Science

A Few Thoughts on Abortion and the Planned Parenthood Videos

planned parenthood

I’ve been asked to give my take on the Planned Parenthood videos.

When it comes to Planned Parenthood’s mission, to provide healthcare to women, I am 100% in their corner. Providing abortions is a small part of Planned Parenthood’s services, and defunding Planned Parenthood would have a deleterious effect on the health of poor women. Attempts to defund Planned Parenthood are driven by religious belief and bad science. We live in a secular state, one that supposedly separates church and state and one that values science; yet, when it comes to abortion, the debate is framed by religious claims that result in skewed interpretations of science.

The strident pro-lifer, based on their religious beliefs, says that abortion is murder. I have written about this before in a post titled 25 Questions for Those Who Say Abortion is Murder. The abortion is murder view is irrational and is a denial of what science tells about fetal development and life.  Just last week, Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and a candidate for President, said he supports personhood for zygotes. (see Personhood USA) That’s right, Huckabee wants constitutional protection conveyed the moment a man’s sperm unites with a woman’s egg.  This means that Mike Huckabee, along with those who support personhood for fetuses and believe abortion is murder, think that the following should be considered a person protected by the constitution and those aborting them are murderers:

3 day old human embyro

Three Day Old Human Embryo.

4 week old fetus

Fetus at 28 days

human fetus

Fetus at 56 days, 1/2 inch long

Fact: 63% of abortion take place within eight weeks of pregnancy.

This is what a fetus looks like at 12 weeks:

12 week fetus

Fetus at 12 week

Fact: 89% of abortions take place within 12 weeks (first trimester) of pregnancy.

When I look at the science along with the aforementioned photographs, I see potential life. I don’t see a person, one deserving constitutional protection. (Please see Abortion Facts, Lies, and Contractions) All the religious posturing and moralizing in the world won’t change my view on this matter. Why? Because it is rooted in scientific fact and reason.

As the fetus continues to grow it moves from being potential life to actual life. Usually this is around weeks 20-24. Fetuses can and do survive when born prematurely, and it is for this reason I support greater protection for them under the law. The state has a vested interest in protecting human life, not potential life. I do not agree that abortion after viability should be a decision made between a woman and her doctor without any regard to the fetus. Once viability is reached there is a third party, the baby, that should have rights. Not absolute rights, mind you. There are times,due to health concerns or fetal abnormality, that is it medically prudent to terminate a pregnancy after viability. Since the overwhelming majority of abortions occur before viability (98.8%) or post viability as a result of health concerns or fetal abnormality, I see no reason to oppose abortion.

Why is it that pro-life groups rarely use the aforementioned photographs to make their case? Why do they always graphically display fetuses aborted late in a pregnancy? Shock value.  I wonder if some who say abortion is murder would think differently if they were presented with a picture of a zygote and not a picture of a full term fetus?

The recent videos concerning Planned Parenthood are disturbing. The group behind the videos are using highly edited footage, releasing them over a long period of time in hopes of maximizing the damage, inflaming passion, and bolstering the campaigns of pro-life candidates for President.  (Please see People of the American Way post  The Activists and the Ideology Behind the Latest Attack on Planned Parenthood)

Despite my opposition to the group behind the videos, I do find the videos troubling. Is Planned Parenthood selling fetus parts? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they are selling at cost various fetus parts to researchers, but no in the sense that it isn’t a huge revenue stream for Planned Parenthood. What Planned Parenthood is doing is legal, no different from harvesting organs for transplant.

I am sure someone is going to say, but Bruce, look at how nonchalant the Planned Parenthood people were on the videos. I agree, this is troubling, but is their crassness any reason for the government to defund Planned Parenthood or for abortion to be outlawed or criminalized? Of course not. Again, I go back to the science. Like it or not, in most cases, the aborted fetus is a blob of developing cells. Since these developing cells are potential life, not human life, why shouldn’t researchers be permitted to use these cells and developing organs to find cures or treatments for diseases that are afflicting and killing humans?

