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God Vs Science

God Vs Science

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Published by: Garry on Apr 24, 2008
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06/18/2010

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GOD VS. SCIENCE: A Debate Between Natalie Angier and David SloanWilson
Moderated by Thomas Bass[The following debate took place at the University at Albany, State University of New York, onApril 12, 2007.]
Natalie Angier:
I want to say first of all that I deeply admire David's work and that I probablyshouldn't think of this as a debate. Let me begin by reading this interesting little excerpt I cameacross recently—I will tell you afterward who wrote it.“In face of the onslaught of the fundamentalists, some scientists are content torepeat over and over that they believe in evolution but that there is no conflictbetween science and religion. They only obscure the real issue. This statementmay be true, but it depends entirely upon the definition of religion. If religionmeans the emotions of sympathy, charity, and humanity—which to some extentare part of every human structure—then this statement is no doubt true. If itmeans that great seers and prophets of the world from the earliest times have,almost without exception, emphasized these emotions, then the statement istrue. The scientists, who repeat that there is no conflict, evidently define religionin some such way. If religion means that the earth, and man, were created in sixdays, measured by the morning and evening; that the sun was made on thefourth day; that the first woman was made from Adam's rib; that the sun stoodstill for Joshua; that the earth was completely drowned out by a flood; that thearc saved two of every kind of organic life gathered from all over the globe tostart a new world; that all present life comes from animals that were saved fromthe arc; that each species is the result of a separate creation; that the humanrace was doomed to eternal torture because Eve was tempted by the serpent andman was tempted by Eve; that two or three thousand years later man wasoffered a chance for redemption by believing in an immaculate conception and aphysical resurrection; if all this is part of religion, and it must be believed if oneis religious, then the chances are that there are no scientists who will say thatreligion and science are in harmony. Why should not these scientists, who saythat science and religion do not conflict, define in plain terms what they meanby religion? The time is past due for the scientists to speak in no uncertainterms: the fundamentalist does not quibble or dodge; he is using every means inhis power to place the Bible and his interpretation of religion in the field of learning. The battle has been fought many times in the history of the world.Once more the combat is upon us, it cannot be won by quibbling and dodging.Science must openly and fairly meet the issue. The question to be determined is whether learning should be hampered and measured by dogma and creeds.”I thought this was wonderful, and it was written in 1927 by Clarence Darrow. All of which is tosay that these are still issues to deal with and that, quite frankly, I think science is notnecessarily rising to that challenge. In an article I wrote for the American Scholar ["My GodProblem and Theirs," 2004], I talked about this. Everywhere I went when I was reporting mylast book [The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, 2007], scientists keptsaying to me "Please try to tell people that evolution is real, that it happens, that it's a greatthing that explains the structure of life."But none of them ever addressed the other questions engendered by the fundamentalistrevival. Nobody wants to tackle the statistics: 82% of Americans are convinced that heaven isreal and 63% believe that they are going there; 51% believe in ghosts, but only 28% are swayed
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by the theory of evolution; 77% of Americans insist that Jesus was born to a virgin. … If evolution is real, can that be possible? From what we know of mammalian genetics, can that bepossible? I guess we could think of ways it could happen. I mean, maybe she started foolingaround with someone, but didn't have intercourse with them and some of the sperm got upinto her vaginal tract, and she got pregnant. Yes, we could say that. Could she have done it bysome act of spiritual parthenogenesis? The answer is no, but nobody says that. They tell me,talk about evolution, but all this other stuff we're not going to mention; we're going to put itaside and try to ignore it. And then what happens is that we have a lot of problems with lack of scientific understanding, with this constant battle over creationism being taught in theschools, with people not believing science, people thinking it's all just a matter of opinion.I was very interested—and I also cover this in my article—in the different ways that scientiststalk about certain things. They're willing to go on the attack when it comes to creationism orspoon-bending. But when it comes to the miracles of conventional religion … no … we don'ttouch that; we don't deal with it. And I'm considered rude and insulting, just willfullyprovocative to bring it up.I went to the Cornell website and came up with this example of how two different questions were treated. On the "Ask an Astronomer" website, to the query, "do most astronomers believein God based on the available evidence?" astronomer Dave Chernoff replied that, in his opinion,modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God. People who believe in God canfit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions. He cited the BigBang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent. The probabilisticrealms of quantum mechanics raise the possibility of "God intervening every time ameasurement occurs." He concluded that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove theexistence of God and religious belief doesn't, and shouldn't, have anything to do with scientificreasoning.Notice how much less kind was the response to a reader asking whether astronomers believe inastrology: "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," said Dave Chernoff. "It is considered tobe a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to thecontrary." He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need areason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." In other words, for horoscope fans, the burdenof proof is entirely on them—poor gullible gits. But for the multitude to believe that, in one wayor another, religious divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton …that's OK.I see some fundamental contradiction here. Everybody criticizes Richard Dawkins and SamHarris. But at least they're talking about how ludicrous some of these belief systems are. Iknow that David Sloan Wilson doesn't take issue with the way I've framed these questions, butto see religion as having a positive influence does not get at the fundamental question of whatit means to have faith. What is so good about having faith when you don't have evidence? Whatis the real advantage to that? Why is this something that we want to encourage? Why not say,as I do with my daughter, "Let's see some proof." She asked her friend, who believes in Jesus, if she could wait up one night and see Him for herself, and it didn't happen. Why is that OK?Why is it OK for scientists to say that skepticism is the default position, except when it comesto mainstream religion?
David Sloan Wilson
: I want to begin by clarifying my approach to religion. Since I'm ascientist, I have one goal and one goal only, which is to explain things as natural phenomena,and that includes religion. This is not a new enterprise. People have been interested in religiousstudies for a long time. You go back to folks like Durkheim, and whether they call themselvessociologists or psychologists or students of religious studies, they are attempting to explainreligion as a natural phenomenon. The amount of scholarship on this is huge. One of my
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problems with Dan Dennett's book is that he acts as if this is a new thing. "Gosh, we shouldreally be studying religion as a natural phenomenon." As if we haven't been already. The question is whether evolutionary theory can succeed, where previous approaches havefailed. Can evolutionary theory—which has unified the biological sciences—provide anexplanation of religion which is more satisfying than previous explanations, including economicapproaches and sociological approaches? I think the answer to that is, "Yes," becauseevolutionary theory can explain most aspects of our species, and this particular enterprise isvery new.For reasons that are complex, evolutionary theory has been confined to the biological sciencesfor most of the twentieth century. It's only been within the last ten or twenty years that this way of thinking, which is so powerful, has finally spread out and is being used to explain allhuman-related subjects. And how exciting is that! We really need to understand the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective, against the broader background of studying allthings human from an evolutionary perspective. I think we're living in very exciting times,intellectually.So what does evolution say about religion? It turns out that there is not one evolutionarytheory of religion; there are at least six, and this shouldn't surprise us, because whenevolutionists ask questions about any activity, they begin with a number of major hypotheses. They want to know, for example, is the activity adaptive? Is it something that evolved because itenhances survival or reproduction? Does it enhance group survival? Does it increase thefitness of individuals compared to other individuals within groups?Other questions open up when we are discussing cultural evolution. Because culture hopsfrom head to head, it has an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism. It is possible thatculture can be parasitic. It can spread on its own terms, for its own good. It can be destructiveto both individuals and groups, like the AIDS virus. Not everything that evolves is adaptive. There's lots of stuff out there that doesn't increase the survival or reproduction of anything.Steven J. Gould was famous for making this his great theme. It's possible that something canbe a byproduct; it can be a spandrel. Religion might be good for nothing whatsoever, but it'sconnected to something else which does have a benefit. Or it might have been adaptive in theancestral environment, in the Stone Age, but is no longer adaptive in the present; as is true with our eating habits, for example. Today, our eating habits are killing us, but they used tomake great sense in an environment of food scarcity. So maybe religion is like obesity; it's badfor us today, like our eating habits. On the other hand, maybe religion is neutral. It's like allthe genes out there that have no effect on fitness; they just drift into the population. This is why we have molecular "clocks." We can date things from this kind of genetic drift. These are some of the vastly different conceptions of religion, and it makes a difference whichone we accept. Not all of them are mutually exclusive, but a scientist—whether or not you call yourself an evolutionist—needs to determine which of these different hypotheses fits the data.Let me focus on two. One is the parasite theory. If you read the books of Dennett and Dawkins,they present religion as a disease, which we would be better off if we could get rid of. That's why it's a delusion and why we want to "break the spell." When I read those books I feel as if I'm watching that old movie Reefer Madness. One whiff of "killer weed," and you're a goner. Itinfects your mind, and that's it. It's like the demons of old. We're possessed, and we need toexorcize these demons. I titled my review of Dennett's book "Scientific Exorcist."What I claim, on the other hand, is that when you examine the evidence for religion—of whichthere is a great deal—you see that religious groups function more or less as organisms. Let meread a quote that piqued my interest in this subject. It was written, not in the 1920s, but in the1650s, by a member of the Hutterite faith, who said:
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