Science v Religion? Or or And? Either or both?

It saddens me to see so much argument, especially on the stream-of-consciousness world of Facebook, about Science being right.  Or Religion being RIGHT!  No!  YES! NO! You smell anyhow….!!!! Grrrr……

Those that know me know I’m a solid atheist.  Let me explain what that means to me.

I’ll start with a simple acknowledgement of the concept of This and That.  Something and nothing.  If that’s graspable, then it can be expressed as 1 and 0.  I’d say that it’s one of the few totally self-evident truths.

Got it?  Well, with 1 and 0 it’s not too tricky to extrapolate that into Number.  Binary can be used to count.  Well, once you’ve got number, you can have mathematics.  With mathematics you can provide physics with the tools required to explain the physical universe.  It explains chemistry, and in turn biology.  It explains astrophysics and quantum mechanics.  It explains migration and migraines.

We’re getting to a point where – with acknowledged gaps – this progression is getting to grips with neuroscience, that’s filling in the foundations of the understanding of human nature otherwise expressed by psychology.

We’re not there yet, and probably will never be there entirely, but this looks to me like a framework at least for a Theory of Everything.

Now that’s a lot harder to say than “God”, isn’t it?  But I’d argue that the work religion has done to model the origins and operations of our world is simply another approach to exactly same the work that science does.

Most religion is based on texts that would doubtless have been the best working model available at the time of writing.  At. The. Time. Of. Writing.  Things, dear reader, have moved on.

I have two sticking points: one, personalizing the universe with the concept of God – I do not think that there’s a beardy old guy on the other end of the phone, nor does it seem to me to be an adequate explanation that an ineffable and eternal being made this whole shebang.  That’s a great metaphor, but metaphors are not truths.  Two, and we just touched on it, I see the value in the religious texts as allegories, as metaphors, as stories.  But to insist on their utter and unquestionable truth is daft, when there are much more complete metaphors in the world of science now.

However, I also have some compassion for those folks who reach for and cling to religious truth.  It’s very comforting, and that’s not me being dismissive.

Human history has been linear and local until very recently.  By linear I mean that it doesn’t change much.  Sure, there’s variation, but it’s more or less predictable.  Season come and go, rocks are hard, water is wet.  So, we evolved a mechanism to save us having to process all incoming information, all sights, sounds, smells, and experiences.  Much more efficient to simply process things that were different from the normal variations.  Unusual squiggle on the ground? SNAKE!  The amygdala – the bit of the brain that handles this stuff – hits the fire alarm!  It hits it hard, and it overrides everything.  So even if you then go “Oh wait, not snake, but squiggly stick.  Phew!” the alarm system is still in charge.  Just in case.  it is very rapid, and takes a while to subside.

The internal mechanisms for more reasoned thought, for planning, for analyzing and concluding, for creativity, are much slower processes, and take a bit of peace and quiet, as they are pretty absorbing.  They require an environment that’s known to be safe, with no disturbances.  This is why university libraries are quiet places.

However, out in the world, we have the media screaming at us the whole time.  Why?  Well, remember the amygdala?  If you give bad news it’s far more interesting and demanding of attention than good news!  Bad news sells!

Unfortunately it also keeps hitting the internal fire alarm.  Most Americans, most Westerners, are exposed to a continuous stream of “SNAKE!” from TV, from the Internet, from their boss, from everywhere!  Yikes!

So, can you blame anyone for reaching for the comforting certainty of religion?  Nope.  It takes something to be able to quietly and reasonably calm oneself in the face of the modern world.  We sure as heck aren’t taught the ‘soft skills’ this requires.  Churches provide it.

Personally, I’ve had the good fortune to acquire enough of those soft skills and a very good grounding in the sciences to be able to calm myself without resorting to religion or cynicism as my defaults.

So, my request to the religious is to grant the scientific their place, and to the scientific to grant the religious their place.  They are both ways of describing and handling the universe.  Neither are Right at the expense of the other being Wrong.  Both, in their respective contexts, can work.  Both can also do a dismal job of not working.

(For much more on this topic, see “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, and “Abundance” by Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler.)

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