I think the crassness displayed on the videos is troubling, but explainable. Take doctors. Doctors are around sickness and death every day. Imagine a group of doctors sitting around a table talking shop. How do you think the discussion would go? A bit of morbidity, humor, and deflection? This is their way of coping with the work they have been called to do. (and yes, I think many of the people who work in abortion clinics have a sense of calling, a deep desire to help women in a time of great need)  The same could be said for coroners, morticians, homicide detectives, crime scene investigators, CDC investigators, and crime screen cleaners.  As someone who lives with the ugly specter of death lurking in the shadows, I have a gallows sense of humor about death. Some family members and friends are appalled by my humor, yet it is how I cope with the reality that death is stalking me and will ultimately seize me as its prey. People who are around death often use humor to cope and often seem detached from their work, and I think that is exactly what is shown on the Planned Parenthood videos.

What Planned Parenthood has is an optic problem. They allowed themselves to be snookered by ideologically driven religious nut jobs who want to make abortion, along with birth control, illegal. Planned Parenthood needs to do a better job of vetting who they are talking to. They also need to put  some of their workers and executives through sensitivity training.  We say that getting an abortion is a monumental decision for a women. If this is true, then our behavior and demeanor should reflect this, not unlike our response to someone who is dying and has decided to stop medical treatment.

I am sure those on either side of this issue will disagree with me and that’s why I have been hesitant to write about it. My position on abortion is informed and quite developed, so I don’t waste my time arguing about it. I recently had several dust-ups on Facebook with people who think anyone who is pro-choice or supports Planned Parenthood is a sick, vile, evil, murderer. Rather than continue to read such drivel, I unfriended 30 or so people, including family members. (and yes, I tried to educate them before I unfriended them)

I find it interesting that the same people who are so ardently pro-life are very same people who are pro-war, pro capital punishment, anti-homosexual, anti-same sex marriage, anti-immigration, and anti virtually anything that has to do with care and compassion post-birth. It seems the only life they care about is the one in the womb.  These same people say they are anti-abortion, yet they oppose free birth control and standardized sex education, two things that we know reduce the need for an abortion.  There’s one word for people who think like this, hypocrite.

Charles Attempts to Understand the Fundamentalist Mind

god and knowledge

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Charles asked:

I know you are probably going to slam me for asking this, but it really is something I have noticed time and time and time again across my nearly 63 years of life—and I am at a bit of a loss to understand it. So, here goes:

Why do Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals believe that the sole purpose of communications media (books, magazines, newspapers, movies, television shows, blogs, etc.) is to “teach me how I should live my life” in this world. All of my semi-fundie aunts are dead now, but they grew up in rural Tennessee in the period 1910-1930. In later years, (1930s onward), they would scrape up enough money to go to a movie, and they would go with the apparent notion that Joan Crawford will today on the movie screen “teach me how I should live my life if I move to the city.”

Whenever a fundie wants to banish a book from the public library, ban a movie, or whatever, the excuse is always something along the lines of: “Well, I’m afraid this book (or this movie) is going to teach people wrong things about…”

I gotta be honest with you Bruce. I think these people are just plain nuts. For example, I saw a DVD of the movie “Lucy” recently. At no time did I insert it into the DVD player, kick back in my easy chair, and say, “Scarlett is gonna teach me how I should live my life with this movie.” If I pick up the newest Superman comic book, I never say, “Superman is going to teach me a lesson on how I should live my life.”

I am a professional anthropologist. Human culture and society are my business, but this one is a little hard to understand. On occasion, I have wondered if this is a uniquely American disease of the mind with religious roots. For example, when the first pioneers pushed westward across the Appalachian Mountains into Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Bible was often the only book they owned. It was viewed as a book whose primary purpose was to “teach them how they should live their lives.” Historically, is it possible that they uncritically transferred this notion to every form of communications media that arrived on the scene?

Even nowadays, you can here fundies say, “I don’t like that short story because it does not teach a good moral lesson.” I just want to say back, “Well, maybe the author did not want to teach you a good moral lesson because he was just writing a story that he wanted to tell.”

What goes on in the minds of these people?

