Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I Believe

I want to throw out a little disclaimer before I start getting into the real meat of this religious discussion. I realize that religion and gods and beliefs are a sensitive subject for many people. I further realize that there is no way that I can prevent offending someone. But what I can do is try to be as respectful as possible and to always be willing to discuss what I have said in my blog. So if you read something here and you take offense to it, leave a note in the comments telling me so. But also make sure to tell me why you were offended. I am completely willing and open to have a conversation about what I write and why I write it. So please likewise be willing and open to having that conversation with me when you disagree.

I have stated before that I believe in science and do not believe in any religion that involves some supernatural phenomenon. Why do I believe in science? Why do I trust scientists and not religious preachers when I want to understand the truth about the world?

First and foremost, scientific understanding is based on evidence. What we can measure, what we can demonstrate, and what results we can reproduce. Scientists don't just sit around thinking about how something works, get an idea, and then seek to find evidence to support their idea. On the contrary, they seek evidence to disprove their idea. Sometimes they find evidence (or lack of evidence) that doesn't completely disprove the idea, but discredits it to a degree. And in their work, they make sure to point this type of evidence out to others so that they can evaluate it as well. But if they find that the total accumulation of experiments and evidence supports their theory, they will write up a scientific paper summarizing their findings. This paper is submitted to a journal, a conference, or some other venue where other scientists with equal credentials can review the work. These scientists then too seek out to disprove the author's theory. They will criticize and analyze it to a pedantic degree, perhaps pointing out experiments that were not done in the original work that they feel should be done. They will reproduce the experiments in their own laboratories to examine if they get the same results. And if no scientist can come up with evidence that completely debunks the theory and the theory is the best explanation that anyone can come up with to explain how something works, then that theory is accepted as a scientific fact. But at the same time it is still also a scientific theory, a theory that currently does the best job at explaining the observable fact. This can be confusing to a layman, which explains why some people think evolution is simply a theory. But the truth is that evolution is both a scientific theory and a scientific fact.

In case you missed it, the process of a scientist coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, measuring results, and having those results scrutinized by other qualified individuals is known as the scientific method. I believe that it is the best way for us as a species to find out answers to the world we live in and the universe that we exist in. Providing and testing explanations for new evidence that we discover is the best way to learn the truth about that evidence. For the most part, religion has it backwards. Religion provides an answer, then tries to find evidence to match that answer and discredit any evidence that conflicts with that answer. So called creation science is a blasphemous label against science. And yes, I realize the irony in using the adjective blasphemous here :). It is a pseudo-science, a want-to-be science that will not and can never be true science. The reason is because creation "scientists" have already made up their mind about what they believe are the answers to the questions they seek. Rather than being objective and open about it, they fervently seek out only evidence that supports their answers and try to hide, obscure, or explain away that evidence which serves to discredit their answer. That is why no creation science efforts will ever hold any acceptance within the greater scientific community.

Furthermore, I place my trust in the results of the scientific process. I do so because I know that even if one or a few scientists are "bad apples" who want to prove their theory true even when the evidence indicates it to be false, there are a thousand fold more scientists who will see the flaws in their work and will not accept their theory as fact until those flaws are addressed. I myself have been a part of this process and I have learned to respect it. While in academia I submitted scientific papers and had them reviewed. Some were accepted and others were rejected. And when they were rejected, I was provided with explanations from the reviewers on why they were rejected. I too have been a reviewer of many papers. Some of the better and more sound ones I accepted, while the ones which were weak or significantly flawed I rejected (and gave legitimate reasons why I rejected them). Contrary to what I imagine my religious friend believes, I am much more harsh in my criticism of scientific papers than I am on any particular belief system.

The issue of trust is very important, and could merit its own post. I am not an expert in evolutionary biology, geology, chemistry, or theoretical physics. In fact, I am a non-expert in pretty much every scientific discipline, and only consider myself to be a well-educated and interested reader of science. I don't have the time, energy, nor lifespan to devote my entire being to seeking out answers to everything in life by myself. So I have to ask myself "Who do I trust to give me those answers?". I've already laid out my reasons for why I trust science, and I think that I have very good reasons for trusting them. So why then, does my religious friend distrust science and instead trusts in the bible?

