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Are Science and Religion Compatible?
Posted: 14 July 2010 07:19 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Not a brand new subject to most here, but in another thread a member responded to an intro to the podcast Reasonable Doubts - accommodationism with Chris Mooney with the following comments:

Sorry, I didn’t get very far, did give it a chance, but there was no point going further than reading:

according to atheists such as Chris Mooney (author of Unscientific America and host of CFI’s podcast Point of Inquiry) not only are science and moderate religion compatible

This is a view with which I emphatically disagree and it is a deeply considered opinion, not a kneejerk reaction. I don’t think I am unique in eventually reaching an age where experience tells me I’m about to enter time-wasting territory…I’m not saying that no moderately religious people can accept science or that no scientists can be or are moderately religious, but the quote doesn’t say that. It says science and moderate religion are compatible. And that means that Chris Mooney, an atheist (which I think means he does not think the claims of religion are true) who also claims to be a big supporter of science, is trying to say that what he thinks is true and what he thinks is not true are compatible.

I haven’t gotten to the podcast itself yet, but I will say that I don’t share the objection to the simple statement quoted above that religion and science are compatible at all objectionable or shocking. Of course, as always there’s a semantic element to such statments, and how one reacts depends on, among other things, what one takes “compatible” to mean.

1. I think it self-evident that science and religion are compatible in the pragmatic sense that one can hold religious and scientific beliefs simultaneously and function smoothly and prodctively in both spheres. The vast majority of reasonable people do just this, as the member I quoted admits. Religion doesn’t appear to me to be going anywhere any time soon, so if we who value science want it to continue to be the primary source of new knowledge widely and widely accepted by the majority as a legitimate, even the best epistemology going, we’d better hope it’s compatibe with religion in this pragmatic sense.

2. Some assertions or claims about the world made as part of religious belief are incompatible with current scientific knowledge. Others are fundamentally unfalsifiable and so not approachable through scientific methods. Some of us tend to take the attitude that such claims are best considered unlikely and inpractice irrelevant, even if they cannot be shown to be false. But most people take the position that they are free to believe in unfalsifiable claims on faith since there is no positive scientific evidence against them. I’d love to see this change, but I doubt it will. So if one is speaking about specific claims or assertions, many are incompatible with science either because they are counter to established knowledge or unfalsifiable.

The question then arises, what does one do about 1 and 2 above. The caricature of the “New Atheist” is that one takes a strict position that anything proven false or unfalsifiable must be proclaimed false and belief in such claims must be stamped out for the good of mankind. On the other extreme, religious fundamentalists will argue that if faith or a holy text says it’s true, science must be wrong and should be ignored or stamped out for the good of mankind. NOMA proponents, if there are any, wash their hands of the whole subject.

I would love to see this thread be an opportunity for each of us to lay out our own position on the issue, rather than a series of accusations and rebuttals about who are the New Atheists and who are the “Accommodationists” and why they’re stupid.

For myself, then, I have deep faith in the ability of humans to hold mutually incompatible ideas in their head simultaneously, and I am skeptical this ability can ever be thoroughly overcome by any degree of education or indoctrination in critical thinking. I suspect, however, that progress away from superstition and towards a greater reliance on science and reason can be made without replacing religion with atheism. The Enlightenment and the post WWII periods saw such progress despite the persistence of religion, and though we are in a bit of an Age of Endarkenment right now, I think it is worthwhile continuing to promote science and reason. I also think that a variety of approaches are useful depending on context, though I suspect aggressive, assaultive rhetoric is rarely useful for making converts, only for firing up the already converted and frightening the suspicious. I think an emphasis on the pragmatic benefits of a secular approach (science won the war, science cured polio, secular government protects us all from tyranny, including those of minority religions, etc) is more likely to yield progress than an approach based on trying to talk people out of religion and superstition and “prove” these ideas wrong with facts. I wouldn’t say this is never appropriate, but I’m not convinced it is a great strategy overall.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 08:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Ok, just to be complete I listened to Mooney’s interview on Reasonable Doubts. I am baffled by why it is at all controversial, other than the fact that certain individuals are named and criticized for their approach. The ideas that it is more effective to promote an agenda by finding common ground instead of emphasizing differences, that undermining a position by introducing information with humor and humilty is more effective than brazen challenge, that rational discourse must be civil discourse, and so on seem quite moderate and sensible.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 08:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The problem is that we no longer live in the Enlightenment and the post WWII periods. We simply know “too much” these days. Take Ratzinger’s claim that condoms are bad. Well, are they or are they not? Based on one’s faith the answer can be anything. In reality, however, condoms are an excellent prevention against contracting HIV. The truth is no longer a matter of opinion and I am therefore unconvinced that faith and science can find any common grounds and unite in some sort of a harmonic existence.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 08:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Finding common ground is fine as long as you are debating or talking with reasonable people. Mooney did use that qualifier in the podcast. The problem is reasonable Christians already accept science. We need to get through to the people who are in the clutches of extremists, such as the Pope as George mentioned, or any evangelical Christian church in this country.

