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John Simkin

Science or Religion

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How many things do we deal with each day that have no purpose?

Nearly all of them, I would say - the weather, to give just one example. (I've got a badge at home, BTW, which says "Religion is man's attempt to communicate with the weather").

When I start looking closely at 'purpose' it becomes very difficult to make it make sense at all, outside of fairly banal statements about the way machines are designed to work, and apart from very human ideas of specific people's intentions. In other words, I think you can talk about the purpose of the keys on this keyboard being to produce symbols on the screen, and my purpose in talking about slavery this afternoon at a video conference. However, to talk about the earthquake under the sea in South-East Asia (the one that produced the recent tsunami) having a purpose just makes no sense to me - it isn't human, and it isn't a human-produced artifact.

By the way, as an atheist, I have no problem holding and justifying my values - even if they might rest on questionable grounds! The people I've met in my life who are most immoral by my standards have all been highly religious - or, in the words of the song, "Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there …"

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How many things do we deal with each day that have no purpose?

Nearly all of them, I would say - the weather, to give just one example. (I've got a badge at home, BTW, which says "Religion is man's attempt to communicate with the weather").

Yes, using your belief system the weather perhaps has no purpose. But in the Christian view it has the purpose of sustaining and keeping the God's creation in balance. Doesn't atheism make everything rather pointless?

When I start looking closely at 'purpose' it becomes very difficult to make it make sense at all, outside of fairly banal statements about the way machines are designed to work, and apart from very human ideas of specific people's intentions. In other words, I think you can talk about the purpose of the keys on this keyboard being to produce symbols on the screen, and my purpose in talking about slavery this afternoon at a video conference. However, to talk about the earthquake under the sea in South-East Asia (the one that produced the recent tsunami) having a purpose just makes no sense to me - it isn't human, and it isn't a human-produced artifact.

Banality depends upon your point of view, of course. The difficulty comes when people find belief systems inpenetrable. That is to say, they see how one thing logically justifies another, but cannot find a reasonable way into the system. I presume that is how most agnostics see Christianity. In the end it comes down to faith. Scientists have faith that human beings can fathom everything to do with the universe. Atheists have faith that there is no God (there's no way they can objectively prove it). Christians have faith in a creator God. So, what does it matter, you might say? Well, the rubber hits the road when you 'die'.

By the way, as an atheist, I have no problem holding and justifying my values - even if they might rest on questionable grounds! The people I've met in my life who are most immoral by my standards have all been highly religious - or, in the words of the song, "Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there …"

Perhaps. As I said above, ritual gets in the way of true belief, which is why I don't count myself as a 'religious' person. :) You've just appealed to rationality and reason above, how can you hold and attempt to justify your values if you know they 'rest on questionable grounds'?! :rolleyes:

:plane Doug

PS Just because something doesn't make sense to a human does not mean it has no purpose. Elevating human cognition and reason makes no sense on a purely materialistic worldview.

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I'd say it was the other way around. If you think, like I do, that when you die, you stop, then you've got a great incentive to enjoy life to the full. For someone like me, a suicide bomber, or any other type of religious martyr is a tragic figure, since they've traded being for nothingness … in the belief that there was some kind of reward awaiting them.

In the same way, whether what I believe can be rationally proved or not is beside the point. My point is that reason is a process, not a result, so I don't have to be able to prove everything 'scientifically' in order to enjoy life!

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I'd say it was the other way around. If you think, like I do, that when you die, you stop, then you've got a great incentive to enjoy life to the full. For someone like me, a suicide bomber, or any other type of religious martyr is a tragic figure, since they've traded being for nothingness … in the belief that there was some kind of reward awaiting them.

In the same way, whether what I believe can be rationally proved or not is beside the point. My point is that reason is a process, not a result, so I don't have to be able to prove everything 'scientifically' in order to enjoy life!

'Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' - so long as you enjoy the ride the destination doesn't matter. Is that what you're saying? You say that you've 'got a great incentive to enjoy life to the full' but I believe that ultimately you will find it unfulfilling as you have no purpose in life. The choice is not between 'living life to the full' and being a suicide bomber! :rolleyes:

I'm genuinely mystified how you can survive with such a seemingly unstable belief system. You appeal to human reason and rationality, but say that nothing has to be proved for you to believe in it. That makes your belief system invulnerable to new ideas and suggestions, but is paradoxical in the extreme... :plane

I think we've strayed significantly from the original focus of this debate which was the supposed division between science and religion. I agree with Newton that science discovers things which God has created, and therefore see no conflict between them. :D

:) Doug

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'Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' - so long as you enjoy the ride the destination doesn't matter. Is that what you're saying? You say that you've 'got a great incentive to enjoy life to the full' but I believe that ultimately you will find it unfulfilling as you have no purpose in life. The choice is not between 'living life to the full' and being a suicide bomber!  :rolleyes:

I'm genuinely mystified how you can survive with such a seemingly unstable belief system. You appeal to human reason and rationality, but say that nothing has to be proved for you to believe in it. That makes your belief system invulnerable to new ideas and suggestions, but is paradoxical in the extreme...  :plane

The key word you used was 'seemingly'! In fact, you can have an incredibly stable belief system if you rely on reason rather than religion.

One thing that reason and rationality show me is that there's almost nothing that can be 'proved'. What amounts to proof is most often an extremely low degree of falsifiability … but that's actually a good thing. Reductio ad absurdum in formal logic is one of the few absolute proofs that I've ever come across, but all that gives you is the knowledge that *one* of your premises is false. It doesn't tell you which one …

What you can rely on, though, is that the *process* of reasoning will carry you through, so that you're prepared for change, when new evidence comes your way.

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One thing that reason and rationality show me is that there's almost nothing that can be 'proved'. What amounts to proof is most often an extremely low degree of falsifiability … but that's actually a good thing. Reductio ad absurdum in formal logic is one of the few absolute proofs that I've ever come across, but all that gives you is the knowledge that *one* of your premises is false. It doesn't tell you which one …

What you can rely on, though, is that the *process* of reasoning will carry you through, so that you're prepared for change, when new evidence comes your way.

So what are the core values to the average atheist's belief system? (other than 'there is no God')? If all you've got is the 'process' then you're simply drifting through life on a sea of change. I'd much rather be securely fastened to a rock... :tomatoes

I'd always alter my beliefs in the face of hard-and-fast evidence. I'd no longer be a Christian if someone could prove to me what I believed in is false. But I don't think that's going to happen: all atheists have been able to offer me so far is an assertion backed up by theory-laden observation!

:rolleyes: Doug

Edited by Doug Belshaw

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However, to talk about the earthquake under the sea in South-East Asia (the one that produced the recent tsunami) having a purpose just makes no sense to me - it isn't human, and it isn't a human-produced artifact.

May I just add something to your debate?

John wrote:

"For example, it is estimated that around 20,000 children die each day from lack of food and fresh water. What have they done to possibly deserve this fate?"

They did nothing, of course, but what has each of us done to avoid their death?

An earthquake like the one which struck East-Asia couldn't have been avoided, but man could have done something to prevent or limit the devastation it caused, by monitoring such events and taking some appropriate measures at least.

God leaves us free to choose what to do and how to act: there's enough to make everyone feel responsible for their decisions and it is not easy to accept it.

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So what are the core values to the average atheist's belief system? (other than 'there is no God')? If all you've got is the 'process' then you're simply drifting through life on a sea of change. I'd much rather be securely fastened to a rock...  :rolleyes:

They are of course much more securely anchored to reality than those following more supernaturally inclined belief systems.

Atheists and humanists tend to believe in people and their positive potential to be sociable, helpful, caring and considerate to their fellow man. They also tend to have a better understanding of death and the transience of life. This in itself makes them significantly more fun to be with.

To be wedded to any of the main religious creeds in my view is faintly silly and deeply psychologically immature.

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They are of course much more securely anchored to reality than those following more supernaturally inclined belief systems.

Atheists and humanists tend to believe in people and their positive potential to be sociable, helpful, caring and considerate to their fellow man. They also tend to have a better understanding of death and the transience of life. This in itself makes them significantly  more fun to be with.

To be wedded to any of the main religious creeds in my view is faintly silly and deeply psychologically immature.

Thanks for that objective, reasoned and mature reply Andy... :tomatoes Of course, I'm sure no one's met any caring, sociable, helpful Christians with a social conscience - I mean they're so rare! :lol:

:rolleyes: Doug

Edited by Doug Belshaw

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School assemblies in the UK are not about reason or debate.

