Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Science and Religion: The Short Course

OK, here I go again. This one will generate some comments. I have finally figured out why science and religion (of any form) are natural enemies.

Science has determined that the universe is going to end eventually, either in a "Big Crunch" or in an ever expanding heat death. If I understand the current physics correctly (I do not, but may have a handle on the summaries), the odds seem to be in favor of an expanding universe piddling away the last of its energy in heat death. To summarize the findings of cosmology, there is nothing that we are going to do to stop that. Not on Earth, not in space, not in the future, no way, no how. We are along for the ride.

Even in the short term, science informs us that life on Earth could end abruptly from an asteroid, or via a passing star in some millions of years. Of course it will end eventually, upon the expansion of our sun past the orbit of our planet as part of its natural life cycle.

Science also informs us that we are driven to preen, to prepare, to want, to enjoy sex, purely for the reason that our ancestors survived better than their peers having those traits. Eat, survive, reproduce. That is all life has ever been about.

That view of the universe is less than uplifting for some readers.

Religion, on the other hand, asks us to believe in a mythology for the sakes of making ourselves feel better about the fate of the universe. The role of any mythology, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell again, is to put oneself in accord with the universe. That means to weather the fears of childhood and the hormonal storms of adolescence without self distruction and, at the other end of life, to accept death gracefully. How are we supposed to do those things, ask believers, when science tells us that life is ultimately meaningless?

I propose a new meme for the new century. Let's see the beauty of the universe for what it is. It really is an incredible place. Let's revel in it, for it is what it is and we, small and fragile, are who we are. We may try to change who or even what we are with our science, but we cannot finally escape the heat death of the universe itself. We are still along for the ride. We might as well care for each other. We might as well take care of our planet. We might as well make a heaven for ourselves, right here and right now, than to live in a hell of our own making.

Can science point us to a new morality? People have tried before and eugenics was the result. "Social Darwinism" was engendered by a scientific viewpoint, right? Yes, but I think we can do better this time. We can think the problem through, iterating the meme as we see fit. Consider some morality that might flow from scientific thought:
  • If our lives are ultimately meaningless, shouldn't we watch after our own happiness while we are here? We should get to work on a culture of gardening; we have a lot of work to do to make Earth a nice place.
  • If no gods are going to save us, should we not consider saving ourselves? Waiting for the Rapture should no longer be an excuse for inaction.
  • If we recognize ourselves for what we really are, could we find a way to stop being ruled by greedy, power-hungry nutters? Perhaps the reason so many senior executives, politicians and religious leaders fail to live by their own standards is that it takes a badly broken person to want those jobs to begin with. They deserve our pity and our help.
Religion and science are natural enemies because they differ on the meaning of life. The success of science in predicting and explaining the workings of our universe suggest that we should start work on a means of answering those questions traditionally left to religion. How do we learn to accept our fate? How do we learn to enjoy the ride? It can be done. It is, after all, a very lovely universe to die in.


  1. Anonymous8:29 AM

    My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions! The Secret Rapture soon, by my hand!
    Read My Inaugural Address
    My Site=http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman

  2. I'm not going to delete the above comment, but wow! There certainly are some strange people out there.

  3. Speaking as the devil's advocate (or would that be god's advocate?), I could say that Jeebus will come and save or damn us before the Universe ends, so whatever science has to say on this issue does not ultimately matter if you believe in the Rapture or some such.

    In any case, I agree 100% with your conclusions :)

  4. Well, I think your conclusion is too subjective. Religion and science are not necessarily natural enemie; and indeed they are not.

    Religions are about ultimate belief of mankinds. As a matter of fact, if you only believe in Science but not anything others, it thus also becomes a religion (and the religion of atheists).

    Your argument about the fate of universe is only a minor question on the debate between religion and science. In fact, quite many fundamentalists on varied religions agree on what you mentioned with Science, and quite many atheists agree on what you mentioned with religion. This is not a fundamental distinction between science and religion.

    I recently wrote an article about web evolution. In this article I talked a little bit about web evolution in science and web evolution to humans' ultimate desire of immortality. Maybe you would like to read it. The like can be found at: http://www.deg.byu.edu/ding/WebEvolution/evolution-dream.html

    It is only the first draft and there must be quite a few errors, any comments are very much welcomed.



  5. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Thank you for leaving my post up.

    I am for sure a far out Space Cadet.

    Within months, if not years, by my hand, we will be in the post apocalyptic world of 'Jericho' on TV! The proof is in the pudding! Stay tuned!

  6. Yihong,

    Thanks for the link. It is interesting reading.

    I am not sure that I agree with your reasons for thinking that science and religion can be reconciled, but I do find some of your ideas on immortality and the Web worth repeating. I'll be keeping an eye on your work as it develops.

  7. Interesting hypothesis on the relationship between science and religion. Here are some of my rationalizations.

    1. Religion does indeed provide purpose for living. The scientific fact of life is that everyone dies. If one truly did not believe in an afterlife, what would be the purpose of continuing ones existence? The futility of life would be that anything accomplished during ones life would be meaningless after one’s death. Why bother to live another day when one knows exactly how their existence will end, sooner or later? Why should one care about their legacy after their death if they will cease to exist and not be knowledgeable about it? Being “Good” or “Bad” would be subjective and without an afterlife everyone would end up in the same state. If I were to cease believing in my religion I could possibly live by the creed “it’s only wrong if you get caught”.

    2. If there is a sentient God, perhaps it does not wish to be scientifically proven to exist. In the Christian religion, from the beginning of mankind in the garden of Eden to the end of mankind in the book of Revelations people have always had the opportunity to accept or reject God. Now consider if the existence of the Judeo-Christian God was a scientific proven fact. Would all people worship and do the will of this god for purely who this god is and what he has done for them? Or, more likely, would many of the people go through the motions of fulfilling the requirements of this god for purely self preservation motives in fear of what would happen if they didn’t? Science is the process of discovering and understanding every unknown. If God wishes to remain unknown and unconstrained then by definition science must reject the concept of a God.