Diversitas is a series of community presentations held in Morden, Manitoba, designed to educate and inform people about the diversity of humanity. On March 22, the topic was “Can Faith and Science Coexist?”, and the guest speaker was Dr. Patrick Franklin (PhD, McMaster Divinity College), Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, and a member of an organization called the Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation.
The event was well attended, with most of the seats filled at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’s Aquasaur Theatre. The title of Dr. Franklin’s presentation was: “Is Christian Faith Obsolete in a Scientific Age?” In his opening remarks, he added other questions, such as “Is God belief obsolete?“, and “Is religion obsolete?“. He mentioned that we would spend some time discussing the Old Testament, and presented a few verses which he thought best demonstrated that Christianity is not in conflict with science. A lot to cover in a 45-minute talk.
For those unfamiliar, the study of conflict between faith and science has a name – conflict thesis, which is a very old idea and well documented. First proposed in the early 1800’s, author and politician Andrew Dickson White took a mighty scholarly whack at it in his two volume set A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It was published in 1896, and although a product of its time, is still a good read – especially in light of more than a hundred years of scientific advancement and the slow decline of churches’ power. (It’s available for free download from Project Gutenberg.)
Dr. Franklin began his talk with a quote from Richard Dawkins:
“One can’t be an intelligent, scientific thinker and still hold traditional religious beliefs.”
Although I have been unable to confirm that this as an actual quote from Dr. Dawkins, for the sake of argument we will assume that it is true.
Dr. Franklin described a study in which it was found that 35% of scientists believe religion is in conflict with science, and he then made the assertion that this means 65% scientists believe there is no conflict. Unless the question was asked directly (“Do you believe there is no conflict?“), this seems to be a false dichotomy to me. Another study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, in her book Science vs. Religion, showed that, of American scientists interviewed, 34% were atheist, 30% were agnostic, 28% had varying degrees of confidence in God, and 8% believed in some higher power. Ecklund then went on to postulate the reasons for this high percentage of atheism and agnosticism amongst scientists. These three reasons rose to the top:
Scientists who are not religious
- Were not raised in a religious home – children raised in a materialistic, non-religious households were more apt to be curious and gravitate to learning about the natural world
- Had a bad experience in church/religion or with a pastor/clergy member
- Disapprove of the idea of God
Dr. Franklin thought these reasons were interesting because they show that, by and large, the high number of atheists in the sciences is not due to science itself, but to many of the same reasons that other people are atheists. I would tend to agree; however, I have a different take on these points.
- Yes, children who grow up as freethinkers and not indoctrinated into religion will be more curious and gravitate to seeking out their own answers – but this is a good thing. Don’t indoctrinate your children and they will learn more.
- Yes, people have bad experiences in church and with clergy; not a week goes by that I don’t see a story in my newsfeed about another priest diddling little boys, or embezzling money; and of course there are those who need money to paint their private jets. I think this point says more about the authoritarian nature of religion, and how its true colours become exposed in a modern freethinking society. It’s a no-brainer that many people don’t want any part of it.
- As for disapproving of the idea of God – well of course, if you’re of a scientific-thinking mind, you seek out answers and explanations; ones that are demonstrably true and useful. The idea of God is “disliked” because it is none of these.
Dr. Franklin then went on to present a list of some 15 scientists, complete with mentions of what they do/did; all, of course, Christian. Everybody from Nicholaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton to Alister McGrath (and some he knows personally). It is worth noting here that even though professional scientists may be theists, this does not demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion, but simply that a person may hold contradictory beliefs. During that segment it was interesting to note that Dr. Franklin was quick to point out which scientists on his list were evangelicals (his denomination), which prompted a member of the United Church I spoke to later to say “the way he was talking, you would think all Christians who are scientists are evangelical”, which was exactly what I was thinking.
So where does that leave us so far? Dr. Franklin believes the evidence shows that the statement “One can’t be an intelligent scientific thinker and still hold traditional religious beliefs” is just wrong. On the surface it looks like he is correct; however, if we dig a little deeper we find that scientists who are religious or spiritual leave their religion or spirituality at the door when walking into the lab. In the lab they are not testing their hypotheses by faith, while in church they are not looking at religious claims using the scientific method. Some do attempt to test religious claims, but they often end up believing things that are not part of traditional religious beliefs.
