Saturday, March 29, 2014

Religion and Science: Dissonance

I originally made this blog to talk about cognitive dissonance, and in transitioning from writing in a deeply religious to a more critical of religion tone, there has been an interesting change that I've noticed. For those unfamiliar, cognitive dissonance is descriptive of a process whereby someone holds contradictory beliefs simultaneously, and usually is talking about the mental stress that comes from doing so. One has a few choices when they encounter cognitive dissonance. Embrace it, and not back down from any of the conflicting beliefs, citing things such as paradox and mystery, choose one belief over the other, hopefully because of some kind of epistemic priority (such as growing up being taught that Earth is the center of the universe and then changing one's mind due to the evidence that it is not), or throwing up one's hands and walking away from the entire question.

I think a healthy individual probably does all of these things. If something is unimportant or distant enough from my ability to change, I readily will choose the third option, and simply walk away from the question. However, the thing I've noticed when I read back over this blog is that my writing has gone from the first option to the second. The best example I can think of for this, and what I wish to write about, is the huge question that's come up lately regarding science and religion.

Traditionally, people will pit the scientist vs the religious advocate, and basically look to see who wins, such as in the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. While this approach is crude and lacks nuance, I think there is a very good reason that we do this.

The huge reaction I've seen from the moderate religious community is that both sides of this debate are wrong, and that science and religion coexist. This is a point worth engaging, because it has huge implications and because it's just way too smug of a point not to engage, in my opinion. Indeed, this is a point I would have made a few years ago, and it falls solidly within the first choice when dealing with cognitive dissonance. So, what is the dissonance we are encountering here, and what are the full implications of this point?

The religion usually being referred to here is typically Christianity, and it's my go-to example. So, the academic moderate form of Christian sources that tend to make this kind of point usually stand within the Christian spectrum as close to the middle as possible, with the hyper-conservative young-earth creationist on one end, and the liberal "it's all a metaphor" spiritualist on the other. To the moderate, the Bible is all about genre, intent, and where literalism and symbolism both have their places. A good example of this is one who embraces theistic evolution. The bible teaches that god created everything and all life, and the theistic evolutionist states that we are learning how he did this by learning about evolution. Imagine this approach to every possible theological topic and enough information being given when anything is brought up, and you have an academic moderate Christian. While they usually balk at terming things "mystery," they will call things such as a trinitarian god (three persons in one god) a paradox rather than a mystery or rather than trying to explain with some analogy like an egg or water being 3 states/parts/modes. I am grateful for this, as if I hear one more analogy of this type, I might start pelting them with whatever item they are trying and failing to make this analogy with until they stop.

Moving on.

When we speak of science, we are talking about a process of investigating the universe and coming to conclusions based on repeatable and peer-reviewed data. So a scientific claim starts out, usually, as an educated guess, and then that guess gets put through the wringer until it is proven wrong or until it becomes what is called a theory, or a factual explanation of how something works. Some good examples of this are the germ theory of disease, relativity, gravity, biological evolution, and magnetism. Theories are our understanding of how things work, and are subject to proof, in the form of other repeatable and falsifiable hypotheses that contradict the previous theory.

So we have a method of thinking here that is based in curiosity, understanding, and adaptability. What's wrong with it coexisting, as the moderate would say, with something like christianity?

Let's go back to theistic evolution. Evolution, by nature, operates off of a mechanism called natural selection. What this means is that things that cannot survive die, and things that are best suited for the environment survive, as life randomly grows and mutates and changes and becomes something else. The adaptation that has enabled our survival is probably consciousness, along with a lot of random chance. We are not stronger than a lot of animals, but our ancestors began developing high intelligence, and ended up outsmarting and innovating its' way to being the dominate species on this planet. However, well before this happened and while it was happening, a lot of death happened. Indeed, 99% of the life on this planet has already died, most of which happened well before homo-sapiens proper came into existence and began trying to figure out what powers govern their lives and why tons of beings die and what they can do to control it.

Why can god not be involved with this? He could, but which god are we talking about? Is it the christian god? If so, why use such a wasteful, random, and cruel process to do so? Does that not contradict the loving or at least "on man's side" god that we're supposed to be talking about?

Of course, this is a difficult question to ask, because the christian god is a reference to literally thousands of different gods from denominations, not counting personal differences among people that splinter it even further. So, let's make it simpler. Let's avoid the malevolent god of calvinism altogether and go with the deistic god, the one that created the universe and set it all in motion, and has not interfered since (perhaps even incapable of doing so), allowing evolution to run its' course.

