Sunday, November 22, 2009

Making Room for Each Other: My Position on the "Science vs. Religion" debate

The Short

The New Atheist movement criticizes religion based on the worst actions of its so-called adherents. My largest problem with the New Atheism is that of scientifically trained people going out of their way to insult religion. Being a Catholic school refugee, a friend of anti-Islamophobic activists, as well as a biology major, I have some experience with both scientific and religious cultures, and find value in both. I also claim to be an anthropologist, or someone who tries to understand how sets of ideas influence the thoughts and actions of people that are exposed to them. In addition to being a statement of my personal position between these two approaches to making sense of the world, I like to think this is also my humble ethnologic critique of what is popularly known as a “culture clash.”

This treatise on my current beliefs is based on a refutation of scientific determinism endorsed by the New Atheists, whose poster-boys such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens insist that the world would be much better off without religion. I am a scientist, but I believe that science has limits as to how much it can inform the individual search for truth, and the pursuit of social well-being. I feel similarly about the dogmas of religion, who for the everyday individual are just as believable as those of science. I am also a spiritualist, or a non-materialist, or an extra-materialist, or maybe just a hopeless romantic when it comes to literary interpretations of the world, in that I believe that reality is ultimately subjective for the individual, and that every person will inevitably fill in the gaps between their experiences of the physical world and the “objective” reality of science with constructed narratives, and that these narratives are necessary for all individuals to function in the world.

I should also mention that I have not done much reading on the science-religion debate (though I intend to), and that many of my philosophies arise from reflections throughout my general educational, personal, and cultural experiences. Over periods of time and series of relevant events and occasional readings, I have been constructing a view of reality that is nervous-breakdown-resistant, which I imagine to be the goal of everyone’s personal epistemology. I intentionally did not refer to other sources for this writing as a meager act of rebellion against flanking my own thoughts with those of others’ as though they belonged to someone else first (that's what's awesome about blogging).

Making Room (The Longer of It)

Why I am not “religious”

Many people will die a lonely death. No religion, science, or spirituality can alleviate the pain of this truth. People who profess to the major “Western” religions tend to trust in a heaven, an afterlife, or a judgment day that will redeem or make up for the void created by such miserable events. I do not believe these things, so in turn I believe there is very little possible redemption for the actions and circumstances of the individual beyond his / her time on this earth. I believe the only after-life is the story that living humans preserve for the deceased and the legacy of one’s living choices, and their impact on the living’s actions. There is only one stage (in the Shakespearean sense) of life as humans can ever understand it. For a “non-believer” like myself, this realization is hard to grapple with, so that every other belief about finding and creating redemption in any stage is banked on hope.

I also do not believe in an interventionist God who makes optimal decisions about how to run the universe based on some plan he’s created for himself, or at least not one that I could ever count on knowing. This (for the most part) saves me from being angry at a God who lets people die miserable or alone. Thus you could say that I believe that humans are alone in their decisions, and, barring natural and cosmic events, the sole determiners of their own fate as a species. I think most atheists agree with me on that point, but there are also many things that I am specifically not saying. For example, it is not to say that all self-identifying religious people believe in that particular idea of God. Nor that I don’t believe in other metaphorical understandings of God. Nor that humans do not inherit a certain legacy of fate that is defined by our nature, and has been described in so-called religious texts such as Genesis. Nor is it to say that I don’t ask for things anyway.

The limitations and responsibilities of science

I am a scientist. That means, in addition to having a degree in biology, that I understand and believe in the [need for an] idea of an objective reality, and in the ability of science to provide us with knowledge about that objective reality. Science, to me, is a method of understanding the world by induction through repeated observation and falsifiable experimentation. Problems begin when science presents itself, like many religions, as a system of belief.

Most people, including scientists, do not typically acquire their understanding of the world scientifically. Just as most of us will not scientifically investigate whether or not our parents are our parents, nor will we have the interest, time, or resources to investigate whether the sun is a star, or whether basketballs and golfballs fall at the same rate, but we will continue to believe what our families and scientists tell us because we have been raised to trust them. To the extent that the individual does not participate in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge that does not directly impact his everyday life, the universe as told by science is a narrative that functions similarly as religion.

