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“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” These first words of Genesis suggest the heavens and Earth are the same age, but science tells us the universe is three times older than the Earth.

So how do we decide which to believe? Are science and religion even compatible?

To judge, we must analyze science’s ways of knowing and compare them to those of religion. Harvard biologist Steven Jay Gould referred to them as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where science documents the factual character of the natural world, and religion concerns itself with human purpose, meaning and values. Because they dealt with separate issues, Gould believed science and religion could live in harmony.

But, as Jerry Coyne argues in his book “Faith vs. Fact,” in making empirical truth claims about the origins of the universe, the Earth and humankind, religion violates NOMA. As “truth” can be defined as conformity to objective reality, the differences between the two magisteria in ascertaining truth are striking.

  • Unlike religious dogma, scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional. Rather than devoutly championing a particular hypothesis with fervor, the ideal scientist’s confidence rises in proportion to the amount of supporting evidence accumulated.
  • A good scientific theory is parsimonious — it invokes no more factors than necessary; the fewer assumptions the better. For example, germ theory explained smallpox with fewer prior assumptions than the previous explanation, that the disease was divine punishment for immorality. Science is married to a naturalistic philosophy, that all of nature operates according to observed mechanical regularities — natural laws. Inserting supernatural entities into the equation is anything but parsimonious.
  • A theory must be falsifiable by observations or experiment. If evidence accumulates making a claim no longer tenable, it is either discarded or altered. A declaration which is not subject to disproof cannot be accepted as fact. As the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
  • Alternative explanations also must be explored. Can they more adequately fit the data? Isaac Newton assumed the planetary orbits would be unstable without God’s intervention. A century later, Pierre-Simon Laplace demonstrated mathematically that divine tweaking was unnecessary. When Napoleon asked him why in his massive book Laplace never mentioned a creator, he famously replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” To accept the veracity of the miraculous, one has to regard the suspension of the laws of nature more likely than other possibilities — fraud, mistakes, confirmation bias, myth-making — what David Hume labeled the “default explanations.”
  • Core scientific methodology is based on doubt, observation, replication and reason. Unlike religion, science transcends geographic or ethnic considerations in determining truth, and faith in the supernatural is not seen as a virtue in the lab.
  • Finally, scientific truth is progressive and cumulative, and it has the added benefit of being self-correcting over time. While some theories are overturned, most are improved upon if found to lack explanatory power.

Most religious believers accept the scientific method, with good reason. In fact, we all display high confidence in science when we board a plane, train or automobile, take a medication, or have our children vaccinated. You merely have to look at your smartphone — science delivers.

Yet, some claim there are other valid methods for apprehending truth: authority of holy books and personal revelation. However, if these were reliable, the doctrines of the thousands of religions would be universal, or at least reconcilable. And unlike science, they fail to produce a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.

Believers should take a more critical look at their religion and ask themselves, “What evidence would it take for me to abandon my faith?”

Here we’ll find another way religion diverges from science: how its adherents behave when the facts don’t support their beliefs. So far, science and critical-thinking have discredited several biblical claims. The creation tale, Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood, the exodus from Egypt and the census of Augustus have all been falsified. Yet, in a 2005 poll, 64 percent of Americans said they would reject the evidence if it disproved their religious convictions. As Martin Luther once quipped, “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.”

But if your mind is closed to the facts, you’ve removed yourself from rational discourse. While conservative clergymen fight the facts tooth and nail, more sophisticated theologians reinterpret the once dogmatic assertions as metaphorical. Nevertheless, some prominent clerics are showing signs of hesitant uncertainty. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, freely acknowledges his doubts about the very existence of God. I don’t blame him, as the undetectable and the nonexistent look very much alike.

While religious faiths can’t all be right, they can all be wrong. Better to trust in a truth-finding method with a proven track record.

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Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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(33) comments

MidwestAtheist

Out of the park once again, Ed. Well done, and thank-you.

Bill Payer

No, there is no conflict between science and religion. It's a fallacy perpetuated by atheists like Coyne and, apparently, those who believe these Feeble Thinker columns.
"'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.' These first words of Genesis suggest the heavens and Earth are the same age"
No. The biblical claim here is that the universe had a beginning. Until the 20th century, atheists held that the universe was eternal (the phrase "big bang" was originally a term of derision). Scientific evidence then confirmed the universe arose from an initial singularity roughly 13 billion years ago.
From there, it turns philosophical. If the universe had a beginning, what caused it? It's logical to say that whatever caused it is eternal and supernatural since neither space, time nor the natural laws of our universe existed prior. Does that imply a creator/god? While not conclusive, it's certainly plausible, and a fine example of compatibility between the two.

neandros

A very feeble, unscientific answer, Bill. Demonstrates you haven't learned anything from the above column. Your creator god hypothesis lacks parsimony (Occam's Razor). You look for a gap in our collective knowledge and you insert your favorite deity. (Why not magic gnomes?) We don't know how the universe sprang into existence, therefore god. But you never give a satisfactory explanation for where this extra factor comes from, its mass, physical size, momentum, etc. Only more magical thinking dressed up as a rational hypothesis. Science and religion are incompatible because religion is fanciful, made up baloney.