I do not mind what you do in your church. These are our schools paid for with public money. The Church does not give us a bean. They won't pay the piper but they still call the tune.

If we must have assemblies in schools (why?) then we could have an opt-in system where pupils can opt for assembly or something else - perhaps football or a video :rolleyes:

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School assemblies in the UK are not about reason or debate.

I do not mind what you do in your church. These are our schools paid for with public money. The Church does not give us a bean. They won't pay the piper but they still call the tune.

If we must have assemblies in schools (why?) then we could have an opt-in system where pupils can opt for assembly or something else - perhaps football or a video :lol:

This debate is all over the place at present! We're discussing many different issues and the goalposts seem to be changing all the time...

I agree that people should not be forced to worship when they do not believe. That is pointless and counter-productive. However, I do think assemblies, when done properly, are useful and positive: they can be used to celebrate pupil achievement in front of a large proportion of their peers, and create a sense of belonging (especially if part of a house system).

:tomatoes Doug

PS To respond again to David, I see your focus on the process of reason rather than its results as being similar to what Hilary Putnam calls 'the view from nowhere'. How can you possibly criticize others when you have no ground to stand on yourself?! :rolleyes:

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Thanks for that objective, reasoned and mature reply Andy...  :tomatoes  Of course, I'm sure no one's met any caring, sociable, helpful Christians with a social conscience - I mean they're so rare!  :lol:

:rolleyes: Doug

When religion is consumed as psychological information rather than rules of behaviour/living the results can be quite acceptable. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" for instance.

Religion however tends to be consumed by people at different levels of mental health. Fundamentalism is perhaps the lowest of these..

The sort of religion enforced on children in secondary school assemblies is ridiculous and on occassions downright racist.

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PS To respond again to David, I see your focus on the process of reason rather than its results as being similar to what Hilary Putnam calls 'the view from nowhere'. How can you possibly criticize others when you have no ground to stand on yourself?!  :rolleyes:

I clearly haven't explained my 'position' clearly enough, if you think that I've been criticising other people. To get back to science and religion, for me a fundamental science principle is that there isn't any certainty - everything has to be open to question, and we just have to accept that any answers we get are only going to be temporarily 'true' (until the next time our horizons are widened). Thus Newton and those who came after him were convinced that they'd discovered absolute truths about motion and gravity, so the conflict between 'believing in science' and believing in religion was stilled for a couple of hundred years. Then came Einstein and opened it all up again, by demonstrating that Newton's 'absolute' laws had only local application (on a galactic level) and the whole conflict opened up again.

In my world view, comparing science and religion is like comparing apples with oranges. You have to believe in a religion (you don't seem to be able to 'prove' it) - but science is a set of principles governing a way of reasoning about the world. For me, science isn't something you 'believe in' - rather it's a set of principles which thus far have been uniquely successful in telling us how the world we live in works. The day they stop being successful is the day they get abandoned in favour of a better set of principles. Hasn't happened yet, though.

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A very interesting thread, and one to which I have devoted some amount of thought. Being an evolutionary biologist, and therefore the wide-receiver on the religion vs. science javelin team, I can't avoid thinking about this. I tend to agree with much of what David has said. However, I can't reject God outright, in part because I don't think science has a whole lot to offer about God's existence (or lack of it).

It is interesting to me that the discussion here seems to be much more "Christianity vs. science" rather than "religion vs. science". I find paganism (everything has a "spirit") pretty attractive as religious belief goes, because one thing science tells me is that humans are no more (or less) "special" than any other creature. I also find Buddhism has a lot to recommend it.

As a side note, check out Cynthia Rylant's book of poems "God Went to Beauty School". That's the sort of God I can believe in...

Cheers,

Mike

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Core beliefs of atheists?

Well there were some Christians who supported slavery and some opposed slavery; some supported and some opposed war; some supported and some opposed the Russian revolution; some supported and some opposed Apartheid. I could go on!

The same would be true of atheists.

Most parents and most children do not go to church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Yet the opinion of "most parents" are not included in the school RE curriculum. Those opinions are treated as "an error".

A "wholly or mainly Christian" assembly excludes some children. I would argue that it is probably a majority but even if it were a minority it would still be wrong. I do not wish to interfere in your church, mosque, synagogue or temple. In return do not interfere in our school. It is for the whole community.

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