God and the unfalsifiability of being

Well, since no one else is going to do it, I guess I'll have to be the one to update this damn blog.

Let's start with this column in the Observer by Richard Harries, bishop of Oxford, on religion and science. Harries would have us believe that he's a religious person who's really into science. But his confusion over some pretty simple scientific concepts would make the Baby Einstein cry. Why is it so hard for even intelligent people to come to terms with both what science is and the difference between it and religion?

A few points from Harries' article will clarify the issue. He writes:

From time to time, I see American creationist magazines with articles by people claiming to have doctorates in science. Judging religion only on the basis of its least credible examples is as though I judged all science on the basis of creationist science.

First, there's no such thing as "creationist science" - as Harries himself recognizes later in his article, when he calls creationism a "false science". Creationism is not science, for the simple fact that its claims cannot be verified by means of the scientific method. No scientific method, no science.

The second point arising from Harries' statement here, concerning judgment, is a little more involved. I've already dispatched the notion that "creationist science" has anything to do with science (as has Harries). So the second part of Harries' "judging" statement makes no sense, even for the sake of argument. If we replace "creationist science" with "pseudo-scientific religious quackery" (as in, "...as though I judged all science on the basis of pseudo-scientific religious quackery"), this point becomes clear.

But what about the first part of Harries' statement - the judging of religion "only on the basis of its least credible examples"? Unfortunately for Harries, in all of the foundational religious texts (including, but not limited to, those of the major montheistic religions), there are no criteria for judging something as more or less credible than anything else. No miracles, no statements, no examples of divine agency are accompanied by a disclaimer that it should be taken less seriously than anything else that appears therein. The burning bush and the resurrection, for example, are presented as being part of the same reality as things that Harries might recognize as being more "credible".

Moving from theory to practice, the records of the major religions concerning enforcement of orthodoxy and their punishment of people who deviate from it are quite clear. This is a simple matter of examining the historical record, something Harries appears to be loathe to do. His statement on the progress made in the debate between religion and science since Galileo was forced to recant misses the point, at best, and is disingenuous, to be more honest. Any progress made on that front has not been because of the kind-heartedness of religious organizations, but rather has been due to the efforts of those who fought back against religious coercion.

In any event, religious institutions have always claimed possession of "The Truth", so again, it is a little disingenuous of Harries to bring up credibility, since no decisions and/or acts of figures representing the major religions have ever been accompanied by statements that they were less serious than any others. Harries entire ability to discern "credibility", in fact, is based on non-religious advances made by the sciences (including, in this context, history), and he can't even recognize this.

Which brings us to another point:

Recently, an eminent professor was found to have falsified the data of one of his experiments on stem cell research. I don't judge science on the basis of those few scientists who fudge their results, but on scientific method as it ought to be practised. People expect no less from those who are critical of religion.

So... the fact that "one" scientist faked the data of "one" of his experiments should be given equal weight as sustained, historically-based critiques of the pronouncements and deeds of hundreds of popes and other major religious leaders? Anecdote should take the place of reasoned argument, based on easily available examples that permit generalization? This is scientific understanding?

In any event, the fake scientist's fake results would have soon been easily detected, thanks to the principle of falsifiability. Other scientists would have attempted to replicate the fake scientist's results, and when this would have been found not to be possible, they would have been discarded. Try that with religious claims - any of them.

Harries' later statements on the possibility of religious views coexisting with scientific ones are prefectly fine and welcome. But to make this a credible point of view will require people like Harries to shed the idea that what works (or, perhaps more accurately, doesn't work) for religion also works for science. It doesn't, and people like Harries need to get a better grasp of science, what it is, and what it does (in addition to what it doesn't, which is already their field), before lecturing others about their misunderstandings of religion.

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