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June 20, 2007

Mixing Science and Religion (It Can Be Done)

Richard Dawkins, scientist, atheist, and author of "The God Delusion":

Refusing to believe that science and religion could ever be happy bedfellows, the self-confessed atheist said that professional scientists who did promote that theory needed to prove the existence of god because it was a scientific question.

Emphasis mine, to point out that there have been many scientists who indeed were very religious. For instance:
Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible — exhibited this week for the first time — lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history's greatest scientist.

Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law — even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters — and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end.

Any scientist who does that today would no doubt be considered a nut by Dawkins and his supporters. And yet I'm certain that Dawkins has no problem accepting the scientific conclusions of someone he'd consider a religious fanatic today.
In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner," Newton wrote. However, he added, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

In another document, Newton interpreted biblical prophecies to mean that the Jews would return to the Holy Land before the world ends. The end of days will see "the ruin of the wicked nations, the end of weeping and of all troubles, the return of the Jews captivity and their setting up a flourishing and everlasting Kingdom," he posited.

This is not someone with just a passing interest in a popular religious text of the time, this is someone who takes it seriously. Oftentimes, this sort of religious display is handwaved away as purely cultural, but I don't think you can do that here.
Yemima Ben-Menahem, one of the exhibit's curators, said the papers show Newton's conviction that important knowledge was hiding in ancient texts.

"He believed there was wisdom in the world that got lost. He thought it was coded, and that by studying things like the dimensions of the temple, he could decode it," she said.

The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world," she said.

They are not mutually exclusive.

Posted by Doug at June 20, 2007 12:20 PM

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"They (science and religion) are not mutually exclusive."

Religious people can certainly practice science but the domain of science and the domain of religion are by definition, mutually exclusive.

Science is not opposed to the possibility of God any more than it’s opposed to the existence of fairies and leprechauns. Until some natural evidence arises for Gods and fairies, they play no part in the scientific process. Why? Because science deals only with natural phenomena not superstition. Of course you will reply, “But the Christian God, Allah, Zeus and a Leprechaun are different.” They are supernatural entities and so science has nothing to do with them. If there was natural evidence for Gods and Fairies, then they wouldn’t be supernatural anymore would they?

I know you want to have your cake and eat it too but science only deals with the empirical, not the supernatural. If Gods are to be considered as scientific, then so to must leprechauns. I’m just calling a spade a spade.

Think of it like this...

Religion = Metaphysical
Science = Physical

Posted by: Cineaste at June 20, 2007 06:53 PM

What I'm more concerned with in this post is the increasing tendency to disparage some science because the scientists themselves are religious. The idea that one can believe in a God and yet practice the scientific method is not the "strange bedfellows" situation some would characterize it as.

Posted by: Doug Payton at June 20, 2007 07:50 PM