The answer to life’s ultimate question “where do we come from?” has been divided amongst religious believers and science enthusiasts for centuries, along with the struggle between facts and faith. Religion attempts to respond to our questions with seemingly intangible and often broad solutions, while science attempts to offer us concrete answers. However, where science has no elucidation, is the solution then left in the hands of religion due to our impatience in waiting for a response? Or does religion truly hold the key to answers that no scientific method could produce? The available evidence seems to point at the fallacy of faith, and the inconsistencies found in religious sects.
Time magazine published an article entitled “God Vs. Science” in 2006 where Dan Cray opened a discussion between two scientists whose stance on faith were pitted against each other. The scientists, Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and Francis Collins (author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief), were left to discuss whether science and religion could co-exist. Collins places himself in the camp of believer, challenging the idea that “God cannot be completely contained within nature…”, that “God’s existence is outside of science’s ability to really weigh in” (Cray, D. God Vs. Science, p.4), suggesting that science can articulate all things encompassed in nature and that God is removed from nature, a source that is without definition. On the other hand, Dawkins, a comprehensive atheist, suggests that “people who believe in God conclude there must have been a divine knob twiddler who twiddles knobs of these half dozen constants to get them right…”, condemning this mode of thought to be problematic as it would assume that “because something is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it” (Cray, D, God Vs. Science, p.5). This debate not only struggles to find a middle ground for science and religion to rest upon, but poses another query: how does faith fit in with fact? As Collins states: “Faith is not the opposite of reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation” (Cray, D., God Vs. Science, p.10), So, the assumption is that we are to accept God because there is a possibility of God’s existence just as we accept scientific theory because there is a possibility that it can be proven, thus eliminating the weight of fact on defining that which we do not understand. However, when that which was not first understood can be explained, it seems that faith is then replaced with fact.
One of the most widely recognized documented disputes between science and religion is the Catholic Church’s case against Galileo in the early 1600’s. Galileo was accused of being blasphemous in his theories regarding heliocentrism (the theory that the sun is at the root of the universe), and was forced to renounce his theory at his inquisition. The heliocentric theory challenged the Catholic Church’s view, a view based on Christian scripture, that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was at the center of the universe (Long, T., Feb. 13, 1633: Church vs. Galileo). Galileo claimed that his position on heliocentrism was not contradictory to scripture, but rather that scripture should not be taken literally and instead referenced as metaphor (Long, T., Feb. 13, 1633: Church vs. Galileo). The case against Galileo is a key example of how religious faith hindered the acceptance of fact over its inability to look at scripture objectively.
The idea that scripture or religious text is best viewed as metaphor is not a new theory, as Collin’s suggests that even St. Augustine maintained the fact that the bible should not be taken literally. He writes: “it is not possible to understand what was being described in Genesis. It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is meant to be with God” (Cray, D., God Vs. Science, p.7). On the flip side of the coin, the scientific or ‘atheist’ side could be conveyed as just as ethereal, as Stanley Fish explains in his article “Is Religion Man Made?”. Fish states that “the criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision” (Fish, S., Is Religion Man Made?). This suggests that the same insubstantial theories religious scholars use to rebut the atheist argument are fundamentally the same methods atheists use to challenge religious dogma – and the argument becomes circular.
To compare and contrast the debate that arises when science and religion are pitted against one another, it is best to understand the fundamentals. Webster’s dictionary defines science in part as “a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws”, while a selection of its definition of religion states “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices” (Webster’s Dictionary, 2002). Both definitions maintain a similar theme, as both camps of theory are based on a set of principals or laws, as science is a “system or method of reconciling practical ends with scientific laws” and religion is a “personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices”. Thus suggesting that both systems of theory are fundamentally similar; both abide by a set of rules laid forth by an omniscient – just as science is confined by natural law, religion is confined to God’s law. The restriction due to these underlying laws, whether tangible or not, provides an understanding into the difficulty of co-habituating science and religion, as “comparing science and religion isn’t like comparing apples and oranges – it’s more like apples and sewing machines” (Tabor, D, Jack Horner Wants to Re-Create T.Rex From Chickens, p.2). Both philosophies are bound to a code, whether concrete (like gravity) or insubstantial (like heaven and hell), but their differences lie in the validity of their claims.
The argument against religion is best articulated, in my opinion, in Hitchens’ “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (though Fish would suggest Hitchens’ philosophies are full of holes), particularly in the chapter The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False. Hitchens’ undermines the elements of religious faith by suggesting that the idea that God is attentive to every individual is refutably arrogant, chastising St. Augustine, calling him a “self centered fantasist and earth-centered ignoramus: he was guiltily convinced that god cared about his trivial theft from some unimportant pear trees”. He continues to challenge the validity of historical religious claims based on their lack of knowledge in matters of the natural world, condemning the foolishness of fear:
One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the almighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – has the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs).
(Hitchens, C. God is Not Great, p.64)
The fear of the unknown or what is unable to be explained is a catalyst to both religious fundamentalism as well as the drive for exploration within science. It is in our nature to question the reason and existence of the natural world, and when science has no answer faith is often sought after, but the trouble with religion is that it has no room for all faith where the secularity of science encompasses everyone. Both camps of thought can be viewed as fallible. An example of this would be the Christian bible’s suggestion that Christ was born of a virgin mother – which is impossible – or that medical science used to prescribe heroin as a pain medication only to later find it highly addictive and deadly. The major difference between the two is that science’s camp of followers are able to admit the fault of their actions when proven false, and religion refuses to acknowledge evidence that contradicts its archaic texts.
