“True” Knowledge is Not an Enemy of Faith

But all too often “true beliefs” are the enemy of knowledge – and that sometimes even occurs within the so-called hallowed halls of science and academia.  True believers exist in all fields, and all of them are characterized by an unwillingness to change what they believe as knowledge and understanding of the world and the universe improve.

Human beings are far from knowing everything, but both as individuals and as a species, we are, so far, continuing to learn.  What we believe about the world is largely based on what we have observed and what we have heard or read.  The more we learn and advance, the more our beliefs should reflect that change, and yet more and more people seem to think that the opposite is true, even though the largest problem with “belief” and with “true believers” occurs when what people believe is at variance with what is.  Or, as the old saying goes, “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you so much as what you know that isn’t so.”

From the reaction to the last blog post… and others in the past, I’m getting the impression that at least some of my readers feel that I’m against or opposed to “faith” or religion.  I’m not.  I’m opposed to those versions of religion that deny what is, and what has been proved to be.  When some die-hard fundamentalist insists that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., given the wealth of scientific evidence and facts to the contrary… well, rightly or wrongly, I don’t think that such a view should be given public credence, nor should it be allowed to impede the teaching of science that has an array of demonstrated facts to show that the universe is somewhere around 14 billion years old, while the fundamentalist only has scripture and faith.

Some branches of certain religions “honestly” believe that women are not the equal of men. While one would be a fool not to accept that there are differences in the sexes, including the fact that for a given body weight, men generally have more muscle mass, in most highly  industrialized economies it’s become very clear that women do at least as well in almost all ranges of occupations as do men, and the fact that women are now surpassing men in academic honors in most fields of higher education in the United States should prove the idea that in general women are at least equal, if not superior, to men in intellect.  Yet such statistics and achievements have little impact in changing the views of such religious “true believers.”

Another problem with “true beliefs” at variance with what can be proved or demonstrated, particularly those that get enshrined in legal codes and laws, is that they create moral conflicts for honest and less doctrinaire individuals.  For example, if a law, as did Tennessee’s law at the time of the Scopes trial, prohibits the teaching of evolution, then a teacher must either teach a falsehood or not teach what he or she knows to be accurate in order to obey the law.  If the teacher obeys the law, then the teacher is essentially false to the very goal of education.  If the teacher is true to the goal of education, the teacher breaks the law.  This dilemma is far from new; essentially the same kind of conflict led to the death of Socrates over 2,400 years ago. 

Is there a God?  At present, there’s no scientific proof one way or the other, and I really don’t care if you believe in a greater deity or you don’t.  What I do care about is how you act and how whatever you believe affects me, those I love, and others in society.  All throughout history, beliefs that have been at variance with what is have resulted in oppression, repression, tyranny, and violence, not to mention a lack of progress and human improvement.  And given the fact that we’ve tendencies in those directions anyway, the last thing we need as a species is the support and encouragement of such misguided “true believers.”

53 thoughts on ““True” Knowledge is Not an Enemy of Faith”

  1. Joshua Blonski says:

    Cheers.

    Really, science isn’t even supposed to ask the question of an existence of God, since such a question cannot be directly (and repeatedly) quantified, observed, or tested. Faith has its place, and that’s typically in the home and in the community of that faith. The debate, for example, of whether to teach creationism side by side with evolution in school is somewhat a slap in the face to every other person who is -not- of that religion (“that religion,” in this country, is Christianity). It puts forth a notion saying that particular faith IS fact and no other faith has any merit. Furthermore, it’s not a scientific goal, and no religious roots story should be taught in a scientific class.

    Ultimately I come to at least a similar conclusion as you do regarding people’s personal choices, including faith and religion. Do what makes you happy and what feels right to you, so long as it is not forcing those beliefs and ways of life onto those around you. Someone has every right to choose for himself or herself what to believe, but so do I, and so does everyone else.

  2. Bob Howard says:

    Agree. My support for a person’s right to their own religious beliefs stops at the point where they insist on the acceptance of those beliefs by others. But all too many true believers honestly feel they have a moral imperative to see their beliefs be universally accepted as the one truth and the best, or only, guide for the society.

    To echo the earlier discussion, I see no conflict with science for many religions. Take the example of evolution–why cannot Christians consider that if God exists and created life in the universe, his tool of choice just might have been evolution? But most seem unwilling to consider the possibility, as they are wedded to belief in the literal truth of biblical text.

    I’m the product of a very religious upbringing, but “saw the light” as I matured and advanced my eduction. On the other hand, I find aggressive atheism almost as distasteful as arrogant religious fundamentalism–both extremes are too certain of things that are as yet unknown and perhaps unknowable. Call me a practical agnostic, with no calling to proselytize. If folks would just leave their religious views to themselves and those that share those views, the world would be a happier, saner and far, far more peaceful place.

    If I can be forgiven one parting shot, though, I think it is the abiding hypocrisy of so many Christians that irritates me the most, like selective quotes from the Bible (so full of contradictory language one can find justification for virtually any behavior) and diametrically opposed political postions. I’m always amazed at my Christian friends who fight against abortion yet support the death penalty. Is there an asterisk on that “thou shalt not kill” commandment? And really, if you really, truly believe in eternal salvation, wouldn’t you devote your entire life to the service of others–what’s a few years of totally selfless living compared to trillions of trillions of years, eternity actually, of bliss? Yet how many do? Sorry, I’m off the soap box.

  3. Grant Edmunds says:

    I agree, for the most part with the principle of what you are saying, however I think you are letting your beliefs cloud your judgment in the example you are using to illustrate your argument. You keep saying there are all sorts of “facts” that “prove” the earth is billions of years old, when frankly, that is not true. There is some scientific evidence in favor of that theory, there is also some scientific evidence that goes against that theory, neither set of evidence is conclusive, much less “factual”.

