Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

God is not a terrorist!

Just a quick post to condemn the many (ir)religious among us blaming the devastation in Japan on God or Karma or anything else other than plate tectonics. If we are to believe many pious commentators, the thousands who died a horrifying death--including many children, unborn infants, and people who have lived lives of love and compassion--are being punished for atheism or some other heresy.

When someone says something to this effect, ask them, "So you're saying God is a terrorist!" If they object, point out that terrorists, such as the ones against whome we are fighting a war, routinely kill people without regard to the innocents who perish in an attempt to so terrorize a population that they capitulate to whatever the terrorists want to replace the current regime.

How is it any different if God were to destroy human life in an effort to get people to love and obey Him? It is like a parent beating a child because the child does not love the parent because the child is beaten by the parent. If we are to believe the Bible, God has been a terrorist from the beginning, starting with the flood, and following up with destruction of cities like Sodom and Gommorrah, and even killing nothing but children in the Passover event that successfully terrorized the Egyptians so much they caved to the demands of their captives.

While the ancients clearly found such a God a plausible being and one who must be worshipped for fear of being punished, we do not need to share their fear. We are part of a world which has many things that cause pain and suffering, which befall all creatures, not just humans. Many of these things have long term benefits and have shaped us into the beings we are. Earthquakes such as the one in Japan have happened very regularly since the beginning of the earth and may be responsible for the planet supporting life. The fact that we are now suffering from time to time because of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and such is just an unavoidable accident of our evolution. That which makes these events also makes all the things we love so much about this world, its beauty, its tender expressions of cooperation and love, and so much more.

I recommend the writings of Michael Dowd for speaking out on this issue with compassion and reason. Here is a link to something he wrote in response to those who are blaming God and in some cases praising God for the deaths in Japan.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Need for Moderation

My main reason for this post is to commend the L. A. Times for an opinion by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum regarding the anti-religious confrontationalism of Richard Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and Jerry Coyne, Must science declare a holy war on religion? I applaud this voice of reason on this very important issue of the compatibility of science and religion. The authors argue that in America, where scientific illiteracy is a major problem because many religious people fear belief in evolution is rejection of God, those who equate belief in evolution with rejection of religion are doing more harm than good.

I think the issue goes beyond the practical effect of attacks on religion on the successful teaching of evolution as a scientific theory (which, it should not need to be said, means it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt). Religion at large is being smeared because scientists, of all people, are allowing themselves to make a generalization the basis of a very limited sample of information.

This is religious bigotry in a weird kind of inverted form. Scientists are turning their hatred for the religion of some into rejection of all religion, even ones they know nothing about. It is furthermore the height of irrationality to reject religion for not perfectly mirroring the findings of science. Religious myth does not attempt to explain the world as science does. It is attempting to express various understandings about our place in the cosmos. These expressions are epistemologically the same as literature. Literature is made up of works of fiction and poetry. Neither conveys truth as science does, in propositions that can be tested with direct observation and experimentation. A book does not have to be literally true for it to convey truth to the reader. The same is true of poetry. Religious ritual has more in common with theater and dance than science. A religious ritual is not trying to express some proposition that must be tested with logic and observation. It is creating an experience for the person or people taking part in it.

If science invalidates religion, it must also invalidate all fiction, poetry, music, dance, and art. Please speak out about this whenever you hear someone argue that science has replaced or ought to replace religion.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Evolution and Non-Evolution of God

A new book by Robert Wright has been stirring a lot of good discussion on web sites regarding the idea that we can understand religions at least in part by considering them to be part of our human evolution. The book is called The Evolution of God. I have yet to read it, but based on reviews, I think it is something I would agree with in general, if not in detail. I've shared my ideas of how evolution can help us understand how religion has been part of most human cultures. I shared a thumbnail view in a comment to a N.Y. Times blog article titled, The Non-Evolution of God.

One of my comments was referenced in a subsequent article in the same blog. Here is that comment. I have corrected a few typos and added a few links.