Here’s what I know for sure, the Christian fundamentalist operates from six presuppositions:

  • Their God, as revealed through the Bible, creation, and conscience,  is the one true God
  • The Bible is God’s divine revelation to humanity and contains everything necessary for life and godliness
  • Every person is a sinner in need of salvation
  • There is eternal life beyond the grave
  • Heaven/eternal kingdom of God is where the Christian will spend eternity and hell/lake of fire is where non-Christians will spend eternity
  • This life is preparation for eternal life after death

Because Evangelicals believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, it becomes the foundation for how they view the world and live their life. (in theory anyway) This thinking permeates every aspect of their life. It is not uncommon for  Evangelicals to label themselves as “people of the book.” The Bible becomes a written oracle that speaks infallibly pertaining to life and godliness. It becomes THE truth above all others.  Throw in the notion that the Holy Spirit lives inside the Evangelical as their teacher and guide, is it any surprise that Evangelicals think the way they do?

Everything in the Evangelical’s life is filtered through the pages of the Bible. When the Evangelical sees something in the media that lines up with their beliefs, this is viewed as God giving them a life lesson or reinforcing their beliefs. Since most Evangelicals think homosexuality is a sin, they can turn to Romans 1, 2 and see that their view of the world is going to hell in a hand basket is affirmed by the Bible and recent events like the legalization of same-sex marriage and the persecution of Christian wedding cake bakers.

Evangelicals often equate the smallest of things to God. From finding their keys to discovering a $20 bill in a pair of pants, every unexpected “blessing” is a sure sign of the truthfulness of the Bible. These “God sightings” are proof that they are on the right track and that their beliefs are true. So, when a Tim Tebow or some other sports star praises Jesus, they see the star’s words as an affirmation of their beliefs. Same goes for utterances about God at the Grammy Awards, Country Music Awards, and other show-biz award shows. Never mind that many of the singers are praising God for songs that promote debauchery and sin. All that matters is that they thanked God or their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Woo Hoo! Another God sighting!!

Evangelicals are also obsessed with eschatology. Always on a lookout for Jesus coming to rapture them away, they look for signs of his soon return. (even though they are commanded not to do so)  Again, this kind of thinking leads them to “see” God and signs everywhere they look. From RFID chips being the mark of the beast to mathematical formulas that predict the exact date of the rapture, Evangelicals seek out “evidence” for their eschatological beliefs. In doing so, they overlook the obvious; first century Christian expected the second coming of Jesus in their lifetime, yet here we are 2,000 years later, no Jesus. Perhaps, Jesus likes his digs in heaven and is not coming back or his body lies silent in an unmarked grave outside of Jerusalem.

Evangelicals also believe God speaks to them, either through the Bible or through the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. When a person has God speaking directly to them, it is possible to see almost anything as a lesson or message from God. Spend some time on the CHARISMA website and you will come away thinking that Evangelicalism is actually an insane asylum. No belief is so far-fetched that it cannot be attributed to God. Years ago, a woman stood up in one of the churches I pastored and told a story about God appearing to her. A devout Evangelical Christian, she said God came in the night and spoke to her. Wanting to make sure it was God and not the devil, she asked for a sign. All of a sudden, she saw a blue light and she knew it was God.  I thought then, as I do now, that she was confusing a blue light special at K-Mart with a visitation from God. (note also the number of Republican candidates for President who say the Christian God TOLD them to run)

Throw all these things in a bag and shake them up and what you end up with is a Christian version of McCarthyism. Everywhere the Evangelical looks they see their God. When they pray for Grandma and she gets better they think God did it. When God doesn’t answer their prayer and Grandma dies?; it’s God’s will. Either way, everything traces back to God. He is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

god said it

Understanding this explains why their thinking drives you nuts. As a man of science, you value evidence and facts. While you are still a believer, you do not check your brain at the door and ignorantly view the world as the Evangelical does. The Evangelical will likely say that they too value evidence and facts, but their evidence is the Bible, not what can be understood through reason, healthy skepticism, and the scientific method. When confronted with a challenge to their beliefs, the Bible and faith always win.

This is why I do not get into arguments and lengthy discussions with Evangelicals. The path always leads back to faith and THE BIBLE SAYS!  Once the Evangelical appeals to faith, there is no hope of a meaningful discussion. Just today, an Evangelical preacher “proved” to me that Jesus resurrected from the dead. How?  He quoted the Bible. In his mind, God said it and that settles it.

