Thursday, April 19, 2007
Is Science More Ethical than Religion?

One of my new atheist friends, Dan Harlow, has an excellent post over at his blog which raises the question of whether science has really acted any more ethically than religion when it comes to the great (and small) atrocities of history. You should go read it. It is one of the most fair and balanced treatments of this question I have seen from either an atheist or a theist (both of whom usually tend to just focus on the evidence that vilifies the other side while making their side look good).

The issue here is really that science, while great at what it does, is not equipped to answer moral and ethical questions. As Dan points out, science is primarily about making observations about the world - not about telling us what is good and evil. Science can tell us what we can do, it can't tell us what we should do. This is the realm of philosophy & religion. While there have been some who want to claim that science can provide a basis for morality, too often this turns into using science to justify our own prior moral assumptions - as when the Nazis used Darwinism to support their ideologies of racial superiority. Or else it becomes merely an exercise describing how our moralities may have arisen through evolutionary processes - but still without giving us a compelling "ought". Describing how our morality has arisen from genetics or the social dynamics of primate groups, while interesting, still doesn't provide an answer to those universal human questions "What is good and what is right? What ought I to do?"

The bottom line, IMHO, is that neither religion nor science should necessarily be held up as the villains, or held to blame for all the atrocities committed in their names. The villain is simply our own selfish and violent human nature, which tends to get expressed no matter what context it's in or which overarching ideology it identifies with. Some of the most beautiful religious ideals, and the most noble scientific endeavors have been warped and perverted by humanity's seemingly unquenchable will-to-power.

Science is but a tool that can be used for good or for evil. What concerns me is not so much the kind of discoveries science will make, as whether we are ethically mature enough as a race to know how we ought to use them. I agree with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men"

Lord, save us from ourselves.


posted by Mike Clawson at 4:57 PM | Permalink |


At 4/19/2007 08:06:00 PM, Anonymous Arni

I totally agree. It's so easy to slip into the blame game, where science does all kinds of evil and any evil committed by religion isn't actually committed by *real* religion.. No real Christian would ever do anything like that! While in some ways it's true, proper Christians are unlikely to kill people (or so they should be!) and science has invented the weapons proper Christians don't use, blaming each other doesn't get us anywhere. Let's be nice to each other and prove one another wrong, whether we are nice religious people or nice non-religious people.


At 4/20/2007 02:16:00 AM, Blogger Richard Wade

I see the parallel between the lofty core teachings of religions vs. their sometimes unfortunate application, and the discipline of thinking that is science vs. its sometimes unfortunate application. In their own ways religion and science influence and persuade huge numbers of people, and so lend great power to those wielding them. Both can be and have been used for great good and great evil. The ethical/moral responsibility lies in the hands of those who actually apply their power to society, for good or ill. Research scientists do not operate in a moral vacuum, and very few act as if they do. They often stop to consider the implications of their research and often come into conflict with those who would use it ruthlessly.

All the incidents of ruthless application of science that Dan described in his article have a background of desperate times filled with life or death struggles or fear of imminent destruction. Such desperation is not an excuse, but part of an explanation. It is part of the context in which the actions must be seen and judged.

We must always try to see the context in which we are making our decisions. It is not easy to do, like seeing the forest for the trees. Does a wave of fear sparked by a terrorist attack sweep us into a war based on lies and rumors? Does a sense of losing ground to science cause people of faith to react against technology that could save lives? Does anger at religious manipulation in government cause non-believers to condemn all religious people and activities?

Of late we are in threatening times, but are being encouraged to believe we are in truly desperate times. The danger for reactionary folly and for ruthlessness is high. We must all stop to take deep breaths and question our eagerness to villainize others. Neither religion nor science is the villain. Only a few villainous individuals who would use our fear for their own power and profit are the villains. They come dressed in many guises. A very few in black robes, a very few in white lab coats, and most in charcoal grey suits.


At 4/20/2007 12:18:00 PM, Blogger M James

"The issue here is really that science, while great at what it does, is not equipped to answer moral and ethical questions."