When I was in my early 20s I enrolled in an evangelical Christian seminary in Dallas, TX. I had joined an evangelical church about 18 months earlier, and was seeking answers to all the questions about life, the universe and everything. Fortunately, my best friend at the time was an atheist, and he and I had some ripping debates about religion versus science. When I pulled out the cliché about evolution being like a tornado hitting a junkyard and building a 747 my friend asked me if I had ever read “On the Origin of Species.” I admitted I had not, and he quite bluntly told me I was arguing from ignorance. If I would not read Darwin I was merely repeating what I had been told to think and not thinking for myself. So I bought a copy of Darwin’s book and found the answers I had been seeking. I have been an atheist since.

There is room for more than one style of debate in this conflict. Some people will respond to reason and gentle persuasion. Some people need more direct challenges. Some people, such as Ray Comfort, are beyond reach. Science and religion are contradictory world views. Science is a process of starting with observations, developing theories, testing theories, keeping those which pass the tests and discarding those which do not. Religion is a process of starting with answers and looking for evidence to support the answers. Testing and discarding do not enter into the process. Religion rejects reason in favor of myths. That some people’s cognitive dissonance allows them to believe 12 contradictory things before lunch does not make science and religion compatible.

Most religious claims deserve the ridicule George Carlin gave them.
(Link to youtube video. Not Safe For Work!)

[ Edited: 14 July 2010 08:46 PM by DarronS ]
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Posted: 14 July 2010 09:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In places like Texas, the authority to control the content of the textbooks needs to be taken from the school board, and placed in the control of experts in each subject. Some of their decisions this year was just bizarre. It leaves an entire state at a handicap when they pursue higher education. Even those who won’t, have the right of an honest education. It is asinine that that big tail wags the entire country’s educational ‘dog’.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 09:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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George,

Certainly science can speak to matters of fact about the world in a way that is clearly superior to religion. But most moderate, educated religious people accept that on a day-to-day basis. Ratzinger, and JPII before him, are widely ignored when they stray into such areas. The issue is not whether or not science and religion never come into conflict. SOmetimes they will. It’s whether they are incompatible in a fundamental way that makes it an either/or choice between them. ust one either be an atheist or reject science? I don’t see it that way.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 10:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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We need to get through to the people who are in the clutches of extremists, such as the Pope as George mentioned, or any evangelical Christian church in this country.

But we can’t and won’t get through to these people. Certainly not by attacking their beliefs directly, and probably not even with the most sophisticated and pervasive PR campaigns. Some people are indoctrinated too deeply too early and are probably by temperment unable to see any value in a rationalist, naturalist, or secular view of life. Dawkins won’t get through to them, and probably Sagan wouldn’t either (though given a choice I’d put my money on him first). I agree there is room for more than one style, but I don’t see that direct confrontation is, overall, the best method, and I suspect it works least well with the most deeply committed. Mooney also pointed out correctly that psychology demonstrates pretty convincingly that attack is far more likely to solidify someone in their belief than to shake it.

Religion rejects reason in favor of myths.

