Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf, Part One: How to Find Things Out


Much has been written, even by myself, about the compatibility of science and religion. Certainly they can be made compatible, but I will begin a series of short essays about how science and religion (I will use Christianity, the religion I know the most about) are almost totally different in the way they understand the world.

There are some similarities, also. For example, if Jesus of Nazareth had studied evolutionary psychology, he could not have had wiser or more accurate things to say about altruism than he said. But in nearly every other way, the religious worldview (especially in the minds of the people who wrote the Bible) could not be more different from reality as revealed by science.

My first example comes from the scientific method itself. How does one learn new things about the world? Science uses induction and deduction: look for patterns in the world, form a hypothesis, then test the hypothesis. Science forces itself to be open to new theories, even if the process takes awhile.

In contrast, religion starts with statements of authority and requires you to fit all observations into that authoritative framework. The framework may or may not come from the Bible. In many or even most cases, the framework is one that a church or religious leader has made up. For example, the idea that the Bible is a single, coherent book is an assumption. Actually the Bible is 66 books, which often contradict one another. Also, the trinity is a concept not found in the Bible. Also, the idea that everything that happens in the world is part of the plan of an omnipotent God is not found in all parts of the Bible. It certainly is absent from Ecclesiastes. In some cases, a cult religion has a framework that cannot be shared by other cults or religions. For example, at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, the foundational assumption, the fundamental framework, is that God spoke to Oral Roberts, and one time a 900-foot-tall Jesus appeared to Roberts, who therefore could not be wrong when he said “build this university” or “build this hospital.”

After receiving the framework, and only then, can you read the Bible, according to most churches. You must, according to most Christian sects, read the Bible and force all of it to fit into your framework. When Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes) says that people die just like animals, you are supposed to believe that the author meant something different. When the Song of Solomon uses explicitly sexual imagery, you are supposed to believe that this describes the love of Jesus for his church (a rather disturbing concept if explored in detail). What you must never never do is to just read the Bible just to see what it says.

A few Bible scholars have suggested an “inductive” approach to reading the Bible, in which you test theological hypotheses by searching for confirmation in the Bible. While this is an improvement over the “deductive” approach in which a church simply proclaims its overarching doctrines and then deduces individual beliefs from them, it hasn’t really worked. The main reason is that churches search for scriptures that can be forced to confirm their doctrines. One example is that many churches have proclaimed global warming to not be occurring, and they cite Genesis 8:22 to confirm this, even though Genesis 8:22 says nothing of the kind.

Procrustes would be proud of most Christians. He was the innkeeper in Greek mythology who said that his beds fit everyone. If they were too tall, he cut their legs off; if they were too short, he beat them into a thin sheet. Most churches chop and beat the scriptures to make them fit their theology.

I can tell you from personal experience that my religious views changed dramatically when I started just reading the Bible without (as far as possible) any preconceived notions. I read the Bible as a scientist reads the world. What I found was something very different from what you will hear in most churches. The scientific method is dangerous to those who insist upon a particular theory, whether scientific or theological.

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