Dr. Franklin believes the scientific evidence for climate change, genetics, geology, the age of the earth and what science can tell us about the natural world. He is very much a scientific thinker, and for this I give him great credit. But when it came to the Q & A portion of the talk, I asked him a question that went like this – “Through our understanding of genetics, paleontology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, geology, and other sciences, we know that at no time in the past was the human population down to just two. There was no genetic bottleneck that would show that there was an Adam or an Eve. If Adam and Eve aren’t possible, then there was no garden of Eden; no Original Sin; no need for Jesus, human sacrifice, or redemption; and essentially no need for Christianity. How do you make your scientific understanding comport with your supernatural Christian beliefs?” The question was sidestepped. Dr. Franklin did suggest a couple of books I could read (Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, and The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins), and mentioned the possibility that Adam and Eve were some sort of king and queen of a tribe or population of about 10,000, many, many years ago (it was all very vague). The thing is, through the science of genetics, paleoclimatology, archeology, and geology, we know that our human population was reduced to about 10,000 individuals as early as 70,000 years ago. Due to climate change, humanity was almost wiped off the face of the planet, gone extinct like so many other species. What’s funny is that apparently, some of this information was discovered through Christian theology shortly after it was discovered by science… it’s a miracle!!!
In my view, Dr. Franklin is the embodiment of the Dawkins quote. He is a scientific thinker who is unable to hold onto traditional religious belief – in this case the traditional belief that one man named Adam and one woman named Eve started it all. The next day, I received a links from Dr. Franklin to his blog and ten more resources on the subject… I was hoping he would just answer the question.
The next section of his talk was about how science is limited, how the scientific world view can’t provide ‘comprehensive knowledge’, and how scientific reductionism is a harmful and vast oversimplification of reality. This is an argument that is usually trotted out by the slimiest of Christian apologists; unfortunately, it seems to have gone mainstream.
I think the reason this argument bothers me so much is that it’s an attempt to discredit science by faulting it for doing what it is designed to do. The perception of beauty is not a scientific question; nor is what music someone finds pleasing to the ear a scientific question. The concept of ‘comprehensive knowledge’ is just a smokescreen, as later, apologists will try to wedge God, Jesus, and spirituality into ‘comprehensive knowledge’. They will argue that science reduces concepts such as love and beauty to mere biochemical reactions (which they are). But that’s what science does – reduce concepts to their simplest form in order to better understand the whole. This process actually results in real knowledge, and for me, more knowledge increases the appreciation of beauty. As the great physicist Richard P. Feynman said, ”Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?…” (full quote here). See also Feynman’s Ode to the Flower.
Finally, near the end of his talk, Dr. Franklin spoke of God’s two books. One was, of course, scripture; the other was the metaphorical book of nature, or what we can learn from nature. To illustrate how these two books go hand-in-hand, he offered Psalm 19. These poetic lines in the Bible describe the beauty of the natural world, and Dr. Franklin believes that this Psalm tells Christians they should learn more about the natural world and how well science goes with Christianity. Admirable, but I listened carefully to see how he was going to juggle the verses. He read beautifully verse 1 through 5, skipped 6 (this was not an oversight, as he said “skipping ahead to 7”), and then moved onto 7, 8, and 9.
I, too, know Psalm 19, but for different reasons. This is verse that he skipped:
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth. (NIV)
Verse 6 clearly states that the sun orbits the earth (“makes its circuit”). It is one of many verses that was used by the Catholic Church to justify the charge of heresy against Galileo, his imprisonment, the re-canting of his scientific work, and his eventual house arrest. If you understand church history, this verse becomes one of the best examples of how Christianity has retarded scientific progress.
Unfortunately, the Q & A was dominated by a sizeable contingent of YEC’s (Young Earth Creationists). Dr. Franklin handled himself admirably as he explained why “creation science” is not science, and of course he answered the all-important question “If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes“? After it was all over, I was hoping to chat for a couple of minutes with Dr. Franklin; however that was not in the cards. I did thank him and shook his hand. As I left, I could see that he was surrounded by a whole lot of creationists and some United Church members, having a discussion about Adam and Eve’s kids, incest, and the origin of the human species. I didn’t hang around to listen.
Regarding the question from the start of the evening, Is Christian faith obsolete in a scientific age?, I would have to say yes – to everybody except, it seems, Christians. As for the conflict between religion and science, it will always be there. I will leave you with a quote from Joshua Cuevas’ excellent article in last years New Humanist:
“Ultimately, there is no conflict between religious claims and science. The conflict is in the mind of the theist who desperately attempts to preserve his or her belief system.”