Some religious believers, some variable percentage of the time. I think it’s a mistake to cast this in such stark terms. I think the majority of religious believers are far more accepting of science and Enlightenment rationalism now than they were 400 years ago (though sadly probably less than 150-200 years ago). My VERY Irish Catholic grandmother wouldn’t have dreamed of letting the priest tell her whether or not to vaccinate her kids because she saw that as the doctor’s turf, not the priest’s.

I guess one question that arises for me when I read the responses you and George give is, If science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, what does that mean for how we “market” science and rationalism? Does the only hope for successfully promoting these lie in eliminating religion? Can people only become more pro-science and more rational by giving up religion and becoming atheists, or at least hard agnostics? If this is true, than I fear our program is doomed from the start, because I cannot imagine a world in which religion of some sort isn’t widespread. Certainly, it has always been with us, it seems to be an innate outcome of how our brains work, and it’s not showing any signs of dying out. And yet, science and reason have come so far that I hope they can continue to spread without this, in my mind, impossible future in which religion is the provence of a minority seen as out of touch with mainstream values, as atheism largely is today.

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Posted: 14 July 2010 10:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Still, while my kids were in school, and probably to this day, the local catholic schools have the best, most thorough sex ed classes (which start in the 2nd grade) in the area. They teach anatomy and physiology in elementary school, and they teach evolution and the Big Bang Theory. Their only input here is that ‘god’ guided everything, and their stupid ideas on homosexuality and birth control…easy enough to correct. The high school my sons attended had a well funded laboratory and AP science classes. My sons were allowed to make disparaging remarks during religion classes as long as it was OT (one son told the teacher that catholics were probably the biggest mass murderers in history between the inquisitions and crusades. The teacher agreed.). I would have loved to have local public school with the ability to teach at this level, but obviously, there are some religious schools that can get it done.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 12:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I didn’t think I was going to follow this, but if a remark of mine was spawning a thread, I was curious to know if it was sparking anything interesting. To my surprise, I think I can contribute something. There may be more later, but I will limit myself mainly to the first place where I said to myself “stop, that point is not thought all the way through.” It’s mckenzievmd’s first point:

1. I think it self-evident that science and religion are compatible in the pragmatic sense that one can hold religious and scientific beliefs simultaneously and function smoothly and prodctively in both spheres.

I don’t think it’s necessary to run to the dictionary for a definition of “compatible” in order to say what follows, because the dictionary definition is less important in this case than what is generally understood by the word, rightly or wrongly. It has been pointed out, in arguments against our design being intelligent, that using the same orifice for breathing and eating, which is not the case for dolphins, can and does cause some of us to die from choking. We also use the same orifice for most of our communication. So, are eating, breathing and speaking compatible? We all do them, but if they are not separated sufficiently, they can be so incompatible as to kill us. The more polite among us may say that eating and speaking are not simultaneously compatible. This is just by way of making an initial point about compatibility clear. It is easy to see that in the “pragmatic” sense, eating, speaking and breathing must be compatible, but they do require a certain amount of juggling to keep straight, even if we no longer think of this juggling as something that had to be learned.

You may have noticed that there is no big controversy in the US about whether voting Republican and going to church are compatible, because there is a perception that going to church can help shape attitudes likely to increase the chance of voting Republican. This is despite the fact that there are surely plenty of Republican voters who don’t go to church and plenty of church-goers who vote Democrat.

So much for the easy stuff. There is ample testimony that the men who ran concentration camps during WWII were often devoted family men and fathers off-duty. Does this mean that running a concentration camp and being a good family man and father are compatible? The same people did both, they held the beliefs that made both possible simultaneously and functioned smoothly and productively in both spheres.

What is provocative here is clear. Being considered provocative means, by no means, that it is automatically invalid. I made the first point about breathing, speaking and eating merely in order to remind us that compatible can have more than one meaning. The other two examples had the purpose of showing what kind of use of the word could be either non-controversial or extremely controversial.

Chris Mooney, it seems to me, wants the word “compatible” to be accepted in its least controversial sense, even though there is no shortage of cases where religion and science conflict in ways more extreme than the conflict between one’s roles as father and concentration camp commandant.

