Religion fighting science is like a fish fighting a bicycle

Posted November 15th, 2011 by Richard

I just got back from Windycon, a Chicago science fiction convention. One of the panels I was on was about the conflict between religion and science. The panel was fun, the discussion lively, and no violence or abuse broke out (sorry to disappoint anyone who comes to these things just to see a panel crash). But I must confess to some personal disappointment.

I came to the panel with two props: my daughter’s high school chemistry text and a copy of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament for those who prefer Christian terminology. (For connoisseurs of Bibles, it was a dual language Greek and English version of the Septuagint.)

My first comments on the panel were to point out that the chemistry book is all about one aspect of how the universe works, every page of it, but that the Bible I had brought has only three pages, the opening pages of Genesis, about the process and structure of the universe. The rest of the book is a mythic history of a people combined with a law book on how those people are supposed to act and a number of warnings about what happens to them if those people do not act as they are meant to.

A principle of writing so obvious that it rarely needs to be enunciated is that a book should actually be about what it’s supposed to be about. For example, a book that claims to be a history of baseball, but which is 90% filled up with the life of Joe DiMaggio’s wife (Marilyn Monroe, for those born too late to know or care), would better be considered a biography of Marilyn Monroe with a baseball history as a framing device.

Looked at from this basic writing concept, it seems clear that the Bible is not a book about the causes of the universe but a story of a people with a mythic framing device.

The final thing I said on the panel was that science was a process for applied trial and error to learn about repeatable natural phenomena and that religion was a teaching to help people live their lives. I said, more or less, that it took a great deal of stretching and twisting of their meanings to actually create any conflict between them.

The panel and the audience were more interested in other aspects of this dispute, and we had a good time going over history, archeology, a dash of neurology and personnel experience. It was a good discussion, especially for 9:00 to 10:00 PM at a con, but I came away with the kind of dissatisfaction that comes from having one’s pet views not really discussed.

Thanks, however, to modern technology, I can push out my frustrated whininess — I mean, air my concerns.

Many, but by no means all religions have origin stories. But in very few religions does the origin do more than paint a vivid picture of the coming-to-be of the world in which the people of that religion live. Very few religious documents spend much time on this subject at all. The space is nearly always filled with how the people of that religion should act.

To argue that because there is a discussion of origins religion and science are talking about the same things makes as much sense as saying that science and law have to be talking about the same things because there is a “Law of Gravity.”

Where does the idea that religions are about explanations for the universe come from? Hard to say, but there’s a likely suspect: Philosophy, specifically Greek philosophy.

The ancient Greek philosophers were interested in where the universe came from and how it worked. Most of them weren’t scientists; they had a dubious grasp of experimentation and correction of error. Indeed, Plato just liked to tell stories about how cool his teacher was and Aristotle preferred to ramble his ideas of what had to be without actually checking the world around him.

Philosophy became the hobby of the more intellectual and spare-time-possessing people of Rome, and its interests in origins and processes did eventually lead to the precursors of science. But it infected people’s thinking with the idea of an importance for origins.

It has become a knee-jerk mental reaction on the part of people who were educated by the descendants of these philosophers to wish to know where things come from and how they work. All modern teaching is descended from this, and all medieval and later scholarship owes its principles and implicit practices to the philosophical mindset. This kind of teaching has spread all over the world and has created an artificial importance to origins.

Let me give you an example of inappropriate concern with origins.

Writers are often asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” No one has an answer to this, nor does it matter much. It’s not so much the ideas as what the writers do with them that matters. Dave Barry, by the way, has the best answer I’ve heard: “Wisconsin.”

Origins matter vastly in science, because where things arose from and how they arose are vital clues to what they are and how they work. But the individual inspirations for works of art are wildly unimportant compared to the artworks themselves and what they are saying.

The same thing applies to religion. Arguing over the truth of religions is pointless and silly. Using the tools of history and archaeology to ask where did something come from is a weird standard to use to judge the goodness and utility of a way of life.

Incidentally, an early recorded instance of someone dumping a religion because of scientific inaccuracy can be found in the Confessions of St. Augustine. He says that he gave up Manichaeism for Christianity because the Manichean cosmology was incorrect in its astronomy.

Religion does a bad job as science because it’s concerned with how people should act, not with the way the world works.

Science does a bad job as religion because it’s concerned with how the world works, not how people should act, with one exception. Science implicitly teaches that one should face reality, that one should act as if the world works in a particular way that we are trying to understand.

Science as a process can be applied to natural phenomena that are subject to uniformity of nature and reliability. Science does not work on situations where data are subject to human cheating. In a sense, therefore, you can’t make a science of human action because humans cheat all the time. We never really think the same thought twice or do the same action the same way twice. I know this is stirring up a hornets’ nest of psychology and sociology, and I am perfectly aware of the ability of statistics to separate out some useful data. But the fact of the matter is that science as a process requires isolation of causes, and human thought and action have too many causes to be properly separable.

