Science and Religion are like jealous spouses

How do we navigate the differences between science and religion?  What are the limits of rational human comprehension?  What is faith and does it play a role in gaining knowledge?

None of these questions are addressed in a typical modern atheist v. theist debate.

Professional skeptics and their followers defend metaphysical naturalism, where nothing exists that can’t theoretically be observed by humans using the scientific method.  The supernatural is assumed to be impossible by definition.  I’ve never heard a good reason why that assumption is true, but that’s not surprising because proselytizing atheists write and speak more like stand-up comedians than philosophy professors. They present religion in its most ridiculous, most offensive form, and hope the silliness of it will “wake theists up.”  They’ll pass over Erasmus and Kierkegaard and present Osama bin Laden as the world’s foremost theologian.

Most of the world’s Christians belong to churches that accept evolution as compatible with the Bible, but the atheist debater usually acts like every Christian is a King-James-Only fundamentalist creationist.

The typical atheist debater doesn’t argue against Christianity as actually practiced in the real world. When he reads the Bible, he cherry-picks verses out of the Old Testament, removes them from textual, cultural and linguistic context, and comes up with a bizarre Hyper-Calvinist tyrant God that no one on earth actually believes in. As Richard Dawkins put it in “The God Delusion,” he sees God as “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Now, real-life Christians agree with Dawkins in that if a creature like the one he describes exists, it should be rebelled against, not worshiped. In fact, most Christians agree with critiques that atheists make about religion. There’s no question that Christianity has been used as a tool of oppression and war. Good Christians follow Jesus’ lead in combating corrupt clergy and bad theology.

Too many Christian apologists play right into the atheists’ hands.  I’ve seen very smart people waste their lives trying to prove dinosaurs and humans co-existed.  I’ve seen otherwise good people twist common sense to justify genocide, sexism and homophobia because of their reading of a few translated verses.  In their hands, love comes second to a hyper-literal parsing of every verse.

I’ve actually heard the following debate play out in real life:

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible claimed there is a contradiction because in the King James Version, Jonah 1:17 says the prophet was swallowed by a great fish, while Matthew 12:40 says he was swallowed by a whale.  A Christian apologist noted that the phrases were translated from two different languages several centuries ago, and that classifying whales as fish was scientifically acceptable until the 19th Century, and was, interestingly, the subject of the 1818 case Maurice v. Judd.  The skeptic countered that there are no whales in the Mediterranean, where Jonah supposedly was when the whale swallows him.  The apologist came up with a theory about a whale that swam very far, and had the names of a couple large shark species that might have included the culprit.

None of this had anything to do with the existence of a deity.  If the supernatural exists, a man-eating whale is entirely possible.  Arguing about fish species avoided the central issue and ignored the entire point of the Book of Jonah anyway.

There’s no way to know if any method of finding knowledge is reliable, because its reliability must be judged by its own already suspect standards or by another method’s suspect standards.  It’s a frustrating situation, but that’s what we’ve got.  Nothing is categorically unquestionable.  Belief of any sort is a choice.

If you’re with a woman, you’re never going to be 100 percent, absolutely sure that she’s faithful and that she loves you.  You might be able to make an educated guess, but we’ve all been wrong one way or another.  But, if you’re going to have any sort of a relationship, you have to trust her and choose to believe her, despite reasonable doubts.

For me, it’s like that with the universe.  I don’t know in a scientific sense whether there’s a god or not.  I certainly can’t prove it.  But if I’m going to have any sort of a relationship with the divine and the infinite, I have to choose to believe He does exist, is faithful even when it might not seem obvious, and loves me.  Scientific inquiry is a way to talk to my lover and grow close.

Both the typical skeptic and the typical apologist however, are like jealous spouses who obsessively pour through Facebook photos to look for potential rivals.  They need to shut off the laptop and take her out for sushi.

(originally published at The Arkansas Traveler)

About Adam Call Roberts

I live and work in the beautiful Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. I have a 2-year-old son who, right now, loves dinosaurs, dragons and showing off how fast he can run. I'm counting down through the list of 1,000 Greatest Films. Follow my journey here. I'm also a genealogy buff, and I blog about my family history.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Science and Religion are like jealous spouses

  1. fiyenyaa says:

    When you compare faith in god with faith in one’s partner, you are not comparing similar things.
    On the one hand, we have a person who you’ve know for a long time, have shared much of your life with, have had deep conversation with, and one can assume that if you trust that your partner will not cheat, you should have a fairly good reason to do so.
    On the other hand we have a nebulous concept of a deity, which varies from culture to culture and only reveals itself through divine manuscripts which contradict themselves, each other, known history and known science. It’s hardly a fair comparison, is it?