Evidence for the Existence of Evangelical God: Bruce, Look at the Stars

carl sagan dot

Evangelicals believe the Christian God reveals himself to every human through:

  • Creation
  • Conscience
  • Divine Revelation (The Bible)

In this post, I want to focus on the Christian God revealing himself to us through creation. On a clear night, I can look skyward and see a vast array of stars and planets. Recently, Jupiter and Venus were in perfect alignment, a wonder to behold in the Western sky. Last week, the New Horizons spacecraft sent back pictures of Pluto, amazing both the atheist and the Evangelical.

Both the atheist and Evangelical look to the sky and contemplate its vastness and awesomeness. When the Evangelical looks at the sky they see the handiwork of  their God.  They are certain that the Christian God created everything.  The atheist, however, points to science and its explanations of the universe.  The atheist has a lot of questions, questions science has not yet answered. These questions may or may not be answered in the future. The Evangelical, using the creation framework in Genesis 1-3, is satisfied that the Christian God created the universe. No matter what science tells us about the universe, the Bible explanation is the superior and final explanation. If science conflicts with the Bible, science is wrong.

When an Evangelical uses the creation argument with me, I agree with them. I don’t really agree with them, but for the sake of argument, I say, OK, I agree that someone can look at the night sky and wonder if a God created everything. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that a God, a divine force, the first cause, the master holographic programmer created or designed the universe. Since science has yet to tell us all we need to know about the beginning of the universe, perhaps one day we will discover that a God of some sort created everything. I doubt it, but it is certainly possible, just like it is possible the Cincinnati Reds will overcome a 16.5 game deficit in the standings and win the World Series.

Once I grant the Evangelical position, I then ask, how does one get from A GOD to THE GOD, the God of the Evangelical Bible? What is there in the night sky that says the Evangelical God created the universe? It is at this point the Evangelical says, THE BIBLE SAYS, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Once the Evangelical appeals to the Bible, they’ve lost the argument. Why? Because science tells us that the creation account in Genesis is not true. Once drawn back into the confines of the printed page, the Evangelical is forced to defend all sorts of absurd beliefs, beliefs that can only be swallowed with a large dose of blindness and faith.

But, Bruce, look at the various creation myths. Don’t they ALL testify to there being a creator? Again, the Evangelical is not arguing for a generic, adaptable creator. They are arguing for a specific creator, the one spoken of in the Bible. Even here, I am willing to grant the Evangelical’s assertion. The question remains the same. Why is the Evangelical creation myth true and all others false? Why should I believe the Evangelical myth and not one of the other creation myths?

By appealing to the Bible and the creation account recorded in Genesis 1-3, the Evangelical also must defend everything from a talking, walking upright snake to polytheism.  Since the night sky itself is not enough to tell us the Evangelical God created the universe, the Evangelical must appeal to the presuppositions they’ve derived from the Bible. With one hand, the Evangelical points to the sky and with the other hand points to the Bible. As I have stated many times before, the Abrahamic religions are text-based. For the Evangelical, the Bible is the foundation upon which their religious house is built. Destroy the foundation and the Evangelical house comes tumbling down.

Sacrilegious Humor: God Moments by Dara O’Briain

This is the fourteenth installment in the Sacrilegious Humor series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a comedy bit that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please email me the name of the bit or a link to it.

Today’s bit is God Moments by Dara O’Briain.

Warning, many of the comedy bits in this series will contain profanity. You have been warned.

Video Link

Sacrilegious Humor: Science Doesn’t Know Everything by Dara O’Briain

This is the thirteenth installment in the Sacrilegious Humor series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a comedy bit that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please email me the name of the bit or a link to it.

Today’s bit is Science Doesn’t Know Everything by Dara O’Briain.

Warning, many of the comedy bits in this series will contain profanity. You have been warned.