Alright, so I suppose that is possible. However, if god so obviously created the universe, then why has all scientific investigation thus far not turned up one shred of evidence of this god, and tons of evidence about all of these mechanisms? Perhaps god, in fact, is not a scientific claim at all, and is merely a belief or matter of faith.

This is fine, but where are we with the eternal insistence that faith and science coexist, then? We not only have had to throw out the christian god to get here entirely, moving to a creator that does not influence what happens after that point, but we've closed this supposedly all powerful and knowable god into merely what we cannot explain. This is the dissonance with theistic evolution, and indeed, with the point that is science and faith in harmony. The god purported by advocates of such things cannot be guiding and influencing evolution and still be all powerful and all loving.

Perhaps god's ways are higher than my ways. Perhaps my knowledge is limited, and I am merely a tiny human shaking his fist at a god that is smugly existing, asking only that I have faith on bad evidence to "see" him.

In this area, I must fall into the second response to cognitive dissonance, as it seems the most defensible and reasonable course, and be solidly agnostic regarding the existence of the undefined and irrelevant god that may or may not have created the universe and then had nothing to do with it afterwards, and atheistic toward other gods.

There is a fairly common counter-point to this, in the form of a rebuttal phrased something like this:

"You are simply interpreting the evidence in favor of atheism, why are you angry at the god you know exists?"

One need look no further than the preview for the upcoming film "God is not Dead" for proof that this is indeed a point that is made by people.

Perhaps I am angry at a god, but it is not one that I know exists. The only god that I know exists is the one that people fervently believe in, and there is no direct evidence that he exists outside of those persons' minds. In this case, I am angry about something else, not about a god.

Perhaps I am interpreting the evidence, so interpret it another way and then explain the DNA and fossil evidence that is there in a different way that supports another theory, one that does not include natural selection.

While we're at it, allow me to retort and say that it's certainly possible that evolution in its' purest form makes us feel not so special, just another animal that's developed conscious intelligence, with no spiritual or transcendent significance as the christian religion teaches.

This is the real problem I have with the moderate christian position. Sure, maybe god exists. Sure, maybe we're missing some evidence or interpreting it wrong or some other such thing. However, hidden under that is often the centrality of the doctrine of hell and eternal torment outside of the kingdom of god, explained dozens of different ways. Or perhaps it is a concern that one cannot live a full life without being a theist, and one cannot be spiritual.

Now you've finally found my anger. We are literally the universe exploring itself, made up of matter that constantly changes and yet we remain uniquely us, and our complexity makes all of us a universe to be explored. Why does one need a god to be spiritual, when there is so much to be in awe of otherwise? Why do I need to stop appreciating scientific exploration and discovery at the point it makes me uncomfortable? Isn't that a more shallow sort of spirituality, polluted by fear and afraid of what we might discover if we explore further?

I get it, I've had the panic attacks about hellfire and torture and I know about Pascal's wager. For those unfamiliar, it goes something like this: god might exist, so hedge your bets, even if you don't think he's there, just believe so he doesn't punish you! Just have faith!

There are days I am terrified and I talk to the god that I don't think is there, asking her to prove she exists, challenging him to do anything to demonstrate his existence, calling it out of its' sleep, and being what I was taught not to be by religion: inquisitive of god's ways, and damned hostile about it.

There is no doubt that I am just as irrational as any human, but that does not change the fact that we can be more, we can be spiritual without needing to wager or be afraid or stop asking questions when our findings begin walking all over what we were taught is sacred.

Perhaps I am wrong, and the paradox is the correct response, and we don't have the evidence yet. One might hope that if the paradox is correct and god exists, he might be a little more understanding than simply throwing tons of people into hell because they didn't make the right conclusion or believe in him the right way. But hey, maybe he is the calvinistic god, and he wants most of us to be tortured forever for his glory. Gotta make a contrast or good loses its' meaning, right?

I think, perhaps, we just need to redefine words like sacred and spiritual, and even the word god, to better understand what we are discovering, and perhaps there is no such thing as too much awareness of when we're being sold something, manipulated into something, or scared into something for the sake of keeping people in power or luxury. There is no doubt, however, that science and religion cannot coexist well because they exist in two different universes, and have two entirely different approaches, even if someone can be a christian or believe in some other religious mythology and also accept evolution in the cognitive dissonance that that requires.

There is a very good reason for our cognitive dissonance regarding science and religion, and I think we should, at the very least, pay attention to it and make our own conclusions and be willing to change our minds and be convinced otherwise.