08 April 2007

Religion vs. science

The crucial difference between religion and science lies not in what things they hold to be true, but in the basis on which they decide which things to hold true. Science relies on evidence; religion relies on faith, meaning a willingness to believe things when there is no evidence that they are true. Science starts with the evidence and accepts whatever conclusion that evidence reveals; religion starts with the desired conclusion (God exists, Heaven exists), and then casts around for some basis for believing it. Science demands that evidence be objective and accessible to anyone; its ideal tool is the controlled experiment, designed to test for only one variable, and described carefully enough that any other researcher can do the same experiment and see whether he gets the same result. Science knows that all humans, including scientists, have biases, and has developed procedures for filtering out such biases from its processes for assessing evidence. Religion embraces the unverifiable and the subjective; its central claims (such as the existence of God) are generally formulated so as to be immune to objective testing. The religious believer debating an atheist, when his "arguments" for the existence and goodness of God are shot full of holes, will often fall back on a statement like, "I know God exists and is good, for I have felt His love!" The same untestability which makes this claim unanswerable also makes it useless as a tool for discovering truth.

(It’s important not to confuse the concepts of evidence and personal experience. For example, no one has had personal experience of evolution, since evolution happens to groups of organisms across generations, not to individuals. Nevertheless, evolution is more solidly supported by evidence than almost any other fact in all of human knowledge. Millions of people have had personal experience of encounters with angels, ghosts, space aliens, etc., but there is no evidence that any of those things exist.)

Due to its unique evidence-based approach, science has enabled us to create technology, a vast array of tools that actually work, such as vaccines, computers, anaesthetics, spacecraft, hydrogen bombs, lasers, etc. Because of this, those groups of humans who have embraced science have acquired great power, not only over the natural world, but also (for good or for ill) over those groups of humans who have been less enthusiastic or less capable in adopting the scientific approach.

Because science and religion use such different methods for establishing truth, they inevitably come to different conclusions about almost any question which both of them take up. The differences about the age of the Earth, the origin of the human race, and so forth, are too well-known to need citing. So long as science is free to operate without interference from religion, these differences are not a practical problem for it. That’s where the issue of theocracy comes in. When religion gains influence over the way political power is used, the results can be disastrous.

One of the best examples comes from Islamic history. Around 800 CE, Muslim intellectuals discovered the philosophical heritage of Classical Greece and translated it into Arabic. In the relatively tolerant climate of the time, the new ideas spread and a class of "philosophers" arose, promoting a skeptical and rationalistic approach to truth. Many Muslim rulers, themselves interested in the new thinking, downplayed its conflicts with theology in order to justify a policy of tolerance and even encouragement. Over the next three centuries a kind of scientific age arose, rudimentary by modern standards but impressive for the time. The circumference of the Earth was calculated and a number of practical advances were made, largely in the field of medicine. There was continuous tension between the philosophers and the theologians, however, and around 1100 CE the conflict came to a head with the rise of the new school of Ash’arite theology. This school’s leading proponent, the theologian al-Ghazali, attacked the views of the philosophers with devastating effect; his writings (brilliantly argued, in their own way), wiped away the grey areas which had long enabled philosophers and rulers alike to maintain that there was no inherent conflict between Islam and Greek-inspired philosophy, and that one could thus embrace the latter while remaining a good Muslim. Since medieval Islam knew no separation of political authority from religion, the triumph of Ash’arite theology meant the end of the Islamic scientific age. Philosophers were persecuted and exiled, books were burned, inquiry was shut down, and in effect, an entire civilization lobotomized itself.

The decline of any civilization has multiple causes, but in the Islamic case, this self-imposed intellectual stagnation must have played a key role. Had Islamic science not been suppressed, for example, it is conceivable that it might have gone on to develop more sophisticated weapons with which the Muslims could have fought off the devastating Mongol invasions a century later. Certainly several further centuries of development would have left the Muslims of the nineteenth century far better equipped to resist European colonialism. But that’s not what happened. Some might argue that, because Islam makes political authority a mere arm of religion, Islamic science was always doomed to be strangled in the cradle sooner or later.

Even today, throughout the Islamic world, religion dominates government, law, and education to varying degrees. As a result no Muslim country is a leader in any field of science or technology, though several other non-Western countries are, notably Japan, South Korea, and Russia (note that all of these societies are strongly secular).

The story of the rise of science in the West is the story of struggle against reactionary religion. From Bruno to Galileo to Darwin, discovery after discovery was bitterly resisted in the name of religious dogma. Even the twentieth century saw instances of "moral" objections to the development of medicines to treat venereal disease. Even the embrace of Lysenkoism by the Soviet state in the 1950s, which crippled the progress of Soviet genetics, should also be counted as an example of this phenomenon; Communism is not technically a religion, but it has most of the essential characteristics of a religion, and Stalin’s insistence that truth be determined by consistency with established dogma rather than by evidence perfectly mirrored the danger which religion armed with state power has always presented to science.

The United States is lucky in that our Constitution and separation of powers would make it very difficult to create a real theocracy here. Nevertheless, the Bush administration – more strongly and openly influenced by religious fundamentalism than any other administration in recent times – has given us a foretaste of the damage that religious influence over the state can do to science. Its efforts to obstruct stem-cell research have driven much of the work in that vital field overseas. A government which managed to move even closer to theocracy might, for example, manage to impose creationism throughout the school system, producing a generation without real knowledge of evolution, which is the basis of modern biology and medicine. A serious effort to uproot "Darwinist" assumptions from American research establishments would cripple progress in those fields.

Even the repressive social policy which is the chief focus of the Christian Right’s political activism would, if implemented, stunt the country intellectually. Most creative people are not the sort that can be happy living under a bunch of ancient Middle Eastern tribal taboos written into law by scowling would-be ayatollahs. They would leave, taking the benefits of their creativity and innovativeness elsewhere.*

America’s health, standard of living, and military power depend on its technology, and technological progress depends on science. If science is undermined by too much government interference, technological progress will slow down drastically – equivalent to a relative decline, since in modern times technology advances very rapidly, and this would continue in foreign countries, some of them not well disposed toward us. Theocrats cannot stop technological progress. They can only shift it to countries other than the ones where they have influence.

A true theocracy would ruin America. Any step in that direction harms America. Any real patriot or anyone who values the achievements of the mind must resist such tendencies.

Note: This posting is a contribution to the "Blog against Theocracy" project. See here for links to other contributions; also visit First Freedom First, a site dedicated to separation of church and state.

*I do not at all minimize the point that such imposition of moral taboos by force would also be a bad thing in and of itself – for personal choice on abortion and divorce, for the personal freedom of women and homosexuals, and in many other ways. I’ve made it clear where I stand. But this is a separate issue from the main subject of this posting.

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