Religion wrong, science right

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”  – Bertrand Russell.

Bertrand RussellAn article on the BBC website here reminded me of an encounter I had with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses many years ago. It began with the usual knock on the door just as we were about to have lunch (I don’t know how these buggers manage to do it; every time I’m about to eat – knock, knock, knock. It gets pretty annoying).

Anyway, there they were – two well-meaning souls who were there, they said, to give me “the good news.” Cobblers. Good news would be something like, “We know we’re a pain in the arse, so we’ve decided never to knock on your door again.”

This particular encounter sticks in my memory, however, because I did take some time to chat to them (we must have been having a salad that day, I guess, so I can’t have been worried about a hot lunch that would go cold). And most memorably, there was a claim they made on the basis of “revealed knowledge” now proven to be utter nonsense.

For some reason, the conversation had turned to the existence of life itself. You won’t be surprised to know that the JW standpoint is that of creationism, and a complete denial of evolution. Even though these people seem to accept that some form of micro evolution goes on – dogs, for instance, can breed different varieties but they’re still dogs – they deny the reality of evolution itself. Not for them the boring and irrelevant stuff like masses of scientific evidence, including converging evidence from various scientific disciplines like genetics, geology, palaeontology, cosmology, etc. For them, if the Bible says something it must be true, and if it is not in the Bible, it must be false.

When I stated my contention that there is very likely to be life elsewhere in the universe – indeed the likelihood that life might well be ubiquitous, I was met with the sort of condescending smugness that only a religious fundamentalist can muster. “In fact,” I was informed, “there is no life anywhere else in the universe; the only place it exists is here on Earth.”

It goes without saying, of course, that the basis for that claim is in the Bible itself – not because the Bible asserts that this is the only inhabited planet, but that the Bible does not say specifically that there is life anywhere else. If the Bible doesn’t say it, then it ain’t true. Full stop. And that means, literally, a full stop to all further inquiry. Which sort of explains why religion and science can never be compatible, I think.

But the logic of the believer can be quite remarkable; never quite coinciding with real logic, their argument went like this:

“Scientists/astronomers have failed to find planets around any stars they have looked at. Therefore, there are no planets anywhere else in the universe. Ergo, there is also no life anywhere else in the universe.”

That seems like bad thinking to me. My own argument went like this:

The laws of physics apply all over the universe. Therefore it is likely that the same laws of physics allow for the formation of planets around stars, and ultimately the high likelihood that there is life elsewhere, including intelligent life. I also suggested that as science and technology advanced we would see the development of ever more sophisticated telescopes and instrumentation that would discover other planets and eventually other civilisations.

Unlike the JW’s (and all other religious fundies), I was not claiming certainty, but it was rather satisfying a few months later when the discovery and confirmation of the first extra-solar planet was announced.

Obviously, we do not, yet, have confirmation that there is life (sentient or otherwise) anywhere else. But that prospect is very real. From my speculation that life elsewhere is possible due to what we know about the physical universe, it does not, of course, follow that life must exist in other parts of the cosmos. However, the discovery of what is being called a “water world” surely increases the probability that we are not alone. Although this new planet appears to be far too hot to allow for life as we know it, the fact that water exists on another world is promising news that makes it more and more likely that the discovery of life on other planets is a realistic hope. More information can be found at Phil Plait’s blog.

I think it’s quite sad (as well as annoying) that those who know the least about science (and logic) should be the most vocal in its condemnation. We live in very exciting times, and knowledge is increasing at a phenomenal rate thanks to science, but despite the determination of the religious to take us back to the middle ages. In the face of so much wilful ignorance, the struggle to maintain the values of the Enlightenment is going to go on for a long time yet.

I sort of wish that those two JWs who interrupted my lunch that day would turn up again, though, just so I could ask them one question: “Well?”

The danger of relying on religion as a means of “knowing” should be quite clear. When you open a Bible, you have to close your mind.

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