on religion and science

During the last election, I wrote this essay. It was published at a website that no longer exists, but I thought I’d post it again here:

 

For the sake of discussion, we are going to begin with a rather large assumption:

*          The god of the books[1] is factual.

What this means is that god is God, an all powerful, all knowing, all present deity. God is everywhere, in everything. God is perfection. And we were made by God.

In this making, God chose to make us imperfect and rather intellectually stunted, when compared to the Creator. What this means is that humans, no matter how intelligent or faithful or great, can never actually know God. More than that, they can never even know if the existence of any god is factual. But they believe because God told some of us that It is real and here and everywhere else.

God spoke to a few different men throughout the millennia and had them record the history of the universe. God spoke to them in the language they knew, using words they knew, using concepts and metaphors they knew.

Even though God told humans that God is God, God further explained to them that God will always remain somewhat incomprehensible to them because of the vast and astronomical differences in knowledge and existence. God, for example, is incorporeal, which leads to some rather obvious difficulties in the created’s interactions with the Creator.

And then time went by and God shared less words with humans. God’s son came and went, some other men were whispered words by God and they wrote them down. Some two thousand years later, we land at the writing of this very sentence.

So let’s talk about science within this context. God came and explained, in broad strokes, the way existence worked and how it came to be. God gave us the intellectual tools and the vast playground of earth to discover all the secret treasures God did not divinely inspire into printed words. But God did command humans to cover and populate the earth, to take care of it and its creatures, to be benevolent rulers over all creation left to us by our divine Father. Humans walked about and played in the world, and in their playing, they discovered certain things that seemed to always be true. They discovered that humans come in different shapes and sizes, that there are an unbelievable amount of animals, that seasons change, that stars shine when the one closest to us rolls over the horizon, and millions of other discoveries that led to inventions, such as a ruler or compass or mobile phone.

Science is humanity’s response to the things we can see but do not yet understand. And there are many of these things that God simply did not bother to tell us. However, clearly God wanted us to know them or God would not have instilled us with curiosity, would not have encouraged our curiosity, would not have made the world so fascinating, would not have given us even the intellect to understand the behaviors of the planet or peoples or animals.

Science further led us to things that we could not see without tools but, when viewed, were demonstrably very real, such as atoms or quasars or electrons or blackholes.

So God left us the physical world to discover and understand. The rest, the incorporeal, the spiritual world, was left to God and nine choirs of angels and all those fallen angels and all the dead. God told us to trust in the words left by It and the men who wrote it down when it came to Its existence and all existence beyond this physicality.

___

Newt Gingrich said, while still running for president, that christian values were under attack in america. It is easy to waive him off and not bother with such nonsense. But he was completely correct. Christianity is losing its relevance. As a nation and as a world, the christian values that have defined western civilisation for two millennia are no longer the fulcrum that society is tethered round. It is no longer the moral compass by which every person bases their actions. There are many reasons for that, but we will not talk about them today.

Much is made of science’s attacks on religion. Religion, specifically religions of the book–and maybe even more specifically, christian religions–feel under attack with each new scientific discovery and with the generally held belief–which is not really a belief but is a fact–that science is based on facts. This becomes especially clear the more fundamental the religious sect is because these newly discovered facts tend to disagree with things written in the bible. I could say that they are all just overreacting about the whole thing, but people who think this way, who believe in the bible as the absolute and definitive word of God take this very seriously.

So what is belief? Belief is the confidence in the truth or existence of something that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof. It tends to come with faith, which is belief that is not based on proof. So while facts may be self evident, we do not choose what is factual and not factual. However, we do choose what we do and do not believe in. These people choose to believe that God as revealed to us in the bible is True. To discount that is to discount maybe the most defining aspect of their life. Faith is not a whimsical thing for many people. It defines every choice they make. It might be easy to mock people who wear What Would Jesus Do? bracelets, but there are many people who use that very question to guide their life, just as others ask themselves what the Talmud and/or Torah asks of them, or what the prophet Muhammad would do, or what does Buddha teach, or what is my dharma, or where does the Tao lead.

That is rather significant, no matter how stupid you may think it is.

But let us return to science. Science is systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Science is the tool by which humans come to understand the world they live in. Writing this sentence on my laptop is the result of generations upon countless generations of scientists. Science is an essentially playful thing because it is the way we come to understand the world, naturally. Every human begins as a primitive scientist, discovering the world and learning more about it every day of its life. We begin to understand by very simple experiments. If we move this arm and this leg in such a way and at such a rate, we can crawl. If we move our lips and tongue and jaw in just the right kind of ways, we can speak. All of this is a trial and error approach to learning. Hypothesis, predictions, tests, observations and so on until we have an understanding of how the process of speaking or walking or eating or throwing a ball works. As we grow and learn, our experimentation becomes more sophisticated and reliable, as we have all of the scientific tradition to learn from.

Science is the gateway to understanding the physical world. What science does not do and does not even actually care about is the metaphysical or incorporeal or spiritual or ethereal world. This is the area for philosophers and theologians, the plane where only ideas exist.

Why do scientists ignore this area of existence? This is actually quite simple: we cannot know it. There is nothing to observe and no one to observe it. Do we have souls? Maybe. It is pretty hard to say, using scientific tools, whether or not something that is weightless, odorless, colorless, and, ultimately, incorporeal is real or unreal. Science is not equipped to even begin to attempt to solve such a question. If souls had some aspect that was physical or observable, then, yes, science could try to answer the question.

And this is much the same as the existence of god. Many scientists believe in god or even God. Many do not. Really, their personal opinions about that do not matter to their professional lives because science has no interest in god. God, by definition, is metaphysical and, therefore, unknowable to humans, who happen to be bound by the laws of the physical reality they inhabit. If something is beyond physics, then it no longer becomes science’s problem. If god were, in some way, physical or measurable, then science would have something to say about it. Perhaps even very kind things.

Science is not trying to attack different ways of life. It is trying to understand life and, hopefully, improve it. For everyone.

But back to the bible, which science seems to constantly accidentally attack. Is it not possible, perhaps, that God, this perfect entity so beyond human comprehension, distilled the truths of the universe to humans the same way a human adult explains the world to an infant? Think of how simplified your explanations are to a child. Would you even bother to use the words physics or biology or chemistry? When is the last time you even discussed calculus with another adult or tried to explain to them where all the atoms in the universe come from? A human child happens to be the same species as a human adult, so it may be more appropriate to compare a human adult to a larval fly when comparing God to a human adult. Assuming you could make yourself understood to a fly, how would you explain the complexities of existence to it using its language?

Is it not possible that your reading of the bible is fundamentally flawed? Maybe it is all there, perfectly and succinctly. The entire cosmos wrapped up in those beginning chapter of genesis, yet, regrettably, owing to our astronomically deficient human intellect, we are so hopelessly incapable of even beginning to understand what God meant when It whispered those words to Moses [for the sake of argument] some three thousand years ago.

But the main point here is that religion and science are not at odds because they are not even the same language or in the same plane of existence. Discovering new words and metaphors in French does not make Cantonese less legitimate, nor does the understanding of one mean the attack of the other. Being a very good pelican may make you a terrible whale, but it is not really useful to compare the two, is it?

Rather than assume that every person who disagrees with you is also trying to destroy your way of life and ruin the future of humanity, maybe we should calm down a bit, sit down, and remember that apples are not oranges, and metaphysical apples are also not apples.

[1]    Books here meaning the Qur’an and different versions of the Bible

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