Two further brief points for now. The quote in the link speaks of “moderate religion.” That does more than imply that not all religion is moderate and that the non-moderate form is not to be considered compatible with science. If that is the case, I would expect the person making this assertion to be able to tell us where the line between the two is located, or to put it another way, which beliefs and practices lie on either side of that line. Perhaps he has done that and someone would like put that on the table.

Lastly, the first post mentions “the caricature of the ‘New Atheist.’” It is worth recognising that this exists and being clear about which traits should be confined to it. I looked further down the comments on the link that prompted this and there were some interesting contributions from PZ Myers about when it is most appropriate to use which kind of attitude. He doesn’t reject the use of different tones in discussion with different individuals and groups and different sizes of groups, but he does remain consistent in rejecting any calls to say something is compatible if he doesn’t think it actually is. Money quotes include:

I’d rather slam the atheism down front and center and get it over with. If the other runs away crying, we weren’t going to have much of a discussion anyway. If they stay and lay out their philosophical position openly, we can argue without evasion and maybe achieve some understanding.

and

it’s true, if you smile nicely at someone, they’ll like you better than if you scowl—but it’s irrelevant. It’s great if I want to sell someone some soap. It’s not very useful at all if my goal is to show someone that they are fundamentally wrong.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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mckenzievmd - 14 July 2010 10:03 PM

We need to get through to the people who are in the clutches of extremists, such as the Pope as George mentioned, or any evangelical Christian church in this country.

But we can’t and won’t get through to these people. Certainly not by attacking their beliefs directly, and probably not even with the most sophisticated and pervasive PR campaigns. Some people are indoctrinated too deeply too early and are probably by temperment unable to see any value in a rationalist, naturalist, or secular view of life. Dawkins won’t get through to them, and probably Sagan wouldn’t either (though given a choice I’d put my money on him first).

Did you read my little story about attending an evangelical Christian seminary? True, most people in that situation would have rejected rational thinking and dug themselves further into the insanity, but my friend reached me and got me to think for myself. It happens.

Religion rejects reason in favor of myths.
Some religious believers, some variable percentage of the time. I think it’s a mistake to cast this in such stark terms. I think the majority of religious believers are far more accepting of science and Enlightenment rationalism now than they were 400 years ago (though sadly probably less than 150-200 years ago). My VERY Irish Catholic grandmother wouldn’t have dreamed of letting the priest tell her whether or not to vaccinate her kids because she saw that as the doctor’s turf, not the priest’s.

As long as the religious believers worship an invisible, uncommunicative deity, they are rejecting reason in favor of mythology. They may accept certain parts of science, but ultimately they favor mythology over evidence. That does not mean they actively oppose science, but I see little to no evidence religious people oppose the extreme elements who push Intelligent Design onto our children, at least not until their local school board makes their town a a butt of jokes.

I guess one question that arises for me when I read the responses you and George give is, If science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, what does that mean for how we “market” science and rationalism? Does the only hope for successfully promoting these lie in eliminating religion? Can people only become more pro-science and more rational by giving up religion and becoming atheists, or at least hard agnostics? If this is true, than I fear our program is doomed from the start, because I cannot imagine a world in which religion of some sort isn’t widespread. Certainly, it has always been with us, it seems to be an innate outcome of how our brains work, and it’s not showing any signs of dying out. And yet, science and reason have come so far that I hope they can continue to spread without this, in my mind, impossible future in which religion is the provence of a minority seen as out of touch with mainstream values, as atheism largely is today.

