Tuesday, June 13, 2006

My belief and my faith
One of the common rhetorical tactics for intelligent design supporters and other creationists is to claim that belief in evolution or science in general is just another religion. The intelligent design apologist William Dembski favorably cites such an argument, by Edward Sisson of Touchstone magazine, this week.
A fundamental problem with the Appellate decision [on the Cobb County disclaimer case] is that it appears to accept an implicit assumption that "those who endorse evolution" do so because they have made a rational, independent evaluation of the scientific data offered as evidence for its truth. But if, in fact, they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as simply another religious position, rather than being a position divorced from religion. This may affect the application of the constitutional test, if it appears that the plaintiffs are in effect trying to support their own religious views by suppressing the Sticker.

I find it very odd that the people who are trying to get more religion into our lives pursue their goal by constantly diminishing the significance of religion. This is obvious in the god of the gaps argument that is the foundation of intelligent design. God of the gaps argues that God must be responsible for those things science can't explain, but, as science explains more things, their God diminishes and runs the risk of being completely explained away some day. It's a very shallow and impoverished theology.

The argument put forth above has the same cheapening affect on religion. In effect, Sisson is saying that any "belief" constitutes a religion and must be treated as an equal to Sisson's Christianity. Rather than holding up his own religion as something unique and special, Sisson says that it's no better than anyone else's silly belief. The scientists believe in evolution; that's a religion. The Raelians believe in flying saucers; that's a religion, too. I believe in taking a nap after work; that must be my religion.

This argument is often stated as an issue of the equality of faith. The Christian religion is often defined as being based on pure faith, belief without proof. A little bit of proof, like a miracle or a short chat with God, might be nice, but it's not required and the vast number of believers will never have that proof. At best, they must have faith that someone else in another time, had proof. Instances of proof are unique and not reproducible, but Christian believers have faith that what their authoritative writings tell them are true.

Science is a method testing certain beliefs to prove them beyond reasonable level of doubt. For a proof to be accepted as valid in science, it must be reproducible and available to all. Sisson argues that most of us never perform the acts of scientific proof and that the believers of science are also depending on their faith in the truthfulness of their authorities: "they endorse evolution because they have chosen to give unquestioning deference to science experts, it may be appropriate to treat their position as simply another religious position." The first part is true, but the second part is not. Scientific faith is not the same as religious faith.

Religious faith is not merely belief without proof, it is belief without the possibility of proof. Scientific faith by a lay person might be no more than belief without proof, but the possibility of proof is always there. I haven't performed every experiment to prove every scientific theory I believe, but I've performed enough of them to have faith in the scientific method. If someone will get me that giant linear accelerator that I want for my birthday, I can prove the Copenhagen model to my satisfaction.

A better for word for scientific faith is "trust"; I trust scientific authorities. I know that they are human and subject to all that that entails. Science is subject to mistakes and fraud, but the requirement that proof be reproducible means that mistakes and fraud will be exposed and corrected over time. Religion doesn't have a self-correcting mechanism. The religious must depend on blind faith in the infallibility and honesty of their authorities.

Ed Brayton points out another unintended consequence of Sisson's argument.

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