Let’s say you believe in creationism or “intelligent design,” as creationists now like to call their addled explanation of how living beings came to be. You don’t accept evolution. Everything was created all at once by a supreme being that knew exactly what he/she/it wanted to do and did it just right the first time around.
Then you are confronted with solid evidence of feathered dinosaurs—a fossil dinosaur covered head to tail with downy fluff and primitive feathers. Evolutionary theory predicted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and, ta-da!, the hypothesis has been confirmed. As paleontologist Mark Norell says, “Dinosaurs are not extinct—we just call them birds now.”
So what are you going to do, Mr. or Ms. Creationist, now that another log of fact has been added to the already monstrous bonfire of scientific knowledge that has been incinerating your cherished beliefs? Are you going to give up your beliefs and accept the facts? Or are you going to ignore the facts and hold onto your beliefs?
I’ve never liked how the distinction between “science” and “religion” usually is presented. Often science and religion are portrayed as two alternative ways of knowing reality. But this doesn’t make sense. There is valid knowledge about reality. Period. Invalid knowledge is belief. Period.
In the last analysis, religion and science are different forms of human behavior and have different functions. We may analogically ask, What is the relationship between science and sports, or science and music? These are different forms of experience, and they play different roles in human behavior. Surely neither sports nor music compete in the range of truth claims. In this sense, religion should not be taken as true or false, but as evocative, expressive, uplifting, performatory, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, socially unifying or disruptive. Historically, the claims of religion were taken as true, but this was a prescientific posture drawing upon myth and metaphor, metaphysics and speculation, not testable claims. Thus "religious truth" cannot be appealed to in order to contest the verified findings of the sciences.
Yes. A few days ago I saw a Lou Dobbs interview with Mark Norell on CNN. Norell talked about his new book, “Unearthing the Dragon: The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery.” He said that it would take a while for the fact of feathered dinosaurs to enter the mainstream of public awareness. When it does, creationism is going to appear even more nonsensical to anyone with an open mind.
Dobbs asked Norell what he thought about the relationship between science and religion. Norell responded as scientists generally do. He said that they exist in different spheres: “Science deals with knowledge. Religion deals with belief.”
Yet what is a scientific hypothesis? Isn’t this a belief? Sort of. A hypothesis is a tentative belief, a possible fact, a hint of knowledge. Science doesn’t cling to beliefs like religion does. It doesn’t embrace unfounded assumptions about the nature of reality and make this into a virtue called “faith.” Instead, science is ready and willing to discard beliefs when they don’t conform to facts: hard evidence attained through rigorous experiments, observations, analyses.
The director of the American Museum of Natural History says “What we thought we knew about dinosaurs is now history.” That’s so refreshing. I’d love to hear the Vatican say, “What we thought we knew about Jesus is now history.” Religious individuals often change their minds about old beliefs in the light of new evidence, but religious institutions rarely do.
Thus science advances collectively. Religions don’t. Any advance in spiritual knowledge has to occur on an individual level, which is why the Church of the Churchless preaches the gospel of spiritual independence. I do believe in the possibility of gaining knowledge about non-material reality. But obviously any such knowledge can’t be proven to other people, for it doesn’t pertain to physical existence.
Feathered dinosaur fossils can be examined by other researchers. Spiritual experiences can’t. Yet those experiences may be as real as the fossils. There can be valid knowledge about both physical and metaphysical reality. Knowledge is knowledge, no matter of what domain. However, there is no such thing as a valid belief. Belief is belief, no matter of what domain.
If you’re religious and want to call your unfounded beliefs “faith,” great. Just don’t ask me, or anyone else, to accept them as knowledge. Especially, don’t expect that scientific knowledge such as the theory of evolution should be discarded or downplayed in favor of your religious beliefs. If you want to prove that science is wrong about something, cart out your evidence and be prepared to defend your hypothesis.
On television I heard one of the members of the Kansas Board of Education, which is considering altering the science standards to allow teaching of creationism/intelligent design, say “I haven’t read the new standards.” Yet she was going to vote for them anyway because she was a good Christian and knows that creationism is true.
No she doesn’t. She believes that it is true. Between knowledge and belief is a gap that can’t be filled by any amount of rationalizing, explaining, or prevaricating.
Only reality can bridge that gap. Not faith. “Faith” is a synonym for belief. It is on the opposite side of the truth-chasm from knowledge. Clinging to faith means embracing unreality.