Thursday, December 29, 2005

Are religious doctrines scientific?

While sitting in a Christmas eve church service, I mentally compared the delivery of a sermon to delivery of an economics lecture. There are similarities -- the minister and I must both choose a lesson to cover, obtain appropriate readings and citations, and prepare our presentations. But the differences belie the seeming similarity of our endeavors.

During my lectures, I ask students if they understand the particular points, and strongly encourage them to speak up, and even argue against what I am saying. I also present more than one viewpoint, giving the students competing theories and evidence for each. I offer my own views, but don't ask that anyone accept them. As one student put it to me during a lecture, "I see what you are saying, but I am not convinced." My response: "It's beside the point whether you believe any of my points or not. The goal is that 1) you understand the argument, whether you agree with it or not, and 2) whatever viewpoint you do ultimately accept, you do so intelligently, i.e. you have logic and empirical evidence to support your choice.

How often are the points in a sermon, or a church doctrine, or the bible opened for debate? The difference between religion and a science is just this. Religion is built on supposed revealed "truths" that are not to be challenged, they are simply taken on faith. No argument from logic, and no empirical evidence, can overturn such doctrine for the believer, since the doctrine is simply assumed to be true, i.e. taken on faith.

Science, on the other hand, is built on methods of thinking and inquiry -- rules of logic and starting assumptions that form the basis of theory, and empirical evidence that can be used to confirm the predictions of theories, or to falsify and overturn them. Believers in a particular theoretical viewpoint can be swayed, convinced to re-evaluate the position, if new evidence or a better theoretical argument warrant this. Science is an entirely different endeavor from religion, and to try to pretend that religious doctrine, such as intelligent design, is science, is to ignore this crucial difference.

It has recently been announced that the South Korean researcher who claimed to have cloned human stem cells probably faked his research. As a result, journals that published his work are now publishing retractions, independent researchers are checking his work and Seoul National University has sealed his lab and is doing its own investigations.

Less dramatically, each day peer review in science catches errors and rejects work that can’t be substantiated. And scientific inquiry tests old beliefs and assumptions, and occasionally finds evidence that overturns them.

How often does this happen in theology? When was the last time you heard that it was revealed that a religious doctrine was found to not be based on reason and evidence, but was simply made up by its advocates? Perhaps never, even though all religious doctrines are simply made up.

When was the last time you heard that theological work had been fabricated, or that it contained errors, or couldn’t be substantiated, or has been overturned by new evidence? You haven't heard such stories. There can’t be any news story about theological doctrines being overturned by those who originally accepted them, because theological doctrines aren’t overturned. Theological doctrines are not based on evidence. They aren’t based on research, but are simply opinions that are ultimately accepted on faith. Hence there are no objective tests of these doctrines.

Intelligent design and similar creationist ideas are nothing like science, because at heart these are theological doctrines and not scientific doctrines. There is a fundamental difference between science and theology, and theology does not belong in science classes. It doesn’t belong in human thinking, either, but that's a subject for another post.

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