Are religion and science equally valid?

I have a friend from high school that I have been conversing with for a short while ever since we friended each-other and he has been reading this blog as I post links to them on facebook. He said, in a recent blog post of his, a number of things that I disagree with. I would, therefore, like to reply to it here. I hope he does not mind my quoting his blog entirely. The original post can be found here.

He starts off this way:

I have an old friend from high school that identifies himself as an “atheist, polymorous, geek” (if you’re like I was and unfamiliar with the term “polymorous,” best I can figure out, it means polygamy distinguished semantically from the baggage of Joseph Smith and the fundamentalist Mormons). Shaun keeps a daily blog in which he posts his thoughts in support of atheism and polymorism. At least once a week I open my web browser to find an intelligent, well written article about why atheism is the only possible rational conclusion to be drawn by carefully examining the facts about God.

Now, first off, polyamory has very little to do with polygamy. My partners are free to find other boyfriends or girlfriends as I am. Right now, I have no interest in starting a relationship with anyone else, as I am busy enough. Polyamory really is simple non-monogamy. I just don’t think that monogamy should be assumed. I’m glad he thinks my thoughts are intelligent, at least.

Seriously. He writes, “There is no God” every week, “just look at the facts.” Sometimes he writes this twice a week in essay form. As I read these short essays, I can’t help imagining what people’s reactions would look like if I were to write about the existence of God as much as Shaun writes about supreme being’s nonexistence. Certainly, the white upper-middle class politically left leaning liberal intellectual community in which both Shaun and I were educated would label me as a fundamentalist, religious freak. After all, who else would expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about God?

Clearly, this is hyperbole. I don’t say that there is no god. Why? Because that is not the atheist position as I use it. I say that I am not convinced that a god exists. I think the question is important, so I write about it. I am not really concerned if people look at me as some sort of fanatic. I am interested in what is true. If anyone else were to write bout it as much as I do, I would want to talk with them. Those who are not interested can read something else.

I’m no expert on God or Rationalism. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. My field is Depth Psychology. I observe and write about the ways humans make meaning and the stories they tell to make sense of the world around them. I’m not interested, therefore, in discussing whether or not God exists. Using so-called rational science, the existence of an omnipotent being that resembles a carbon based earth creature is just as hard to disprove, as it is to prove. Instead, I’m interested in the concept of God: an undisputable fact.

OK. I’m waiting now for the punch line.

The very attempt to disprove God’s existence is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence and an attempt to replace the concept with another. In other words, God is an idea on which both believers and atheists expend mental energy. I agree, when the atheist labels the believer’s ideology a phantastic story that makes meaning out of chaos. However, I also label the atheist’s ideology a rationalistic story that makes meaning out of chaos.

Again, I’m not trying to disprove god. I’m talking about why I am not convinced that tthis being exists. I’m responding to the claim, the apologetics of it, and the proposed reasons to believe and showing why they do not add up.

I’m interested by the idea that we share the “acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence”, as he says. This seems similar to a thought I have often. I do feel like I’m trying to wrap my mind around a concept of god (that concept depends on what type of theism I’m responding to), but find what concept I am able to glean unbelievable. And I’ll agree, provisionally, that I’m trying to make meaning out of chaos. How similar my method of meaning-making is from that of others I do not know.

Both the phantastic and the rationalistic are valid and real ways to approach the world. In both cases, however, imagining your own approach as “truth” is fundamentalist and dogmatic. There is space for approaching the world from both perspectives. Both perspectives (and the many other possible approaches) are fabrications or fictions that say more about the unique experience of the human species than they do about the universe’s material (or spiritual) reality.

This is where we clearly part ways. I do not accept the idea that all methods of approaching the world are equally valid. And while they are all fabrications, or at least artifacts, that does not mean that they are equally valid any more than the fact that a true and false story come from people make them both valid. Some methods are created such that they can be tested against shared experiences and be tested with the best methods we have. Others do not use these tools. Thus, some methods are clearly better at different things. In terms of discovering what is most-likely true, one stands above the others.

We live in a typhoon of positivist sound bites as dogmatic as the organized religions they criticize. Moralistic commandments with financial agendas are disguised as health tips; they are platitudes accepted as gospel. Our obsession with cleanliness and sanitizing, for example, can be seen as a remnant of a puritan believer’s attempt to wash away nature, to weed out the impure, to restore humankind to its Garden-of-Eden Godliness.

Positivism is no longer a perspective held by the majority of people, especially in science. It was a view derived from early works of Wittgenstein (and not sanctioned by him, as he later came back to academia and attacked positivism). The view is not that all metaphysical (or phantastic, as he calls them) claims are nonsense simply for being metaphysical in nature, but because they do not stand up to scrutiny. The ones that do stand up to scrutiny are then simply considered part of science’s conclusions. The skeptical community to which I belong does not have any dogmatic beliefs about such things, they have tried to test them and found that much of them do not stand up to testing.