    I always question this mindset of “I can’t prove it” – that’s a fine position to take (and indeed is my position regarding alot of things), so why go further and say “but I’m going to believe it anyway”? Now knowing is perfectly fine. I do not know that there is a god, I don’t know that there are no gods: I simply lack the belief, because there is no evidence.

  2. Thanks! I was hoping to attract just these sorts of intelligent comments.

    You’re right – my analogy is far from perfect. I was trying to use it as a way to explain my position rather than argue in favor for it.

    Why do I go further and choose to believe things I can’t prove? I look at life and try to figure out what seems to work. I assume you do the same. You can’t prove that reason is valid or that you’re not simply a brain in a vat, but you seem to be (at least provisionally) deciding to believe that human reason has validity, that science works, etc. I’m more than a bit of an existentialist.

    • fiyenyaa says:

      We can prove that human reason is valid simply through application. Reason leads to results. If we reasoned that when we drop an object that it would fall to the floor and the object flew into the sky – we could tell that reason doesn’t work.
      Obviously we can’t empirically test that reason works for every single phenomenon, every idea and every event ever; but there has been nothing I’ve ever heard which makes me question that reason is not a good way to look at the universe. Also note that no-one is claiming that it’s infallible – it’s simply the best way we have.
      Now, I cannot prove I’m not a brain in a vat, you are correct. I also cannot prove that there is no god. I don’t believe either though, because there is no evidence for either claim.

      • Adam says:

        “We can prove that human reason is valid simply through application.”

        Ah, but then how do you prove that application in the sense you describe is valid?

        I don’t really have much argument with what you’ve written. I can’t prove that god exists in a scientific sense. Belief is a choice.

        • fiyenyaa says:

          When we get results: when we use human reason and it acheives palpable results, this is proving it’s application is valid.

          I don’t really think that true belief is a choice, by the way. If someone presents you with undeniable evidence of something, unless you don’t understand it you cannot choose not believe it. You can choose to go on as if you don’t believe, but that is a very different thing.
          For me, I don’t choose not to believe in god. I simply cannot, because there is no good evidence that I have come across.

  3. I think you’re making several unfounded assumptions. No one that I heard of says that only what is directly observable by the scientific method is real. That would be pointless because that would make what is real change all the time as the scientific method invents new ways of observing reality. Assuming society doesn’t collapse between now and then, the observable reality of a 1,000 years from now will be far vaster than what we can now imagine, let alone observe.

    Religion evolved out of the understandable human need for something greater than ourselves. The ancients looked at the sky and saw lights that sometimes flickered. They imagined an infinite being who created the universe because they needed something to fill the empty blackness. Yes, I know they saw far more stars than we do today.

    We shouldn’t need such a being. I look up at the sky and I don’t see a black cloth studded with flickering lights. I see stars being born and dying. I see comets and asteroids. I see seven more vastly different planets within our own solar system, all doing their own thing. I see entire galaxies combining and splitting. I see pulsars emitting x-ray radiation at intervals so precise you can set your watch by them. I can imagine, but don’t have to believe, that there is some shmuck sitting on his veranda on some alien planet, looking up at his night sky and seeing our star, wondering if somebody’s looking back at him. Maybe when he imagines UFOs, their occupants look like us. Who knows?

    To me, the universe is very much alive, even if I don’t consider it alive in any kind of metaphysical way.

    Your other assumption is that the quotes pulled from the Torah and the New Testament are somehow being removed from their “…textual, cultural and linguistic context…”. These books are supposed to be timeless revelations directly from the mouth of God, meant for all eternity to the human race. Men have died to defend them and to propagate them, and continue to do so today. If there is a context for them, as you say, then they’re nothing more than than human-written records of brutal tribal life way of life, warfare and politics, and as such are completely irrelevant to our current lives and understanding of reality.

    If that’s the case, if indeed the quotes suffer cultural context issues, then none of the holy books were ever meant for us and we should throw them out. Not burn them, of course; I don’t believe in that. If the three major Abrahamic religions stood up tomorrow and said, “You know what, we don’t really believe God’s like that anymore, so we’re all going to spend the next thousand years trying to understand the mind of God with an open mind. In the meantime, please refrain from denying children blood transfusions and flying planes into buildings.” Until then, the quote-pulling will continue.

    In the last 1,700 years, what has really changed? Christianity still declares Jesus a descendant of David despite him being born to a virgin mother who didn’t, until then, know her husband, Joseph. You can’t say “Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies and so he is the Messiah, but we don’t really believe all that nasty, dirty stuff.” It is religions that cherry-pick. I even understand why they do it. Break that link between the New Testament and the Old and the issue will go away.

    Ah, rambling now… :oops:

  4. Adam says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    When I wrote ‘scientific method,’ I was writing about the method, not the physical tools used. I’m including discoveries not yet made but that are at least possible to make. I mean metaphysical naturalism.