Even if we were all able to learn about the world scientifically, it would still not produce a knowledge that humans can fully comprehend. For example, materialists contend that there is no reality outside of the physical reality, and that thoughts, feelings, emotions are simply the products of neurons firing in the brain, but this, while intellectually comprehensible, like many scientific facts, is not within the grasp of human physical experience. I know that my body is made of cells, because I have seen them under microscopes (and didn’t rack up a $30,000 debt for nothing), but “I” don’t consciously participate in their processes. Ultimately, the physical world to me is the one that I can physically manipulate, which, compared to the one they say is out there (or in there), is not very much. This is not to say that I believe that there is an “extra-physical” reality that is simply undetectable by any group of the human species (though I could argue the existence of an “extra-physical” reality for myself in the case of the planet Neptune, underwater volcanoes, and China, because I have never directly experienced any of them except in pictures). This leaves a huge, intangible space to be filled in with ideas that are as consequential as our physical interactions with the world. Material / shared objective reality exists, but it is not the only realm of human experience.

Science and religion are both motivated by the instinctual human need to understand the universe outside one’s very superficial physical experience of it. Humans, including scientists, have an instinctual, unavoidable tendency to fill in the void beyond their sensual experience with their own narratives. We interpret the world through fluidic, illogical abstractions that are clumsily expressed in words. I believe that these narratives are powerful, necessary, consequential to the actions of humans in the physical world, and therefore, real. Science has contributed significantly to these narratives, but they are not limited to what science has to say about them. However, science, as a culture, must recognize itself as a piece of that narrative whose contributions are limited to what can be measured, falsified, detected directly or indirectly by human senses, and translated into numbers, and that there are many things very relevant to the human experience that science may never explain due to these limitations. Furthermore, scientists, as humans, should not imagine themselves immune from this constantly negotiated story, and should assume some moral responsibility in the impact of advances of scientific knowledge on their social and physical environments.

Science need impose itself on religious doctrine only insofar as it claims to be scientifically founded (and wrong). I support every effort to make sure that “intelligent design” and 10,000 year-old Earths never get taught in a science classroom. However, it is wrong of any member of the scientific community to make sweeping judgments about everyone who professes a non-materialist creed based on these strict (and rather unfaithfully materialistic) interpretations of religious texts. The scientific community could do better to 1) present science as a method of acquiring knowledge rather than an alternative system of belief, 2) be a little more sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of its students, since some of its greatest achievers come from many cultural and devoutly religious histories, and 2) fill in the void of social responsibility left by Tuskegee experiments and atomic bombs, i.e. make science look a little more human, even if it many don’t like to believe it is. In turn, religious institutions have no place in trying to push unscientifically founded claims as science, because 1) its epistemology is not rooted in the material world, 2) what can be proven physically is no longer a matter of faith, and most importantly, 3) choking the dissemination of scientific knowledge will allow scientists the exclusive ability to manipulate the world and society without the scientifically-informed will of the public. Instead of hurling insults at one another, both “sides” could do much, perhaps better on the community level, to create a middle ground of open inquiry about how to understand the world and the group and individual’s places in it, which is, when it’s not about selling books or keeping paying congregants, is what concerns most people.


What I have written here will likely become much more refined as I read more, but I wanted to write myself an introduction to these cross-cultural epistemological and social problems. I meant mostly to talk about epistemological limitations of science, and why I am not a scientific fundamentalist-zealot. There is much more I hope to cover in terms of its not-so-scientific relationship with society. Why do I pick on science? Most simply, because I have been more indoctrinated by scientific culture in recent years than religious, and because I believe that the sophomoric, proselytizing style of the New Atheists pose a new threat to the responsible integration of scientific knowledge into society.

As for me, I am absolutely fascinated by the universe as it exists around me, and I am grateful for the methods and tools that the scientific tradition has given us to understand it more than superficially. At the same time, I think it was a trick of God (or evolution) to give us the mental and physical tools to access and perceive of worlds beyond our own that we can never directly experience, so that we are destined to forever question, live in doubt, and in turn, faith. My understanding of this world is constantly modified, through interactions between my internal-emotional, superficial-physical, and extra-physical worlds, and I try to keep myself open to this negotiation. The more I insist on things being a certain way, chances are better that contradictory experiences will produce destruction or delusion, and progress will fail. Similarly, when science and religion abandon doubt, they both fail.