    Joshua,
    Science and religion are so closely intertwined as to make the study of one without the other a hopelessly useless endeavor. The only time the two should be separated is when you are engaged in a debate with someone who doesn’t have the same frame of reference as yourself. The reason for this separation goes like this: If you are engaged in a debate than you care enough about your opponent’s honest and intellectual opinion that you want to secure it through reasoned discussion. The only way to persuade them of your opinion in a reasoned discussion is to offer evidence they will see as valid. Thus if you care enough to debate, but they don’t have the same religious beliefs, then religion is not a viable argument in that situation. If all you care about is stating your opinion than you give it with the reasons that have caused you to reach that decision, and then refrain from further discussion. In this case you would present whatever evidence you find valid and not worry about whether it will hold weight with anyone else.

  4. Grant Edmunds says:

    And I love the title of your post by the way, it is completely true. I would only change “But all too often “true beliefs” are the enemy of knowledge” to “But all too often “blind beliefs” are the enemy of knowledge”.

  5. Rehcra says:

    I don’t see this as a religious discussion at all. To me it is just human nature. Each side is closed minded in its own way. The trick is to be open minded enough to not persecute others beliefs. For the most part I do feel Grant’s arguing nothing can be proven is beyond pointless and irrelevant to the discussion, but he has a point in looking at it through both sets of eyes. One can not hope to move forward in science by moving backwards in society by rotating the roles of who is right and who is wrong.

    That being said Creationism shouldn’t be looked at differently from any other theory. If it does not pass the scientific method, then you just don’t teach it in school. It’s not like you can’t learn about it in church. You don’t include unprovable theories in education because there would just be too many of them. But from a social standpoint it should be taught if it is a part of society.

    Thanks for the great posts, Modesitt. Your blog has been bookmarked. Also, thanks for the great books (Mainly Imager’s Portfolio)

    p.s. I don’t think Grant read your whole last post before commenting… lol

    -Rehcra

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Please, if you’re going to insult me, address me directly when you do so, there is no need to be insulting and rude.

      As far as my argument about the inability of science to prove anything, it is relevant because Mr. Modesitt has throughout this discussion, claimed that science has produced “facts” which “prove” the earth is billions of years old, and that, creationists ignore such facts in favor of blind belief. I disagree on both counts, though perhaps there are creationists out there who give the rest of us a bad name by blindly ignoring evidence that suggests the earth is billions of years old.

      1. Grant, I can’t believe you don’t know about the Creation Museum and Family Discovery Center, which opened in late spring of 2007 near Petersburg, Kentucky, some 12 miles from the Cinncinati International Airport. This museum “scientifically” presents the Biblical account of creation as fact. The museum has had over one million visitors since its opening, and that suggests to me that there are more than a few fundamentalistic believers who hold to the kind of beliefs I described.

        1. Grant Edmunds says:

          My own ignorance never ceases to amaze (and all to often embarrass) me. However in this case I stand by what I have said above, just because some ignore opposing views doesn’t mean all do, I firmly believe in the truth of my opinions, as such, why should I be afraid to consider any evidence? It will all point towards truth in the end.

  6. Jamey says:

    In one sense, knowledge is the enemy of faith – and it was on an episode of a very religious TV series, Touched By An Angel, that pointed out how in very emphatic terms.

    The elder angel pointed out to the younger that an angel cannot have faith in the existence of God, as they have direct knowledge, having been in his Presence.

    For myself, I need not faith in a God or Goddess – I have faith in *people* and in *myself*.

  7. Richard Hamilton says:

    I think this is perhaps the most balanced comment you’ve made on this point to date, and serves both the message and its author better than previous attempts. While I always enjoy being challenged by your commentaries, on this occasion I find myself in no need of partial disagreement.

    Even those who believe in faith _alone_ shouldn’t have a problem with this commentary. When you say

    “…I really don’t care if you believe in a greater deity or you don’t. What I do care about is how you act…”

    there is perfectly sound reason for a person with the beliefs I described to acknowledge that even if faith is all that really matters, what one _does_ because of that faith is the only objective measure of it available to mere mortals. This is the old “faith vs works” false dichotomy. Regardless of what one’s faith is in, I think we all know that just going through the motions isn’t enough, we have to be doing so for reasons we fully accept that bring out the best in us. But beliefs that result in no improvement in almost universally acknowledged aspects of conduct are of no demonstrable value. Only with both can one serve others, and oneself, well.

  8. AMos says:

    Grant,

    Most fundamentalist Christians do disagree with the preponderance of scientific evidence–which does support conclusively the fact that the earth is billions of years old (ditto for evolution and global warming, but that’s a whole other bag of evidence and a just as large bag of denials that we don’t need to get into).

    Furthermore, as fundamentalists, they *must* deny this evidence, because otherwise it puts them into conflict with the slightly convoluted yet very detailed timelines found in the Bible. To accept this scientific evidence for the age of the earth would challenge the very foundations of scripture and require, by definition, that they not be fundamentalists.

    That might actually be ascribing too much contemplation to the process, however. I think that many people of the kind of “true belief” Mr. Modesitt describes, or “blind belief” that you mention, don’t worry about such complexities–to do so would be to give in to a challenge of faith. After all, the devil appears in many guises, and loves to hide a grain of lies in a bushel of truth to steer you off the path of righteousness. This very common belief might help to explain the stereotypical aversion to higher education in the humanities and sciences that many fundamentalists have.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      I keep hearing that scientific evidence supports conclusively that the earth is billions of years old, would you mind directing me to some of the studies that have conclusively determined that? And I don’t mean that sarcastically. As for fundamentalists I will have take your word on it for now, as I am woefully uneducated in that particular area.

    2. Richard Hamilton says:

      An Orthodox Jewish physicist wrote a few books that point out that the timeline and most other generally accepted elements for both the Big Bang and for evolution need not be in contradiction with an interpretation of the first couple chapters of Genesis that is as literal as the text itself requires. He made that point drawing on both physics and centuries of scholarly interpretations of those chapters.