MidwestAtheist

Bill likes to use the Bible only when it suits him. If he really relied on the Bible, he would be saying that the universe is only 6000 years old, since that is the picture that the creation account and geneologies depict. This is the position that Ken Ham and biblical literalists take. They are just as wrong as Bill, but at least they have the advantage over him of being consistent. You don't get to say the Bible is an accurate and reliable source of truth, and then pick and choose which parts are literal or 'philosophical'. For example, even if science indicated that the universe had no beginning, Bill would still say that god was necessary then to create all of the things that were, since a creator would be necessary since there issomething rather than nothing....

Redwall

Merry Christmast, bigot.

tomoba

There has never been a religion invented that has advanced the nature of mankind. To the contrary, religion and it's fake gods have retarded the development of man from its primitive savagery. Praise Jesus. Amen. Pass the butter.

Monteee

Apparently, you don't know about Buddhism and how it's helped millions of people for the past 2,500 years.

IThink

Big fan of Buddhism. I have been practicing for almost 5 years and what a change it has made in my life. Some don't consider it a religion because we don't worship a god. Perhaps the best part is I don't have orders from a book telling me to either bring non-believers before some one to be killed or kill them myself. Really, really nice change.

neandros

Trib says this the final Freethinker Perspective. I'll miss them - best regular column they ever had IMO. I now look forward to the inevitable Pavlovian response by Mark Chavallass in two or three days.

Monteee

This is the final article? When was this decided? I must have missed something......

Bill O'Rights

The Tribune's staff ( I assume it is the Editorial Board) made the decision about 6-8 weeks ago to stop the A Freethinker's Perspective columns as well as the Theistic Worldview columns that have been published on alternating 2 week schedules.

To the credit of the Tribune, I believe that it was the only regional daily newspaper in the country to regularly publish a column dealing with non-theistic viewpoints such as the A Freethinker's Perspective.

I do not know what caused them to stop the series but I suspect it was because the Theistic Worldview writers had been repeatedly writing that their religious beliefs must be true because the Bible said so and they had faith that it was true.

Redwall

The column isn't "non-theistic" its outright anti religious bigotry.

Good ridance.

IThink

Maybe someone saw it as "micro-aggression". Can't be upsetting anyone these days. Someone presenting ideas outside of the box might cause people to put down the Kool-Aid.

Redwall: it is spelled "riddance". Perhaps you might want to take a break from your bible and pick up a dictionary on occasion.

Buggs Raplin

If one reveres science, then one must not make exceptions if science results in information that undermines one's world view. Archeology is a science. The clay tablets of Earth's first civilization, the Sumerians, tell us humankind was created by the Anunnaki alien race, and there WAS a great flood when the Antarctic ice shelf loosened. The book of Genesis is a variation of the Anunnaki reality. That accounts for the saying, "Let "us" make man in our own image." And they did through genetic experimentation. The Anunnaki are responsible for the pryramids at Giza and the Mayan temples in Mexico, and no doubt the Nazca Lines, Stonehenge, and the Easter Island monuments-all beyond the capability of their human creations. Yes, I know many of us have been conditioned by the established order to ridicule the idea of extra-terrestrials. But when you realize that that idea is a threat to the established order, and religion (which serves it) the ridicule is understandable, though misplaced.

Machiavelli

Buggs Solo: "The book of Genesis is a variation of the Anunnaki reality."

May the Farce be with you!

"Ewok Celebration STAR WARS DAY" (teddy bear picnic)

www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Tb4F9D1W_k

Buggs Raplin

Typical ridicule. To be expected.

Cassandra

You're confusing the science of finding and interpreting long lost objects with proof that creation myths are valid.
Archeologists have found all kinds of tablets and papers with all kinds of goofy claims. Just because someone wrote it down thousands of years ago doesn't make the Anunnaki nonsense any more legitimate than the BS being peddled by biblical literalists.

Buggs Raplin

Creation myths? No, Cassie, try history, or deny the science of archeology. Your choice.

Cassandra

Following your logic, anything that is found by archeologists that supports the Abrahamic religions is equally valid. QED.

Buggs Raplin

No, you're not following my logic. I'm saying a certain amount of the Old Testament is attributable to the history of Anunnaki alien race, which the Jews incorporated into their religion. Their "God" Yahweh was the Anunnaki Enlil; his brother Enki along with his sister, Ninmah, created humankind through genetic experimentation. The Egyptian god Ra, was Marduk, the son of Enki. Try reading Zecharia Sitchin for the full story of our beginnings.

