Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

198 years ago today …

Monday, February 12th, 2007

… were born not one but two great men. Their work reverberates today, and the controversies they tried to solve sometimes still feel unsolved — but not because they didn’t solve them.

One was born in a log cabin, the other in relative luxury. The log-cabin boy lost his mother to milk sickness when he was just nine years old; the other had lost his own a year earlier, when he was only eight.
These two motherless boys grew up outside the embrace of conventional religion, and made only token gestures toward it as they aged. Yet each became a cultural deity. Today, the face of each graces a commonly used monetary note in their native lands.

The influence of Abraham Lincoln is obvious and great, and America and many other nations have absorbed it. But the human race may never fully comprehend the influence of Charles Darwin. It may be that we have not evolved far enough from the apes to be able to accept them as our cousins.

Though no one could know it then, February 12, 1809 was quite a day.

Why Religion Is Better Than Science

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Actually, most of them aren’t. But a number of religions do at least one thing better than any science I’ve ever seen: They motivate their followers to go out of their way to show kindness to people not related to them. People they’ve never met: total strangers.

That is not to say that the sciences urge cruelty. Those who study biology, chemistry and physics are no more likely than those who live by faith to deliberately harm strangers. Indeed, they are far less likely to do so than a religious fanatic is to harm an infidel. A ‘biology fanatic’ may devote his days to observing killer whales, but doing so does not make him a murderer. Indeed, naturalists have been the first and most consistent protectors of non-human life. And anthropologists often perform the same function for endangered tribes of people, urging the rest of us to appreciate rather than destroy.

Still, ‘helping’ is not the primary motivation for an anthropologist the way it is for, say, a nun who devotes her life to feeding, educating and clothing the poor. Religions can inspire us to look for God or the Buddha or Krishna or Jesus or a Hebrew Scripture Angel in a deeply flawed, smelly human being, and some people claim they really do see God or the Buddha, etc., in the eyes of that suffering person. And they spend time with that stranger, and look into his or her eyes, and get to know him or her, and emerge from the encounter having made both that person and themselves and, by extension, the rest of us, a little happier. That’s glorious.

People who are not religious at all do this too, of course. Many atheists I know care deeply for people unrelated to them, and do their best to help. We do not need religions to teach us to be ethical.

What I’m saying is neither that people need religions to remind them to show compassion, nor that the study of science removes such compassion (although there’s some evidence that the study of economics has this effect — a study of undergraduate economics students revealed them to be, on average, less altruistic at the course’s end than they’d been at the beginning). Only that some religions are really good at motivating it — at nagging people to look more closely at the stranger, to see the stranger as less strange.

And in this respect, when it does this one very important thing, religion is better, in that moment, than science.

To this, some people would add the hope many religions offer for a better life after this one — reuniting with loved ones, etc. To me, though, that hope is counterbalanced by the fear many of those same religions implant — the fear that you and/or your loved ones will end up in Hell, or at least with much more pain than you already have. I’d much rather believe that my deceased loved ones never regained consciousness than imagine them in Hell, and I feel the same way about my own fate. So I think that one’s a wash.

Roger Responds

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Roger Berkowitz writes, in regard to what I wrote on April 23rd:

“In response to your post: In all frankness, you mangle my point.

“My point is not that there is no difference between science and religion. Nor do I claim, as you suggest, that the science boosters are racist. You try to make me into a spokesman for some kind of cultural relativism, which I would never speak for.

“I have no complaint with the claim that science has won the day over religion. The evidence for this is too plain to be contested. Religion has failed (the Judeo-Christian God is dead). And science has indeed offered us unparalleled success, from reaching the moon to communicating through wires and beams of light. I accept the victory of science.

“Before one can criticize my claim, the decent thing to do is at least attempt to understand it. As you faithfully report, I suggested that science shares the character of religion. Now, by this I certainly don’t mean that science says, as you write:

“’Here is what I know to be true, because someone I never met wrote it in a book more than a thousand years ago. And by the way, it’s impossible for anyone to test these claims, ever. Still, if you don’t accept my interpretation of this ancient book, I will expect you to burn in Hell, and may even have to persecute and possibly kill you to make sure you get there soon.’”

“Of course, on this understanding, science shares little with religion. Then again, I don’t imagine that many religious people throughout history understand religion this way either. Indeed, aside from zealots and fanatics (of whom there are too many in and out of religions), I don’t know who would hold such a view. I don’t mean to defend religion, but to say that your definition of religion is perverse.

“So what do I mean when I say that science shares the character of religion? Well, as you know I live part time in the Hudson Valley, not far from the Hudson River. I go out sometimes and walk along the Hudson. I may contemplate the river, and what do I see? I see a waterway for ships and commerce. I see a source of power for turbines. I see a reservoir for drinking water and a reserve of (slightly irradient) fish for eating. I see a coolant for power plants and a storage tank for PCBs. The river, in other words, is a thing that is useful. Like the forest under the US Forest Service (A Land of Many Uses), the Hudson is, in its essence, something that is useful for man and society.