      If someone with both more understanding than I of physics _and_ of the history of interpreting Genesis in the original language, does not find them in conflict nor in need of compromising either to have them in reasonable agreement, then I’m more inclined to believe that approach to interpretation than one from those who conclude that the only authoritative version of the Bible is the King James translation (as if God somehow messed up by having talked to Moses in Hebrew, a few thousand years before their oh-so-favored selves were born).

      There are two opposite problems: when (typically not the most learned) religious “leaders” insist that facts must comply with their overly narrow interpretations of religious teachings, or when (typically not the most learned) followers of science draw the fallacious conclusion that since science doesn’t need God and can’t prove he exists, he must not exist (an abuse of Occam’s Razor, which is only a guideline anyway), and “moral” behavior would be improved without that illusion.

      Both are either ignorant (and willfully so if they keep it up), or are purposely distorting their own most trusted references in pursuit of power.
      The conflict is false, and discredits both sides when they try to make either complementary understanding dominate the other. And _both_ sides would benefit from attempting the honesty to recognize that the conflict is unnecessary, not withstanding the history of abuse mostly from the religious side, nor of the more recent backlash (becoming possible since the Renaissance, but not being a major problem until perhaps Marx) from the (pseudo) science side. (I think Marx is a good place to put that milestone, since demonstrably his followers let their political philosophy dictate was was “acceptable” science, just as the Catholic Church had done centuries earlier. Both were unscientifically dishonest.)

      Now…if their line of work does not require accepting the practical value of modern science, some may well find that life is simpler and faith less of a challenge if they just toss anything they don’t need to understand to go about their daily lives, and believe blindly. But that’s merely their choice; neither faith nor virtue require willful ignorance. Faith is for staying balanced in those intervals where principles of living are first challenged then hopefully later rediscovered and reinforced, not for picking unnecessary arguments or for gratuitously injecting one’s judgements of others (both of which being simply manifestations of pride and pursuit of power). Ignoring science does not demonstrate strong faith, it demonstrates a lack of faith sufficient to take challenges and new ideas in stride.

      Faith that can’t be comfortable with the co-existence of modern science and as literal an interpretation of their sacred texts as honesty and deep study of the text may require, is weak indeed. And the devil (metaphorical or literal) should no more be overestimated than underestimated. Evil seldom happens by a convergence of honest accidents; rather, honesty grants some protection against being led astray by small things.

      Clearly, there are irrational folks out there. Presumably some of them _think_ they’re being rational (although some seem to think that God is free to break his own rules whenever he pleases, which seems to me to set aside even the possibility of meaningful rationality except as a temporary phenomenon). As long as they’re not trying to kill or enslave you, be compassionate, and maybe they’ll recognize in that what they’re supposed to be; but argument will not persuade them.

      Or to put it another way, one _can_ be in some sense both a “fundamentalist” _and_ not reject modern science (the science, not some of the philosophy often mistakenly packaged with it). But it’s not an exercise for the faint-hearted, for those who have reached all their conclusions before having heard all the evidence, or for those who are so arrogant as to believe they possess all the pieces and knowledge to fit together all the long separate sections of the jigsaw puzzle.

      For now, I think maybe we’re not _ready_ for anything more than an uneasy coexistence between faith and science, along a principle not entirely dissimilar to the notion of division of powers limiting a government of fallible humans from becoming a tyranny. Where would the free will to change ourselves by our choices be if there were a reliable mathematics of moral and spiritual issues? And yet while faith and science perhaps _shouldn’t_ yet be indistinguishable, they _should_ still inform one another. Faith should remember humility, and science should remember morality, lest we have irrational fanaticism on the one hand, and mandatory application of actuarial tables of when people should be left to die on the other. Only when both faith and science are diligently pursued, honest, and respectful of each other, might we perhaps be mature enough to survive the result of their merging.

      1. Grant Edmunds says:

        Well said, I’m not sure science and religion could ever really be merged, though they certainly support each other. If pressed I would probably relate them to physics and math, but you’re certainly right about the blindness that happens on both sides and how that has driven people to separate the two.

    3. Richard Hamilton says:

      @AMos: “global warming”: minus points with me for not having said “climate change” instead, and plus points for at least not having said “conclusively predominantly anthropogenic” at which point I’d have said, how much of the economy do you really want to trash to prove that?

      I think it’s necessary that we shift to sustainable energy sources…without destroying our economy or standard of living in the process. And I think it’s a fine ideal that our energy processes should avoid emitting persistent substances into the environment, But since I can’t follow the science (or more specifically, the math; let alone verify the collected data and the ways in which it has been corrected for various differences in accuracy, measurement technique, encroachment of development on ground measurement sites, etc), I can only look at the corruption; and those who claim that climate change is predominantly anthropogenic seem to me at least as corrupt as those who claim that it definitely isn’t.

      Having said that, I’ll make a prediction that the global temperature will either increase due to the increase in solar activity, or decrease (as solar radiation seeds cloud-forming, an interesting notion I saw awhile back).
      In other words, we’re not even quite a type I on the Kardashev scale, let alone a II, so I’m inclined to assume that most influence is due to the most powerful object in the neighborhood.

      Of course I have to allow for the possibility of being persuaded otherwise, since this whole discussion seems to be around open-mindedness. But I’m a long way from being persuaded of any such thing yet, and it may yet be that I’m not at the back of the pack on this one.

  9. hockey fan says:

    Grant here’s an overview of scientific evidence supporting Earth being as old as it is http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth . It was pretty simple to find, if you want to go more in depth Im sure you could.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      Thank you.