I strongly recommend anyone interested in the idea of evolution of religion and ethics read Frans de Waal (mentioned in the article) on the behavior of primate groups (the science of ethology or animal behavior); also read Robert Axelrod on the evolution of cooperation.

De Waal shows that primate colonies demonstrate moral awareness which is in part taught to each new member. Axelrod shows that there is a survival advantage to cooperation. The evolution of animals that form societies demonstrates the value of cooperation, from ant colonies to primates.

But evolution must work with what came before and in the case of the human brain, we’ve retained elements from early reptiles (mainly promoting sex, obtaining food, and not being killed by predators) to early mammals, with sensitivity to welfare of others evolving a sometimes different set of priorities, as when a mother fights to defend her offspring. We have further built on that developing more sophisticated abilities, such as abstract thought and language. Humans have to learn most of what we use to survive, so that we can adapt to different environments. So we must learn to cooperate. But our different parts of our brains push us in different directions, leading to conflicting urges. The reptile part of our brains says look out for number one, while a different part says protect your family, while our leaders say fight for the fatherland.

I believe that if you put all this together, you get the evolution of religion along with abstract thinking and especially language. Religions promote ethical behavior (cooperation) by linking it to aspects of our experience by which we are most awestruck, both positive and negative, sometimes referred to as the holy or the sacred. For this to work, the linkage from sacred to ethical cooperation does not have to true in an absolute sense, so long as people believe it is true and pass it on to their offspring. This is why, IMHO, religions are so different in their ideas about the afterlife (heaven, hell, reincarnation), the Absolute (God, Tao, Buddha, to name a few), and so on and yet are so similar in the ethics they promote (be nice to people and share and protect your fellows, especially those part of your local group).

Humans no longer need to evolve biologically, since it is easier to adjust the environment and our behavior. But this does not mean evolution has stopped. Hoffstadter, Dennett, and others have pointed out that cultural concepts propagate and evolve using similar mechanisms to biological evolution. If an idea (sometimes called a meme to draw attention to the similarity to a gene) promotes survival, it will be more likely to be passed on. So religion could evolve to allow us to manage our conflicting behavioral urges in order to take full advantage of the benefits offered by cooperation.

Does this mean all religions are just fluffy products of our imaginations? Maybe, but not necessarily. In science we often find that ideas expressed by mathematicians with no intention of modeling real world phenomena usually turn out to actually correspond to what we observe in the physical world. Religion (some at least) might actually be on to important realities of the universe. Most cultures believe in spirits and a spirit reality. Is this just wishful thinking? I think we can see a wide range of experiences people have across cultures and times, that convince them of spiritual reality. I personally think the evidence, taken as a whole is best explained with the reality of a spirit dimension that transcends the physical and hence is not easy to observe with our scientific instruments.

If this is true, then some notion of the Absolute is also in order, even if we can only apprehend it experientially or speak of it with analogies and poetry. Call me mistaken, but don’t call me irrational or superstitious. Same goes for people’s religious beliefs. Respect them with the same open-mindedness a scientist should have for anything he/she does not completely understand.


The idea of different parts of our brains from different stages in our evolution producing ethical dilemmas was introduced to me by Michael Dowd, in Thank God for Evolution. If more proof is needed, he shows that it need not be the case that religion and science must be at odds. His arguments are well thought out and backed up with accurate understanding of human neurology and history. I recommend you read his book. Better yet, listen to him in person the next time he is in your area. He and his wife travel constantly delivering their ideas to open-minded audiences all over the place.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I'm Back

I have not posted at this blog for a while because I've been focused on building a business and working several part-time jobs. One of those was teaching a world religion class at a nearby university. It was very interesting to see how college students today are thinking about religion, what they know and don't know about other religions, and how they are affected by this knowledge.

