Thoughts on the difference between using the Bible as authority for describing how the world works and using direct observation as authority for describing how the real world works
by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2013
Note: this is a rework of a small part of a blog I wrote in 2008: Thoughts on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
Some people like to use science as their top-level guide to explaining what’s happening in the real world around them, other people prefer using holy texts, such as The Bible. This is a discussion of the ramifications of that choice.
How to explain the world around us?
Look up into the night sky: Marvel at the moon, the stars, the Milky Way… if you’re doing so from a dark countryside location. Or, marvel at the moon, a sprinkling of stars, and a sky brightened by thousands of street lights, if you’re gazing from an urban city park. Either way you can ask yourself, “Why is this the way things are?”
If you are a True Believer in Jesus and The Bible, the answer is, “Because God made it that way.” If you are a True Believer in science, the answer is, “Well, our best explanation today is…”
This is the core difference in modern times between having deep faith in religion and deep faith in science — one is unchanging and the other is updated constantly. One group turns to an ancient religious text for explaining mysteries, the other observes the real world with steadily better tools for making careful observations and adapts the explanations to match what is observed.
Here is an example of that difference in action.
An example of the build-upon nature of science and the benefit:
The reason the science method is important is that it points the way for future science. Religious explanations of the real world don’t do that.
Here is an example:
Galileo carefully tracks the orbits of the planets. When he becomes a recognized authority on the motion of the planets, he is given financial assistance to do more research by The Pope because The Pope wants a new and better calendar system. The calendar system of that day was drifting and the New Year was going to become a springtime event if the drift wasn’t fixed.
Galileo uses a telescope on the planets (this was an innovation, before Galileo telescopes were used to look at faraway ships), and in the case of Jupiter he discovers three “spots” that move around Jupiter with clock-like precision. (later known as the Galilean Moons)
Based on his observations of the real world, and those of his predecessors, Galileo comes up with a better calendar for The Pope: mission accomplished. In the process of doing so, he proposes a better way to explain the motion of the planets he has observed. He proposes that a model of the planets that puts the Sun at the center rather than the Earth will be simpler and predict better.
The Deep Belief Religionists of his day see this as attack on the concept that man is the center of the universe — the chosen people — and attack his ideas… and him. Given a choice between standing by his beliefs and living… Galileo chooses… to live! and he recants his work. Thankfully for us, his ideas had already spread by then, and others chose not to give them up.
Now here is the important difference between the Galileo hypothesis and the Deep Belief Religion hypothesis:
The question is: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”
The Deep Belief Religion answer is: “God made them that way.”
The Galileo answer is: “Based on what I see happening in the real world, we can predict what’s happening in the sky better by presuming the planets circle the sun, not the Earth.”
Fast forward two hundred years.
Newton looks at the same planets that Galileo did, but using the better tools available in his day. He observes them even more closely. He notices that some of the planets, Mars in particular, don’t move through the sky like they are going around the sun in perfect circles. They seem to be moving in ellipses with variable speeds rather than perfect circles with constant speeds.
Here is the important part: he builds upon Galileo’s work to come up with a new theory, the theory of gravitation, to better explain the motions he observes. The key term here is better explain. It’s still not perfect, but it is better, much better.
Now, lets look at that same old question: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”
In two hundred years, the Deep Belief Religion answer hasn’t changed one wit!!! “God made them that way.”
The updated science answer, the Newton answer, is: “There is a force drawing the planets towards the sun, and it seems to be directly proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance.”
In the same way, Einstein builds upon Newton’s work. Using the even better tools of his day, he measures even more closely than Newton did, and finds that Newton’s theory is close, but not perfect. In Einstein’s case, the major culprit is Mercury’s orbit, not Mars’. So, Einstein proposes an additional twist — a theory that acts like Newton’s theory when dealing with “normal” objects, but predicts different motions for objects that move really fast or are subject to lots of gravity, such as Mercury is because it orbits so closely to the sun. He proposes… the theory of Special Relativity.
Meanwhile… the Deep Belief answer remains the same, “God made them that way.”
The moral: Science keeps coming up with better ways to explain what’s happening in the real world, the one we live in. Deep Belief Religion keeps coming up with the same way to explain what’s happening in the real world: “God made it that way.” The biggest problem with the Deep Belief Religious answer is that is has no predictive value, so it can’t lead us to any better understanding of the world we live in.
AND HERE’S THE REALLY IMPORTANT PART: Without better understanding, our life can’t get better.
This brings us to the second issue: What authority should we use to explain the real world we live in? Deep Belief Religious people of one persuasion say that authority should be The Bible, while scientists say it should be the world we live in.
Hmm… we have a choice in basing how we describe the real world. We can describe what’s happening in the real world based on…
o a two thousand year old book, written by people who knew they were just guessing, but thought stars were painted on a celestial ceiling.
o the real world as we see it today, using the best observing equipment we can design after more than ten thousand years of inventing better and better observing equipment.
Deep religious believers say the first one is the not just the better choice, it is the only right choice. Think about it: this is what “believing in The Bible” means. …unless you want to weasel that it’s allegory or an inspirational text of some sort.
… How strange! In two thousand years of study, we haven’t learned a single new thing about our world?
… But, then again, maybe not so strange. After all, “God made it that way.”
When I think about Deep Believer logic, I can’t help but think of a song I heard and enjoyed back in the sixties:
“It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.”
(from a 1968 folk song, “Master Jack” by 4 Jacks and a Jill)
The benefit of “warm and fuzzy”
What is the benefit of Deep Believer in religion thinking?
Deep Believer thinking resonates with the “Chosen People” form of instinctive thinking. Chosen People serves mankind very well when he’s living the Neolithic Village or Agricultural Age lifestyles — Chosen People is an updated variant of the “Us versus Them” thinking of the much older Neolithic Village environment.
Instinctive thinking is warm, fuzzy thinking — it is thinking styles that have worked well for hundreds to thousands of generations so the brain is partly hardwired for them. They are good… until the world around the user changes enough that particular styles are no longer solving problems well. The Industrial Age and the Information Age are not as well served by pervasive Chosen People thinking. There is so much more widespread trading and cooperation in these modern environments that Chosen People thinking can often be a liability. It still works well in many circumstances: Ancient pyramids and modern sports industries are both examples of places where Chosen People thinking has produced great works.
But explaining our world is not one of those circumstances.
As science emerged from religion as a new way of explaining how the world works, it upset a lot of people who were warm and comfortable with the good old ways. Galileo’s findings became famous for raising hackles in his day. Darwin has also become famous for this, and his hackle raising continues to be powerfully emotional right into current times.
But if, today, you’re going to explain the night sky with, “God made it that way.” you’re ignoring five hundred years of human progress in observing the real world better and better. That’s not good.