I'll probably never know the answer to that question since she is no longer willing to discuss it with me. I have never asked her why she believes in God, because I honestly don't care whether she does or not. I do care when her belief in God prevents her from forming relationships, when it causes her to be willing to commit murder of innocents, and when it causes her to deny scientific evidence and accept false truths. During our first discussion I pointed out to her that the bible had over 40 authors and three languages, and that some of the old Christian scripture (such as the Gospel of Thomas) were not included in the compilation of the New Testament. So I asked her "Why do you believe in the bible? Why do you believe it is the inerrant word of God from the man himself?". Especially since we can not verify who a single author of the bible was. Her answer baffled me.
"I don't know, I just do."
Seriously? This is the book that she, at some point, decided to believe in and follow to the letter. And when asked why she believed that, she couldn't provide an answer? I honestly find it to be ridiculous! So in the e-mail that I sent to her after she became upset with me for my disagreements with her church's philosophy on marriage and sex, I pointed out to her the following verse in the bible, 1 Peter 3:15.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,
I implored her to stay true to the bible and provide me with a real explanation. In her e-mail response (which was also the last time I had any real communication with her, about a month ago), she told me she understood that her response then was not an acceptable answer and attached a testimonial about her life as a believer and why she believes in God. Well, that's fine and all. But I never asked her why she believed in God. I asked her why she believes that the bible is the work of God and not the work of men. I know that she trusts in God, but I don't know how she can likewise trust that the bible is inerrant and is the word of God. There are many Christians who don't believe that it is, so I am infinitely curious as to why she does believe that. I have my own speculations about the answer, which I may share at a later time.

Anyway I am getting off topic. I've stated why I trust science and why I distrust "creation science", but why do I distrust religion? Well the answer is pretty simple really. It again boils down to evidence and dogmatic beliefs about the truth. I find no credible evidence of an invisible being that penetrates everything and everyone, influences the universe at every location and every instance of time, and cares infinitely about me as a person. I am willing to listen to evidence that people can provide me, but just because I don't know an answer to something doesn't mean that suddenly "God fills the gap". Ancient civilizations used to think that gods pulled the sun across the sky until gravitational theory was well understood. So you see, God filled the gap back then too. Just because we currently do not have a good scientific explanation for some phenomenon that we witness does not mean we should automatically attribute its workings to some mythical being.

The answer to why I distrust religion is that it asserts that it knows what is true without evidence to support their claims. Time and time again, religion has shown to stand in the way of real truth. Just look to the Catholic church's prosecution of Galileo Galilei for seeing the evidence that the Earth revolves around the sun, instead of vice versa. It took centuries for the church to formally vindicate this innocent man from his "crime" of promoting this scientific truth. Any body, religious or otherwise, that would try to hide such evidence (as the church banned his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) automatically loses any crediblity with me as a promoter of truth and understanding. The fundamentalist Christian movement, not learning the mistakes of the past, are now repeating the same dire mistake with Charles Darwin and evolution. They would seek to erase the scientific truth, or at least "muddy the waters" as much as possible to make the public doubt this truth. And what's worse is that they target the children, trying to insert intelligent design into schools as if it were a scientifically valid theory that holds equal validity with evolution. It doesn't. It is a theological belief with no evidence to support it. In my own observations, I noticed that the ID movement expends much more energy trying to discredit evolutionary theory than trying to prove their own theory (if you can call it a theory). Even if evolution were disproven (nearly impossible given the massive amounts of fossil, genetic, and modern evidence) it does not automatically mean that the story of creationism is true.

Wow, I am really bad at staying on topic. I think I am just going to quit here and now before I diverge again into some other tangent. But to summarize the main points in my post:
  • I believe in science because it uses existing evidence to formulate theories to explain the evidence.
  • I disbelieve in "creation science" because it asserts a single theory as true and then seeks evidence to support it (and ignores evidence that refutes it).
  • I trust in the scientific method because it prevents bad science from being written as true.
  • I still do not have an answer about why my religious friend believes in the bible and trusts it to be the inerrant word of God.
  • Just because we can not currently provide an explaination for some phenomenon very well does not automatically prove the existence of a higher power.
  • The church has in the past, and does currently, try to hide and distort scientific evidence that contradicts their dogmatic ideologies, which is one reason why I distrust them.
  • I distrust any institiution, religious or otherwise, that asserts a dogmatic idea as truth and fact, especially when they fail to provide sufficient evidence to support that claim.

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