Science and Religion

So I’ve been wondering… What exactly has put this great divide between science and religion? It certainly seems to have been in my lifetime. Is it even as much of a disjunct as the news would have us believe? Certainly I know scientists who have faith. The Vatican even has a respectable contingent of astronomers, and a number of telescopes. They do good science too. Father Angelo Secchi was the first person to discover solar spicules, for instance.

Religion and science used to work so well together. The first ever stained glass was used in early catholic churches. Medieval islamic scientists pioneered the scientific method, invented metallurgical techniques and named the stars. Many of those names, like Aldebarran, are still used today. Granted, there have been disputes, Galileo being a good example. Mind you, the church did formally apologise for it’s treatment of Galileo (albeit a few hundred years later).

And then you find things like this. Are we actually making our decisions here, or are they being made for us? Maybe I don’t want to pick sides. Maybe I’d prefer it if we all just got on with our own lives and stopped trying to enforce our views on others. Lately, some scientists (mentioning no names) are getting so vocal that frankly, I can see how people might be a bit upset.

The sad fact is that it seems there are people on both sides of the proverbial fence who take the approach of ‘shout first, ask questions later’. One side antagonises the other. The other retaliates. The first escalates the argument. So on, ad nauseum.

But astronomy is no longer the main subject of debate. Now it’s evolution. And frankly it’s getting tiresome…

(For the record, I’m not an atheist. I’m a taoist.)

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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12 Responses to Science and Religion

  1. invaderxan says:

    Ironic… Given that the whole point is supposed to be for people to be nice to one another.
    As for people being put off science, or at least scientists, look at all of this nonsense about the LHC and black holes. Everyone arguing about that seems to have forgotten something — all of these scientists do actually have families and loved ones, and they don’t want to destroy the world either.
    When, for one reason or another, a group of people has been vilified, the rules of humanity no longer apply. It helps people persecute others guilt free. Actually, the psychology of it’s really quite interesting…

  2. invaderxan says:

    It certainly seems most of these people have forgotten what their religion is supposed to be about!

  3. stargzr_htn says:

    But the religion that can be argued about is not the true religion … at least we quickly forget about religion when we start arguing.

  4. I have been an atheist since I was a kid, so there isn’t a lot that will further put me off religion. I do think religion is useful in that there is usually associated community support and gives people a sense of belonging, but it’s not necessary for people to be nice to each other. Fundamentalists have a tendency to isolate themselves as far as I can tell, like a lot of fundamentalist Christians who homeschool their kids and the fundamentalist Mormons who broke off from the rest of the Mormons and live on their own ranches.
    Are anti-religion scientists putting people off science? I don’t know. I haven’t read Richard Dawkins’ book, so I don’t know what he says in particular. I don’t know of people being put off of science because of him, but then most of the people I know are scientists :-P

  5. invaderxan says:

    Hope you don’t mind my playing devil’s advocate here (no pun intended). See, my own opinion on it is…
    E) a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena
    This seems to fit the bill. Natural selection has gone beyond being for the sake of argument. It’s plausible, scientifically acceptable, peer reviewed and it’s basic principles are rather well defined.
    To counter my own argument though,
    C) the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art
    if you consider a religion to be a body of fact, then this could describe creationism. Perhaps then these things should be subdivided into religious theory and scientific theory.
    In fact (even though this wasn’t the thread about teaching), if schools had classes on religious theory, I think that would be wonderful. These things need to be taught — just not in the same class.
    I agree though, semantics are something I don’t really want to get into here… Considering the LHC being switched on, a lot of the more esoteric theories could practically be classified as religions!

  6. invaderxan says:

    Fundamentalism, in any of its facets, is a scary thing.
    The unfortunate part of it is that they’re actually turning people off religion. The more vocal scientists out there are doing the same for science. It’s not a good situation…

  7. invaderxan says:

    Good point. Everyone forgets that all of the classical scientists were devoutly religious. Newton was also an alchemist… ;)
    One thought to consider could be though — biologists also have the closest experience of the actual effects of evolution. To them, I suppose it would be a bit like someone disputing Rutherford’s model of the atom.
    Personally, I still don’t see why the two views are necessarily incompatible…

  8. So what I am saying is that evolution is on par with gravity. Supposing that evolution were to disappear tomorrow is the same as supposing that gravity were to disappear tomorrow. It doesn’t really make sense to say that, because evolution, like gravity, is an observed phenomenon. What does make sense to say is “Oops, natural selection doesn’t happen like we thought it did, we better rethink how it works”, just as there is doubt over whether Newton’s law for gravity applies in all situations (eg. general relativity or alternative models for how gravity works as alternatives to dark matter).
    Our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution and gravity are not completely understood, but it is clear that living things change across generations and that objects fall when we let go of them.