  10. David Farnham says:

    One of the points addressed in Bran Linaweaver’s “Moon of Ice” is that faith is a matter of individual conscience. People of similar faith may band together in or create an organized religion, but questions and beliefs are matters solely of individual conscience, not for societal or governmental action in a religiously pluralistic society. You may believe, or belong to a church that believes, that the earth is flat, but you and your church ahve no right to demand that the government or the rest of us act on that belief. Faith is just that. Because you or I believe something, that does not make it true. Intelligemnnt design, for example, is an attractive belief, but as of yet there is no evidence one way or the other–the “proof” of intelligent design is only a form of post hoc reasoning.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      It would be very interesting indeed to see a truly scientific consideration of what elements of beliefs might be testable, although it would probably challenge everyone’s assumptions, esp. those of both entrenched religious and educational institutions, respectively…assuming it turned out to be possible to prove or disprove anything at all.

      And no, I don’t think it would be a waste of time. The basic question everyone asks sooner or later is “why am I here?” Billions of years of random particle/wave interactions _alone_, is a very unsatisfying answer, and one that there’s a profound shortage of _objective_ evidence for _or_ against when it comes to the “_alone_” part.

      But as I’ve already said, I doubt we’re mature enough to go there.

  11. David Sims says:

    The truths that science tries to discover are truths about the real world, or about nature.

    The truths that religion deals with are self-referential. A priest’s exposition of religious truths is like someone describing plot of a fictional tale, giving a summary of what the story’s characters did and said. The truths of religion have nothing to do with the real world, or with nature. The only truths that any religion has ever had are those pertaining to which beliefs do, and which beliefs don’t, belong in that religion’s theology.

    Conflicts between priests and scientists arise because the priests erroneously claim that their “truths” have something to do with the real world. The moment a priest tries to make a connection between his faith and the real world, he’s beyond the scope of his authority and has entered a realm in which science can prove him wrong. Priests have sometimes made statements about how nature works that turned out to be laughably false.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      You are most emphatically wrong, but as I know this through means other than science you will have to either, take my word for it, or ignore me, or you could take option three and scream and rant about how blind I am.

      *Disclaimer: I am not saying that every scientific claim made by a religion is true. I am saying that God does reveal scientific knowledge, and when he does it is right, always. That doesn’t mean everyone who claims revelation is genuine.

    2. Richard Hamilton says:

      Don’t assume that just because something appears to be self-referential, that it is incapable of having real world consequences. Most would concede the troubling consequences of religion: bigotry, wars, torture, human sacrifice, all manner of horrors. Given that demonstration of a connection between internal beliefs and external events, it seems a bit presumptuous to rule out the possibility that a sincere application of some of the principles might also have positive consequences, if much more quietly.

      Quite simply, beliefs alter those who practice them, who, by their practice, alter the universe around them. If someone practices the belief in a God of infinite love and mercy, there whether or not that belief has any objective reality, the result of that practice is much the same as if it did.

      “Who do you serve, and who do you trust?” — Galen (B5 Crusade)

      If the consequences of someone actions are clearly self-serving, or serving only some charismatic ideologue, then any pieties they spout mean nothing. But there are plenty who try to let more positive actions do most of their speaking for them. I would include in that even those that do not think of themselves as serving God, but merely serving their fellow human.

  12. David Sims says:

    I’m not religious, and I can believe that women are not the mental equals of men. Their mental advantages differ in ways that reflect the different roles of the sexes during most of human evolution.

    Men hunted. Men had a task light on memory for details and heavy on memory for spatial relationships, for spear-throwing and geography (so they could find their way home again).

    Women gathered. Their task was light on memory for spatial relationships and heavy on memory for details, for recognizing plants according to their useful function and to distinguish poisonous plants.

    Most of the best ball throwers are men.
    Most of the best chess players are men.
    Most of the best scientists are men.
    Most of the best mathematicians are men.
    Most of the best philosophers are men.

    Logical relationships map reasonably well onto spatial ones. There is a correspondence between them (most easily recognized in the study of geometry) that makes someone able to learn either of them easily to easily learn the other also. Since there is a bit of overlap, there are some women who are better scientists or mathematicians than some men. But, nearly always, the best of these are men.

    Women tend to be better at doing tasks for which remembering details is more important than recognizing spatial or logical relationships.

    IQ is a numerical measure of general intelligence estimated by the scores on appropriate tests. Men’s IQs may be a little higher than women’s, on the average, but what is more important is the standard deviation.

    Men vary more widely in intelligence than women do. A higher percentage of men than of women are idiots. But, likewise, a higher percentage of men than of women are geniuses. And where advancing human knowledge is concerned, most of the “easy stuff,” the discoveries and insights that are within the reach of persons of merely “gifted” (IQ 110-125) mental ability, or less, have been already accomplished. Today, only those who are “very gifted” (IQ 125-140) or geniuses are able to advance the forefront of science and philosophy. The mediocrities usually count no more than the retards do. They are useful to do such things that are needful and are within their abilities.

    The great majority of geniuses are men. Women are in the minority among those with IQs above 140. Any wishfully political effort to equalize the numbers will necessarily involve the same sort of reduction of standards that allowed several women to become firefighters, despite the fact that they couldn’t pass the scale-a-wall test which was required and which male firefighter candidates routinely passed.

    1. Derek says:

      I have been known to be religious, and I disagree with you entirely on the mental inferiority of women. I have great difficulty associating all the accomplishments of great men with my sex. I am a man, but that does not give me any claim to the mental talents or accomplishments of another man by mere association of gender. Individuals will be what they are, man or woman, great or mediocre, and it matters not one whit their gender. An abundance of great men no way discredits the mental faculties of women.

      We also have to take into account that society for most of modern history has been male-oriented, encouraging an archaic and outdated ‘homemaker’ role for women regardless of personal inclination. Even if a woman were capable (a genius or high-IQ) societal pressures and prejudices of our modern history likely had a role in brushing them aside, or not even acknowledging them. The great majority of geniuses being men does not reflect a lack of female capability, especially when we take societal pressures into account.

