Science, religion and respect for meaning

Religious apologists seem to be obsessed with the relationship between religion and science. Not so much for scientists who generally just want to get on with their job of understanding reality and helping humanity make use of the resulting knowledge.

But in retirement I have had more opportunity to come across the argument’s used by apologists to explain away the differences between scientific and religious knowledge, or to deny scientific knowledge. The overwhelming impression I have is one of bafflegab, mental gymnastics, strawmannery and jelly wrestling. Certainly not honesty.

One thing that gets up my nose is the lack of respect for language, for the meaning of words. Particularly important words like “truth” and “knowledge.” An example is this comment in a review of  apologist John Lennox‘s new book at Christian News (see Can Science, Creationism Coexist? One Christian Author Says Yes):

“In his recently published book, Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox sets out to prove that Christians can believe in the theories of science and maintain the truth of Scripture.”

These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!  As for science – well that’s only “theory” – and you know what meaning they usually give to that word. No, not the scientific understanding of theory as “a set of facts, propositions, or principles analysed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena.” No, more the vague popular use of “theory” as “an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture.”

This always strikes me as the height of arrogance – an arrogance that often leads to problems. One has only to think of Galileo’s treatment because his persecuters thought he was daring to question the “Truth” of scripture.

Not that scientists usually use the word “truth”, and especially not “Truth” to describe scientific knowledge. We are well aware of the provisional, but progressive, nature of scientific knowledge. Always amenable to improvement and change as it is checked against reality.

Scientific knowledge is relative  – not absolute, not “Truth”, but it’s the best we have. If science cannot give us specific knowledge about reality one can be sure no other method can.

That’s the other thing that get’s up my nose. The arrogance of some apologists who will seriously suggest they have higher standards. Because while scientific knowledge is amenable to change and improvement religious knowledge is not. It is the “Truth.”

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18 responses to “Science, religion and respect for meaning

  1. Nice post Ken, I’m with you there 100%. It’s also funny how the religious self edit the ‘Truth’ they get from their holy unchanging scripture. They remove the ‘Truth’ that they don’t like and substitute a more acceptable ‘Truth’ and they’re not even embarrassed.

    For example, what “Truth” does one get from Numbers 31:17-18? I get that the deity of the Christians ordered genocide; the murder of babies, children, women, men and the enslavement and rape of young virgin girls.

    Christians will a) refuse to accept that dirty little fact, try to justify genocide and rape or try to write it off as ‘in the old testament’ even though the Jesus Christ they claim to worship very specifically said he not only agreed with the old laws but if one didn’t follow them all to the letter one would not be entering heaven.

    Another lovely ‘Truth’ can be found in Psalm 137:9. “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”. What “Truth”, precisely, is one to take from that? Happy about bashing a child, ANY child’s head against anything?

    The religious have this nasty habit of ignoring the bits of their “Truth” that they don’t like and inventing one that is acceptable by the standards of the day.

    I believe the only Really True Christians(TM) around are the Phelps’ from Westboro Baptists because they act in accordance with their entire Bible, not just the watered down ‘nice’ bit’s conjured up for general consumption.

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  2. I can relate to this because I have had similiar experiences. I wonder if the heart of the problem is related to the fact that science at the cutting edge is now way past junior high school knowledge and only the scientists and highly technologically literate actually know what is happening. Even with a PhD there are articles in Nature I can’t read because I havent kept up in those areas. The simple assertions of the apologists backed up with an impressive looking pseudo scientific literature written for the most part by Wheetbix packet qualified “scientists” and “biblical scholars” give the superficial Bible literalists the impression it is OK to carry on with their position. Unfortunately the amount of knowledge that needs to be conveyed to correct their position is quite considerable and usually quite beyond the Reader’s Digest level sound bite debate which is apparently all they are prepared to commit to. The other aspect is that the fundamentalists honestly believe salvation is dependent on signing up to the literalist creed, which means to look at deeper criticisms, in their view is actually endangering their souls. On my site for example when I start talking of the evidence for evolution, instead of counter evidence I am sometimes assailed by literalists warning me that my false teaching will cause those who follow me to burn in hell.

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  3. @peddiebill I think this quote by Upton Sinclair is relevant to your point: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary [or salvation?] depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Understanding a lot of science may be hard but understanding science when you don’t want to is impossible.

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  4. It’s easy for both Christians and Atheists to sound right when they are engaging with those that are either already “converted” or those who are ignorant and unconverted.

    In the decade or so that I’ve been around these debates, I have only seen a few from each side who bother to seek out and engage with well informed and intelligent opponents. Those that do not do this tend to propagate arguments that have been long disproved.

    I suggest checking out http://www.str.org for a decent Christian perspective. These guys are happy to engage with their opponents and do so in a polite and reasonable manner.

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  5. You know that the Christian texts were not written in the bronze age right….?

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  6. Richard Christie

    You know that the Christian texts were not written in the bronze age right….?

    Half were written between a few decades and a few centuries after the death of Christ. right?

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  7. Since nobody claimed that any texts were written during the bronze age, I’m not sure where that comment came from M.

    Not, however, that it would make the slightest difference if they were. Fiction is fiction, regardless of when it was imagined.

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  8. Yes, Max, well aware of that. I am talking about content though.

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  9. Pingback: It is a Fact that… « The Call of Troythulu

  10. “These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!” … referring to Christian beliefs… kind of implies that Ken thinks that Christian thought comes from the bronze age does it now?

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  11. “bronze age myths [and] parables and mysticism!”

    But most of the bible is like that.

    So you equate “Chrsitian beliefs” with “Truth” do you Max?

    How the hell can that be justified?

    It’s just debasing the meaning of words.

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  12. Yahweh certainly wasn’t a modern invention now was it? Bronze age, stone age, sounds about right. That’s from whence the myth came, did it not?

    But like Richard pointed out, the literature that Christianity depends on come from a time somewhat after the events of interest. Now doesn’t it.

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  13. So you equate “Christian beliefs” with “Truth” do you Max?… um… no Ken… that is what you were claiming other people did above. Am I missing something here?

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  14. Just checking, Max. Glad you aren’t one of those.

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  15. Richard Christie

    The materialist joke in the post confuses materialism with, um, materialism.
    All you philosophers will know what I mean.

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  16. No. I prefer to think and not have a dogmatic line in the sand.

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  17. Good on you. Me too.

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  18. What a coincidence!. Yesterday, in a second hand store I purchased a mug that has some of the same “truths” written on it plus these:

    Protestantism: Let shit happen to someone else.
    Atheism: No shit.
    T.V. Evangelism: Send more shit
    Confucianism: Confucius say, “Shit happens.”
    Zen Buddhism: What is the sound of shit happening?

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