Video Link

What is Science and Why it is Important

guest-post

A guest post by Canadian Atheist.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Bruce Gerencser for giving me this opportunity to write a guest post on his blog, and to do so anonymously. The only reason I retain my anonymity is because there are family members who are not aware I am no longer religious and would probably be hurt by finding out on the internet if they stumbled across this post at some point in the future. Who am I? I am a Canadian scientist. I study human physiology. I was a Christian for roughly the first three decades of my life before finding my way to atheism. My path to atheism is not the topic of this post, as I have written about it elsewhere. If Bruce is willing, a link can be provided to my own blog writings. But I volunteered to write a guest post about what science is, why it is often misunderstood, and why it is so important. The value of science seems to be under deliberate attack in some Western nations (notably the United States and Canada), and scientific findings are often rejected or rebuked when they don’t fit with certain agendas. I’d like to write about why that is dangerous to society.

What is Science?

Science is a process that methodically gathers knowledge about the natural world. Science leads us to knowledge about the world around us, and how it works. We all make observations about the world around us all the time, but the scientific method is careful not to jump to conclusions based on those observations until they are testable repeatedly and independently. This means that, for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and consistently come out with the same results. Science, though it is conducted by biased and imperfect humans, must be conducted in an unbiased way. Scientists have to learn to put aside their biases and preconceived beliefs before they conduct their experiments. Bias can very easily cause someone to misinterpret the results. This is the fundamental difference between the scientific approach and the approach taken by most people in society. If you have a favorite political party or sports team, you are likely to cheer for them no matter how they perform. Even if your sports team never wins, you may still convince yourself they are the best team. The difference between the scientific method and what I would call the political or religious method is best explained by the following illustration:

In the scientific method, all the evidence on a particular topic is examined. Then the conclusions are drawn from the findings of the evidence regardless of whether you like the conclusions or not. Conversely, in the political or religious method, the conclusion is generally formed first and then evidence is gathered to support that conclusion or theory. When it seems like science has been wrong about something, usually it is because scientists have not properly taken their bias out of the methods and therefore have misinterpreted their findings. A very important part of science is also acknowledging when you don’t have enough data to form a conclusion. (More on that later in relation to scientists being wrong all the time).

Deliberate Discrediting of Science and Scientists

There are two classic examples in recent years of how good science has been rejected because it conflicts with an agenda: 1) evolution; and 2) climate change. Evolution is a process that explains how biological diversity arises by change in the inherited genotype (genetic make-up of the organism) and phenotype (the observable characteristics) through generations of offspring. The word “overwhelming” is often used to describe the amount of evidence supporting evolution. There is no doubt that evolution happens in biology, and that humans evolved from more primitive primate species (not monkeys!). Evolution is as established and verifiable as many other part of science, such as gravity, germ theory, etc. I don’t need to list through all the evidence in favor of evolution here, that information is available to anyone who honestly wants to know the truth. However, evolution goes directly against the concept that God created the species (including humans) as they are, and that humans are somehow special among the many species of animals. Therefore, those people who are unable to let go of their belief that God exists and that he created the species as they are, must reject evolution, try to discredit the science behind it, and even teach children known falsehoods in science classes, all because the truth of evolution challenges their pre-conceived conclusion that God created humans as we are. They are following the second method in the diagram above.

Another example is climate change. The global climate is a complex phenomenon. There have been large variations and cycles in the earth’s climate throughout its history. Cycling between ice ages and more warm periods seems to be a natural occurrence. However, in the past decades, the earth’s climate has been changing much more rapidly than ever before. This has been occurring in concert with an increase in carbon dioxide levels higher than they have been in roughly 100 million years. The rate of change is completely out of whack with the natural cycles that have happened in the past, and corresponds to the recent centuries of industrialization of our society and our massive increase in use of fossil fuels (which give off carbon dioxide). Again, there is no doubt in science about the facts of climate change. Though the process of climate change is not as established as evolution, there is no doubt that human activity is dramatically affecting the climate on our planet. But, to alter this process would take some very, very significant changes in all our lifestyles. (This is the part where climate change deniers roll their eyes and claim that environmentalists would have us all living in caves). One of the huge changes that would have to take place is a shift towards cleaner energy sources, and there are very, very wealthy and powerful people who make all their money by having you and I use up fossil fuels. They have an agenda, and they don’t care about the science. Therefore, the science of climate change has been very deliberately attacked by organized and well-funded groups with special interest.