    I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain why you think the bible should be contextless. It has always been the position of Jews, Christians, Muslims and secular scholars that the bible is a collection of dozens of books written in several different genres and languages by numerous different human authors over thousands of years.

    There’s a lot more to say on the subject but its probably best to wait until I learn why you think the bible is supposed to be the way you described.

  5. That’s an interesting point about the bible. If it’s true, then billions of people throughout history have lived a giant life. It may be that they agree how it was written, but it’s certainly not how it’s treated. One holds up the book as if it were a talisman of some kind while setting the world on fire over some stupid cartoons screaming that it’s directly transcribed from the word of god, the second uses to blow up abortion providers and to deny safe and inexpensive reproductive health options for Third World countries, and the third… well, with only 13.5 million members worldwide, it doesn’t really matter, but the old atrocities are still in there and still being kept close to the heart.

    What I’m saying is that while it may be true everybody agrees on how it was written(a proposition I’m not sure I agree with), that’s not how it’s treated. Yes, I know. These are supposedly the fanatics, the crazy fundamentalists. That makes the so-called moderates look even worse. They look at the same books and see something different. They look at the passages the fanatics love and say, “Ah, hell, we don’t really believe in that anymore.”

    These books, written by men, are supposedly the word of god, sometimes literally. The New Testament even go so far as to provide a pretty graphic description of the end of the world.

    The point of all this is that if it can only be read keeping context and culture in mind, then it’s worthless. Sure, it’s still an interesting read, but only as record of tribal warfare and belief. It means that it wasn’t inspired by god and even more importantly, it was meant for us. Somehow, I think the world’s Christiandom , Jewry and Islam would disagree with that proposition.

    • Ha! Lived a giant lie, not life.

    • I’m pretty sure your first example is about people who believe in the Koran, not the Bible.

      Your second example is about people who *don’t* believe that a ban on contraception is explicitly found in the bible, but that it can be reasoned out through by reading in context, revelation and sacred tradition. (I agree with the method but not the results in their case)

      I honestly don’t know enough about how Jehovah’s Witnesses read the bible to comment on the third.

      I wrote quite a bit but I backspaced over, because I just repeated myself, like you just repeated yourself. I still really don’t understand your argument. Even if there were to be a number of theists who thought a contextless text (not sure if I can even imagine one) was the only acceptable text, I still don’t understand why you think so.

      I still can’t argue with you because I don’t know what you’re saying.

      And I’m not sure how to phrase this without being insulting, but your examples seem to suggest that you might need to Wikipedia ‘Bible’ and ‘Christianity’ so you don’t confuse it with the Koran again.

      • timberwraith says:

        Hi Adam.

        TOW (The Other Weirdo) is referencing “the three major Abrahamic religions” that he spoke of in the second to last paragraph of his first post: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

        Adam, some Christians interpret scripture within the native cultural context in which it was written and some do not. It really depends upon who you are talking to.

        The religious discussions that happened among my family members never referenced the original cultural context. They just took concepts straight from the bible and applied it to their lives as best they could. Christianity wasn’t viewed as an intellectual pursuit with varying shades of nuance and complexity. It was viewed as a set of rules that you needed to follow to be a good person, end of story.

        In some respects, context isn’t the central issue. If a person is willing to apply barbaric practices from a few thousand years ago to modern day society, it doesn’t matter much if he/she looks at the original context because the original context is a society that was rife with barbaric practices. The real problem is that people believe that importing the practices of an ancient culture into modern times is a good idea in the first place. This kind of thinking can (and has) been used to justify all manor of terrible behaviors.

        I’m certainly aware that there are Christians, Muslims, and Jews who do not adopt this perspective and I really don’t have a problem with those folks. It’s the people who want to drag society backwards by several millennia that bother me.

      • Ah, catching up now…

        You’re right, my mistake. I should’ve used an example a bit closer to home. How about, holding up the Book like a talisman while planning ambushes of police officers in an effort to touch off Armaggedon.

        The point is, all three of these religions are breathlessly waiting for somebody to come along, kill all their enemies and institute a backward way of life thousands of years out of step with the modern world. One is even trying to hurry the process along.

        I think you have some strange ideas about what atheists actually believe. I could be uncharitable :) and suggest you spend more time with atheists and less with appologetics. But I won’t! :D

    • That last bit sounded pretty uncharitable – I honestly didn’t mean it to be.

      If some people read the Bible incorrectly, that doesn’t mean the Bible is useless unless it can be read in that incorrect manner. A lot of people use reason incorrectly (don’t believe me, watch Ghost Hunters or read Ayn Rand) but that doesn’t mean science and reason are useless unless they can be used in the way the Ghost Hunters team says it can be.

      You have to use reason when you read the bible. How does that render it useless?

      • Now we’re supposed to care what a group of girls making an entertainment show thinks?

