Monday, December 21, 2009

Science v. Religion: It's So Yesterday

The Demon Haunted WorldA couple of weeks ago I was listening to my good ol' NPR on the way to pick up my kids at school (a weekday ritual) and the guest was Brian Dunning who runs Skeptoid.com, a site that produces podcasts dedicated to promoting critical thinking.

Their point was that while we're in a miraculous age of heart transplants, super sonic travel and nano robotics that people are also loosing the ability to think clearly and see truth even in the most blatantly illogical and fallacious situations. I myself happen to be a naturally born skeptic, when I hear or read something I can usually be found testing it out and looking for ways that it's all hooey so when both men recommended reading Carl Sagan's book The Demon Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark I put it on my list.

I picked up the hefty 400+ page book, anticipating smooth, stylish prose with an engaging argument for critical thinking and promoting science in a world where psyhic hotlines are paradoxically brought to the masses via fiber optic cable but instead it was a colosal waste of time. Can I say I'm glad I borrowed it from the library? Don't waste your money on this one.

I don't understand how people today can believe in things including but not limited to: the Loch Ness Monster, megavitamin therapy, Big Foot, urban legends, astrology, ghosts, Holocaust denials, food irradiation poisoning, "faith healing," guided imagery therapy, psychics and any number of "facts" commonly held as truth. Besides plodding along chapter after rambling chapter filled with repetition Sagan's book debunks without being revelatory or original. I'm afraid I don't believe in witchcraft, crop circles or alien abductions so it wasn't as if he had a hard time convincing me of how wrong they are--I was with him from the first paragraph--and as I got deeper and deeper into the book I noticed a strange lack of continuity--unless you count a continuous railing against conspiracy theorists continuity.

While I'll admit I'm a skeptic I also have the dual nature of being a person of intense faith and what struck me right away was how Sagan includes religion in the list of false beliefs. An agnostic himself, Sagan doesn't believe in God or creationism or life after death and instead of taking the more difficult and rewarding task of sorting through the issue of faith v. superstition he throws out religion entirely as if believing in God is comparable to believing the world is flat, that science has proved there is no God just as surely as it's proved that the world is a sphere and to believe in the eternal nature of the soul or Intelligent Design is a debilitating weakness.

I'm so very tired of the science v. religion debate. There is no debate, truth is truth no matter how it's discovered and pure religion and pure science are two lanes on the same road, heading in the same direction. Take the subject of miracles. To medieval England an airplane would be a full-blown miracle but since, thanks to Mr. Bernouli, we can explain it with words like "thrust," "lift" and "drag" it's commonplace and quite unmiraculous. A miracle is simply something that science hasn't quite been able to explain yet and the ability to work miracles is merely the knowledge of and the ability to follow the rules of science with perfect precision.

Can the open-mindedness that science claims as its god honestly exclude existence of a greater God that cannot yet be proved empirically? We only recently understand flight, black holes, anti matter and circulatory theory so it's arrogance to suppose that because we don't yet understand Intelligent Design or life after death they don't exist.

And at the same time should the faith in God that religion claims break down just because it bumps up against the changing theorems of another fallible human being once in a while? True faith in God says that believing that He was behind the creation of our universe is enough--though it's nice to know the details they may not come all at once, there are many possibilities of how it was done besides a rigidly literal translation of a few sentences from one ancient text and the pursuit of knowledge is a godly virtue. It's all just pieces of the same big puzzle coming together in different ways and believers and scientists alike should welcome truth however it finds a place among what we already think we know.

Anyway, instead of the religion v. science non-debate I would much rather see a discussion of faith v. superstition--because if we're talking about enemies here, what threatens both faith and science universally are the counterfeits: astrology, alchemy, phrenology, spiritualism, a study of the occult or even believing in karma or luck over individual will. And frankly, the line between faith and superstition can be thin and hard to discern. For example, it's so much easier for people of faith to throw up their hands and say "it's God's will" when something unexpected happens rather than taking the spiritual and mental effort to determine what God's will really might be that it comes uncomfortably close to superstition rather than true faith.

