Yesterday I got my first actual religious dissenter in the comments. She is, by all appearances, a well-meaning young lady who happens to think that the Big Bang is "fake" (a usage I'm not familiar with -- unless she means the evidence was planted, or fabricated? And if so, by whom?). Anyway, I really do have some less controversial posts in the pipeline, but I want to take a moment to address why I think religion and science can coexist.
Now, as it happens, I was raised secular humanist, and at this point I consider myself an atheist. However, to me, the question of whether there is a God is a lot less important than the question of how the universe works (and, to the best of our knowledge, why it works that way). If we can agree on that -- and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to, since all of science's claims are testable and there's nobody more interested in genuine conflicting evidence than a scientist -- then religious differences should be wholly moot. After all, by the time we really find out who's right, it's too late to change our minds anyway. Personally I don't believe in God because I think that's what Occam's Razor dictates; given observation and experimentation, there's no need for us to multiply causes by postulating a supernatural hand behind every phenomenon. Beyond parsimony, though, there's no real difference between "F=ma" and "F=ma because God made it that way." The important thing is that F=ma. (If your religion is so strict that you must disagree with F=ma, please don't drive.)
My problem with religion, as it seems to be practiced by many Christians and undoubtedly by religious groups with less power and influence as well, is that it appears to be tantamount to intellectual stagnation. Let me explain why that should worry people who aren't intellectuals. In order to declare unilaterally that science must be wrong because the Bible is right, a religious person has to assume that God did not intend the human race to learn anything beyond what he (for lack of a beter pronoun) told us in our cultural childhood. Not only does this seem cruel and contradictory, but it commits the (common) error of telling a supposedly omniscient and ineffable deity what he does and does not expect of his creation. Effectively, it dismisses the entire development of civilization -- which one might imagine an omnipotent creator having some kind of hand in -- in favor of asserting a limited and limiting God, one who does not intend any development or change over his creation's lifespan. This limiting God might be psychologically easier to deal with, since he basically just tells everybody the rules one time and that's it, but he is a creation of the intellectually lazy. The God that monotheists purportedly worship is not thus to be second-guessed.
Listen: there are practical problems with believing that the Bible is the precise word of God, problems involving -- at the very least -- translation through several languages. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all dictation and translation went smoothly, and that the Bible as we have it in our respective native languages today is more or less exactly what God transmitted to his faithful scribes (credited and uncredited), two thousand plus years ago. Now, no matter how you slice it, that's pretty far in the past. If we go the parodically-fundamentalist route and claim that the world was created in 4004 BCE, the human race has had a whopping third of our development since the New Testament events occurred. If we choose to date the dawn of civilization back to when humans started wearing shoes
, it's a much tinier percentage, but that seems like a pretty loose definition of "civilization." A quick Wikipedia search has the earliest possible evidence of agriculture showing up in the 10th century BCE, the Mesolithic period, so I'm going to go with that: on a very conservative estimate, human civilization has gone through about 20 percent of its development since the events of the New Testament, and much more since the Old Testament was written down. Add to this the fact that key events in human development may be happening at an exponentially increasing rate
, and you have a very simple conclusion: We've changed since then.
Why does this matter? Well, God may have transmitted the Bible, but he was transmitting it to people who just didn't know very much. They didn't know very much in comparison to us, and they certainly didn't know very much in comparison to him. Why would we think that he could have managed -- that he would have even tried
-- to explain the full range of potential knowledge? Imagine, as an illustration, trying to explain the plot of Hamlet
to a six-year-old. I've done it, so I can tell you from experience that it involves simplifications, omissions, and recasting with words and ideas that they can understand. In no way does this change Hamlet
itself, or assure that they can't read it when they get older. One shouldn't be constrained to simplifications meant for a child. I'm no theologian, but isn't God meant to be a good and loving teacher? I can't imagine even a bad
teacher who would expect a high school student to operate on elementary-school knowledge. Let's say that in fifth grade you learn that the types of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. Then in ninth grade, they tell you that there's also plasma, which isn't exactly any of these. Do you refuse to acknowledge the existence of plasma because you weren't told about it when you were ten? Would a good teacher, counselor, or parent suggest that you do so?
Theology isn't easy, but dogma is. That's the point of dogma. I grew up with a consistent sort of background radiation of science knowledge, so I don't think that being generally informed about science is so tough, but I daresay it's a lot harder to read and think than it is to not
read and think. So science is harder than dogma, and maybe it's very tempting to believe you can go the easy way and live out of a single book that you probably haven't even read all the way through, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing to know besides what's already written down. But the way I see it, if you believe in God, then insistently clinging to what he told humanity when we were young and stupid is ungrateful. It underestimates God and shows a lack of respect for his creation. It implies, contrary to what that very same Bible says, that he put us here to learn nothing and to grow not at all. It actively rejects
what he's been telling us as we've grown, in favor of what he said when we were young. It won't do its homework; it wants bedtime stories.
I know several good Christians, by which I mean that they're good people and also that they try to actually follow Christ's tenets of love and tolerance. (This is in contrast to the most vocal and hateful Christians that we all have to deal with.) I know good Muslims too, and good Jews, and good pagans -- all of these religions boil down to "don't be a jerk," after all. I know lots of good atheists, since we have to be decent because we think decency is the way to go, rather than because we were told to or because we fear punishment. (I know atheists who don't believe in decency too, of course.) And I have no problems with the religious beliefs of my religious friends. At the most extreme, we find our differences interesting but pity each other secretly; more often, we agree on most things, including the fact that my lack of faith in no way impinges on their faith or vice versa. In fact, most
often, I don't even know my friends' religious commitments. I mention this by way of pedigree: I want to establish that I have never told anyone to change their beliefs, or mocked them for their faith. I mock people, but I mock them for their actions
-- particularly when they claim religion as an excuse for acting in a way their God, as originally described, would never approve of. Obviously, telling Bobby Henderson that you hope he dies
is one of those ways. I believe that rejecting science is one, too.