      Men and women ARE physically different, but individual cases always vary. I am all for equal physical standards for women and men regardless of the job or role. If a woman wants to be a fire fighter, great! There are women physically capable of this, I’ve met a few in the Army who bench more than I do. I’m against the lowering standards to meet quotas. I consider it degrading and far more insulting than having an unbalanced work force.

      1. Steve says:

        Men and women are equal just like apples and oranges, and we all know that oranges are better. Apples just aren’t as strong, intelligent or sensitive as oranges. Wouldn’t you say?

    2. Nate says:

      The IQ system of measuring intelligence is an incredibly flawed method. It had its origins in an attempt to justify and quantify racism by using aspects of social intelligence that are little related to actual intelligence.

    3. Richard Hamilton says:

      Ah, but women were and are far more invested in the difficult balance between cooperation and conflict that sustains life; and the complexity of human interactions is thought to be one of the major driving factors in pushing human intelligence beyond what was needed for procuring the material needs of survival.

      And IQ or traditional measurements of genius are arguably biased towards those (mostly men) that set up the measurements.

      So if one wanted to, one could just as easily argue that women are likely on average to be mentally _superior_. Such arguments might well come down to one’s assumptions of just what that really meant; and thus, are probably a waste of time.

      Various groups may well be predisposed towards different strengths and weaknesses. But individual genetics and talent and determination can often overcome those predispositions. So broad sweeping statements that neglect the possibility of individual excellence are bigoted, but broad sweeping statements of equal outcomes may well ignore the reality that outcomes all too often _aren’t_ equal, and that there may be cultural or even physical reasons that contribute to, but do not determine, that result.

      As with another poster, I’d just as soon see that the qualifications for jobs reflected what was needed to do the job as effectively and safely as possible, and let the chips fall where they may as to whatever groups on average were more capable for particular jobs.

      …at least give or take women in ground combat (except for a very tiny number in special forces perhaps, that were fully cognizant of the risks). The impact there on morale both of the male soldiers, and at home, I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with, even if there were no question that they could be equally effective (or rather, even if only those that _were_ effective were eligible for such roles). (I was in the AF years ago, and while certainly not in a ground combat role myself, I’ve spent enough time among Army and Marines to have some idea that although they’d mostly continue to follow orders and do their job, quite a few would be dangerously ambivalent at least until, if their ambivalence didn’t kill them, they survived to see that it wasn’t justified.)

      1. Derek says:

        Though a side note on women in combat. With the current type of war that coalition forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve seen many instances of women actually being involved in combat and actively participating in firefights. They’ve performed as well as their male counterparts, one female U.S. Soldier was even awarded the Silver Star.

        It is my personal belief that old cultural bias is far more likely to keep women from a Combat Arms MOS than inability.

  13. AMos says:

    Grant,

    Above you asked for a place to learn more about the scientific evidence for the age of the earth. There are a lot of great books out there that address the topic, including the Dawkins book I mentioned in the comments on the previous blog entry, but one of my favorite books is _The Seashell on the Mountaintop_.

    This book doesn’t offer the most up-to-date information on geology, but I like it so much because it describes the personal, professional, and spiritual journey of the 17th century founder of geology, Nicolaus Steno, as he deals with the limitations imposed upon him by the time, the technology, and religious authorities while attempting to explain how something as common as a seashell inside a rock atop a mountain could possibly come to be there. It’s a really fascinating read, and describes in great detail exactly the sort of conflict Mr. Modesitt describes as arising when “true belief” refuses to accept scientific fact.

    For more scientific (as opposed to historical) treatment of the field, I don’t know of that current reads that take all the data and explain it for a general audience, since there’s been almost zero scientific debate about the age of the earth in quite some time–and no debate means no book sales outside of academia. I have several old geology textbooks from college courses, and honestly I think they’re a great place to start. You can get them used online quite cheaply, or for free from local libraries, and as general surveys of what we understand and how, they can be very useful.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      I will continue to research as opportunities present themselves. Thus far I haven’t seen anything conclusive, only evidence that could support the theory that the earth is billions of years old, provided this this that and the other assumption pan out, which they might not. This is why I argue against the statement that conclusive evidence has been put forth concerning the age of the earth. I would say rather that potentially good evidence which everyone has accepted has been put forth, and as we can see from history acceptance of a theory by the scientific community in general means little. Thank you for the suggestions on resources.

      1. Richard Hamilton says:

        I don’t have a problem with there being a number of assumptions underlying the proposition that the earth is perhaps 4.54 billion years old, or that the universe as we know it is perhaps 13.75 billion years old.

        (although I’ll admit to some discomfort at two decimal places on such large numbers, esp. the latter, because everything we learn raises at least as many questions as it answers)

        At present, I’m willing to accept, insofar as I understand, that the consensus is that it’s simpler to accept those assumptions than to accept the number of assumptions that would be needed to yield much smaller numbers while still maintaining the same level of internal consistency.

        None of which has any bearing on how the most essential religious dictates like “love your neighbor as yourself” are _not_ consistent with conduct like the Spanish Inquisition. In other words, evolution is fine as long as it’s not made into a philosophy; nor do I feel that my beliefs (whatever they may be) are threatened by honest science. So I for one feel no need to pick unnecessary fights, and if anything find it comforting that there remain aspects of belief that need not be challenged by a reasoned acceptance of all that science has discovered.

        (On the other hand, as y’all may have noticed, I love to quibble and ramble, and often triangulate, about details…)

        1. Grant Edmunds says:

          I don’t see this as an unnecessary fight. Further the argument that something is “the general consensus” is a rather weak one. If no one questioned the general consensus we would still believe some wacky things. In fact I am convinced we still do believe some wacky things and the general consensus needs to be questioned if we are ever going to get beyond them.

