[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]
Before we continue to discuss science fiction and religion, we must reflect briefly on religion and science. It is an oft-repeated canard that science and religion are different but equally valid ways of understanding the world.
No. Nonsense. And it's still nonsense no matter how often it's repeated by politicians, scientists, or religious adherents. "Science" is an organized body of knowledge, developed through the systematic application of the scientific method -- ultimately, it comes down to the systematic testing of hypotheses. Claims which cannot be tested are outside the purview of science.
For example, the presence of a supernatural being who cannot be observed through natural processes (allow me the redundancy for purposes of clarity) -- this is not a testable claim. One can neither prove nor disprove through experiment or systematic observation this possibility. This claim therefore belongs to the realm of religion, and not science.
However, I am not aware of any religion which makes no claims that can be tested. In fact, religions typically thrive on the assumption that the supernatural interferes with the natural. Intercessory prayer is a common practice among Christian religions, for example. Now this is testable: can intercessory prayer affect the outcome of certain events? (In fact, it has been tested, repeatedly, but discussing the validity of these experiments is a topic that belongs on another blog.)
Science and religion do overlap. However, they can still co-exist peacefully. Religion could welcome science - perhaps not all religions, or all interpretations of any given religion, but in principle... why not? The converse is also possible: science could thrive on religion (though not dogma). Scientists are seekers of truth -- is that not a phrase that could apply to many religious adherents?
The conflict arises because science accepts nothing - nothing - on faith. Everything must be tested, and when scientific knowledge begins to fail the best and most devious tests (note the plural), then that knowledge must be discarded. Evidence that conflicts with prevailing belief is examined, weighed, and -- if found valid -- gladly welcomed. To put it another way, scientific belief is based on evidence. Many religions (I do not say all) rely on dogma and faith; conflicting evidence is anathema.
Witness the fundamentalist Christian movement in the United States. A belief that the Bible must be literal and accurate results in a jarring conflict with scientific knowledge. The latest battlefield is the teaching of evolution (or lack thereof) in public schools, as well as a watering-down of science standards in order to permit the teaching of fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It's a very odd thing -- apparently many individuals are threatened by the fact of overwhelming evidence in favour of the validity of evolution by natural selection.
Some links might be of interest:
- The evidence to support evolution by natural selection is summarized here. You can download the pdf with a few clicks, or refer to an executive summary. (With thanks to PZ Myers of Pharyngula [see below] for the link to the NAS summary.)
- Perhaps you'll recall the Dover trial? The latest, of course, is the creationist push in Texas. Code words to notice: "teach the controversy" and "just a theory" all signal a fundamentalist push against science. This push is part of a very organized movement, often led by the deceitful Discovery Institute. Coming soon to a state near you! (Up here in Canada, the anti-science movement is far less strong at the moment, but I fear that it will change.)
- Are you interested in the scientific details of the creationism vs science debate? Try TalkOrigins. Panda's Thumb keeps track of the latest events in the creation vs science conflict. Pharyngula also provides current events, but readers may find the strident anti-religious tone to be offensive. In contrast, a haven of ignorance: Uncommon Descent. Or, for something truly frightening, the latest in creation "research".
- And there's the current US presidential race (sweet Mabel, will it never end?!), in which several of the initial Republican candidates expressly denied a belief in evolution. From Reason: "A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence."
The conflict between science and religion -- science and any cherished belief of human culture -- is hardly new. I have offered this crude summary of current events in the United States in order to provoke some thought about the future. Where will science and religion go in the future? Will the conflict continue? Will one "side" win?
I personally find it doubtful that religion will ever fade by the wayside. I find it impossible that the entire human species will ever agree on any one set of beliefs. Shouldn't science fiction reflect the religious and scientific turmoil we see today?
Comments are invited - how will the conflict between science and religion play out in the future, and how should science fiction address this issue? If you imagine a world in the future - aliens and spaceships and the whole lot - where does religion fit into your vision?
Next week I'll try musing about why science fiction so rarely addresses human religion.