And before somebody goes jumping off into neurology, that field is in its infancy. It cannot yet correlate brain activity with individual thought. Come back and talk when it can do that, then we’ll see if a science of mind can be created. For now, it’s not there.

“Face reality” as a human principle is not to be knocked. It has helped cure disease, extend lifespan, provide useful tools, protect from hazardous materials, etc. But it does not, on its own, provide lessons for human life and self-control which religions, when properly doing their jobs, do.

The last point, about properly doing their jobs, is important. Religions have social power. Power attracts the power-hungry. Lots of religious institutions on all scales have at various time been corrupt and used their power against people, both their members and outsiders. But that isn’t a problem of religion, it’s a problem of humans forming organizations with power.

So, in practical terms, what are religion and science fighting about?

And what are they losing by fighting?

Science’s loss is twofold.

First of all, religion has always been better at storytelling. Scientific theories are often formulated in a way that is accurate as possible at the cost of ability to communicate them. People tend to believe religious stories above scientific theories, which means that people often ignore reality when they need to face it.

Second, science can lose some of the best potential scientists. A person motivated by a desire to understand the mind of God by examining the universe can become a vitally interested scientist. Furthermore, such a person properly schooled in the principle that he or she is a limited creature whose understanding cannot encompass all will often approach the wonders of the universe with a great level of humility and therefore be willing to accept whatever is real as real, regardless of personal biases.

But the loss to religion is much greater.

It is a commonality for religions to create stories with moral and life teachings out of the understanding of the world around them, for example, the New Testament parables, the stories of the lives of the Buddha and the Taoist writing of Chuang-Tzu. Medieval writers often used the then-current understanding of animals to create morality tales based on those creatures. Stories of the stars and planets also have been used to teach.

Any understanding of the world can be adopted to teach moral lessons. There’s a tendency to think that the world must be interpreted in particular ways, but that’s no more true than saying that a particular place must be photographed in a certain light. All the parable or lesson writer must do is cast the understanding in a light that reveals the desired teaching.

I have a couple of fairly easy parables here, one based on evolution and one on relativity.


Lesson on Compassion and Self-Discipline derived from Evolution:

We are weak, imperfect creatures. We lack claws and teeth. We are slow to run, weak to grab. We run upon the ground, upon two legs, with lower back pain. We do not fight well. We are, bluntly, prey.

But we have two things that have taken us from that sad and sorry place to a better life: our minds and each other.

We do not fight well alone or hunt well alone, but we do well cooperating.

We do not protect ourselves well, but together we can protect each other.

We do not heal well alone, but we can care for each other.

The person who cries that he needs no one else is a walking corpse waiting for chance to take him to death. The person who is trustworthy and who trusts the trustworthy has help all the days of life.

As for our minds, in them we have brought the secret of evolution and made a way so that fewer of us need to die on the business end of natural selection.

Evolution is a matter of trial and error. Nature tries haphazardly, but in our minds we can better that. We can create and test thoughts, ideas, theories, tools. We can try them out and see if they work, and we can select and mutate our own thoughts so that we can evolve in and of ourselves.

We call this internal evolution learning. We can learn, and we can pass on our learning. We can create our own evolution of ideas that we can gift in a Lamarckian way to our descendants and the descendants of others.

But this only works if we are willing to be as merciless with our ideas as evolution is with individual creatures. If we shelter our desires, our fears and our angers, nurture our hates and our sulks, we will learn nothing, and evolution, cold, hard, uncaring external evolution will have us. If we hold our theories and our conceptions of reality more dear than we do the need to face and understand reality, we will fall before reality and those we shelter will fall as well.

Therefore, take care to be merciless to your own thoughts. Select and cull them for utility. Learn the ways of others so that you can be safer and keep others safer from the merciless world of biology.


Lesson on the Golden Rule derived from Relativity:

Each person has their own frame of reference, their own transforming frame in spacetime. At each time for them they perceive certain objects as close to them and others as far away, see some as important and others as unimportant. Clearly, two different frames of reference will have different close, far, important and unimportant things.

For one person, living in an apartment in a city in the dead of winter, few things matter more than the heating in their apartment. That’s their thread of life. For another person, living in a desert in summer, that city heat source is less than nothing on the scale of import. The water in that desert person’s bottles, on the other hand, that’s the thread of life.

Each person may be perfectly right in their judgment of importance, relative to their own lives. But that does not mean that any of them are right about what is absolutely important. Indeed, the very relativity of their existences makes discernment of absolute importance extremely difficult.