We accept the scientific data on faith. Does the atheist examine the research on microbiology and “germs” before washing his hands? Doesn’t he see the inherent contradiction? He’s willing to take the leap of faith necessary to believe in evil creatures so small they are invisible to the naked eye but not a creator so large he cannot be comprehended by the human mind?

No. I accept the conclusions of science for two reasons. One, in some cases I’ve looked at the data myself. But the vast majority is because I understand the peer-review process. The scientific community is full of people who are clamoring for grants, respectability, and maybe even a Nobel prize. In order to get these things, you have to have your theory stand up to the rigor of hundreds or even thousands of others you are in competition with who are trying to use teh best methodology that they know of.

To accept what survives this onslaught is not faith. It is a rational acceptance based on the fact that if the theories proposed by the scientific method via the scientific community were not the best we have come up with, someone else would have proven otherwise. Theories such as the germ theory of disease, relativity, natural selection etc were all tested, retested, confirmed, re-confirmed, and so they are accepted. They are not believed in a technical sense, but accepted. And if a better idea were to replace any of these, what other method besides science could be used? No other method has proven itself to be as reliable, and so that’s why it is used by the experts in various fields…well, most of them, anyway. I’m sure young Earth creationists, for example, try different methods (yet then call it ‘science’, ironically)

We can see small organisms with tools like microscopes. The hypothesis of god has been used to explain many things in history, and as science processes in its understanding, the things some god was supposed to do are being pushed back by better understanding. In ancient times we thought gods made lightning, now we have a natural explanation. Now people think that a god is needed to design life, but science keeps showing that this is not the case necessarily. If a god exists, it is either working through nature (which does not seem parsimonious), or it is so vague a power and so insignificant that why would we continue to worship it or call it god?

So, god is so large it cannot be comprehended by the human mind? Perhaps. But then how do so many people seem to know so much about it? I don’t see a need for such a being to exist to explain anything in nature. It may exist, but I am not convinced. That’s what atheism is.

The microscope-wielding ministers of science at temples like Harvard and MIT may seem to have more clout than the doctors of deities at institutions like the Vatican and the Jewish Theological Seminary. But I think that assumption imagines the mainstream as the whole stream. Instead, I would argue that our rational-discursive oppositional world is dependent on the Science/Religion dichotomy. The conflicting perspectives exist symbiotically, the debate against one point of view feeding the other.

It is not a dichotomy. There is the methods of science and the various ideas of religions, conspiracy theories, new age weirdness, pseudoscience, etc. One method is better than the others. It will continue to give us better explanations while the others cannot compete in terms of methodology. Religion is not a single methodology. It is not a monumental and coherent competitor, but an alliance of people who share similar ideologies who stand opposed to, ignorant of, or philosophically naive in relation to the best methodology humans have yet come up with that tends to demonstrate the weakness of closely held ideologies, such as the dogmas of religions.

There may be something closer to a dichotomy in terms of the ways that we think. To think critically one must train the mind to be skeptical, rigorous, and be willing to tear down your own assumptions and beliefs. To try to rationalize beliefs held is to seek out data that supports the conclusion you want. Good scientists don’t do this, as this is not part of the scientific method. This method is neutral, skeptical, and perpetually bettering itself.

A religious ideology is rigid, and only changes when it needs to. It’s why religion had to give up the earth-centric view of cosmology, the flat Earth (there still is a Flat Earth Society), the 6000 year-old earth (some still don’t accept the much older earth). It seeks data that supports it, apologizes rather than is skeptical, and it feeds off of our desires to be more than mere biological machines. It was only when science came around, providing better methods and thus conclusions, that religions started to change.

These are not equally valid pursuits. This post-modernism is damaging philosophically, epistemologically, and methodologically. So, with respect I disagree with my fellow blogger. But I do look forward to more discussion with him and others.

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One response to “Are religion and science equally valid?

  1. Hey, just wanted you to know that I talk a lot about this stuff as well…so you are not alone. Seeking the truth is humbling.

    They say that, “the truth shall set you free,” I say, “not before first setting you on edge!”

    Although I am not atheist on most days, I am most certainly agnostic on many.

    My dear friend is decidedly agnostic, daily. He recently posted on my blog [as a guest lecture] that it is no more foolish not to believe in the existence of God than it is to believe, as our conclusions can only be based upon conceptual, perceptual reason and logic.

    I go back and forth on the matter. I must say that I find it well worth the time to critically think and speak on these matters.

    I applaud your thinking and your humility. Keep seeking the truth.

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