Sep 14

The Tension Between Science And Religion – A Personal Perspective

Blue Marble Pic

Click to read more about this image via NASA

Well, here we are, living on a rock orbiting the star we call the Sun. Our star is one of over a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which we call the Milky Way. The Sun is located on one of the spiral arms about 26,000 light years from the centre of the galaxy. The Milky Way is one of more than a hundred billion galaxies in our universe. The universe began 13.72 billion years ago in what is known as the Big Bang. Time and Space (or rather Space-Time as they are not really separate entities) began at the big bang and the universe has been inflating and evolving ever since. Our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago and the first simple living organisms began to appear on earth about 3.5 billion years ago. Since then living things have been evolving (despite a number of extinctions) into the rich and diverse range of life forms we have today. Our species, Homo sapiens, is one of a number of hominids which emerged about 8 million years ago, after our primate line split in two, the other line from our common ancestor leading to modern chimpanzees and bonobos. 200,000 years ago our human ancestors were living on the plains of Africa. Since then, our hominid cousins have all died out, leaving us as the only ones. (The last surviving ones, the Neanderthals, were still around 20,000 years ago). All this is known to be true, verified by research, peer-review, mathematical equations, scientific experiments, DNA analysis, spectrometry and radio-metric dating.

Some people, however, believe that we were created by a supernatural being, who, despite his enormous spatial and temporal responsibilities in the universe, still cares what we insignificant little humans eat, when we eat it, what we wear, who we sleep with, what we should do on a Sunday, (preferably bow down and worship Him) and whether we should mutilate the genitals of our children. They think that asking God for help through prayer can modify subsequent events. Some believe that 2000 years ago a man performed miracles, drove evil spirits out of people we would now regard as being mentally ill, and came alive again 3 days after being killed. They also believe that humans have souls or spirits that live on after death. (At what point in evolution did God inject the soul into humans?). They think that humans are born sinful and need to be redeemed by a saviour’s blood sacrifice. Others believe that in the 7th century CE the angel Gabriel dictated instructions from Allah to an illiterate Middle Eastern merchants’ assistant, who relayed the information to followers, who wrote it down as The Qur’an. Still others believe in many gods, including one with an elephant’s head and some with four arms. There are, of course, many other religious faiths; some ancient, some relatively recent.

As a humanist, I believe (subject to further modifying evidence) the first paragraph to be true. I do not believe it as a matter of faith. As far as I am concerned, despite what the churches and the royals tell us, “Faith” is a singularly poor reason to believe anything. I do not believe the propositions in the second paragraph to be true, but, unlike some religious zealots, I do not think that people who disagree with me should be persecuted or beheaded. People can believe whatever they like, so long as they accept that in our modern, civilised, democratic, secular society, certain practices are against the law (e.g. FGM and discrimination on grounds of race or sexual orientation) and/or against civilised, ethical principles (e.g. cruel ritual slaughter of animals, treating women as inferior beings). Nor should religions be given special privileges or financial advantages. Public money should not finance faith schools, where children are indoctrinated into accepting unsubstantiated beliefs. State schools should not be obliged to conduct a daily act of Christian worship. Elected councillors should not be obliged to begin council meetings with prayers. Bishops should not derive power and influence by being appointed to the House of Lords. People should be allowed to be helped to die with dignity if that is what they want.

I believe that science gives us a better understanding of reality than religion. Humans can live good, worthwhile and ethical lives without the need for instructions from a divine being.

Colin Gunter (Chair, EHG)

photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via photopin cc