– Pat Morrow
In this issue:
- Report on another successful Outreach
- Secular group forming in Steinbach
- Blood drive update
- Back to school – beware of proselytization
- and more…
In August we were busy with our big annual Outreach event. Read all about it, as well as the final preparations and latest updates on Reasonfest!
In this issue:
- We’re gearing up for our Summer Outreach in Morden and River City Reasonfest in September
- An apologist responds to Dr Arthur Schafer’s speech about the ethics of religion, and HAAM provides a rebuttal
- Updates on Outreach and Religion in Schools
- and more…
- Updates on the stories we’ve been following on religion in our public institutions,
- Details about all our upcoming events (including speakers who will be appearing at our River City Reasonfest conference in September), and
- A link to view the presentation on the Ethics of Religion if you missed it at our May meeting.
The Beautiful: People whose lives were changed by our presence, such as LGBT youth who found out they can turn to the Rainbow Resource Centre if/when they’re found out and get rejected by their families; atheists who felt alone and isolated but now know how to find us; and people who were genuinely afraid that we were there for destructive reasons but took the time anyway to truly listen, and who then embraced us and our message wholeheartedly.
Heading out to our second annual outreach booth in Morden this year, I was pretty jazzed up with anticipation at what the weekend would hold. Having participated last year, I was certainly not quite as anxious as I had been the previous summer. We had such a great experience the first time, and even though we had our share of people who weren’t too thrilled to see us, they were pretty evenly balanced with those who were happy to come over to the booth and give us a friendly greeting and grab our info.
The challenge that I set for myself this year was to try to make each encounter, even with the hard core religious, into something positive. I was also hoping to stay away from getting into any type of long fruitless conversations about evolution, or engage with people for any length of time who showed a propensity for spouting bible verses instead of arguments. Lofty goals considering where we were headed.
I knew that we were unlikely to deconvert anybody, and with our focus on promoting our group, and giving hope to people who may have already left religion behind, I was determined to demonstrate that we are a community with positive values, so my first step was trying to find a way to make that connection with people that might make them want to find out more.
I thought about what humanism means to me and what common values my humanist worldview entails that might help to make those connections. It’s difficult to distill the values of humanism into one sentence, but in brief it encompasses a worldview that employs evidence-based rational thought informed by critical thinking and our human capacities for empathy and compassion. For me, not having a particularly strong background in science (although after the last few years devouring it, I understand a lot more than I ever thought I could), I knew that I wouldn’t have much success arguing the finer points of evolution or the cosmological argument.
My goal instead was to connect with people based on appealing to their compassion and empathy. Sometimes this involved making them uncomfortable, for example, most of the believers that I spoke with believed in some kind of hell and when their views were explored, they had to admit that as an unbeliever, this was my ultimate destination. I could see that this thinking created a dilemma for them, even after only having spoken to me for a few minutes. Choice or not, they had to admit that the God they worshipped set up this scenario in the first place, and even if He never intended it for me, I would be partaking of its exquisite torments anyway. All because I didn’t believe? While I can’t say that I had any immediate success or on the spot deconversions, I’m pretty sure that more than a few at least were forced to confront the reality that God had set it up so that their own compassion and empathy were at odds with His plan.
I also tried to do what I could to introduce them to the idea of critical thinking, exploring how we know what we know, how we decide what is reliable evidence and to the idea that there is a whole world out there. One creationist who was promoting a very inaccurate video agreed to spend an equal amount of time reading at Talk Origins if I watched this video. With some others, I tried the approach of speaking about what gives our lives meaning and explored the idea that just because I’m pretty sure that my life is over when my brain ceases to function, it doesn’t have to follow that my life is meaningless. Sometimes an ice cream cone is enjoyable, even if it’s not a never-ending ice cream cone.
In all, I feel that the weekend was well spent. We connected with a lot of people, gave hope to many who were feeling isolated and alone, and maybe helped some others to take another look at what they believed.
The Morden Corn and Apple Festival was a real eye-opener for me. Here’s why:
I grew up in suburban Winnipeg in the ’60s where I attended a liberal Protestant church. In public school we studied evolution in science class. I knew nothing of fundamentalist Christians until I was well into adulthood. I never considered what it would be like to inhabit their worldview, nor had I ever imagined living in a religious community and not feeling part of it.
Spending 12 hours in our HAAM outreach booth watching, chatting, and debating, I had plenty of time to contemplate these situations. We received some looks of disapproval, but everyone was calm and respectful. I thought about how lucky we are in Canada where public displays of disagreement do not generally incite riots.