How, then are people to find what is absolutely important?

By looking at what unifies the different frames of reference. What transforms from one frame to another, revealing a deeper structure beneath?

The simplest answer is that distance and importance transform. What matters to one will not matter to another, yet things will matter, and those things will likely correspond, heat for one, water for another, each a fragile resource at risk of being cut off and life ebbing away in the loss.

Therefore, in trying to see the life of another in order to do unto them as you would have them do unto you, transform your understanding to theirs, your near to their near, your far to their far, your important to their important.


In all conflicts, all combatants stand to lose. So it is here with religion and science. Furthermore, in a conflict over nothing but a semantic confusion, there is even greater loss and nothing for any side to gain.

Religion is prescriptive, not of the universe, but of human action.

Science is descriptive of the universe for the sake of human action.

Has there ever been less to fight about?

The Art of Reading

Posted September 16th, 2010 by Richard

For every creative art there is a complementary receptive art, the art that perceives the creations.  We might think that perception is automatic, but one has only to look at the visual arts produced in different cultures to realize that one person’s naturalistic image is another person’s weird caricature and yet a third person’s incomprehensible scribble.   The people of each culture learn to perceive their arts as artistic and create in their own minds the art of taking in, of appreciating the art they are presented.  Musicians understand this better than other artists.  They know that the ear must be trained to hear, that it is in the mind of the hearer that music is musical. Read more »

World Building

Posted January 31st, 2010 by Richard

This is an essay I wrote after giving a talk to my daughter’s fiction writing class on the subject of world building in fantasy writing

World Building 101

World building is a vital but often invisible art in the process of fantasy writing.  The superficial view of a fantasy world is as the environment in which a story or stories takes place.  Looked at from this perspective, the most important things in the world are places for events to happen.  Superficial world building focuses on appearances: what does the terrain look like, where are the cities, and so on.

These questions miss the most important element of world building.  A world is not just where things happen, it is how things happen.  A world reveals its nature in how things happen.

This gives a great opportunity in writing because the nature of the world becomes a character in a fantasy novel.  The ways of the world can carry at least as much meaning as the personalities and choices of the individual characters.

Read more »

Computer Programming as Teaching Tool

Posted August 24th, 2009 by Richard

My two jobs have nearly opposite ways of handling language.Writing uses the humpty-dumpty rule that “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”Computer programming uses the principle that a word means exactly what it is defined to mean with no wiggle room at all.


Does this mean that I’m walking around hitting myself over the head whenever I use a metaphor or suggesting that something more poetic than the word “while” belongs in loop constructions?  Not really.  Well, not often.  Okay.  It’s been known to happen.

Read more »

Truth, Stories, and Lies

Posted August 14th, 2009 by Richard

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about truth and lies and what people believe and why.  By lately I mean for the last eight or nine years.  I’ve been finding it very strange that so many people seem to believe things that not only don’t make sense when you look into them, but don’t make sense at first glance.  Why do so many seem so willing to deceive themselves and to be deceived?

I think I’ve probably been exposed to no more and no less deceit in my life than anyone else, but two factors have made me look harder at it than I might otherwise have done: writing and having children.

Let’s face it, young children lie a lot and they lie very badly. I don’t just mean that they have what are known as “tells” in poker — that is, really blatant signals that indicate their deceit.  They also slant things in their own directions, and by slant I mean sheer cliff.  Children’s lies are simple things.  They are self serving with blatant attempts at distraction or out-and-out belligerent denials.  After only a little while any parent, aunt, uncle, sibling, or cousin of a child will quickly get used to hearing this method of lying and will not for a moment be fooled. 

Read more »

Mary Sue is the Root of All Evil

Posted August 2nd, 2009 by Richard

In setting straight my own mind on some matters before starting a new book, I came to the conclusion that one of the major annoyances of writing was even more of a nuisance than her dubious reputation said.  For those of you familiar with the title character of this essay, please bear with me while I recap her career in slightly different terms than usually used to talk about her before getting to the substance of the matter.

Novice fiction writers hear many warnings from experienced writers, some gentle, some harsh.  But of all these, one is always delivered with a certain savagery and frustration: “Get rid of Mary Sue.”

The mere presence of this character in a story is enough to have it consigned with disgust into any editor’s discards.  But who is this innocent child, this poor woebegone saintly girl who everyone in her stories loves, and yet everyone in the real world except her writer hates?  Who is Mary Sue?

Read more »


Posted August 2nd, 2009 by Richard


I decided to set up this livejournal because I realized that sometimes there are short essays I’d like to write and share with people and this looked like a good venue.  I don’t plan to blog much, but every so often there’ll be a new essay.  I’ll also occasionally make announcements (new books and so on).

Richard Garfinkle