“Now, I may also see the river as something beautiful, a tourist attraction that is essential for the economy of my neighbors. It is even possible that I will see it as an example of nature that needs to be protected and preserved from the degrading impact of human hands. But even when I approach the river as something to be protected in itself, I understand that the river is subject to human will and manipulation. The choice to “preserve” the river in its natural state is, for us, a choice. Whether we use the river for commerce or protect it as a natural thing, the river is inescapably something that I and my fellow man can control.

“Recognizing this, I may look at the river and recognize that there is one way I cannot see the river. I have lost the ability to experience the river as awesome, as a work of nature that is beyond my control. I cannot see the river as something incomprehensible—as something that is bigger than human understanding. Even if I don’t understand its currents and chemistry, I know that I could with effort and study. The very possibility of a mighty river, a magisterial experiene of nature, is foreclosed to me.

“The scientific way of thinking about the river, in other words, stands deeply opposed to the religious worldview in which the river is just there, impervious to our understanding and will. Because I approach the river today from a scientific worldview, I can no longer experience the river as awesome or holy—holiness is, from the perspective of science, a superstition. This scientific worldview means that I believe that the river, like all things, has reasons for why it flows and why it is. The river, just as much as my computer, is comprehensible. It can be explained, understood, and thus harnessed for human ends.

“Now, this worldview is, as a worldview, something I cannot go behind. I can’t just decide to suspend my scientific mind and see the river as holy and awesome. Rather, my scientific worldview precludes any and every other way of thinking. In this sense, it is a belief that I have, one that I can’t question (except scientifically, from within a scientific critique). The point is, therefore, that science is, at bottom, a belief.

“In my book, The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, I explore one danger of the scientific worldview. I show that when law comes under the sway of scientific thinking, law necessarily loses its connection to justice. Just as the river must have reasons for how and why it flows that make it understandable, so does law—as an object of scientific thinking—need reasons that justify and explain it. But then law becomes something that is useful, something that serves some end. Today, of course, the idea that law serves ends (be they ends of fairness, efficiency, or security) is common sense. But insofar as law serves political ends—ends of our choosing—law becomes simply a tool, a means. Law, like the river, is useful.

“The scientific idea of law as a mere means stands against an understanding of law as an imperative to do justice. It denies the very existence of law as justice and insists that law, like all things in a scientific world, is only meaningful for some human goal or end. It is in this way that science, in the name of improving and bettering our understanding and use of law, chases justice from the world. Justice, like the river qua river, is an affront to the scientific faith in the rationality and human masterability of our world.

“I admit that science is useful. Science is deeply and powerfully effective way of seeing the world. I would never contest that. If I am sick, I prefer medicine to prayer (although I am skeptical of much medical knowledge). And on an airplane, I prefer to remind myself of the law of physics over and against a hope that I can fly. But your claim is bigger than that: you argue that ‘the world, if studied, may be rationally understood.’ You write:

‘By now, moreover, it should be obvious that the assumption that the world, if studied, may be rationally understood, has in fact been demonstrated. If it had not, people would never have reached the moon, to cite an obvious example; nor would we have conquered polio, nor have invented the computers on which words like this are written and read.’

“Your point is that science is not only effective, but also true: you argue that we have mastered the world or are in the process of mastering it through science. In other words, the effectivity of science is proof of its truth.

“Against you, my point is that science is a worldview that we accept and cannot prove. Indeed any attempt to prove the scientific world of reason is caught within our own need to prove it according to the very same scientific standards we are attempting to question. We can’t escape the scientific world since it is our worldview. It has great benefits, but an appreciation of its advantages ought not to blind us to thinking honestly about its deficiencies. As a faith in the rationality and knowability of the world, science cannot abide or allow the thought of that which exceeds or escapes its grasp. The world becomes demystified and rational, and we lose our ability to think and act meaningfully upon a thought of the holiness or justice of a world beyond our control. You may not see this as a loss. But that it is a fact of our belief in science is, I think, undeniable.”

I appreciate your response, Roger, and apologize to you for mangling your point. I have a better understanding now of what you actually meant – or think I do. If we’d had more time to talk at the party, I imagine I would have understood it better still.

Perhaps one reason for my apparent obtuseness is that I simply don’t see the need to make the choice you say we’ve been compelled to make – the choice between science and holiness, or, as I prefer to call it, reverence.

I love what the scientific view has been able to tell us about the world. Yet I have not lost the “ability to think and act meaningfully upon a thought of the holiness or justice of a world beyond our control,” as you say one must, if one accepts the gifts of science. I still believe in the holiness and justice of a world beyond my control, and can still see people in mystical terms, even as I happily acknowledge that most of us evolved from ape-like mammals. (I say ‘most of us,’ because some do   to have evolved.)

I guess I don’t see the loss.

Moreover, I have a hard time understanding why it is even worthwhile to insist that scientific beliefs are ‘beliefs, therefore they share some of the character of religious beliefs.’

At that level of abstraction, of course, everything is a belief. But why dwell on that fact? What is the use?

