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, April 19, 2006

How Do You Know?

Try this. Think of something that you know. It can be anything: 2+2 = 4, cats have four legs, light is an electromagnetic wave, love of money is the root of all evil, God is Love. Ask yourself how you would respond if someone asked you to justify how you know that. What allows you to assert this as fact or truth?

Once you have an answer, take that assertion and repeat the question, “How do you know?” If you can come up with a response, ask the question again. Keep going until you reach a point where you cannot justify your certainty.

If you do this honestly, you can learn a lot about yourself and the world. In some cases, such as 2+2=4 or cats have four legs, you quickly come to the direct experience of the idea, either counting on your fingers or pointing to a cat and counting its legs. In other cases, you instead work your way back to trust in the observations of others. This is often true of scientific statements, since they are often based on other people’s reports of their experiments and mathematical computations.

Statements of a moral or metaphysical nature take you back to ideas that you believe but cannot justify, sometimes called faith. The main difference between faith assertions and scientific assertions, however, is that faith assertions of one group of people often contradict the assertions of other groups. Christians believe Jesus was God incarnate, while Jews believe that no man can be God incarnate. Moslems believe the Koran was inspired by God, while the Christians look to the Bible, and the Mormons to the Book of Mormon. Hindus believe in reincarnation, Christians and Moslems in an afterlife of heaven and hell. Others are certain there is no afterlife.

When we talk about how we know what we know, we are talking about epistemology, the study of knowledge. One of the important ways in which science is different from many religions is that science clearly defines a method for evaluating the truth of scientific assertions. First, scientific statements are limited to those which can be verified or falsified by some kind of observation, preferably some sort of measurement. Then experiments are performed with these observations in mind. Finally, the results, whether they verify or falsify the hypothesis, must be replicated by other observers attempting the same experiment.

A famous example of this was the idea that light waves travel through something called ether, a substance that was virtually unobservable. But if there was such an ether, then certain experiments with light waves moving in different directions would reveal different speeds for light to travel the same distance, just as airplanes take different times to travel the same distance depending on whether they have a tail wind or a head wind. Experiments were done and no difference was found. More experiments were done by others, taking care to be more and more precise in measuring the speed of light in different directions. No matter how precise the measurements, however, speed of light did not vary. Then came Einstein who asserted a new hypothesis: the speed of light will be measured the same no matter which direction one is traveling with respect to the light. He dispensed with the ether and no one seriously believes in ether anymore. Of course, Einstein’s assertion had to be tested as well before it became well accepted. (For details, search on “Michelson Morley Experiment”.)

With some religions, the situation is very different. For fundamentalist Christians, for example, just about anything they assert to be true will ultimately come down to a quote from their Bible. Ask how they know that the Bible is always right, and they will answer that it is a matter of faith. The problem is that the assertions of a fundamentalist Moslem will invariably come down to a quote from the Koran. How does he know the Koran is always right? Faith. Fundamentalist Jews would point to a different set of scriptures as the thing they know by faith. Mormons: the book of Mormon. All these assertions cannot be correct, so each one ought to acknowledge that his faith could be wrong. Fundamentalists don’t believe they are wrong, however; all the other fundamentalists are wrong in their faith. They can’t prove this, of course. They just know it.

Or, I believe, they don’t know it. They just believe it. Knowledge is tricky like that.

Another important difference between the fundamentalist faithful and the scientists is that the scientists are willing to admit that what they think they know could be wrong. Furthermore, the scientist can distinguish between things that are quite certain will not turn out to be wrong and things that could very well be wrong. It all depends on how much evidence there is for an idea. Gravity: lots of observations for over four hundred years have always found the acceleration of gravity to be a constant value of 9.8 meters per second per second. The existence of dark matter is a lot less certain, since there is only evidence that seems to require this odd type of matter that cannot be seen but exists and has mass enough to change the rotation of galaxies. It reminds one a lot of the ether.

But religions are not all like the fundamentalists. Buddhism, for example, disdains the assertion of faith. Buddha insisted that people should not believe his teaching just because they were his teachings. He insisted that people needed to experience the truth and believe it because of the experience. This is a lot like science. The main difference is that the truths of Buddhism have to be observed as part of subjective experience, unmediated by measurements or descriptions.

Confucius was also a great believer in direct experience. In his case, he believed that we must explore our own relationships with our family, friends, and neighbors to discover our essential humanity. The idea can be found in many different religions, especially the mystically inclined traditions.

There is a big difference between religions that insist that people accept certain ideas on faith and those that insist people discover the truth for themselves. While science may not attempt to make assertions about mysticism, metaphysics, or morality, it has in common with religions like Buddhism, Confucianism, and others that it values direct experience over inherited statements. That is very important to remember when studying the differences of various religions and the degree to which they state the truth about the world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What Makes a Religion Successful?