  9. I’m not a microbiologist, so I have no stake in having to agree with evolution. And if anything, you just proved my point too. The microbiologists would have a stroke if evolution just *poof* disappeared. For someone like myself, if evolution and all facets of it disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn’t affect one bit of my own research.
    Looking to Webster…
    A) an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument
    B) an interpretation of a practical situation or condition taken as the ground for action: a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences
    A) the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another
    B) abstract thought : speculation
    C) the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art
    D) a: a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action [her method is based on the theory that all children want to learn] b: an ideal or hypothetical set of facts, principles, or circumstances —often used in the phrase in theory [in theory, we have always advocated freedom for all]
    E) a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena [the wave theory of light]
    F) a: a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument or investigation b: an unproved assumption
    With a hypothesis there is a level of unknown that is accepted and otherwise tolerated as something that could or could not be wrong. With a theory, you are ASSUMING that a hypothesis is correct, even though it’s unproven. There is a lot of evidence out there that does not necessarily support the macro-scale evolution that most biologists rely on for various explanations of things. Natural selection is also very broad in what it covers as well, would you consider the moth changes that Darwin examined as natural selection or adaptation? Is adaptation natural selection? Do you have to have adaption for natural selection to occur? Moreover, is anything really evolving in this process?
    I ask these questions more rhetorically to point out that there are a lot of gaps still in the description of evolution to many systems. Personally I find that there are enough gaps in evolution to consider it a hypothesis that should NOT be assumed to be correct for the sake of investigation — especially on the macro-scale. And let’s say that there is enough evidence for it be a theory. A theory may not be 100% wrong, but it’s not 100% correct either.
    At this point, I find it more of a semantics debate… but that’s just my take on the controversy.

  10. Evolution happens. The “theory” part of it is in the mechanism, ie. natural selection (this is analogous to using the word “theory” in the theory of gravity). No sane microbiologist would disagree with this since they see it in their labs every day.

  11. What exactly has put this great divide between science and religion?
    This is a very difficult question to answer. It looks like religious fundamentalism is on the rise, but I don’t know why. The problem is obvious in US, where this group of people has some political power. They have very little understanding of science, so the fear it, especially when it seems to contradict their doctrine.

  12. So, my take on this — and mind you, this is just my impression. Also, your post reminds me I owe a LJ friend a post on this very subject… so I might go into more detail there than I will here if that’ll suffice your curiosity.
    Basically, the people who have the most qualms with religion and science these are not the solely the atheists and they are not solely religious sects.
    Rather, the controversy (these days) relates as you said — to evolution — and those who are dependent on evolution for a job — mainly, the biologists (and most of their sub-disciplines). Back in the day, astronomy was the main topic of controversy, and now it’s shifted to evolution, as is sort of the evolution of science if you may. In my general experience, most of the people who argue the hardest, the longest, and the meanest I might add are people in biology, because without modern evolutionary teachings, they really don’t have a foundation to stand on for their present work. (Here I will add that I think biologists could do meaningful work without evolution, but it seems like evolution has decreased as less of a “means to an end” and has morphed into an “end in and of itself.”) Yes, there are chemists, physicists, astronomers and other hard science folks out there who will argue in favor of evolution, but I don’t think there are as many in these disciplines who are nearly so passionate about it. So, in the end I think the crux of the debate from the scientists is mainly for those who rely on evolution being correct for their lively hood.
    On a personal level, I feel that evolution is more of hypothesis than a theory. But that’s because there is a lot to be said about that which I can leave for a post in my own journal as not to otherwise clutter my main point.
    As one last point, I will not defend the uber radical religions who think science is evil and otherwise should be banished. But, as a Christian myself, I try and distinguish that the views I have relating to God and the creation of the universe are matters that I will admit are non-scientific or at least not supported by present scientific evidence , but are a matter of theological belief. In that way, you could say I believe in Creationism, but I don’t insist that Creationism is science, I view it more of a theological point of view.
    Also, don’t forget Sir Issac Newton, who wrote more papers on theology than he did physics!

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