          Just to assure you, I do not feel at all threatened by science. Unless a group of atheist science bigwigs take over the government and start persecuting the religious, there is nothing in science to feel threatened by, and since I don’t see that happening in the near future…

          1. Grant, you’re misstating or misconstruing what Richard wrote. He was clearly referring to the scientific consensus, not the general consensus. Over time, frankly, the scientific consensus has generally been correct, despite many mischaracterizations and misassumptions [such as the one of the world being flat] which even the Greek philosopher scientists proved was not so. Newton has been proved to be correct, just not complete,and his findings and theories work to this day in most settings — just not in those of which he was either unaware or unable to view/measure.

            It’s this kind of misreading of science that disturbs me greatly, and I’d appreciate it if you would take a bit more care in presenting your case.

          2. Grant Edmunds says:

            My apologies, you are right I was sloppy, particularly in not making that distinction.

            I still consider the general consensus of anybody, scientific community, general populace, or other, to be weak grounds upon which to base a scientific claim. It is good cause for looking at that evidence which has convinced them of their opinion, but is of little use if arguing for that claim except as a reason to look closely at the evidence.

  14. Jamey says:

    Though I would not describe myself as an atheist, this quote from historian Stephen Roberts has always struck me as very valid:

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

  15. Grant Edmunds says:

    Does Stephen Roberts know much about religion? This quote strikes me as very clever (clever enough to be funny), but ignorant beyond belief.

    For an example of why I personally believe only in my God and not in others: I believe my God is the origin from which all religions spring. At the beginning of the world he taught the first man, Adam, about himself and how to worship him (Most of which consisted of living in a certain way). As time went on that knowledge was passed on to each successive generation, but some forgot, and some preferred their own version of the truth, and some moved away and their knowledge was corrupted as memory faded. Still everyone knew that God existed. Everyone knew some truths, if not all. So one person creates a religion better suited to their wants (Henry the eighth in modern history), another thought he was still doing the same things that were originally taught but over time his religion became corrupted the same way a language can be, and still another realized he didn’t have the truth went looking for it and found a part only to think it was the whole. Those are some examples of how different religions could all have the same source. My honest answer would be that this is how I think we got so many religions, and since I believe my religion to be the true religion restored in the latter days, that would be why I don’t believe in the others.

    And, I still don’t understand how an atheist can dismiss the existence of any God, so… Well, to me the quote seems clever, but ignorant.

    1. Jamey says:

      I’d be interested in the chain of confusion that went from the monotheistic beginning of Adam & Eve to the rich cosmogony of the Greeks and Romans, or the Sumerian Gods & Goddesses who developed at the same time as the roots of Judaism.

      1. Richard Hamilton says:

        It would take a deep knowledge of history to paint such a story in a fully consistent fashion…assuming that’s even possible.

        The Wikipedia article
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_(deity)

        is interesting.

        But even if one ignores all existing religions and history, it’s not hard to suppose that everyone might have started out believing in a small number (one or two) of supernatural entities, and then encountered different groups that emphasized different aspects, and built up a complex pantheon; only to have that encompass all too many human foibles (Zeus’s multiple infidelities as an example), having the whole thing collapse in favor of a return to monotheism.

        One’s first “god” is one’s parents, at least for however many months or years one lives at home, rather than in day care, pre-K, kindergarten, or school. As one encounters other people, the authority of one’s parents diminishes, and by the time one hits one’s hormonal years, just about vanishes. By the time one might be having kids of one’s own, one probably rediscovers that one’s parents weren’t so dumb after all.

        Not unlike the observation about embryonic development where “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, perhaps the development of human religion reflects the human experience with one’s own parents.

        (None of which should be taken as a comment on the objective truth of any particular belief system. I have my opinons there, and some of them are perhaps not dissimilar to Grant’s, but I’d be very cautious indeed about drawing conclusions as to how they applied to physics, biology, or even history. I enjoy speculating about such things, as long as the speculation doesn’t insist on indulging in judgements that add no demonstrable value to life.)

      2. Grant Edmunds says:

        There was a long time from Adam to the Greeks. To see how quickly something can be confused look at Beowulf it was written (presumably) about thirteen hundred years ago and already there our language is different to make it practically a different language. The same could very easily happen with religion. Ignorance in the area of science could make fertile ground for imaginative additions to religious understanding. There are a plethora of factors that could take people in any religious direction they wanted to go, in fact this would be a fun topic to explore in a a fictional setting, but I haven’t the time or desire to spend time laying them all out for you here.

        1. Mayhem says:

          The problem I have with what you say Grant, is that many religions predate Christianity. Indeed, many religions can be found to predate Judaism, which is acknowledged to be one of the oldest Monotheistic belief systems.
          For the old world, Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Zoroastrian polytheistic traditions all predate the monotheistic traditions.
          For the New World, Mayan Mesoamerican traditions date back to around 200BCE, and native american pantheistic rituals date back amost 6000yrs.
          In Asia, Taoism dates back to around 200BCE and Hinduism to around 1500BCE, let alone the antecendants back to 5000BCE.

          Given the extraordinarily wide range of things people have believed in across history, it seems bizarre to me that someone can say that what one person believes is the one true way and everyone else is wrong.
          I find it especially wrong for christians to say their way is best since they have so many splinter factions, they cannot even agree on the basics of their belief – at least Judaism and Islam only have around three factions each.

          This completely sidesteps the issues around a religion being based on transcripts of oral history, much of which wasn’t codified until well after the events in question, and which has been adapted over time to suit the needs of various regimes.

          1. Grant Edmunds says:

            It isn’t hard to explain, again we are heading into the realms of belief which cannot be debated with any purpose other than making each other mad; What I believe is that “Christianity” as we call it now, predates them all because it is the same religion that was given to Adam, with slight changes such as no more animal sacrifices because we no longer need to look forward to the Christ’s Atonement(instead we look back to it and forward to the second coming), but I digress. By the time known history begins the truths given to Adam had been so far corrupted/changed/discarded/ignored that we looking back can barely see the relation but it is there.