I did not get to spend time spinning out my thoughts on science and religion with the classes, but I did stress that the approach to learning about religions was essentially scientific; that is, we would focus on things that we could objectively identify about other religions without passing judgment about the truths any religion professes. This avoided confrontations but it also taught important truths about religion as a human phenomenon. The world religions are impressive for their depth of history, complexity, and sophistication.

Science has not been around so long (at least the modern incarnation of it). But science has provided humankind more reliable information about the nature of the universe than all religions put together. This does not mean religions are wrong-headed, only that they are not designed to investigation the way the universe is. Religions are designed (I would argue by evolution) to interpret the significance of what is known (or believed) about our place in the cosmos.

Teaching these religions has underlined for me the importance of each religion entering into a dialogue with science to bring the interpretations of the universe up to date, to illumine or place not in the universe people thought we lived in two thousand years ago, but the universe we know we inhabit today.

Now that I’m done teaching for a while, things are slowing down a bit, so I want to get back to posting at this blog. Please leave comments and let me know what you think about these ideas. Thanks.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Long Time No Blogging

I started this blog when I was in a stable work situation that gave me some regular time for blogging, but then that changed. Since then, I've been adjusting to working several part-time jobs and finding it easier to leave this blog sit for a while.

One of my current jobs, however, is teaching a course in World Religions at a local University. It has me thinking more about religion. I recently posted a comment on a blog by Jason Rosenhouse, Evolution Blog, a fine blog that I recommend. The content of his blog on 9/22/08 was, if I may so summarize it, whether it was possible for religion to exist in today's world given what science has shown us about our place in the cosmos. My comment was to the effect that, as I've argued elsewhere in my blog and elsewhere, it is quite possible for religion to share mental space with religion, provided one chooses the right religion.

I hope I'll get back to blogging here and in my other blog on Evidence for Evolution. There are many challenging aspects to this important topic to be considered.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Science of Understanding Ourselves

I have been reading Karen Armstrong's new book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. It is an intriguing look at four cultures and their religions during the Axial Age, the time roughly from 700 BCE to 400 BCE. During this time, Greek science and philosophy produced many remarkable ideas; the Jewish religion was transformed, in part, by prophets who asserted that God cared more about compassion than ritual sacrifices; India produced sages who sought to uncover enlightenment through examination of consciousness, including the Buddha; and China produced the great sages of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and Chuang Tsu.

Although I've read less than half the book so far, it is clear that during these few hundred years, all these cultures thrived in part because there were people willing to depart from the traditions handed down from generations past and explore new ideas and new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. The people responsible for these changes would be what we today would call "Religious Liberals."

While liberal is a distasteful word to many in our society, without liberals, no culture could endure. Liberals are intellectual adventurers, willing to leave behind the comfortable, well-worn ideas of the past and explore other possibilities. Liberals are not interested in change for the sake of change, but change that enhances our world. Without liberals, slavery would never have been abolished, women would not have the right to vote or own property, indeed, our country would not have its constitution. Science would be impossible without liberals, because science must be willing to accept change, is actually happy for change when it is supported by evidence that the new will be better than the old. Without science there would be no high technology, no medical miracles. We would still be afraid of our shadows, burning witches and books in an effort to preserve what exists unchanged.

Science has helped us understand this by giving us the ability to see into the past, to understand what life was like for people in many different places and times. It is remarkable that I can sit in my living room and learn what it was like to live in Israel, Greece, India, or China twenty-five hundred years ago. Science has made this possible. History is a science. It advances our understanding by applying reasoning to the evidence left by events of the past. A scientific history would never believe something is true just because it is written in a well-respected or allegedly sacred text.

Most all the people in the three major Western religions are guilty of tunnel vision, of ignoring this wealth of information about other people's lives, peoples whose lives were informed and shaped by ideas other than those that shaped our own ideas. These people mean well and are honestly trying to do the responsible thing, but they fail to appreciate how different the world is from what they understand of it.