So, getting back to the book with the unintentionally ironic subtitle, I'm sorry Mr. Sagan. You spent so much time crying about how alien abductions can't possibly be real (uh . . . d'uh) that you miss the much more intellectually and spiritually pertinent question of the division between truth and superstition. But then when you've thrown out the possibility of any intelligence higher than your own I suppose it wouldn't have occurred to you.

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22 comments:

Hazel said...

Alien abductions aren't real? Maybe they are and science hasn't proved it yet but I don't believe that they're real. Science hasn't proved that God exists but I believe he does. Those are my beliefs and I don't need them to be proved to me.

Peruby said...

Carl Sagan smoked a lot of pot. Before I knew that I thought he was just the greatest in the 80's when I was going through my "what is life really all about?" stage. I don't care that he smoked weed, I probably would have liked him better had I known that back then, but after "trying" to read his books, he lost his magic with me.

Just saying that he may have written a lot of his books while under the influence and maybe was not quite making much sense.

Suzi Dow said...

You read the whole thing!!!!! Amazing. I have just myself, hubby and two dogs to take care of and I wouldn't have made it through the first 100 pages. Don't have time to waste.

Kelly @ Love Well said...

And that's the reason I can't listen to NPR much these days. It seems I always end up hearing the 2-hour interviews with Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins, and they have this incredibly demeaning way of saying, "People who believe in God are just as backward as people who believe they've been abducted by aliens. They are on the same psuedo-intellectual, non-critical thinking level."

And I know that's not true. There are brilliant thinkers and philosophers and, yes, even scientists who have strong and well-reasoned faith.

I recently read Dinesh D'Souza's book "What's So Great About Christianity." It's an incredibly logical and intelligent argument for why faith and science work together, not against each other. It's really a rebuttal to the venom coming out of the small but vitrolic atheist circles in our time.

MommyK said...

I liked "The Case For Christianity" which was written by a former atheist who converted to Christianity. It takes a good hard look at the Bible, fascinating read. I haven't made it to the accompanying "The Case For Christmas," which looks at the proof that Christ was born, but it's on my list.

Morgellan's Disease is the thread disease, right? It sounds so strange, but I've seen enough on it that I believe it's real. After all, people used to not believe in depression and PPD, and I have first hand experience that those are both real.

Scribbit said...

Actually I stopped at about 150 pages. I began skimming to see if it changed or got any better and when I could see we were going to be heading for another 250 pages of the same I dumped it.

Stephanie Frieze said...

I firmly believe that there is magic in the world and also that science is awe inspiring. You're right about two lanes headed the same way. What a lovely analogy. There's no reason that a person can't have faith in both science and divinity. Maybe not all of our questions get answered in this life.

I found that taking astonomy actually confirmed my belief that something out there greater than us set the whole universe in motion and I am sorry that Sagan didn't get that in his life.

I understand why people believe that religion is the source of too much trouble in the world, but it's people not the message--their belief that their lane is the right lane. When I was in junior high my father began traveling the world for the Boeing Company. He tried to familarize himself about the places he went and that included religion. In a brief conversation one night when I found him reading the Quaran he told me that he had come to believe that all religions had truth and were delivered in different ways to different people, but were all getting at the same thing. That conversation with my engineer father had a bigger impact on my spiritual life than all of the Sunday school my mother took me to.

I think we can teach science in school and still sing Christmas caroles and Hanukah songs. Frankly, I love a celebration and think if we celebrated everyone's tradition we'd all be a lot happier.

planetnomad said...

I get so impatient with the arrogance of people who say, in effect, that if you don't agree with my view you must not be intelligent! Grrr. All that to say that I agree with you. (so we're intelligent, right? :)

Anonymous said...