One of the powers of science is the power to explain why things are the way the are. Most people are grateful that science has helped us understand why we get sick, how we get well, what causes the weather, why does water float when it freezes, etc. But people often resent science for trying to explain other things, such as why do we behave as we do, why do humans and gorillas so closely resemble each other, which sayings attributed to Jesus most likely were said by him, and, my topic for today, why is a religion successful. People like to think that there are some things that science cannot or should not explore.

I obviously don’t share that opinion. I think that science may never explain why we find a Mozart symphony so pleasant, but I don’t resent science from trying to understand the nuances of aesthetic pleasure. Not only are there practical benefits to understanding why things happen (such as giving us the ability to predict when a volcano may erupt) but often benefits shows up even where they are not expected. Perhaps understanding why we find Mozart’s music so pleasant will help diagnose autism in children or even cure it.

So when looking at religion through a lens of science, we are not so much seeking to displace religion or disprove it, but to better understand it. I believe that doing so will make us able to take a conscious, creative role in the religions we practice rather than simply being forced to accept them as they are or reject them out of hand.

So what makes a religion successful? I will build on my proposal that religions are found in all early societies because religion plays a crucial role in the ability of early societies to survive. To recap that idea, remember that science has demonstrated that cooperation among a group of creatures can greatly enhance their ability to survive. For some creatures, such as ants, this cooperation is built into their behavior. But for humans, we also enjoy the survival benefit of being able to think and choose our behavior, thus allowing us to adapt to the environment. This means we have to dispense with instinct.

But we already have certain instincts from our earlier evolution, including an instinct for personal survival and a kind of innate selfishness that runs contrary to cooperation. It is religion’s role to motivate people to cooperate by linking ethical behavior to aspects of our experience that are powerful, mysterious, and sometimes frightening. This is why we find that most religions have very similar ethical teachings, while their metaphysical and theological basis can be quite dissimilar. From the standpoint of survival, it only matters that people cooperate. If they are motivated to do this because they fear that they will suffer in the afterlife if they don’t, then society will be better able to survive. It does not matter if there is an afterlife as depicted by the religion. What matters is the cooperation.

Let’s look at a variety of religions and how they have motivated good behavior. Christianity and its close cousins Judaism and Islam, use two ideas in tandem to motivate cooperation. First, they all link success and happiness in this life to living a virtuous life. In the Hebrew Bible, whenever the society is successful and thriving, it is because they are doing what God requires. When they suffer calamity, it is because they have sinned. This idea persists to this day in these religions. People who suffer a terrible lose due to accident or illness wonder if they are being punished by God for some sin.

The second motivating tool used by all of the major Western religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, is the promise of a happy afterlife for the good people and suffering in hell for the wicked. This idea appears to have developed somewhat later in the Hebrew religion, perhaps when people began to notice that often very wicked people lived life devoid of serious suffering, while people who were very pious sometimes suffered terribly. Job is the classic example of people struggling with this, for he was described as a man of perfect virtue, yet God let Satan take everything away from Job except his life. This launches a pious attempt to understand this circumstance. Today we still see people predicting that those who are not Christian (or Moslem) will burn in hell, while the good Christian (or Moslem) will enjoy a paradise in heaven.

We are so saturated by these two perspectives that we may not realize that there are religions that have very different ideas about why people should do good for others as well as for themselves. Hinduism and Buddhism use the idea of reincarnation as a motivator to goodness. The virtuous person can be reborn into another life with better circumstances, until born into a situation in which he can achieve a state of union with the Absolute and escape the cycle of birth and death. This idea has sometimes also been used to justify a caste system that justifies inequality and prejudice, but it succeeds so long as it motivates people to accept this system and to cooperate.

In China, Confucius claimed it was not important to understand what happens in the afterlife. Living a life of virtue had its own rewards which motivated the good person. The reward for observing the golden rule and attending with respect and love to the needs of ones family and neighbors brought the benefit of a harmonious society free of war and poverty. This is perhaps a religion that has actually achieved the purest link between virtue and the broader universe. It degenerated to some extent until the afterlife came to be a place where people were happy so long as their ancestors continued to honor their memory.

So we see that successful religions are not identical. They can all preach a similar ethic without all being equally correct in their teachings about why we should behave well. Furthermore, as humans developed more complex societies, the link between survival and cooperation became less important, meaning that religions could deviate from their role of motivating good behavior. A religion can become corrupt and actually promote bad behavior or at least tolerate bad behavior by people of privilege. I believe we still see the importance of ethics in the rise and fall of great civilizations. When a society becomes so class conscious and so unjust, it may well cease to function and either fall prey to invaders or experience a religious revolt. The fall of Rome is an example of the former, the Protestant Reformation is an example of the latter.

This leads to the question of how we decide which religion, if any is actually correct in its method of motivating cooperation. This will be the topic of my next post.