Both of these (evolution and climate change) are great examples of the political and religious process of having an agenda or a conclusion, and then going out and looking for evidence to support your agenda, rather than forming your conclusions based on all the evidence. Sadly, many people have been led to believe exactly the opposite: that scientists have an agenda with evolution and climate change and that they are making it all up to support their agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Don’t Scientists Have an Agenda Too?

The short answer is no. Scientists are human of course, so they all have biases and are capable of making mistakes. But, the scientific method is specifically designed to remove human bias, errors, and agendas. The whole point of the scientific method is to discover without bias. Yes, some scientists have an agenda. Yes, some scientists do take money from a funding agency that wants to prove they are right more than they want to discover the real truth about something (think pharmaceutical companies). But, the vast majority of scientists deliberately try to remove bias from their work, look for the honest answer regardless of what they want the answer to be, and when they do have their findings, they present them publicly for others to review and criticize to ensure they are valid findings. That is the way good science is conducted in research institutions, and the vast majority of the time it works to uncover a lot of knowledge about the world around us.

If you get into a disagreement or argument with a scientist about his or her particular area of expertise, then one of two things is likely to happen. Firstly, and much more likely, you are wrong and are not accepting the evidence that the scientist is using to back up their position. (A simple example would be having an argument with a physicist about whether the earth is round or flat. You are wrong. They are right. They are right because they have based their position on the evidence). Or, secondly, you are right and the scientist is wrong because they have either left the scientific method of examining only the evidence, or they have over-extended themselves beyond what the evidence tells them. (An example of this would be if a physicist tells you that we know we are in the only universe in existence. We don’t have enough evidence to support that claim, and if a scientist claimed that fact, then they have forgotten not to extend their conclusions beyond the evidence).

Why Do Scientists Seem So Arrogant?

In short, because they are right! Remember, when they are doing their job properly, scientists only form their conclusions based on evidence and facts and limit their conclusions when they don’t have enough evidence. Therefore, when they do draw a conclusion about something, it is very, very likely to be correct. You’ll notice that it is very hard to win an argument with someone when they do this. Try to take the position in an argument that the sky is not blue, or that gravity does not exist and see how you do. If you knew nothing about gravity, you might think a physicist seemed arrogant for being so adamant that they are right about gravity. But, they are only adamant because the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position. If you base your arguments on evidence and are careful not to overextend your position beyond the evidence, then you will always be right, simple as that. Of course, most scientists have extensive knowledge on one specific topic that is far greater than the average person. Therefore, when you argue with them on that one topic, they are always right and you are always wrong (assuming they base their argument in evidence). This can seem like arrogance.

Of course, in reality many scientists do overextend themselves beyond the evidence and make claims that are not supported. Then they are just being arrogant.

Aren’t Scientists Wrong All the Time?

Scientific findings are often corrected as we learn more about the natural world. Sometimes scientists discover something and then realize down the road that their discovery was not quite right after all. But, that is not a good reason to reject science whenever it conflicts with your particular preferences, and to explain it away by saying that scientists are often wrong anyway. The scientific method gradually produces knowledge and facts about nature, but one experiment might not immediately provide all the answers. For example, if you want to know whether drinking aspartame has negative effects on pregnant women, you don’t want to draw your conclusions after one experiment. After many experiments by many different scientists, we may discover the truth about that question. But each experiment by itself tends to give an incomplete picture. The important thing in understanding science is to distinguish between the findings that are preliminary and those that are overwhelmingly supported. If you read in the news about a study that found that eating seven carrots a day will reduce your risk of cancer by 36%, then you can likely assume that it is a preliminary finding. Much more research needs to be done to establish the actual benefits of a certain number of carrots per day. But, if you read a textbook on evolution, you would be wrong to roll your eyes and think that this is a preliminary finding. Over 150 years of scientific research in many different fields (geology, biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) all lead to the same conclusions about evolution.

