauty is similar to your poem in that it describes a lot with very little: E=MC2 is such a trivial set of symbols, but it tells us so much.

    Where things differ though is that your poem is of little use or purpose, beyond a few people who either appreciate it or not (or pretend to appreciate it). However, Einstein’s work has benefited us all – immeasurably, and whether you like it or not (or pretend to like it or not) it is as true as it is to you or me or Stephen Hawkin or anyone who cares enough to understand it. Personal interpretation and subjectivism of the theory is irrelevant.

    I value art for what it is, and it has practical uses, it can teach people abstract thought, and allow people to exercise their minds in ways that they would not always do so. In addition, many technical subjects like medicine, computer technology and engineering require artistic ability to be able to perform them properly – art is a life skill certainly. Look in any biology book of Darwin’s time and you will see not just paintings, but distinct pieces of art that capture the complexity and uniqueness of life – in some ways far more accurately than any photograph ever can.

    There is a limit to usefulness of the arts in the discovery of truth. Two people can read a poem, or a play, or view a painting and see different meanings within it – you can even question the artist responsible for the work and ask them what it means, and they will give you different answers depending on their mood, or they will give you the reason that is based on their mood at the time of production. But this is making things up – and no matter how you frame it, it is subjective. Science is not subjective, if a chemical is identified it is identified, if something has a charge it has that charge no matter who measures it so long as they measure it correctly.

    Would life be less meaningful and enjoyable without these capabilities that art can bring – certainly. Is there anything in art that requires god to appreciate it – no most certainly not! True art is agnostic on all counts on such matters, and can deliver what messages it wants to deliver based on what the author of the art wanted to convey. Science on the other hand has no such luxury. You can’t do science to convey a political, ideological or religious message that you wish to communicate – it is not possible.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 26, 2010 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  19. Only when it is useful to be [pun intended].

    On a serious note – yes, utility is one of my personal traits, I like useful things, and I like to be useful, and I see purpose and meaning in things that are useful and practical – including people.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 26, 2010 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  20. I could go on answering, and you can go answering, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I have the feeling you aren’t even attempting to understand what I am trying to say, nor answering my arguments at all, except on tangents that so profoundly miss their point that I am at a loss at how to react, and I suspect that you are experiencing something similar. (Either that or you are simply willfully dense and obtrusive, so I simply chose to assume the first option.) Maybe we are using so different definitions of some of the words we are using here, or perhaps we are bringing such a different set of associations and values to the table that we each weigh the responses of the other in a way that distorts their intended meaning too much for comprehension.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I haven’t just left the table out of anger, nor that I have given up my convictions, but simply that it appears to be without gain to continue this discussion.

    Comment by FreeFox — October 27, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  21. Perhaps you should speak to your god and ask it what to say – and write it down word for word, if it is a perfect being that you are speaking to, it will know what to write, so that we can all understand it; after all you say he speaks to you… [but let me guess it doesn’t work that way!?]

    I understand exactly what you are saying; which is: “I believe in god, because I have experienced it; but I have no other evidence than that, and I do not know how to explain it but I know I am right, and this makes me different from all the other religions because my god does not judge anyone on their morals, and that my feelings are real, therefore my feelings for god are real.”

    You have stated what you believe in, but you have not stated why in anyway that is meaningful to anyone else other than yourself – so therefore it is nothing more than a belief, with no more veracity than someone believing in Zeus, Witchcraft, Unicorns, Fairies at the bottom of my garden etc.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 27, 2010 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

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