I normally dont post comments but this last comment has me feeling quite sad...As for the actual post I thought that was pretty well said. Science has a great ability to actually prove that God created the world and it proves that the bible is an accurate book. Many scientists who spent years trying to dissprove that God exists found themselves on thier knees thanking our wonderful God and Creator. Science has yet to disprove the Word of God. I also have to agree that there is people who cross over some line of spirtual verses superstition. The problem is everyone thinks thier a christian when in actuallity they truly do not know the Lord. This is a "christian nation" or was anyway and people tend to believe that as long as they have some sort of "spiritual belief" that they must be christian. A Christian is one who follows Christ (ACTS definition). Christ says that he is the way the truth and the life and no one come to the Father except through Him. Therefore as in the last post is doesnt leave many ways to the same thing. Its one way and its a narrow one. Wide is the path to destruction and there are many who go by it. As for the quaran, Im shocked one at the ignorance we have towards what that book says and means especially to us who are what it calls infadels, and two the tolerance (as were so good at now a days) of such a book circulating in our Country. Yes were a free nation or so its said, but it comes at to high a price I think. You are considered and infadel, as well as your father, brother, mother and sisters as well as mine and all those people in those 911 planes that were flown into the towers. Unless you convert to islam it is the belief of a TRUE muslim that a you be put to death (according to the quaran). If we were to actually read the quaran and study its meaning we would know this. But in actuallity it would be a much better use of ones time to read the Word of God and in doing so these false teachings would be more easily recognized and not thought of as being "another way".

Anonymous said...

"Genesis, Science, and History" by Douglas Jacoby is a great book about how science the Bible support each other.

kasibetty said...

I enjoy both science and God and think perhaps without God there is no science. I think Christians and scientists that feel the need to pick one or the other are flawed. I loved all the follow up comments by your readers, pegged my thoughts already :) Great blog today, thank you for good readin!

Patricia L said...

Here's a book recommendation for you: The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs. My book club read it and all the girls enjoyed it no matter their spiritual beliefs (and we run the gamut!).

page2 said...

Carl Sagan thinks he's pretty smart, to be sure. Maybe he's still trying to convince himself that God doesn't exist. Thanks for the excellent article.

Melissa B. said...

Carl Sagan, a waste of time? That makes me sad. I just remember watching his PBS show, Cosmos, with my Dad. I also recall him making a few "out there" cracks about extraterrestials. Who knows-maybe the evil weed did him in?

Serena said...

But then when you've thrown out the possibility of any intelligence higher than your own I suppose it wouldn't have occurred to you.

Ha! Classic!

K said...

Did you see Ben Stein's Expelled? It reinforces this post. I work in a molecular biology lab so I'm exposed to this topic a lot, mostly hearing why ID is utterly rediculous. I think they're utterly rediculous! But acknowledging that there is an Intelligent Designer means that people would have to acknowledge the existence of God, which means that they would have to be subject to His Laws. I think that for many people it's easier to ignore it altogether than face the the truth.

Stephanie Frieze said...

It does not follow that acknowledging that there was an intelligent designer of the universe makes one subject to the laws of the Bible which contradict each other in places and some of which are so heinous that we decry when practiced in other parts of the world. It is very possible to look at the intricate universe and see the hand of the Creator without being subject to the laws of the Bible. Indigenous peoples world wide have had faith without it being in the form of Christianity or Judaism as do many people who have become turned off by the hypocrisy of the Church.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

Interesting. My husband and I were talking about this last night, sort of. About the lack of intellectual curiosity when people throw up their hands and declare it to be God's Will, or when they decide that something is as it is because of astrology or so on. I prefer my decisions be made with skepticism, whether they be faith based or not.

Well done.

And as an atheist myself, can I say that I totally agree with Kelly @ Love Well about Dawkins? That guy gets on my nerves. He's so sweeping and condescending, and it doesn't help one bit.

Rev. Sonja said...

I would weigh in with intellectual banter as everyone else has done; however, I would just like to say - I love you. Thanks for your willingness to be bold and passionate in a public forum. And may we all put feet to our faith and thought into the words we let slip by our teeth.

Lori said...

I'm not going to touch either debate with a ten foot pole. I get enough flack for my beliefs from my family.

Instead, I will say kudos to you for making it through one of Sagan's books!

Jen Rouse said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and intelligent post on this topic. You put into words very well a lot of things that I think about faith and science too.

Christina said...

I came upon your blog while searching for mom's who live in Alaska blogs (we may be moving there, hubbies in the Army) and had to comment on this one. I am not going to even attempt this book since you gave such and accurate view of it and since I am on the same page as you. I read all the comments and agree with them. Thanks for letting us know about this book. I am going to get another book that one of your poster's mentioned. Thanks.