Monday, 9 March 2009

Religious 'Evolution'

From the wonderful article Jerry Coyne's Seeing and Believing:

Karl Giberson said

Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein's dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that science was clearly in error. It was, rather, a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Why is this different than modern theology's near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, so eloquently skewered by Dawkins? How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed?

This, for me, is actually one of the biggest reasons for being atheist. Giberson correctly points out that both scientific beliefs and religious beliefs have evolved, but then asks the question - why is science allowed to evolve but religion not?

The answer murders religious belief. Science *sets out* to uncover the reality around us with a rigorous methodology (the *only* reliable methodology we have); our knowledge remains provisional. *Naturally* scientific knowledge evolves, as new evidence is uncovered, and reason is applied. Religion *establishes* the truth of the matter, and its knowledge remains absolute. *Unnaturally* religious belief evolves as science contradicts the *established* truth. Scientific knowledge evolves smoothly on a synchromesh and religious belief bounces along on crude cogs.

Some would say I’m making a category error here; I’m not allowed to compare theism to science. But the only ontology we *can* throw any light on comes from science and reason, so the distinction is only brought up as a red herring. As Coyne says:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong?

Theists cannot know, scientists (dare I say, naturalists) can, in principle.


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