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Bertrand Russell on Science & Religion

Should Evidence or Force Decide Disagreements? By Austin Cline, About.com Guide


Do science and religion conflict? There has been a lot of debate over that question and many feel that the two are quite compatible. There are, however, some very important differences in terms of how the two approach the world that would seem to cause them to be perpetually at odds. When two men of science disagree, they do not invoke the secular arm; they wait for further evidence to decide the issue, because, as men of science, they know that neither is infallible. But when two theologians differ, since there is no criteria to which either can appeal, there is nothing for it but mutual hatred and an open or covert appeal to force. Bertrand Russell, Can Religion Cure our Troubles, 1954. One thing commonly promoted as a strong point of science is the concept of "falsifiability." A genuinely scientific theory is supposed to be "falsifiable," which means that there exists some theoretical state of affairs which would "falsify" the theory in other words, would prove the theory wrong. So long as that state of affairs doesn't exist, and especially when we take great pains to try and find it, then we can have some confidence that the theory is probably true. If we do find it, then we should discard the theory. Because of this, disagreements between scientists can best be settled by evidence either current evidence or new evidence that is sought out. At some point, it should be possible to find evidence that counts against one side or the other, thus moving the debate along and perhaps settling the disagreement. As more evidence accumulates, the clearer the case for one side or the other should become. Not everything is falsifiable, which means that not all ideas can be settled by simply relying on the accumulation of evidence. If there is an absence of objective criteria for judging the truth of falsehood of the idea, how are disagreements settled? Those involved might not settle things at all and simply agree to disagree if there isn't much at stake or the people can go their separate ways. Historians, for example, can disagree on the

causes of the fall of the Roman Empire without coming to blows and without anyone being kicked off of a college's faculty. Very often, though, there is nothing left but the use of force. This force might be employed through a democratic vote or autocratic repression, but either way one side "loses" not because of objective evidence and logic but, rather, because someone else uses social and political power. This is certainly true when it comes to religion. There is no evidence that can prove the existence of one god, a triune god, or many gods. There is no evidence that can prove that Christianity is the True Religion or that Islam is. These are not falsifiable theories. Thus, adherents to these beliefs must be willing to agree to disagree or they must use force against those who dare to disagree. We should not, however, imagine that this is a problem unique to religion it also exists in other spheres of human life. Politics usually involves issues that can't be settled simply by appealing to evidence and must therefore be settled by some form of force. The morality of abortion is not falsifiable. The value of the separation of church and state is not falsifiable. However a society decided to go on such issues, force must be used to ensure it happens. Is that, therefore, a bad thing? If it's not bad to vote on whether to it's OK for abortion to be legal, what's wrong with theologians voting on whether God is triune and kicking out of their group anyone who isn't willing to go along with the results? The fact that some things aren't falsifiable and can't be settled simply by an appeal to the evidence doesn't make them bad and it doesn't make them "worse" than science. If it were Russell's point to say that religion is inferior to science because of this, then I think that he was mistaken. However, his observation does help us to understand just where in the grand scheme of things religion really does belong. It doesn't belong with the sciences and it doesn't belong with mathematics. Religion doesn't address issues which can be settled by evidence and logic; when theologians pretend otherwise, they are making a grave error that only ends up hurting religion. Instead, religion belongs with things like politics and the humanities. If religionists and theologians can disagree amicably, then they'll be like historians and other humanities scholars. If they can't play nice, they'll end up like politicians and political activists. Whatever they case, they won't be scientists.