Science can explain to us things that are apparent to everybody. No matter where you are in the world, if you drop a rock from your hand, it's going to fall to the ground. Science can tell us why.

"Ethics" and "morals" are words that humans have created to explain positive traits that we value as a society. They are not the same around the world, nor even for every person. I would argue that they are not even tangible.

I think what we consider moral or ethical are not something we need "told" to us, as in, how we "ought" to act. They are decided by what's beneficial to us as a society and as a species.

We shouldn't kill each other not because a god told us not to, but rather because it's beneficial for our society that we respect each other. By doing this, we all prosper.

For example: a group of people live together in Africa. They take care of each other, look out for the children, care and help out the elderly and disabled. When one member of the group doesn't have any food, the rest will all chip in to make sure that he is well fed and taken care of. They take care of each other because it benefits their society.

In America, we don't take care of our elderly, we don't take care of our poor.

Wouldn't you say the group in Africa is more moral?

But the group in Africa happens to be a group of Gorillas. Did they get those morals from God? Or is there something deeper at play here? Or maybe, in fact, it's a lot simpler.

If theology and philosophy can answer these question, I would ask, how?

Both theology and philosophy come from men - but one group claims that they are inspired by something greater than themselves.

It seems very circular to me: we ask questions that seem very important to us. We then make up the answers for our own questions.

Why even ask the questions in the first place?


At 4/23/2007 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Richard,

Good points. I think you're absolutely right that we have to understand the context for why people do the evil things they do. I can't claim to know what it's like to be in extreme poverty, or in the midst of violent conflict, or whatever, so I can't judge from my position as a (relatively) well off middle-class American whether I too might not commit atrocities if I were forced into those situations.

I think historically too it's important to remember that religion isn't always the primary culprit for why atrocities occur. Very often it's simply an excuse to hide more basic motives. For instance I'm a student of medieval European history, and while the Crusades are definitely a black mark on the history of Christianity, it would be inaccurate to imply that they were just about religion. There were many factors that led to the Crusades: 1) economic greed - Europeans were still barbarians compared to the civilized wealth of the Holy Lands; 2) self-defense/retaliation - the Muslims had themselves taken the Holy Lands away from Christians not long before, and were still conquering Christian lands in Spain, Turkey and the Balkans at the time; 3) socio-political - Europeans had to find some other outlet for the violence of their warrior class left over from the post-Roman Dark Ages. Pope Urban very likely declared the first crusade in part just to give the young European nobles someone else to fight besides each other.

Anyhow, it's always more complicated than it appears on the surface. As you say, more often than not the blame lies with gray-suited politicians and businessmen as much as it does with scientists or clergy.


At 4/23/2007 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Michael,

I suppose we ask the questions because they're important questions, and because the answers are not always obvious. As you pointed out, the answers often differ between cultures, or even between individuals. And so we wrestle with questions of value and purpose and beauty and love and justice because they're what we care most about as human beings. Science is great for collecting trivia about the natural world, and for creating neat toys that we can use to manipulate that world, but the questions of ethics (and more importantly, teleology, upon which ethics, IMO, is based) are where we really live our lives. It's what we care about most as human beings.

Ethical discussion may lack the tangible certainty of the natural sciences (though when you get into modern physics it's hard to say that the sciences have much tangible certainty anymore either), but I don't think that makes our ethical discourse less important. In fact, it may be more important, for how else are we to figure out how to live unless we hash it out together in conversation with each other, and with the great sages of the past?

And I agree that ethics are based on way more than just "because God said so". That's what theological and philosophical reflection is all about actually - about wrestling with the "what" and the "why" of the rules we have set up for ourselves (or that God has set up, depending on your perspective). In a way you can view the teachings of Jesus as a commentary on the why of our ethical rules (he says they're all based on love).

The fact that we can come up with multiple answers to ethical questions, doesn't, IMHO, make asking the questions meaningless - the whole point of the questions is because there can be multiple right answers depending on the context and thus we require our collective wisdom to help us figure out what is best. Of course, as you point out, we often get it wrong too. (which again, makes the conversation all the more important).



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