IThink

Let's then not forget to worship all of the Gods: Zeus, Apollo, Ra, Isis, Horus , and all their friends because they have been found in archeology so they must all exist, too.

MidwestAtheist

Yes, according to Buggs, if you dig it up it is true. Therefore- Christians also win since you can dig up their ancient texts- just as Cassandra states, and Buggs also doesn't get. This has been brought up to him many times before, and he will never understand. He has a mental block to assimilating new information that contradicts what he already believes.

I will bury a Spiderman comic, and when it is dug up some years later by archaeologists, it must be regarded as true. It's just good science, folks.

Cassandra

#townjoke

kal2

The only 'reason' science and religion, as they exist, are incompatible is that religion has nothing to do with God! The religious fig leaf is an all too human theological construct. A counterfeit of the Promise of the living God. No doubt that when He should decide to reveal Himself to the material world, and expose the 'fig lear' it will happen is such a way that conforms with the highest ideals of practical reason. It may already have happened? http://www.energon.org.uk

Machiavelli

EN: "The creation tale, Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood, the exodus from Egypt and the census of Augustus have all been falsified."

Even that is putting lipstick on a pig. Let's just come right out and say it: religion is flat-out bogus. Fairy tales. That even a child wouldn't fall for if this garbage wasn't forced down his throat by elders. It's time to say "I call BS" with religion!

"Christianity is False and Immoral. (Christopher Hitchens)"

www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA55jGyq2C8

descheneaux

It is time for for the "updating", the rewriting of the Bible and Koran to reflect our contemporary situation. These should be "living documents" reflecting the knowledge we have acquired over the years. These writings currently contain the seeds of intolerance and violence and the seeds of acceptance and compassion. We must water the latter and discard the former. Thomas Jefferson's revision, named Jefferson's Bible, would be an excellent starting point for Christians. Man created these documents and man can recreate them to serve humankind better. What was in antiquity is not what is today.

There will be "old believers" for many years to come, just as there are in the Amish (Anabaptists) and Russian Orthodox churches. That is fine.

The future of religion and the world depends on the youth. Tomorrows are your creation. Do it wisely.
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I agree with Ed. See my thoughts above.

wishsciencerules

Ok, then, how about updating Hans Christian Anderson s tales ? What if only science, philosophy had survived through the ages?Philosophy can encompass religion and rationally contextualize it. Agree, that If a few groups choose to live intellectually in "old world wisconsin" fine, at the same time they are keeping historical skills alive and do not use governments to force others to conform to their beliefs and this reciprocity is protected by law.

By the way, Ed Newman is brilliant! He should have a weekly column or direct one reprinting secular, counter balance articles, that many would not , otherwise, be aware of. If we do not have something to balance religious imput, then this paper is supporting fantasy based propaganda at the expense of logic and science.

Buggs Raplin

Just for the record, the atheists cannot prove God doesn't exist, though their criticisms of organized religion are on target. Word to the wise, if you need someone or something to worship, let me suggest the sun, the giver and preserver of life.

neandros

"...atheists cannot prove God does not exist,.."

And we can't prove Zeus, fairies, and invisible cheese eaters on the moon don't exist either. As we've had to tell you many times before, the burden of proof is on the claimant. If my confidence in the truth of an unproven claim (e.g. a god or cheese eater) can be expressed as a %, then I give your god claim a very small, though non-zero, probability - say .000001 %. Bring some evidence and I'll be happy to refigure the likelihood. So far, all I've heard were tepid remarks about faith, blah blah blah, and crickets...

Buggs Raplin

You tried to avoid the fact that atheists cannot prove that God doesn't exist. I say it's a possibility, something you, yourself, admit.

MidwestAtheist

Yes. Also, those of us who also believe in Unicorns also are on equal footing with those who do not. They cannot prove to us that Unicorns do not exist, therefore we are both equally likely to be right. Also true for fairies, goblins, leprechauns, universe-creating-pixies, trolls, sprites, ghosts, demons, angels, etc

wishsciencerules

my reply was primarily directed at descheneauxs "update" the fairy tales comment.

descheneaux

You are a bit quick to judge my intent and/or meaning here. I suspect I have been an atheist longer than you have been on this earth, nearly 60 years. This was not support for theism. It was a practical suggestion for alieviating the hate and intolerance religion so often births. I hope that as an atheist I do not become as intolerant and black/white as the theists I disagree with. I can no more "prove" my conclusions than they, despite my love of, and knowledge of scientific reason. I choose this forum to express myself as, having moved out of state, the tribune will no longer publish my letters. Originally, that was submitted as a LTE.

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