Yes, ultimately, eliminating religion is a worthy goal. It will not be easy and it will probably take centuries, but we cannot truly mature as a species until religion is marginalized. We need more than one kind of marketing campaign to push religion into the background where it belongs. Some people will respond to polite discourse, some to direct confrontation. We can use ridicule as well thoughtful essays. We are doing more than trying to convert people, we are trying to reach those who are in the middle; the young who are seeking answers, the middle age who wonder why all this bad shit happens in life, the old who reflect on life and wonder how a just and loving god could allow such pain and misery. The more we chip away at the edifice of mythology the sooner it will crumble.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Paul,

I absolutely agree that words are not rigid, static entities which can be satisfactorily defined with mathematical precision. And I think there are acceptable, common uses of the word “compatible” that would apply to the relationship between science and religion, as well as equally valid definitions that would not be met by this relationship. My point was only that if we wish to argue that the two are or are not compatible, we may want to try to be as specific as possible about what we mean because otherwise the answer is merely “it depends.” All the examples you give are of things which I think must be viewed as compatible in some sense simply because they have all coexisted. The can also be viewed as imperfectly compatible (like eating and breathing, which works fine most of the time or we’d all be dead, but which goes wrong in a small minority of cases). And some can be viewed as incompatible if your definition requires some kind of perfect internal consistency to one’s world view (SS guards who are nice to their kids).

This last example seems especially telling because it emphasizes my point that such inconsistency, even as stark as in the example, is achievable, and I would argue it is the rule, not the exception. Science and religion may be incompatible in terms of perfect internal ideological consistency, but I doubt any human being alive has or can have this.

I think Darron is getting to the core of the dispute. It seems to be between a vision of science and religion as competitors in a zero sum game in which one must triumph and the other disappear or be severly marginalized, and a picture of a gradual melting away of conflict in areas where science clearly proves its superiority by filling in the gap religion occupies in our understanding, and ultimately a more gentle and subtle marginalization of religious belief to the emotioonal, psychological, existential realm where science offers most only cold comfort.

I see it as possible, even inevitable, that science will continue to be widely respected and acknowledged as the preferred method for understanding the physical world regardless of the persistence of religion, because science works in a pragmatic, day-to-day way that everyone can see. Only the most ideologically extreme are willing to pay the price of passing on antibiotics and blood transfusions and the like in order to maintain the purity of their supernatural beliefs. The world view of these folks is incompatible with science, certainly. But there is a specturm between them and hard core philosophical naturalists with lots of vagueness and inconsistency on it, and I also see it as possible, even inevitable that there will always be supernatural beliefs that coexists with minimal conflict with science. I don’t think that we can or will eliminate supernatural beliefs unless evolution fundamentally alters our brains, but I think we can use the human facility with internal inconsistency to allow these beliefs to exist with minimal interference with science and the progress of knowledge.

Finally, there is the staretgic issue, and here I think Darron you (and PZ) and I will just have to agree to disagree. I think it is an extremely rare, outlier phenomenon when confrontation and direct contradiction win over an ideological opponent. I think it far more often alienates and polarizes. I base this primarily on what I know of the psychology of belief, from books such as Mistakes Were Made: But Not by Me (Carol Tavris), On Being Certain (Robert Burton), and many many others. I grant, the case is not beyond dispute, and NB I am not calling for any kind of censorship. But personally, I just don’t believe that vineagar catches more flies than honey. My personal “crusade” is science-based medicine and marginalizing woo and quackery, and I’ll tell you I’ve never found haranguing a client or another doctor has gotten me anywhere in terms of undermining their irrational beliefs. But gentle persistence, humility, humor, building on common gournd, and all that has generated progress. Each to his own is fine, and I’m not trying to shut down PZ or Hitchens etc, but I think it’s fair and justified to call into question the practical value of their approach.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 03:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I am now a bit confused. You did not argue that science and religion are compatible, but that we should not hurt the feelings of people who believe in religion.

What parts of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic mythic structure are compatible with science?

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Posted: 15 July 2010 03:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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mckenzievmd - 15 July 2010 11:24 AM

Paul,


But gentle persistence, humility, humor, building on common gournd, and all that has generated progress. Each to his own is fine, and I’m not trying to shut down PZ or Hitchens etc, but I think it’s fair and justified to call into question the practical value of their approach.

You consistently ignore, or perhaps misunderstand, that no one is claiming it’s effective to harangue believers in one-to-one situations (like your hypothetical doctor). No one. Why do you characterize it this way?

