08/30/2011 07:17 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2011

Faith and Reason, Science and Politics

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires and volcanic eruptions inevitably bring out the tired idea that natural disasters are a warning from god. Sinners beware. Perennial predictor of doom Pat Robertson said that the earthquake in Virginia was "one of the signs of the end." Remember that he noted after the disaster in Haiti in 2010 that god was punishing those particular heathens for making a "pact to the devil." He said further that the Haitian earthquake was a "blessing in disguise," an idea that might have caused some disagreement among those mourning their dead and the injured, sick and homeless. Remember, too, that Robertson also claimed that Hurricane Katrina was god's punishment for legalized abortion, and that Florida's weather woes are due to the state's support for Gay Days at Disneyland.

Michele Bachmann recently waded into these troubled waters with her declaration (later denied as jesting) that god's recent climatic tantrum was his way of getting the attention of politicians and telling them they should listen to god and the American people. Glenn Beck opined that the earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast were "God reminding you you're not in control." He added that the "hurricane is a blessing," echoing Robertson's sentiment about Haiti.

Perhaps many mainstream believers will dismiss these extreme views as distorting the image of the faithful. But therein lies the core problem with faith: there are no boundaries, no constraints, no self-corrections. All you need is belief; if you believe something to be true, it is. Therefore, Pat Robertson's belief that a Virginia earthquake is the wrath of god is no more or less valid that the more mainstream belief in a virgin birth. Beck's belief that god created a hurricane to remind us we are not in control is just as valid as the belief that god's flesh-and-blood son died for our collective sins. Beliefs cannot be arbitrated to determine which one is valid, because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another.

For centuries people have attempted to reconcile faith and reason. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church's teachings. Here on the pages of The Huffington Post, Jeffrey Small argues that science and religion have common ground. Others writing for HuffPost make similar appeals. Jonathan Dudley claims that the Christian faith requires accepting evolution. Dudley says that "Christians must accept sound science, not because they don't believe God created the world, but precisely because they do." The sentiment is similar to what famous geneticist Francis Collins said: "When something new is revealed about the human genome ... I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before." He also said: "I am unaware of any irreconcilable conflict between scientific knowledge about evolution and the idea of a creator God; why couldn't God have used the mechanism of evolution to create?"

But these appeals to reconcile science and religion are utterly hopeless, just wishful thinking, hoping that the absurdities of religion can be shoehorned into the realities of science. It is not possible. As science explains ever-more-complex natural phenomena, the need to invoke god to understand daily events and the physical world diminishes. God becomes confined to "gaps" in scientific knowledge, diminishing in stature with each great advance of human knowledge. Forget not that for 1,500 years the faithful were told that god made Earth the center of the universe, and that the Sun orbited our planet. People were burned alive for questioning this orthodoxy. The "god of the gaps" has become an increasingly trivial figure as science narrows the space in which the ignorance that supports god can thrive. The proper response to the overwhelming evidence for evolution is to accept that the ideas of religion have failed. God is reduced to what Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don't know.

Science and religion are no more miscible than oil and water. Science searches for mechanisms and the answer to "how" the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to "why" the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not be further apart.

Religion and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.

Science can tell us that the Earth rotates counterclockwise (if we're looking down on the North Pole from space). No purpose exists in that fact. The "why" here answers a mechanical question based on history; that particular direction of rotation is a consequence of how the original gases and debris were orbiting the sun prior to coalescing into our planet. Religion might ask "why" God had a yen for counterclockwise, but that question is outside the realm of and irrelevant to the science in question, if such a question is valid at all.

Those who attempt to reconcile religion and faith often appeal to two ideas: 1) without religion the search for objective knowledge using reason and science is an empty pursuit, devoid of meaning and morality; and 2) science is not infallible, and scientists disagree among themselves. Let's tackle the first one first.

Morality, Religion and Science

Science can postulate and study the hypothesis that morals are not derived from religion, nor god's grant of free will, but instead arise from inherent characteristics embedded in human nature as a consequence of our sociality. What we view as moral behaviors -- kindness, reciprocity, honesty, respect for others -- are social norms that evolved in the context of a highly social animal living in large groups. The evolution of these social norms enabled a feeble creature to overcome physical limitations through effective cooperation. Perhaps morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development. Perhaps religion has masked and corrupted these natural characteristics with a false morality that converts intrinsic human benevolence and generosity into cheap commodities to be purchased with coupons for heaven. Good behavior is not encouraged as a means of advancing our humanity, but instead is enforced with threats of eternal damnation.

One prominent characteristic of human beings is sociality. Functioning as a group in many circumstances conveys significant advantages on members of the group. Associated with sociality is altruism, which is sacrificial behavior that in some way promotes the propagation of the genes of the altruistic individual, usually by aiding the survival of a close relative sharing some common genetic stock. The ultimate altruistic behavior would be dying for the sake of another's survival. An uncle getting in harm's way to protect a nephew is an example. Social cooperation and altruism are significant factors in the success of our species, a fact that underlines the biological basis for a natural morality as a defining and adaptive human characteristic.

In contrast, a religious code of ethics based on personal reward for behaving morally or eternal punishment for not doing so leads to a flawed morality with long-term and serious consequences for humankind. Many of society's ills, including violent intolerance of our fellow humans, result, to a considerable degree, from religious morality based on fear of the unknown and hopes for immortality. Behaving morally for no reward and in no fear of punishment, but because we have the capability of being moral creatures, is one of the traits that can define humanity. Pursuit of such a natural ethic is a means of augmenting what is good in humans and minimizing elements of our darker side.

