The Unseen And Unknowable Has No Place In Science

For those of you who grew up being taught to believe in unseen and unknowable forces but are now feeling like you've been hoodwinked, don't be afraid to say so.
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It is my view that religion and science are incompatible in a very specific and important way. I say this as someone who previously drank the Kool-Aid and spent countless hours studying what was described to me as the Holy Spirit. I have been confirmed in the Lutheran tradition and have recited the Nicene Creed so often throughout my life that, as an adult, I no longer paid any attention to what the words were saying. They came out of me as rote, like a wind-up monkey who clapped his cymbals at the turn of a crank.

"We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen."

I came to realize that this mantra the church elders were making impressionable youngsters recite over and over again throughout their lives was little more than brainwashing kids into an irrational faith in imaginary forces. I asked myself, "Why should I pledge my belief in all things unseen? How do they know there is anything unseen? Why not pledge my belief in all things unheard or, for that matter, unsmelled? Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?"

Naturally, my questions didn't go over so well in after-school Bible study. I remember vividly Pastor Carl's frustration when he couldn't answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.

"We can't always understand God's will."

"But wait," I thought, "you claim to understand God's will in all of these other areas. Why do you suddenly claim ignorance simply because I've noticed a contradiction?" In addition to mosquitoes, today I might add Plasmodium falciparum, Vibrio cholerae, and Yersinia pestis to the list (the life forms responsible for malaria, cholera, and the Black Death respectively). However, back then I quickly learned to shut up. Certain questions weren't welcome and, at that time, I wasn't confident enough to rock the boat.

Where I did find these queries welcome were in my college science classes. There I would ask equally probing questions but, rather than being dismissed or made to feel like I was foolish, I would be rewarded with the response, "What a great question!" I was equally impressed that when my professors didn't know the answer they said so, and showed me tools by which I could find the answer out for myself. I've been using those tools ever since and have never looked back to the arguments from unreason that defined my past.

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger wrote in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.

"Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 170 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), was up front that he denied the evidence for evolution. Why? He didn't argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he would reserve judgment until the studies were replicated. He didn't dispute the sample size in a given study or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he was correct, regardless of what the facts might be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to one of his more popular books.

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn't mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don't probe too deeply into the foundations of a person's faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that's when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I'm sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They'll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

So for those of you who grew up being taught to believe in unseen and unknowable forces but are now feeling like you've been hoodwinked, don't be afraid to say so. There's a growing number of people who understand where you're coming from. It can be a scary thing to let go of but, I can assure you, the confidence that comes with intellectual honesty and reason is far more rewarding than empty promises based on an unseen faith.

This essay originally appeared at The Primate Diaries.

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