Earlier this year Terry Kelly was interviewed by the RoyalAuto . It was a great opportunity to get the skeptical message out to the wider community. However, with such a large readership the article was bound to have some detractors.
One letter took Terry to task for his views on religion and science, in particular the statement:
But really, science and faith are contradictory.
With due respect to the author of that letter, we’re not going to reproduce it.
We thought Terry’s response was worth posting.
Dear (RoyalAuto Reader),
Thank you for taking the time to write and I am pleased you read the article in RoyalAuto. While there were some hostile letters published afterwards, and a supportive one, I have to say that we have had a lot of formal and informal positive response. Several people I’ve spoken to expressed surprise that the article could be considered controversial at all. You may be alarmed to learn that a hell of a lot of people think like I do.
To address some of your points : I know a lot of Scientists had/have religious and other superstitious beliefs. I think Newton believed in astrology, for example. My point is that religion and science are very different ways of attempting to understand the world. I’m a little offended (but not surprised) that you suggested that the opinion that science and faith are contradictory is “arrogant and ignorant”. Science is based on evidence and controlled testing, replication and academic rigour and scientists try to disprove their own hypotheses. Faith at times attempts to overcome evidence that is contrary to a belief. St Augustine was one of the most influential advocates of the attitude that faith, not rational thought, always had the final word. When people with religious beliefs (such as Copernicus) were making their discoveries they were practising science, not religion. Copernicus didn’t make his discoveries by praying. He did it by practising science. I don’t see how both can be applied together. You can’t play a guitar and drive a car at the same time. One activity impedes the other. They can be done separately but not practised simultaneously.
Science and religion can co-exist but one has to compartmentalise them to make that happen – sort of a cognitive dissonance. How much scientific truth was revealed in the Bible? It is full of blatant absurdities and is often self-contradictory. The Bible reflects a pre-scientific outlook.
And what of the dreadful traumas Galileo had to go through at the hands of the church which considered itself the holder of truth and knowledge at the time?
While Mary Mackillop was undoubtedly a great person (and something of a rebel and an iconoclast), when the church declared that she had performed miracles, after her death, the church was practising religion, not science. While it was a great PR exercise for the Catholics, it further reduced the church’s credibility within the scientific community. The so-called scientific proof the church accepted was a joke.
As you rightly point out “there are many highly qualified and respected scientists today who are believers in the concept of God or a Spirit Creator”. But there are not, relatively speaking, as many as there used to be. The percentage of atheists amongst scientists is much higher than in the average population. Being a scientist is more likely to make you a non-believer but, also, people from a non-religious background are more likely to become scientists in the first place. More and more people are finding the two very different approaches incompatible.
Personally, I am not antagonistic to religious people. My mother goes to church. A friend of mine is a Uniting Church Minister (he went to Assumption College and, interestingly, joined the UC later). Many of my friends still go to church and take their kids. I just happily don’t go with them.
In the RoyalAuto article I did not mention the violence and sexual abuse that I observed and experienced from clergy at Assumption College. While there were some wonderful teachers, there were some scum too. And the church protected them. My understanding of this is that the church has perceived itself to be above the law. The “revealed wisdom” from God overrides science and human made laws and the transgressors must be forgiven, protected and enabled to continue God’s holy work. This is changing, but very slowly and only because of outside pressure. Interestingly, Assumption, like most catholic schools, has hardly any clergy on staff any more. The violence and abuse didn’t exactly turn me off religion at the time, but it did foster a healthy scepticism about authority figures. An early turning point for me, actually, occurred in a Form 1 religion class when the teacher (a paedophile as it turned out) was banging on about how “God could do absolutely everything” until a 12-year-old asked him if God could draw a square circle. The teacher duly backed down and modified his statement. “Repeatedly science has modified religion, never vice versa” (Lewis-Williams in “Conceiving God” p289).
