Sunday, February 07, 2010

Keep Superstition Out of Science

There is a rather fine line between religion and superstition. I guess the biggest difference is that, whereas superstition involves a single act or a single item, religion is more organized and typically involves a set of related beliefs. But, in some cases, one person’s religion can be another person’s superstition.

Voodoo, for example, can be viewed as superstitious ritual, but not to those who practice it. It is their religion. And many non-Muslims regard some of the Islamic beliefs to be nothing more than superstition, and probably vice-versa.

The fact that fundamentalist Muslim’s believe that killing themselves and others in the name of Allah will send them to heaven where they will meet with several dozen virgins provides fodder for late-night comedians. And yet, to those who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, and to others who believe the same way, it is not a joke. They really believe it. Would they take their own lives if they didn’t believe they were going to be rewarded with virgin vagina in the afterlife?

Many people are still superstitious, even in this modern world. They refrain from walking across the path of a black cat or walking under a ladder. Of course, I wouldn’t walk under a ladder either, but not because of a superstition. Some things are just reasonable precautions. Nevertheless, even though superstitions still exist, for the most part, they have been replaced as a guiding force in most people’s lives by reason and intelligence.

And that leads me once again to ask why, in this world of reason and intelligence, do the vast majority of people still hold on to their religions? Religion is simply organized superstition.

It wouldn’t matter so much if people would just believe their silliness and leave the rest of us alone. More often what happens is that they want the rest of us to follow their religious prohibitions and prescriptions. Sometimes, they go to great lengths to force compliance by everyone else.

It even goes as high as the President of the United States, as when George W. Bush signed an executive order banning public funding for embryonic stem cell research. His only reason for the ban was on moral grounds. Doing research with embryos, even those destined to be destroyed anyway, violated his Christian morals, so he denied everyone else the benefits of such research, even those who did not subscribe to his religious compunctions.

Recently, there was a report in the news about the sale of a pink Ouija Board. The game targets young girls. Christian fundamentalists have complained to Hasbro, the maker of the game, and to places like Toys R Us that sell it, demanding that the game be pulled off shelves. They say the game is sinful because it goes against the bible’s prohibition on communicating with spirits.

So let me get this straight: Since some backward, superstitious Christians are spooked by this board game, the more reasonable folks who would like to buy one of these games for their kids and see nothing wrong with it get the shaft?

That is what’s wrong with religion. Too many of those who are religious, especially the zealots, want to control the rest of us. They want us to live by their restrictive and irrational rules. And, unfortunately, they have become a powerful force in modern America.

I just attended a conference for science teachers in Indianapolis where I sat through a session on the controversies surrounding evolution and intelligent design. Many in the audience were just curious; a few were fence sitters. But at least one was an outspoken advocate of intelligent design. He was even toting the latest book by one of the authors who claim to have scientifically dispelled evolution.

Now, I don’t have a problem with him, or anyone else, believing what they want. There are those who still believe the world is flat. I don’t even have a problem with him trying to convince others that he’s right. It is American, after all. But this man is a science teacher. And he freely admitted to teaching creationism (along with evolution) in his science classes.

Everyone would be appalled if a geography teacher were to teach his kids that the world is flat. In his own defense, he might say, “But I just want to be fair. All sides should be taught. The Flat Earth Society provided the information and it is only right that I teach their point of view too and let the kids decide what’s correct.”

This is one argument, almost exactly, that many Christians use to justify teaching creation superstition to gullible teenagers in science classes. “It’s only fair.” “Teach both sides and let the kids decide.”

The problem with that is that science is not democratic. Scientists do not vote on what theories to support this year. Theories grow out of evidence. There is no evidence for creation or intelligent design. So even if, one day, evolution were falsified, scientists would have to go in search of a replacement theory. Intelligent design still would not win by default.

The speaker at the conference session, who tried to stay neutral, said that science is defined by the philosopher. That might be true, but the definition is based on what scientists actually do, not what the philosopher thinks they should do. Science tries to find natural answers to problems in nature. If you allow the supernatural in, you are no longer doing science.

The only way that creationism or intelligent design can be taught in the science classroom in public schools is to redefine science. And that is exactly what the ID crowd is trying to do, by their own admission.

If they succeed, not only will there be a fine line between superstition and religion, there will be a fine line between superstition and science.

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