There is a place in any social movement, however, for mockery, ridicule, or just plain direct confrontation and challenging of an opponents’ views (note - challenging is not equal to “rude’ or “mockery”). That place is the sphere of public discourse (on some occasions). The gay rights movement did not get where it got by tea and finger sandwiches alone. And yes, we outspoken activists were subject to hand-wringing and simpering pleas to just be quiet, too. Thank goodness we didn’t.

The black civil rights movement did not get where it got only by gentle persuasion (and anyone who thinks that needs to go read MLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail).

Why can’t you acknowledge this, Mr. Mckenzie? You never do, and you act as if it isn’t true. But it is. Why can’t you understand that yes, we do need people like you who do great work gently persuading people away from woo, but that you also need us to stand up, be loud, and clear enough social space so that the diplomats can be more effective?

This is what frustrates me about the approach you (and many others) take. You refuse to credit that vinegar has a place, yet none of us outspoken people write off the effectiveness of your more diplomatic efforts. We know we need you to do what we’re not good at, but you insist that your approach, and only your approach, ever works. It starts to appear that you let your own emotional disposition, your likes and dislikes, strongly color your view to the point where you refuse to acknowledge things that you don’t like. Why?

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Posted: 15 July 2010 04:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Science is just a tool. There is nothing compatible or in compatible about it. It’s just a method of gathering information and formulating testable theories and laws. Anybody can use it.

I think the real problem is a matter of trust. People usually don’t trust what they are not familiar with. They’ll trust a priest or church leaders who they feel is looking out for their best interests. They aren’t going to trust the claims of a scientist they don’t really know.

It’s stupid, there is probably less reason to trust a priest but that is what we are stuck with. Most people are sheep and they look to leadership to tell them what’s what.

You have to think how you go about gaining people’s trust. Then either become a leader or gain the trust of the leadership.

Got to let people know that you aren’t going to do them any harm. Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, these were leaders who showed people there intent was not to cause other people harm. People watch Queer Eye on the Straight Guy and begin to realize they have nothing to fear from Gays.

Science is a tool anybody can use. Give them time to learn how to use it. To learn to trust it before you start trying to take their God away.

People live and die. They go through life doing whatever it is they do. It really doesn’t matter what they believe. They will go through life. Deal with it as best they can, at some point die. If you want to make something happen, gain their trust and they’ll listen to you.

Or really probably doesn’t matter what you do. As people are exposed to science and become familiar with how it works. They will come to trust it.

Here’s science, it’s a tool. Make use of it.

Leave it to them to figure how much or how little of their religion they can trust.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 05:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Gnostikosis - 15 July 2010 04:59 PM

Leave it to them to figure how much or how little of their religion they can trust.

That sounds like a fine platitude, until people use their religion to push idiotic ideas into our textbooks, deny classes of citizens rights everyone else enjoys, and throw people in prison for using substances the religious people disapprove. You are asking me to allow people to live their lives as they please, but living life as they please leaves them free to discriminate against large swaths of people for no better reason than their fear of a mythical entity.

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Posted: 15 July 2010 05:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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DarronS - 15 July 2010 05:06 PM

That sounds like a fine platitude, until people use their religion to push idiotic ideas into our textbooks, deny classes of citizens rights everyone else enjoys, and throw people in prison for using substances the religious people disapprove. You are asking me to allow people to live their lives as they please, but living life as they please leaves them free to discriminate against large swaths of people for no better reason than their fear of a mythical entity.

No, actually the way I look at it is to let people believe as they wish. What they believe causes me no harm. However you still have to deal with how people act. What a person believes is no excuse for doing something wrong.

People push lots of idiotic ideas into textbooks, religious and otherwise. Up to me as a parent IMO to teach my kids how to determine the truth of things for themselves.

I don’t care if they teach creationism in school. Fine with me. My job is to teach my kids to question anything they are taught until they are satisfied they have a true understanding.

I suppose I don’t even care if my kids believe in creationism. They have to make choices for themselves. I don’t think it is up to me to dictate what my kids believe. Only that they know how to question everything and they get as informed as they can before they make a decision.

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