I should also tell you that I have the distinction of getting 100% for Religion, not once but twice. In the Form 2 Term 1 exams I got 100. In Term 2 I got 100 again. How does a 13-year-old kid get 100% for religion? Well, I was cute looking, innocent, fairly good at writing and bulldusting and the teacher was a paedophile and he fancied me. I only got 93% in Term 3…by which time that Teacher had been surreptitiously shuffled off to another state. Probably to re-offend.
You and I possibly agree on more things than you might think. As a Christian I’d be willing to bet that you probably don’t give much credence to astrology, or re-incarnation, or past-life regression, or the notion that an angel dictated the whole of the Koran to an illiterate peasant in a cave, Rastafarianism (they worship Haile Selassie), Hinduism, psychics, charlatan spoon-benders etc, etc, etc. Am I right? I’d suggest that you might be sceptical about everything except your own beliefs. It’s just that I’m sceptical about your beliefs too.
To me religion is a bit like an addiction. It’s very hard to give up. Even more like a gambling addiction than a drug addiction because of the powerful and insidious impact of “intermittent re-inforcement”. I gave up religion in much the same way I gave up smoking…gradually and relatively painlessly. I can tell you it was incredibly liberating. No more fear of everlasting punishment for wrong-doing or rewards for goodness. Just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. My inspiration is, lately, Huckleberry Finn (via Mark Twain)… “All right then I’ll GO to hell” he said (p283) when deciding not to turn his black friend over to the slave owners. He actually had to overcome his conscience and the conventional morality to act out of pure love and compassion. And he didn’t need a vengeful god to make him do it. He defied god and acted better for doing it.
You make the peculiar statement that “whilst evolution may not have been taught there at Parade, neither was evolution excluded”. Huh? I would have thought that not teaching it was excluding it. Whatever. I find it inexcusable that religious schools do not always teach evolution properly. In fact keeping “Creationism” out of Science classes was one of the early reasons for the Skeptics’ existence. The battle is still going on. We’ve had Science Teachers from Catholic schools speak at our events and they do still have to struggle to teach Evolution at times.
I have been a Social Worker for almost 30 years. I work for a public hospital in aged care. Before that I was an English Teacher. I even taught at a Catholic school for a while, even though I was an atheist. I am very tolerant and accepting of people (in fact I really enjoy them) but I am less accepting of some of their ideas and beliefs. I don’t think it was “arrogant and ignorant” of me to represent my organization and tell part of my personal story as openly, honestly and sincerely as I could in a short interview. I was attempting to perform a public service by encouraging scientific literacy in the general public, one of the main aims of the Australian Skeptics.
I know what you mean when you say “common sense does not always hold the truth”. Scientific findings may, indeed, be counter-intuitive. But I prefer the scientific approach to seeking truth to the religious, faith based, received knowledge one.
Yes, I am biased. I am biased in favour of Science rather than religion which has been, I have to say, fairly disappointing. My views are open to change if the evidence is good enough and the “experts” credible enough. Religion just isn’t producing much good evidence.
It certainly wasn’t a biased article, though. It wasn’t intended to be a balanced debate about religion. It’s in the “People” section. Several different people are presented each edition and their stories are told, not the RACV’s. They reflected my approach pretty well. In fact, whatever bias the writer or editors may have is not apparent. They are to be congratulated for that. It was just a well – written, intriguingly photographed story which presented a reasonable picture of what the Skeptics, and me, are on about. In future they may choose to do stories on people with religious beliefs. But you may have to put up with RoyalAuto producing more stories you don’t agree with. They seem to be trying to make the magazine more interesting. And atheists drive cars too, you know.
The Australian Skeptics is not essentially an anti-religious organization, actually. We focus more on the claims made by religious people. They are treated in the same way as any other “paranormal” claims. So far, no paranormal claim has stood up to scientific scrutiny.
Finally, I’m not sure I’d want to go to heaven, even if it existed. I couldn’t trust God. He seems too cruel and capricious and unpredictable. And hell for me would be to be in heaven knowing some of my friends were in hell.