This was the first time I have ever met fundamentalist Christians in real life. Some were anxious to defend their faith and condemn us, while others seemed genuinely curious about our beliefs. (No doubt it was a new experience for them, too.) Some stayed only a few minutes, others for an hour or more. A few just picked up a pamphlet and hurried away. The ones who stayed seemed like intelligent and thoughtful people. They sincerely believed what they were telling us, and provided complex and detailed information to support their arguments. Then they were genuinely puzzled when we countered their claims with contradictory evidence. From these encounters it became apparent to me that belief systems have little relation to IQ and much more relation to education and experience. These people have lived in sheltered communities where their beliefs have not, until now, been challenged. Clearly, if we want to encourage critical thinking and rational decision-making, a supportive educational approach will be more effective than insults.
Then there are those who live in Bible belt communities and are questioning their faith or have already left it. Some of their stories were heart wrenching. They spoke of the fear of job loss, of not being invited to friends’ homes, of divided family loyalties, even being excluded from activities in a senior’s residence, because they do not attend church or the ‘right’ church. But most vulnerable are the young people. More than one scribbled down our name but dared not take any pamphlets for fear of being caught. We were able to direct them toward online support and resources and reassure them that indeed, they are ‘not alone’.
Lastly, I surprised myself on two counts. First, I was worried about keeping my cool when listening to ridiculous arguments, but I found that speaking face to face promotes more empathy and respect than commenting on the internet. Second, I was worried that I would become tongue-tied, but it wasn’t really that difficult, and no one expects to have all the answers.
I’m glad I went; it was fun. And if I sent at least one person to Google to fact-check, or helped one person feel less alone, it was totally worth it.
“Business” was brisk at our booth at the Morden Corn & Apple Festival August 22nd to 25th. I have never been a good debater, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to fellow HAAM members do an excellent job.
I think all of us agree that we were there for the non-believers who are still in the closet. However, we are probably approached at the booth by more believers than non-believers, and so these are the people we end up talking to, and debating.
The non-believers ran the gamut of angry to kind. Last year there was one man so angry he was almost red in the face, looking like he wanted to punch us. I personally didn’t see anybody that angry this year, but apparently there was at least one woman who wanted to see if we could be prevented from entering the town.
One couple studied our sign, said something to each other, then studied the sign again, then walked away with the woman shaking her head and crossing herself. One man came to talk to us briefly. He said he’d read about us in the Winnipeg Free Press, then said, “For those who DO believe, I hope they treat you with respect.”
Most believers who approach us don’t necessarily want to debate. Most seem to think that we’ll understand the error of our thinking by simply telling us how wrong we are. One senior couple warned us fervently that we simply must make amends with God/Jesus because once we die, IT’S TOO LATE! IT’S TOO LATE! While reprimanding us the man backed off as though he didn’t want to hear any response from us all the while shaking his head with disapproval saying more than once that he would pray for us. The woman stayed at the booth for a few seconds longer to try to drive her message home.
I grew up in a Mennonite family, school, community, and church and so am very familiar with the religious. But some of the people we talked with were so fanatical in their beliefs that it confounded even me. I remember always believing in evolution. I can’t remember which teacher taught evolution in the school I attended, because all my teachers were Mennonites and zealous believers. But one of them did, and I never gave it a second thought. And so when I come across believers who simply don’t accept evolution, as one young man did who debated with Pat at length, I’m puzzled. This man, flanked by his three little children, one of whom called Pat stupid at one point, to which the father chuckled slightly, insisted that it has to take a lot of faith on our part to believe in evolution. A lot more faith than it takes to believe in God, he said. But when he broached the subject of Noah and the flood, and why that was a perfectly plausible cause of such wonders as the Grand Canyon and an explanation as to how the earth can be changed in a very short time (like 6,000 years), I asked him if he believed the story of the flood and he said yes. I said, “Really!” and asked him how he thinks all these animals were gathered from around the world. He said, “Faith in God”.