            As for how one religion can be right while there are so many, I claim modern revelation. The gospel was given to Adam, corrupted, taught by Christ, corrupted again, and once again restored, through divine revelation to Joseph Smith the first of the modern day prophets.

  16. Grant, you say you don’t understand how an atheist can dismiss the existence of any god — but that is exactly what an atheist is, one who denies the existence of a deity. That atheist could make the same sort of statement of you, that he cannot understand how you could believe in a deity based only upon faith. Frankly, the atheist has the better argument, since he can say there is no proof of a deity, and you can only say that, based on your subjective personal experiences, there is. In a material world, and that is the world in which we exist, proof and facts, however incomplete, trump faith without proof. Indeed, there may be a deity and much beyond the material world, but, as of now, there is no material physical evidence of such.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      I’m inclined to suspect that we’re not _supposed_ to have compelling evidence, except for one thing, where sadly there has been all too often a very poor showing: how matters of faith cause people to live their lives.

      (although there are of course plenty of stories of where a good showing was made, but many of those stories are neglected, and more are small things happening all around us)

      A more conventional analogy applies to politicians talking about character: I’d much rather see them _demonstrate_ some first, and continue to demonstrate it, even to the point of self-imposed term limits. Let public moralizing wait until there’s a real record of accomplishment to point to.

    2. Grant Edmunds says:

      I disagree that there is no evidence for the existence of a supreme deity.

      First there are plenty of instances of prophecies being fulfilled – with none ever being proven false (you might be able to find some prophecy somewhere that you contend was not fulfilled but not one from my faith), that is better evidence than a claim that there is none.

      Second I have my “subjective personal experiences” as you call them.

      And third we have the world and everything in it, which, ultimately, is why I find atheists hard to comprehend. Of course you can discredit my evidence calling it coincidence, tricking myself, and “evolution”. But I can similarly explain away any objections you make, which is why religion is not debated.

      At the root of it, I agree with Richard, the world was made so that there would be no compelling evidence at a glance. To find that evidence you have to go looking, which brings us back to faith.

  17. AMos says:

    Richard,

    Above you make some good points about beginnings of religion, and I would like to read more on the possible connection between early childhood psychology and the religious instinct, if we may call it that. Not to imply religions are childish–they’re not; instead I’m suggesting from what you say that we may be “wired” for religion after a fashion.

    I’ll add that the earliest religions we have evidence for have almost always been localized animism–i.e. that volcano is a god, that really awesome tree contains a god, that thunderstorm last night was a god–divinity accorded to things that are revered, misunderstood, and/or feared. The worship of the sublime, in a sense. That which is grander or more powerful than us is to be revered, much as a child might hold feelings of awe and respect for the larger power and intellect of parents.

    Evolutionary biologists have some really interesting theories on why stable food supplies, and especially the domestication of plants and animals, always coincides with a greater complexity in religious observance. The first half of _Guns, Germs and Steel_ deals extensively with what local environment and food supplies mean to the people who live there. Basically, once you’ve got some people who don’t have to hunt and forage all day, but can sit and think instead, you soon see a rise of an ecclesiastical class–and, consequently, a much more developed divine cosmology (enter Sumerian, Egyptian, early Judaic, and Hindu theologies).

    Increase the leisure time, as well as the availability of education, and these theologies become ever more complex and rationalized thanks to people like Maimonides, Augustine, and Aquinas. Logical inconsistencies are ignored or done away with, and the god/gods themselves are made immaterial beings who work through spirit rather than through flesh (goodbye Zeus, Ra, and Moloch; hello Elohim, God the Father, and Allah). Even the Buddha forever left this world and became immaterial. Part of the reason the gods step out of the physical realm is because we no longer need them there to explain things that we are beginning to understand on our own. The big questions that we can never understand–why are we here, how should I live my life–are much safer and richer territories.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      Here’s a different way of looking at my earlier remarks on how
      one’s view of one’s parents might be a model for the development
      of religon.

      >Mark 10:15
      > Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not
      > receive the kingdom of God as a little
      > child, he shall not enter therein.

      “as a little child” doesn’t mean _when_ they were a child, it
      means with the attributes of a very young child, which one
      commentary described as “teachable, mild, humble, and free from
      prejudice and obstinacy.” (although the commentator seems a bit
      generous at least on the point of obstinacy)

      Now…regardless of what one thinks of this or any theology, it’s
      a useful point to remember that some scale must surely exist in
      such a vast universe compared to which we _are_ in fact little
      more than infants; and while with respect to other people, we do
      need to maintain independent and even skeptical thinking so they
      don’t manipulate us, it should remain possible for us to
      acknowledge that there remains much for which we don’t even have
      the beginnings of understanding. Without that humility, we’re no
      more fit to deal justly with the external world and other people
      than with unprovable “truths” of faith.

      (In case one couldn’t put that together by now, my problem has
      never been with the principle of matters of faith and the
      existence of a higher power. My problem is when people build
      institutions on it that then become little more than another
      means of exercising power over one another; or for that matter, when
      they add considerable complication and ritual, and, again as an
      exercise of power, fight and argue over non-functional details of those
      added elaborations.)

  18. Joe says:

    “Is there a God? At present, there’s no scientific proof one way or the other”

    I posit a necessary characteristic of God is free will, freedom to choose. I.e. by definition God is different from a physical process which is always reproducible. God is therefore untestable which means God’s existence cannot be proven scientifically. Since you can’t prove non-existence, only internal contradiction, you can’t prove God’s non-existence either.

    Since God has free will, and God’s behavior cannot be predicted reproducibly, God cannot be distinguished from any phenomena we do not understand. As long as there are phenomena whose behavior we cannot predict there is a space for God (and the I-Ching, and witchcraft, and astrology, etc). But if there were no known phenomena which were unpredictable there would be no need for God.