It is easy and tempting to look back over time and claim that scientists have been wrong about so much. You could look back in history and claim that scientists first thought the earth was flat and the sun went around the earth and so on. But, most scientific claims have a degree of uncertainty to them. (Statistics dictates that certainty is not possible in any one scientific experiment. Most scientific experiments are set up statistically so that the likelihood of misinterpreting the results are roughly 1 in 20. But that does not mean that the chances of science being wrong on well established findings are 1 in 20. For example, any single experiment on tobacco smoking leading to cancer will have a 1 in 20 chance of being wrong. But the chances that smoking does not cause cancer are much, much less than 1 in 20, almost infinitely smaller.) That is why scientists have to be careful to say that the evidence supports their findings, given what we know so far but that there may be a lot more to the whole story. Scientific findings have to be interpreted with a great deal of humility about what we still don’t know about nature. Anytime a scientist conducts one experiment and then claims to know the truth about that phenomenon, they are probably being hasty and arrogant. Only over time, with careful and unbiased repetition of results, can we state things to be true with a very high level of certainty.

Usually, when science has turned out to be “wrong”, it is in fact a case of a scientists having drawn a conclusion before there is enough evidence to support it, so that when enough evidence does come to light their conclusions don’t hold up. In ancient times, a true scientist would not have made assumptions about the earth being flat, but instead should have said: “We don’t have enough data yet to know what shape the earth is.” This is the approach modern scientists take on many unknown issues surrounding things like dark matter, and the exact origins of the universe. Since we don’t have enough data yet, we have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions. Sadly, this acknowledgement is often exploited by the religious with a statement that God must fill in the gaps in knowledge, or that since science can’t explain everything about the origin of the universe, God must have created it.

Can You Be A Scientist and A Christian at the Same Time?

It is possible, but very uncommon. In my time as a scientist, I’ve met a very few scientists who are religious. The vast majority of those have grown up in a culture and family of religion that they have just continued with in their life as an adult. When they go to work each day and conduct experiments in science, they almost always set aside their religion and just work as a scientist. To work as a scientist and keep your firmly entrenched Christian beliefs in the forefront of your mind would be in conflict because science requires that we set aside our personal biases. If your personal bias is that God created the world and is ultimately responsible for how everything works, then you’re unlikely to be very good at interpreting your scientific findings very objectively. In my experience, the vast majority of scientists are not religious. Most of them, if asked, would probably admit to agnosticism since there is no sure way of knowing whether a god exists or not. The best answer I’ve heard on this was from my high school chemistry teacher. When asked if he believes in God, he replied: “You define God for me, and then I’ll tell you whether I believe in your definition.”

Are Science and Religion in Opposition?

This is an age-old argument. Carl Sagan’s fictional book Contact has a great debate on this topic. Everyone seems to have a different point of view on whether science and religion can co-exist. My position (which I am not saying is the only correct one), is that the two are in conflict. The whole point of this post has been to show that the scientific method is one that forms a conclusion only after examining the evidence. The religious method is the opposite: you hold a belief (or have faith) and then look at the world and find things that support that belief in God. If you always stick to the scientific method, I am confident you’ll never find a reason to even bring religion into the conversation. In my mind, everything in the world is explained naturally with no need for the supernatural. It was science that ultimately helped relieve me of my religious beliefs. After a long time of studying science I finally realized that the level of scrutiny I demanded of myself for my religious beliefs were completely out of whack with the level of scrutiny for everything else in my life. I lived an evidence-based life, always being careful to critique what politicians and others claimed against what the evidence actually stated, but when it came to religion for some reason I just accepted what the Bible said about God without ever questioning it. Eventually I overcame that inconsistency in my life and left Christianity behind, so it is not surprising that my particular point of view is that science and religion are not just incompatible but are in direct opposition to one another.

I wrote at the beginning that: “for scientific findings to be valid, anyone with the right training and resources must be able to repeat the experiments and come out with the same results.” The beauty of science, therefore, is that it is freely available for anyone and everyone. No one can come along and claim to have knowledge that is not accessible to you. No one can claim that they know better than you, and you should just trust what they say without independently verifying that knowledge. You will notice that this is in direct opposition to the religious approach to knowledge by revelation. The Bible tells us that Jesus died on the cross and came to life again a few days later. But this is not independently verifiable. You cannot test this claim. You must rely on someone else’s description of that event in order to believe it. This is exactly the opposite of the scientific approach. While you may have to rely on scientist’s description on things that are very complicated for you to understand, nothing is stopping you from going and getting trained in that field of science and then conducting your own experiments to find out for yourself it they are correct. If you do that, no honest scientist will ever tell you: “Yes, but I have superior knowledge and findings in my experiment, so I’m still right.”

