Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires and volcanic eruptions inevitably bring out the tired idea that natural disasters are a warning from god. Sinners beware. Perennial predictor of doom Pat Robertson said that the earthquake in Virginia was “one of the signs of the end.” Remember that he noted after the disaster in Haiti in 2010 that god was punishing those particular heathens for making a “pact to the devil.” He said further that the Haitian earthquake was a “blessing in disguise,” an idea that might have caused some disagreement among those mourning their dead and the injured, sick and homeless. Remember, too, that Robertson also claimed that Hurricane Katrina was god’s punishment for legalized abortion, and that Florida’s weather woes are due to the state’s support for Gay Days at Disneyland.
Michele Bachmann recently waded into these troubled waters with her declaration (later denied as jesting) that god’s recent climatic tantrum was his way of getting the attention of politicians and telling them they should listen to god and the American people. Glenn Beck opined that the earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast were “God reminding you you’re not in control.” He added that the “hurricane is a blessing,” echoing Robertson’s sentiment about Haiti.
Perhaps many mainstream believers will dismiss these extreme views as distorting the image of the faithful. But therein lies the core problem with faith: there are no boundaries, no constraints, no self-corrections. All you need is belief; if you believe something to be true, it is. Therefore, Pat Robertson’s belief that a Virginia earthquake is the wrath of god is no more or less valid that the more mainstream belief in a virgin birth. Beck’s belief that god created a hurricane to remind us we are not in control is just as valid as the belief that god’s flesh-and-blood son died for our collective sins. Beliefs cannot be arbitrated to determine which one is valid, because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another.
For centuries people have attempted to reconcile faith and reason. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church’s teachings. Here on the pages of The Huffington Post, Jeffrey Small argues that science and religion have common ground. Others writing for HuffPost make similar appeals. Jonathan Dudley claims that the Christian faith requires accepting evolution. Dudley says that “Christians must accept sound science, not because they don’t believe God created the world, but precisely because they do.” The sentiment is similar to what famous geneticist Francis Collins said: “When something new is revealed about the human genome … I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before.” He also said: “I am unaware of any irreconcilable conflict between scientific knowledge about evolution and the idea of a creator God; why couldn’t God have used the mechanism of evolution to create?”
But these appeals to reconcile science and religion are utterly hopeless, just wishful thinking, hoping that the absurdities of religion can be shoehorned into the realities of science. It is not possible. As science explains ever-more-complex natural phenomena, the need to invoke god to understand daily events and the physical world diminishes. God becomes confined to “gaps” in scientific knowledge, diminishing in stature with each great advance of human knowledge. Forget not that for 1,500 years the faithful were told that god made Earth the center of the universe, and that the Sun orbited our planet. People were burned alive for questioning this orthodoxy. The “god of the gaps” has become an increasingly trivial figure as science narrows the space in which the ignorance that supports god can thrive. The proper response to the overwhelming evidence for evolution is to accept that the ideas of religion have failed. God is reduced to what Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don’t know.
Science and religion are no more miscible than oil and water. Science searches for mechanisms and the answer to “how” the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to “why” the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not be further apart.
Religion and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.
Science can tell us that the Earth rotates counterclockwise (if we’re looking down on the North Pole from space). No purpose exists in that fact. The “why” here answers a mechanical question based on history; that particular direction of rotation is a consequence of how the original gases and debris were orbiting the sun prior to coalescing into our planet. Religion might ask “why” God had a yen for counterclockwise, but that question is outside the realm of and irrelevant to the science in question, if such a question is valid at all.
Those who attempt to reconcile religion and faith often appeal to two ideas: 1) without religion the search for objective knowledge using reason and science is an empty pursuit, devoid of meaning and morality; and 2) science is not infallible, and scientists disagree among themselves. Let’s tackle the first one first.
Morality, Religion and Science
Science can postulate and study the hypothesis that morals are not derived from religion, nor god’s grant of free will, but instead arise from inherent characteristics embedded in human nature as a consequence of our sociality. What we view as moral behaviors — kindness, reciprocity, honesty, respect for others — are social norms that evolved in the context of a highly social animal living in large groups. The evolution of these social norms enabled a feeble creature to overcome physical limitations through effective cooperation. Perhaps morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development. Perhaps religion has masked and corrupted these natural characteristics with a false morality that converts intrinsic human benevolence and generosity into cheap commodities to be purchased with coupons for heaven. Good behavior is not encouraged as a means of advancing our humanity, but instead is enforced with threats of eternal damnation.
One prominent characteristic of human beings is sociality. Functioning as a group in many circumstances conveys significant advantages on members of the group. Associated with sociality is altruism, which is sacrificial behavior that in some way promotes the propagation of the genes of the altruistic individual, usually by aiding the survival of a close relative sharing some common genetic stock. The ultimate altruistic behavior would be dying for the sake of another’s survival.
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