Everything & Nothing

ADDENDUM: These videos have since been removed, but I still strongly encourage you to seek them out.

This is wonderful.

This BBC production is a two-part series, each an hour in length, exploring the nature of reality and the history of how science has progressed through the centuries. It reminds me of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, but with modern production values and compacted into only two hours. Very much worth a view. Hope you enjoy!

Part one: Everything

Part two: Nothing

Can Science And Religion Co-Exist?

For a long while now I have argued that science and religion are bound to inherent conflict simply due to their respective natures. There are, of course, several scientists–many accomplished scientists in fact–who identify themselves with a particular faith. As an example, I recently saw a two hour video recording¬†of Ken Miller lecturing on (the collapse of) intelligent design at Case Western University in northern Ohio. It was a wonderful presentation on what evolution is, the history of the conflict between evolution and creationism, and how it pertains to education in Ohio. However, there was one aspect of Miller’s talk that I found to be more than a little bit disquieting, and that was his proclamation of Roman Catholicism. The lecture event even opened up with a Catholic priest leading a prayer. I can’t help but wonder how such an accomplished biologist and proponent of proper science education can internally reconcile these two things, science and Catholicism, in his own personal life. An audience member asked about this issue during the Q & A session, but Miller offered little to no reasoning to justify his position.

It’s a curious thing, taking such efforts to hold on to religious belief, despite knowing that its teachings and doctrines are false.

But then, I found the following open letter from biologist and author Jerry Coyne posted on his own WordPress site addressing why it is no only acceptable for scientists to criticize religion, but in many ways it is essential to do so:

Dear comrades:

Although we may diverge in our philosophies and actions toward religion, we share a common goal: the promulgation of good science education in Britain and America–indeed, throughout the world. Many of us, like myself and Richard Dawkins, spend a lot of time teaching evolution to the general public. There’s little doubt, in fact, that Dawkins is the preeminent teacher of evolution in the world. He has not only turned many people on to modern evolutionary biology, but has converted many evolution-deniers (most of them religious) to evolution-accepters.

Nevertheless, your employees, present and former, have chosen to spend much of their time battling not creationists, but evolutionists who happen to be atheists. This apparently comes from your idea that if evolutionists also espouse atheism, it will hurt the cause of science education and turn people away from evolution. I think this is misguided for several reasons, including a complete lack of evidence that your idea is true, but also your apparent failure to recognize that creationism is a symptom of religion (and not just fundamentalist religion), and will be with us until faith disappears. That is one reason–and, given the pernicious effect of religion, a minor one–for the fact that we choose to fight on both fronts.

The official policy of your organizations–certainly of the NCSE–is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.

We will continue to answer the misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks. I don’t expect them to abate, but I’d like your organizations to recognize this: you have lost many allies, including some prominent ones, in your attacks on atheism. And I doubt that those attacks have converted many Christians or Muslims to the cause of evolution. This is a shame, because we all recognize that the NCSE has done some great things in the past and, I hope, will–like the new BCSE–continue do great things in the future.

There is a double irony in this situation. First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

Sincerely,
Jerry Coyne

What a wonderful piece of writing this is! I think that it illustrates the point quite clearly.

What this issue really boils down to is the dichotomy of what religion has to offer in terms of understanding truth as opposed to science. I’ve heard several people make the argument that science and religion are simply two different methods of seeking out truth. If I were a less mature person, I’d be inclined to accept this seemingly peaceful explanation… but I’m not. In light of critical inquiry, I must challenge this idea.

How does science go about seeking truth? Through the scientific method. Hypotheses are formed, ideas are tested, data is collected, results are shared, tests are repeated, and the process repeats. The system that science utilizes is self-correcting in that ideas that don’t fit with data and observations are discarded without hesitation, even if they had previously been accepted. To be a good scientist is to live in strongly disciplined professional humility. Science is continually improving our understanding of reality. The knowledge and insight that science has provided humanity, even in merely the past 150 years or so, is nothing short of staggering.

Now, what does religion offer to the quest for truth? In a word, nothing. Religion offers explanations for why things are the way they are, but then leaves it alone. Another term for this type of rationality is ‘superstition’. Tests and experiments are not performed, and old ideas and practices are only set aside when they become socially unfavorable (i.e. witch burning, to cite one example). Rather than supporting their claims by empirical evidence, measurable observations and experimental data, religions instead focus on either apologetically attempting to justify these claims or simply ignoring the issue altogether under the banner of faith. Moreover, religions will use fear–the fear of an ever-watchful and judgmental god or eternal torment and despair in a mythical land called hell–to keep their followers in line. This should be plainly obvious to anyone who is brave enough to take a step back and see these institutions as they truly are. It is in this way that religion has served as a fantastically effective means of population control throughout the ages. This is in no way a means to discover truth. Religion is many things, but a tool to understand the nature of reality it is not.

‘One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.’ -Bertrand Russell, from Why I Am Not A Christian

Lots Happening

There has been a LOT going on in recent weeks here in Stumptown. First, the Portland Humanist Film Festival was held from Oct 8-10 and was a big success, and then just last week we were visited by Sam Harris, who gave a talk on his new book The Moral Landscape. The book focuses on how science and secularism promote strong moral values. I was personally involved with the operations of both events, and am proud to say that I had the honor of introducing Mr Harris himself. Good things are happening!

Creation

I recently saw the film about Darwin’s personal struggles while writing On The Origin of Species called Creation, which stars real life husband and wife duo Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles Darwin and his deeply religious wife Emma, respectively. I heard from a fellow atheist friend that he was upset after seeing the film because he held Darwin in such high regard and Creation showed the more questionable aspects of his life. But, he then did some research and saw that the movie was fairly accurate in its portrayal of the man and his family, which led my friend to accept it more easily. My impressions were that while it’s understandable how some people might be bothered by seeing such a well respected figure shown in a more down-to-earth light, I admire the film for taking this approach.

This brings up an interesting point. It seems to me that many religious people are under the impression that we who believe in the reality of evolution in some way or another worship Charles Darwin as some kind of prophet or saint. This is simply not the case at all. Darwin was a very intelligent man who did something very brave and very important in publishing his book. The theory of evolution by natural selection is arguably the single most unifying theory that any branch of science currently offers, and biologists relish in that notion. Speaking only for myself, I don’t revere Darwin as any kind of superhuman, but I of course recognize the importance of his accomplishments and respect him appropriately.

The film Creation will see its Portland premiere on Sunday October 10 at the Portland Humanist Film Festival.