I told this young man that I once heard two people on the radio try to draw a moral from the story of Job. God and the devil having a tete-atete at the top of a mountain with God telling the devil about his good and faithful servant, Job. The devil says it’s no wonder Job is faithful because God has given him everything he wants and/or needs. God tells the devil he can go take things away from Job and do what he wants to him, just don’t kill him, and he’ll see. Job will still be faithful. The devil kills Job’s entire family and his servants, takes away his wealth, and covers his body with painful sores. And don’t you know it, Job is still faithful. So God won the bet. I had never heard the story told in this way and couldn’t believe that this is the way it went, so I read it for myself, and found out that that’s exactly the way it goes! I asked him how anybody can draw any kind of moral from a horrific story like that. This man wasn’t shocked. His comment was something like, “But do you remember what Job said in the end?” Job apparently had positive things to say because God gave him a new family and even more wealth than he had before. Pat tried to point out that God had killed Job’s children and you can’t replace your children with different children. (I’m paraphrasing, Pat.) The only thing this man said was, yes, he didn’t know what God had in mind when he did that, but this was said from the point of view that God must have had a plan, and so it’s okay.
Another fear I found that is very real in Christians is that this life may be the only one we have. This same man asked what we expect happens to us when we die. He wanted to know, do we really believe that that’s it. When we said yes, he expressed his astonishment and said he thought that was so sad. The fear that this is the only life we have is one I don’t remember having had at any point of my religiously affected life, and so this too surprised me. I always thought that Christians spew a lot of rhetoric, but they don’t really believe what they say. I guess I was wrong. I was always afraid I’d go to hell because I never really thought I was devout enough, and He says clearly that the lukewarm He will spit out. I was never sure that I’d go to heaven like these people are. One woman said she KNOWS she’s going to heaven after she dies. I said she can’t be sure about that because what if Islam is the right religion. She didn’t seem to hear that at all, but simply repeated that she KNOWS she’s going to heaven.
Finally, there was the 17 year old girl who talked with us for quite some time about being a nonbeliever in a religious home, although her parents were obviously not fundamentalists, which was good to hear. It was such a pleasure to listen to her talk and hear the intelligence coming from such a young person. And it brought home to me again that that’s why we were there. To let people like her know, she’s not alone.
On Sunday after the disapproving church crowd walked past our booth, an older man in his mid ’70s came strolling up, put his hand on a chair, and asked if he could sit down. He said he was hoping to sit and talk for a while. I mentally prepared for the usual “Do you know Jesus?” or “if you just read such and such passage of the gospel it will all make sense.” It wasn’t going to be that kind of visit.
He said his name was Josh (changed to protect privacy). Josh started asking questions about the definitions of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism. I spoke of how humanism is really just the philosophy of being good without God, how humanists greatly value science, democracy, human empathy, compassion, and how humanists believe human problems have human answers, no gods required. He then asked me if I had ever believed. I told him I tried once in my teens, but it just didn’t take.
It was then he leaned over and said, “I don’t believe in God either, especially the religious stuff; but I really want to believe in God.” He would go on to mention this need to believe several times in our conversation.
Josh went on to tell me a little about his life. He was brought up in a very strict Mennonite household. Around the age of 20 he decided he wanted to see what was out there, and so he did, much to his father’s dismay. He moved away, studied myriad subjects, and by the time school was finished he had lost his faith. “I guess I learned too much,” he said.
“Do you ever wonder about what comes after?” he asked; “like an afterlife?” “No, not really” I replied.
I told him about when my mother died a few years ago and how it would’ve been really nice to think of her in a better place, but my reasoning wouldn’t allow that. And that made things difficult for a time. I thought if I could remember the words of Marcus Aurelius and the verse that gave me so much peace at that time, it might help him out too.
Were the beliefs of Josh’s youth coming back? Was he fearing the afterlife? Hell? After talking to a friend I think what Josh dislikes is what we all think about from time to time: the permanence of death.
Now in his ’70s he’s thinking of his own mortality. The 50+ years of reason are running headlong into the 20 years of religious indoctrination of his youth. The result is beginning to give him some real discomfort and pain. Maybe he is hoping for that comfort of knowing the answers that supernatural belief so often gives its practitioners. A comfort I have never experienced.
As I drove home I was kicking myself for not seeing it when I was talking to him. I thought to myself, we have members who could handle something like this a lot better than I could. Maybe we could have set him up with a counsellor or someone to talk to. I really thought I was just engaging a nice man who wanted to have a chat about life and the big questions. Not a man looking for answers to ease his pain.
Josh, if you take our card out of your pocket and happen along this little article, these are the words that gave me, and give me so much comfort when I’ve had questions like yours. I hope you find peace, wherever that may be. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been more help.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” -Marcus Aurelius
It’s Super Secular September in Manitoba!!
- Our transit advertising hits the streets of Winnipeg
- We announce our Bus Photo Contest
- Volunteers venture out to Morden and live to tell the tale! (that’s Dorothy and Diana in the pic to the right)
- We still have great events happening this month, so read on!