Kevin Smith released a satirical film in 1999 entitled “Dogma”, which challenged the hierarchy and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. In an early scene of the film, two of Smith’s characters, Rufus (the 13th and black apostle) and Bethany (the last living relative of Jesus Christ), have a discussion on the foolishness of taking scripture literally and articulate the ignorance rooted in religious dogmas:
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning (sic.) of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.
This excerpt articulates so eloquently the trouble with religious beliefs, it shows us that they are fallible due to the imperfect nature of ‘man’ – the creator of that structure. The quest for knowledge is what progresses our species, makes it better, smarter, stronger. As quoted above, life should be malleable and progressive, but belief hinders our ability to progress and grow, and it ties us to a text that was written well before we gained much of the knowledge and information that we now have on the natural world. Hitchens’ said it best when surmising his theories in the chapter Arguments from Design – “No divine plan, let alone angelic intervention, is required. Everything works without that assumption” (Hitchens, C., God is Not Great, p. 95) – the key word here being assumption.
Conjecture, theory, philosophy: these are merely educated assumptions. For example, Philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theory on Simulacra is plausible (supported by its acknowledgement and influence on media and literature, such as the film the Matrix, or Marshal McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, amongst others), it is possible that we are living a model of the hyper-real, and that the original reality is no longer (Poster, M., Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings). But this theory has yet to be proven, and is therefore an educated assumption. Just like simulacra, religion is merely an idea, a theory constructed by metaphor and philosophy with no concrete explanation or evidence that any of its claims are true, but with religion there is the element of punishment for disbelief. Pascal’s Wager, a theory suggested by French philosopher Blaise Pascal, claims that though there is no evidence of God (singular or plural), it is wise to ‘wager’ the gains and loses of belief and disbelief. For example, if we follow the text and scripture associated with said religion, at death we will be rewarded, but to stray from God’s law (with the belief of such a law) one would suffer horrible and eternal consequences in death. However, to abstain from structuralized belief, death may be in the form of nothingness should God’s law prove false, or punishment if God’s law proves true, therefore subjecting the person to wager on what has not and cannot be explained. And so fear of the unknown ensues. The fear that religious text and accompanied religious fundamentalism causes is a catalyst to aggressive, unchangeable opinions that react much like a dog that attacks when it is threatened.
In recent history, this fear induced aggression was the ultimate cause of the 9/11 attacks on New York City’s twin towers as fundamentalists protecting their assumed religious truth reacted with violent and catastrophic measures that ultimately killed thousands of people, and acted as a catalyst for the Iraq war (though the complexities of the on-going war in Iraq are not all associated with religious fundamentalism). Like the Thirty Year War, a war that pitted Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians against each other, Christian rooted America has perpetuated the conflict by challenging the validity of the claims of Islam’s religious fanatics, which opposed the Christian viewpoint and the American way of life. And here we see this element of circular hypocrisy, as malevolent actions have undoubtedly been acted by both Christian and Muslim: America’s Republican Party (and overt Christian fundamentalists) protecting it’s diluted idea of Freedom from the Muslim fundamentalist, who in turn, is protecting it’s own set of assumed (religious infused) facts. It is here we see the foolery in the structuralized belief that Religion offers, as it (a) facilitates conformity through a shared belief and (b) maintains that conformity through fear (which becomes systematically no different than telling a child that Santa Clause will not bring him or her Christmas gifts if they misbehave). The fear is an empty threat that can only be carried out by the ones who created it, thus proving that the threat is only legitimate if there is a believer and a creator that urges a suggested legitimacy. Therefore if God did not write the text that articulates a certain law, then the validity only finds its truth in the mind of the believer and its followers. However, religion is not all to blame for the horrendous acts inflicted on humans by humans throughout history.
Science too has attributed to the destruction of life in its creation of the Atom bomb and nuclear weaponry. Religion is not always the main perpetrator of warfare, as politics and economics play their roles. However, religious fundamentalism is often what structures a society and creates the differences in cultures that will often have a backlash against another (e.g. North America was founded on Christian Faith). It is the unquestionable belief and loyalty to a specific text that hinders our ability to share and amalgamate ideas, and causes so much conflict between one set of structure and the next. This inability to accept our own flawed convictions has shown to impede the progression of our species, and the advancements that could be made if the goal was secularly shared.
In the chapter Religion Kills, Hitchens’ reflects on his inability to understand the dictator-like role religion has over its followers, asking his readers to imagine
…that you can picture an infinitely benign and all powerful creator, who conceived of you, then made and shaped you, brought you into the world he had made for you, and now supervises and cares for you even while you sleep. Imagine, further, that if you obey the rules and commandments that he has lovingly prescribed, you will qualify for an eternity of bliss and repose. I do not say that I envy you this belief (because to me it seems like a wish for a horrible form of benevolent and unalterable dictatorship), but I do have a sincere question. Why does such a belief not make its adherents happy?
(Hitchens, C., God is Not Great, p.16)
This excerpt suggests a certain ignorance associated with such a deep rooted belief, questioning the validity of ignorant bliss and its ability to undermine rationality, all the while pointing out a consistent flaw in all religious texts: if this life is such a gift, why is happiness only granted in its demise? The fear associated with the failure to adhere to religious teachings limits our vision by constantly protecting a goal that can only be achieved after death; the value of life is often ignored, which suggests that the text is nothing more than an erroneous belief.
We are a young species in comparison to the age of this planet, and the length of time living creatures have inhabited it, and we have proven ourselves to be imperfect and at times, fallible in all our areas of study. With all of our advancements we have yet to find a cure for the common cold or have proven a single archaic religious myth’s validity. Science has offered us some of the answers we are looking for, and faith in something greater than ourselves maintains a certain humility. But to place so much weight on the intangible to the extent we are willing to sacrifice our lives and the lives of others is without question irrational, when the legitimacy of such claims are improvable – “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier” (Smith, K., Dogma, 1999).