Consider the fundamentalist Christian who insists that all the books of the Christian Bible are divinely inspired. They say that without this book, we would know nothing about God and our place in the world. But if that were true, what does it say about all the people who have strived for religious truth in all the other places and times of the world? Are their blood, sweat, and tears worth nothing? Did they live and die in vain, forever cut off from the divine revelation without which they cannot hope to understand God?

Each religious person should be required to explain whether or not the truths of her religion can be determined independently from that religion's traditions and texts. Most members of Western religions would have to say no, without their tradition, one cannot know the truth. But in saying this, each of these traditions is contradicting the idea that God is a universal God, the same for all people, valuing all people equally. For how could God favor the Jews but not the Chinese, the Moslems but not the native Americans?

Or are religions more like scientific ideas? Are they theories that need to be explored, tested, enhanced, changed? Can they be right about some things and wrong about others? If so, we have something to learn from all traditions. Christians should be happy to have Buddhist or Hindu missionaries come live in their communities to enlighten them about the religious tradition of their lands.

Instead, we have fundamentalists in all three major Western religions who would gladly incinerate the infidels and pagans to make the world safe for their own religious ideas. If you are interested in more information about the roots of fundamentalism, read Karen Armstrong's book, The Battle for God. Fundamentalists have been made to feel alienated or injured by the advances of modern science and technology and have retreated into the presumed security of a religious text. In so doing, they cut themselves off from the bounty of God's wisdom as revealed to people in all places and times. This, to me is blasphemy and an insult to God.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Atheist Oversimplification of Religion

After doing a search on the quote "conflict between science and religion", I came across the following website: In this article discussing how science and religion are different, the author says, "Religion relies on authority — from a person, book, or tradition — and its Truth is supposed to be universal and eternal." This is false, taken literally. True, some religions take such a stance toward authority and truth, but not all. Some take an opposite view. For example, Buddha warned his disciples not to make his own words into sacred truth nor to think that those who know his words will be enlightened. The only true authority in Buddhism (or at least some important strands of Buddhism) is experience. That is why they insist on meditation. That is why the Zen Buddhists preserve and teach the paradoxical assertions of the Zen masters in response to questions posed by unenlightened monks.

New Age religions are diverse, but many, if not most, stress the importance of individuals coming to their own confirmation of the ideas presented. I have witnessed many sessions in which a channel medium (one who presumes to allow a more advanced spiritual entity to speak through his/her body) answers questions from the listeners. Many of these listeners come to channel mediums expecting that the medium's special spiritual source can tell them what to do and what to believe. Over and over, these mediums have asserted (or the spirits they are channeling have asserted) that the person should not take their word for it but must verify the ideas in their own experience.

Unitarian Universalism is another religion that takes the authority of science seriously and is skeptical of ancient scriptures or religious traditions as being acceptable without question.

The author of the article makes the following statement:

"A scientific investigation starts with a question, and tries to reach a conclusion by finding evidence and applying reason. A theological investigation, though, starts with a conclusion, and tries to wiggle around any impediments of evidence and logic in order to justify that conclusion."

I have already described two religious traditions that operate like the scientist and not the theologian described above. This is an example of stereotyping and is evidence of ignorance and prejudice. Anyone who values science as much as this author does should take the same thorough approach to understanding religion as to understanding evolution or physics. Don't make sweeping generalizations based on a limited population of evidence.

The author concludes with the following paragraph:
It's true that many intelligent people embrace both science and religion. They seem to compartmentalize their thinking; it's as if they use different parts of the mind for science and religion, with hardly any interconnection between those parts. They adopt the comfortable myth that there isn't, or shouldn't be, a conflict between science and religion.
The author needs to expand his horizon and stop simplifying such a vast field of human experience as religion down to one small portion of the field. It is much the same fallacy as those who try to discredit the truth of biological evolution by plucking out a few factoids to illustrate their case and ignore the rest of the evidence because it contradicts their pet idea. I hope people don't take a similarly prejudiced view of those who embrace science as closed-minded atheists.