        • We’re supposed to care what an insane terrorist thinks?

          • Huh? What’s that got to do with anything?

            A bunch of girls making entertainment, and bad entertainment at that, are slightly less likely than terrorists to cause any kind of damage.

            Are you seriously asking that question, or are you just pulling my leg?

            • OK, we’ll go with anyone who reasons poorly and commits evil; Stalin’s too obvious of an example… maybe GW Bush?

              You were appearing to argue that because religious people disagree on what scripture means, scripture is useless. I’m showing how silly that argument is – people disagree on where reason leads but that hardly means we should toss out reason as a guide!

              • In a way that’s true, though I fail to see what terrorists and Ghost Hunter chicks have to do with it. However, it’s certainly not the whole story.

                More to the point, what does this have to do with your assertion that atheists take bible quotes out of context of various types when they argue with theists and my disagreement with that assertion?

                • You wrote that if scripture must be read in context, it is worthless, and because people disagree about how to read it, it is worthless.

                  I used the Ghost Hunters as an example of people who take scientific ideas out of context. I used terrorists as an example of people who disagree about how to use logic. But since science and logic are clearly not worthless, your argument doesn’t apply to religion.

  6. Rick says:

    Adam…… to be fair….in my experience, it is Christians who cherry-pick the Bible, ignoring much of the disgusting and unexplainable parts, and turning a blind eye to the contradictions and impossibilities.

    • But you’re at least basing this on actual beliefs of actual Christians, unlike the straw men of Dawkins & co.

      • Which strawmen, in particular? I agree, Dawkins & co can be pretty abrasive, but what is it, exactly, that they say that you think is a strawman?

        • Can you find me any members of Abrahamic religions who believe God is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ?

          • What? Of course not!

            That’s the whole point. Each one of them believes their God is just, kind and loving. Oh, and is also with them whenever they go to kill others in the name of their just, kind and loving God.

  7. Rick says:

    I enjoy the civil tone of your followers. Very refreshing.

  8. Pingback: Do Atheists Take Biblical Quotes Out of Context? – Part 1 « The Other Weirdo's Search

  9. ancientwhisper says:

    In this post I see nothing but blanket statements. Not all atheists think the same way, and not all atheists care about religion enough to do the things you assume we all do. It also seems as though you’re deliberately ignoring the not so agreeable people from the religious side.

    The title of this post is misleading. It should have read “Why Atheists Are All Wrong and The Same As One Another” because that’s pretty much all you’re attempting to say.

    We don’t all cherry pick the Bible; but there are those that do and there are Christians that do as well.

    If an atheist is debating about Christianity usually they DO see how it applies (or doesn’t) in the real world, and the notion that it is outdated is one of the main arguments I see against Christianity and other similar religions.

    It also seems as though you have no real grasp on the basic principle behind the scientific method. It is not so much as black and white as “If I can see it and I can touch it then it’s real.” Not at all. The Scientific Method in all of its forms requires knowledge previously accumulated to some extent. Because of this it forces people to either build on what they have determined to be true or if a contradiction arises reapply the scientific method to past knowledge with the tools and knowledge we have today.

    The entire post is not only inaccurate it is heavily biased. Not to mention it has a hint of hypocrisy; you can’t assume that all atheists are waiting to bring Christians to their knees and spit in their faces when this is what you’re attempting to do to atheists through this post.

    Not all atheists think the same way. We all only have one thing in common that is guaranteed: we do not believe in the existence of a deity or deities. However if you would like to actually converse with me (an atheist) and pick my brain, ask the questions you’ve been trying to turn into statements in this post and get another real perspective outside of your own feel free to contact me.

    E-mail: sarahdenisereed@gmail.com
    AIM: eclairvoyance

    I would prefer instant messenger, it seems to allow a better flow of conversation.

    Let me know if you’re interested. :)

    • Thanks for your comment. I did not at all mean to imply that atheists are all the same – I was very careful to avoid blanket statements. Instead my beef is with the way the discussion is usually carried out. My problem is with the “typical atheist debater” and the “typical apologist.” I rather thought I was more harsh on the “typical apologists,” accusing them of justifying genocide.

      To be honest, I do prefer blog postings over IM – the lack of immediacy gives me time to reflect and write more clearly.

      • ancientwhisper says:

        True there are certain advantages to simply responding to blogs.

        I haven’t run into the type of apologists you seem to be talking about fortunately. I usually find people who try to apologize for the actions of others from both sides. I find being a better example is better than making an apology.

        However both sides tend to treat each other like mortal enemies when there are very well people on both sides that simply don’t care.

        • Just so we’re all clear, in this context, “apology” doesn’t mean making an excuse, but rather “2. apology – a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly” from “http://www.thefreedictionary.com/apology”.

          When I take over the Universe, my very first act as Supreme Leader will be the creation of another word to mean that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s