    Since I don’t expect us to understand all the phenomena in the universe any time soon, the idea of God won’t disappear any time soon. However it will play a smaller and smaller role in explaining how the world works among the educated. Does this explain the vested interest of many fundamentalist Christians here in maintaining scientific ignorance among large sections of the population? (eg: Banning teaching of evolution in their communities?)

    The ironic thing is, while their methods may be crude and poorly thought out, they do have a point. Completely ignoring the bigger picture just for the sake of short term gain is dangerous. Most science is funded by corporations or the government (defense) where the bottom line (or killing people) overrides all long term considerations. And since scientists need to eat, and want future funding, they tend to gloss over the negative aspects of their research. “It is hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it” (Mark Twain). The scientists of the 1950s who sung the praises of DDT aren’t that different from those today who sing the praises of genetic manipulation. In both cases they are overly confident of their knowledge and need to be treated with skepticism. Indeed the argument can be made that while the scientists of the 1950s were arrogant, those today are just plain stupid. Who thinks it’s a good idea to let loose self-replicating, mutating and cross breeding species on the sole planet in our universe known to have life? What would an accident look like?

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      I think you are mistaken. Certainly there are many things we do not understand, but there is nothing that we cannot understand. God has created a logical universe, in fact I would posit that an unexplainable phenomena not only does not exist, but that if it did, it would prove that God does not exist either. The universe was created by an intelligence so far beyond our own as to be incomprehensible to us, everything in science fits together perfectly because it was made to fit perfectly. It is like one of Brandon Sanderson’s books. There is magic, but it all has a completely natural explanation. God is not all powerful because the laws of nature don’t apply to him, but because he is all knowing, he understands all the laws of nature just as we understand enough to lift a plane off the ground.

  19. Very interesting article, Lee. What this all makes me wonder is whether or not the human brain isn’t automatically wired for fanaticism. Because it’s been my experience that fanaticism isn’t limited just to the religious realm. We see it in fannish circles when devotees of this or that science fiction franchise get to arguing maniacally about tiny plot holes or other minutae. We see it again with controversial public figures or celebrities: people lining up to either adamantly defend the person, or adamantly excoriate the person. We also see it with popular theory, whether it’s science (climate change) or politics (socialism) and the True Believer’s stance seems dependent far more on emotional need, than on empirical evidence. To include the need to paint everyone on the “other side” of a given debate as irrational, dangerous, or even crazy.

    If ever I encounter such fanaticism I always like to quote Larry Niven: there are minds which think as well as yours, just differently. Something the fanatic has a difficult time grasping because for the fanatic, all alternative thought is a threat and must shoutted down, erased, or otherwise combatted. The very existence of an alternative is emotionally hurtful to the fanatic, such that he or she can barely bring him or herself to acknowledge the fact that differences in viewpoint or theory or the subjective interpretation of evidence even exist.

    It’s either The One True Way or the highway. As is often the case in writing circles when discussion agents and agenting, vs. self representation. That’s a great example.

  20. Joe says:

    @Grant: Unless God adds something to the picture, God is unnecessary for us to understand the universe and therefore cannot affect our behavior. To quote Ockham: “Do not multiply entities without necessity”. Sure you can believe in some ultra intelligent entity that made it all but which cannot be separated from deterministic physical behaviors if you want to, but unless God has a real impact on the world, why should anyone care?

    Indeed, most believers in a God say their God wants us to do x, y and z. This unprovable being’s supposed existence is invoked as a reason for others to follow some moral code, or believe some set of ideas. No one posits a God without reason, just as no one posits that we are all the result of the evolution of the slime of giant alien slug who materialized by mistake on the planet a long time ago because he was late in paying his Union-of-Intersideral-Transporter dues.

    1. Grant Edmunds says:

      God IS the picture without him nothing exists, or if it did exist it would have no life. Further, just because he works through natural means does not mean he doesn’t have, and use, power. With the same power by which he created and organized everything he can perform miracles, he is active.

      God does want us to act, think, and live in certain ways. But the reason is not just “because”. He tells us how to live in such a way as to: make us happy, help us to learn and grow, return to live with him.

      You quote Ockham saying: “Do not multiply entities without necessity”, well… I’m not. A logical universe doesn’t just happen, nor does it exist without purpose. God created the universe, and he did so for a specific purpose.

      1. Grant… you BELIEVE God created the universe. You have the right to that belief. But not one thing you have said in all your posts constitutes proof. You keep insisting that your faith, and various arguments, such as “the universe does not exist without purpose,” constitute proof. They don’t. The universe could very well exist without a purpose. It could also have a purpose. There’s no proof either way. Leave it at that. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind. You’re only going to get people madder.

  21. Richard Hamilton says:

    @Joe:

    Unprovable cuts both ways.

    Understanding the universe may not be limited to phenomena that are in principle reproducible in the laboratory (and that argument is not made only by those wishing to justify additional entities). And of course there might be any number of phenomena that could only be reproducible if one knew the appropriate preconditions.

    I’ve encountered just enough for which no conventional explanation sufficed, to at least conclude that there is still quite a lot left that we don’t understand. And there are enough quirky behaviors in modern physics that I would be more inclined to lean towards anything not provably impossible existing, than toward anything not provably necessary _not_ existing.

    A deity whose only purpose is to justify other people’s attempts to tell you what to do is clearly a waste of time.

    But that is not the sum total of what the concept can offer, although attempting to demonstrate that persuasively is beyond my skill or interest, and probably not the point of this discussion anyway.

    Rather, to me, the point of this discussion is that science and faith
    can co-exist just fine between persons or even within a person without either requiring the other to be altered to fit its own viewpoint; but that co-existence would require some humility on both sides. The hypocritical lack of humility by those purportedly of faith is often noted. But the lack (and the hypocrisy) isn’t a problem of either side alone, but of human nature in general. Both sides would do well to avoid making proclamations that intruded on the other’s territory.

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