I don’t see what it gets one, to emphasize the fact that everything that we know or think we know is a belief. Of course it’s true – but so what? All beliefs are not equal, and calling scientific truths ‘beliefs’ as a way to point up human ignorance seems silly.

Perhaps I misunderstand again. I have to ask, though: What do we gain by reminding ourselves that scientific beliefs are only beliefs? Does not every scientist and appreciator of science already know that, and accept that all findings are provisional?

Every belief is ‘only a belief.’ But some beliefs are better than others.

What am I missing?

A Brief Pitch for Marrow Donation

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

If you don’t currently know anyone who needs a bone-marrow donation to live, you may soon. Some 35,000 American children and adults need these stem cells of the blood in order to keep going, and many find that their relatives and close friends do not match them closely enough to prevent their bodies from rejecting the gift. Hence, they rely on strangers.

In today’s Science Times, Jane Brody notes that marrow donation has become much less painful, which is a big improvement. (It used to require large needles and hip pain somewhat greater that that which would result from a hard fall on the ice.)

Still, only six million American volunteers have signed up for the national marrow registry. On the one hand, that’s amazing — six million people have signed up to help people they don’t even know a little. This generosity goes beyond the capability of most animals, and is, according to spiritual teachers like the Buddha, Moses Maimonides and Jesus, the highest form of charity.

On the other hand, the population of the United States is just shy of 300 million, so some of you haven’t quite gotten around to signing up.

If you haven’t, please do so. It’s easy. Contact the National Marrow Donor Program, and they’ll help you out.

Most of us never get the chance to save the life of a stranger, whether dramatically or un-. Marrow donation offers you that chance. Imagine the feeling you would carry with you, if you knew that you had helped a child to live!

Why Science Is Better Than Religion

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

It has long been fashionable for smart people from liberal arts backgrounds (like my own) to equate science and religion. Such people are fond of saying things like, “Science is a religion, too,” “Science and religion are equally valid; they’re just two different ways of looking at the world,” and “Scientists don’t like to admit that they are, in their own way, just as irrational as religious people.” This attitude seems to come from a well-meaning resistance to the idea that some ways of looking at the world might have more value than others – an idea which may seem, though it is not, to be close to the idea that some races of people are better than others.
This line of thinking is hogwash. And it’s on my mind because tonight — at a lovely going-away party in Brooklyn Heights held by, and for, Mischa Frusztajer — a very smart person for whom I have tremendous respect made such a statement. (I won’t identify him, except to say that he is a very good guy and has read many more books than I have, including some in German, and that his name is Roger Berkowitz, and that he has written a very smart book called The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition.”) Roger said something to the effect of ‘Science and religion are essentially the same, because both start from unprovable assumptions. Scientists start from the assumption that the world may be rationally understood. That is an assumption, as Leibniz pointed out, that must be made; there is no ‘proving’ such a thing.”

Here is what I would have said, if I’d had a few more of my wits about me: “Actually, there is an enormous difference between saying, ‘Here is what I understand about the world, and if you follow these steps, you can test my statement for yourself, and see if I’m right,’ and saying, ‘Here is what I know to be true, because someone I never met wrote it in a book more than a thousand years ago. And by the way, it’s impossible for anyone to test these claims, ever. Still, if you don’t accept my interpretation of this ancient book, I will expect you to burn in Hell, and may even have to persecute and possibly kill you to make sure you get there soon.”

Science and religion are not the same. Science is a self-correcting method of learning about the world. Good scientists make no claims that cannot be tested by others. The same cannot be said of good clergy.

Even if one grants that both scientists and the religious begin with at least one untested assumption — the scientists, that the world may be comprehended; the religious, that God or a god or gods and/or goddesses communicated His or Her or Their desires to some people a long time ago, and expected the rest of us to believe and follow those people’s written accounts — look at what happens after those initial assumptions. Scientists test something, measure the results, continue to test it from various angles, and invite others to join them in those tests, to see what else may be learned. (By now, moreover, it should be obvious that the assumption that the world, if studied, may be rationally understood, has in fact been demonstrated. If it had not, people would never have reached the moon, to cite an obvious example; nor would we have conquered polio, nor have invented the computers on which words like this are written and read.)

The religious, on the other hand, do not test their writings over and over, nor do they invite others to do such testing. Instead of testing they insist, often violently, on the primacy of their particular writings over competing versions.

I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here goes: Insisting is not the same as testing. Insisting requires persuasion and power — sometimes the full weight of the state. Testing requires honesty and precision.
Imagine that your car breaks down in a strange town, and two men approach you to offer their help. One of them offers to study your car, and test various possibilities until he finds the source of the problem. The other insists that God has told his ancestors why cars break down, and that you’d better believe him, or your car will never run again. To which man will you listen?

If you’re smart, you’ll listen to the one who’s willing to actually study the car and test a number of possibilities. If you’re not as smart, you’ll listen to the one who sounds most confident or scares you the most, regardless of what he may know about cars.
And that, my friends, is why science is better than religion: It’s smarter, it’s humbler, and it doesn’t need to enforce its conclusions with a sword.