Christianity has had a 2,000-year run to prove itself an effective means of teaching morality. The experiment has failed. We need another approach. We can choose a path unique to humans by elevating ourselves above the common fate of other species. We can choose a natural ethic. Those who do embrace a natural ethic will find a certain satisfaction derived from knowing one's place in the universe. Amazing clarity is achieved in realizing that life is not controlled by some unseen and mysterious god, but by an individual's power to make decisions, and a personal choice to be moral. There is tremendous joy in understanding that purpose and meaning in life are self-derived, and that these precious commodities are not some gift from above that can be taken away arbitrarily by a wrathful deity working in mysterious ways. With a natural ethic we are the masters of our own fate. Nothing is more powerful, or more satisfying.

Perhaps theses idea are wrong; time, advances in knowledge and further investigation may eventually tell. But the same cannot be said for religious claims about morality. Those cannot be investigated. For those who believe that morality is derived from god, there are no further investigations to the question. And therein lies the biggest and most obvious irreconcilable difference between faith and reason.

Science and Fallibility

We are told that since science and faith are both fallible, both are equally valid approaches to understanding the world and ourselves. Here is what Jeffrey Small says about this:

Bias, preconceived ideas, academic politics, ego and resistance to change are ever-present in scientific and academic communities and often result in institutional opposition to new theories, especially ground-breaking ones. Many scientists initially resisted Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo because they presented a new paradigm of the universe.

Well, exactly! What this proves is that over time, science is self-correcting, while faith is not. While we all know now, due to science, that the Earth orbits the Sun, the Church is still fighting the battle with Galileo. Even today in the 21st century, the Church claims that Galileo shares blame because he made unproven assertions. Unproven assertions! The best the Pope could muster was that he regretted the "tragic mutual incomprehension" that had caused Galileo to suffer. As the new millennium settles in, the Church still claims that Galileo was wrong. The dissonance between Scripture and fact is not a problem relegated to earlier centuries but remains relevant today. Science is indeed fallible, and scientists suffer from all the usual human foibles. But reproducibility, scrutiny from other scientists, the drive for new knowledge, the glory of overturning orthodoxy, all drive science to a better understanding of an objective truth, or our best approximation of it; this method of understanding the world is inherently incompatible with faith. Faith cannot be contested: I believe, therefore it is true. All scientific claims are by nature contestable. Those differences cannot be reconciled.

In reality we need to turn this argument about fallibility on its head. Science never claims to be infallible. There would be no need for more research if scientists believed that they had all the answers, and all of them right. But god, by definition, is infallible. And yet. The Bible's clear statement about the age of the Earth, off by more than 4 billion years, is one example of an important factual error. Sure, maybe this is a mistake of human interpretation of divine will. But with each new discovery proving a Biblical assertion wrong, the Church retreats to the safety of errors in interpretation or dismissing the discrepancy as unimportant. Yet the ever-accumulating factual mistakes must call into question the certainty with which the Church claims that god, or the Bible, is infallible, since their previous insistence has proven unsubstantiated, with glaring factual mistakes. These doubts about infallibility apply, too, to the Church's teachings on morality. If the Bible is the literal word of god, then god has clearly blown it. If the Bible is a flawed interpretation of god's will, then the conclusions about morality can be equally flawed. The issue of fallibility is a problem for the faithful, not for science and reason.

Religion and Politics

The incompatibility between faith and reason come into full glory in the political arena. And nowhere is that made more clear than the rush toward willful ignorance in the field of Republican presidential candidates. A potential candidate cannot be taken seriously by the right unless one questions evolution, denounces the idea that climate change is human-induced and attacks the protection of our natural resources as a liberal conspiracy. The fight against evolution is just the modern-day version of the Church's attacks on Galileo. We can demonstrate evolution in a Petri dish; it has been proven across multiple fields of science including genetics, biogeography and paleontology. Even the Pope in 1996 grudgingly admitted that evolution is "more than just a hypothesis."

With faith, unconstrained by reason, we have Michele Bachmann claiming, and her followers believing, that Obama is responsible for the swine flu, that Obama might not be a citizen, and that liberals want to kill senior citizens, to name just three Looney Tunes. In the absence of reason and with ignorance of history we get her calls to do "a penetrating exposé" on members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-American or anti-American." Rick Perry, confused about his own state, believes creationism is taught in schools, questions evolution and denies the reality of climate change. This is faith, unshackled from the inconvenience of reality. This is belief, and belief cannot be challenged -- if I believe it, it is true, no matter how much contrary evidence is presented. That is incompatible with reason.

So, you still want to try to reconcile faith and reason? We are all atheists, even Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann -- or the Pope himself. Yes, the one uniting factor is that we all do not believe in god. Like all believers today, the Pope rejects the existences of Zeus, Cronus, Jupiter and all the other Greek and Roman gods. The Pope and I agree completely that those gods don't exist; he and I only differ by one god. He rejects 100 gods, I reject 101 gods. Using his exact logic to deny the existence of Zeus, I apply to his one remaining god. We're just quibbling about numbers.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of "A New Moral Code" (Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook. To learn more, visit Jeff's website.