Why Do We Need Science Anyway?

The way science is conducted is changing rapidly in universities and research institutions. Governments are focusing funding towards things that they think are important and ignoring or actively discrediting the science that they think it either unimportant or that goes against their political agenda. This is not the way science is supposed to work. Science is a process of discovery, but you often don’t know what you are going to discover. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made more or less by accident when a scientist was actually looking for something else. When Alexander Fleming stumbled upon penicillin in 1928, he did so by accident. He wasn’t even studying antibiotics at all. Yet, that accidental discovery changed all of our lives for the better, probably more than any other medical discovery in the 20th Century. Imagine if governments had shut down Fleming because they didn’t feel his relatively obscure scientific research was contributing to society. The point is, you never know where the most important scientific discoveries are going to come from. So, trying to focus on curing cancer while stopping the study of sea-slugs would be a big mistake because ultimately the cure for cancer could lie in knowledge gained by studying sea slugs. When you limit the process of discovery, you limit the discoveries you will make.

The other very important reason that science is important in society relates back to the image above of the scientific process. If everyone took an evidence-based approach to life’s decisions, we’d have a much better world. There would be far fewer (if any) wars and governments would be forced to serve the best interests of the population not of the party. The scientific method teaches us to take a humble and open-minded approach to life. Don’t go into things assuming you know the answer before you begin. Stick to your conclusions if the evidence supports it, even if everyone else says you are wrong. But, do admit when you are wrong. These are the hallmarks of a good scientist, but most of us don’t act this way when engaging in politics, marriages, friendships, conversations, and so on.

Summary: Why Is Science Relevant to a Discussion About Religion & Atheism?

What does science have to do with religion? Isn’t religion outside the realm of science? Doesn’t religion require faith, which doesn’t involve science? Well, science is all about basing conclusions on evidence. If there is no evidence for something, then it probably isn’t reality. Therefore science is very relevant to the discussion on religion because there is no objective evidence for God. If there was a God and if there was evidence for God, scientists would be the first people lining up to tell the world all about it. Discovering that God exists would be the single greatest scientific discovery in history, which any scientist would be glad to get credit for, if only it were true. The reason scientists do not generally agree that God exists is not because of some agenda or some grand anti-religious conspiracy. No, the reason science does not support the existence of God is simply because there is no evidence to support that claim. All the claims of the existence of God (or gods) are based entirely on personal experience. All the personal experiences that are recorded in the Bible are examples of exactly the opposite process of discovery in science: they are not reproducible, they are not supported by evidence that anyone can observe, and they are not carefully controlled observations by people trained to be unbiased in their interpretations. This is where the conversation between believers and scientists can start to go in circles with believers claiming that God is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore does not require evidence, and with scientists claiming that nothing is outside the ability of science to detect and therefore God must not exist since there is no evidence for God.

I’ll conclude with a statement and a challenge. My statement is this: “Everything that exists is explainable by science, given enough time and resources.” I state this because my position is that there is only the natural world. There is no supernatural. Since science provides answers to the natural world, science has the answer for everything. My challenge is this: “Come up with a question, for which there is a definite answer, that science is not capable of providing an answer with a reasonable level of certainty..”

Sacrilegious Humor: Noah’s Ark by Ricky Gervais

This is the fifth installment in the Sacrilegious Humor series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a comedy bit that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please email me the name of the bit or a link to it.

Today’s bit is Noah’s Ark by Ricky Gervais.

Warning, many of the comedy bits in this series will contain profanity. You have been warned.

Video Link

Sacrilegious Humor: Jibbers Crabst by Matt Inman

This is the second installment in the Sacrilegious Humor series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a comedy bit that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please email me the name of the bit or a link to it.

Today’s bit is Jibbers Crabst by Matt Inman, a cartoonist and creator of The Oatmeal.

Warning! Many of the comedy bits in this series will contain profanity and/or adult humor. You have been warned.

Video Link