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Gareth Harris

Gareth Harris

Posted: September 27, 2010 04:41 PM

Religion and science are hopefully becoming two different things. Science used to be called natural philosophy, and it is now about how the world works, how the stars go and how our bodies function. Religion designated itself the queen of the sciences in the past and had multiple aspects. One aspect was about how to live life, and another was about how things came to be as they are. In past centuries, religion and science were mixed together. The split began when religion, whose authority was based on who was in power, conflicted with science, whose authority became based on discovery in nature. The greatest example of this war was the Church versus Galileo and his telescope. A modern example is fundamentalists versus evolution and genetics.

But religion's war on science is really about turf -- who has authority in various areas of knowledge and belief. This is not new. As Seneca the Younger observed in Roman times (ca. 4 AD), "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful." This is why politicians love religion's war on science.

Steven Weinberg summarized the situation well:

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn't contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

When we remember again someday that religion is based on metaphors while science is based on discovery, maybe religion can once again help us evaluate how we are living our lives. The great myths are not necessarily factual but are often true. For example, the lesson is not whether there was a real Cain and Abel but that we are our brother's keeper.

Meanwhile, I don't want to hear childish tales that insult my intelligence. Instead I want to know if I am paying a fair price for my groceries. Does the money go to pay the farmer, or is it siphoned off by some financial parasite? Was my friend sent to Iraq for high-sounding words or to steal oil? Is my son flying planes to defend the country or to fill the pockets of the CEO of some corporation? Many of the members of our military are there because they trusted us not to send them off on imperial wars of conquest and theft. Have we betrayed their trust?

The best way to determine what is really happening, in religious wars or elsewhere, is to follow the money. I don't like the answer. Do you? Where did all those trillions of dollars go? Remember, a trillion is a million millions. A good and humbling example to study is The Nuts Game.

When humans gather in groups, their natures are magnified -- both good and bad. We can do better and bigger things (bridges, spaceships, medicine), and worse and more terrible things (wars, theft, hoarding). The larger the group, the more the magnification. Unfortunately, people in groups also become vulnerable to theater over thought. I can't tell the difference between a TV preacher and a politician. Can you? Too bad we don't have more laws against lying.

Through politics, some people benefit not only by the good things we do corporately, but also by the bad things we do. They see an opportunity to fill their pockets -- excessively. They often justify their goals through religion or nationalism, waving the flag, Tanakh, Bible or Quran as needed and dividing us against each other through fear and ignorance to cover their activities.

To use a metaphor, some politicians and religious leaders would have us believe that we should remove the gears in our cars that go forward so that the only gear we have is reverse. They want to make people afraid to go forward. The way they do this is by using religion to create fear -- fear that they can manipulate to fill their pockets and fear that some of what we learned as youngsters may need updating in the light of new knowledge.

Instead we need a religion that doesn't give us childish tales but helps us use evolution and genetics to improve medicine, use biology to keep the Earth, our island home, in balance for the future and use physics to solve our energy problem. Jesus said, "If your son asks for bread, will you give him a stone?"

We have made some progress in the last few centuries, dethroning kings and religion, only to have them return in new forms. Follow the money. As many have said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." But to go further, I agree with Diderot: "We shall never be free until the last king is strangled with entrails of the last priest."