A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

The Engine and the Bushfire

I found this video on You Tube, which was created by John F. Weldon. I think it makes a very good point, that while there are disputes within science just as there are disputes within and between religions, they manifest themselves in very different ways.

Disputes within science are professional, not personal. They are conducted through one medium only, words. Those words may be strong, passionate, even emotional, but they simply make use of the free speech to which we all have an inalienable right. No blood is spilt, nobody fights, nobody kills, nobody gets hurt and nobody dies.

Disputes within science are also descriptive as opposed to prescriptive, that is, they are disputes about the way things are, not the way they should be. Nobody tries to force anyone to do anything. All parties involved in the dispute have the same goal in mind – the truth.

These points relate to the manner in which the dispute occurs, but there is another, more important difference between religious and scientific disputes: scientific disputes get resolved! It may take years, or even decades, but invariably agreement is reached. The simple reason for this, is that scientists use a properly formulated system to work with evidence and testable claims. Each time a scientist makes a statement about which a dispute can occur, experiments can be carried out to see who is right. It is not always as simple as the example in the video, which is why it can take a long time, but ultimately, through repeated testing and carefully examining and analysing all of the evidence, science inevitably finds the answers and comes to agree upon – what is then referred to as – scientific knowledge.

There are of course disputes going on within and between various branches of science at all times. However, if the future plays out as the past has done before it, the next generations of scientists will thank us for the hard work we put in to resolving them, and laying the ground work for whatever disputes they are having at the time. They will realise, as we do, that science is a self correcting process, and it is through dispute, and a collective effort to resolve those disputes, that science makes progress. A healthy competitive spirit and work ethic within the scientific community, combined with principles like peer reviewed journals, mean that any new theory has to run a gauntlet of criticism in order to be accepted.

Meanwhile, the next generations of religious fanatics will be fighting, killing and dying over exactly the same disputes that their ancestors were fighting, killing and dying for thousands of years ago.

What religious people don’t seem to understand, is that dispute is not a bad thing in itself. It is the nature of the disputes, and how they are handled that matter. The dispute is simply a means to an end. We might thing of it as a form of fuel, one that works in a very different way for religion from the way it works for science.

Religion is like a bushfire that is burning out of control. A raging inferno that has ravished all woodland and moved into the cities, its poisonous smoke and fumes pollute the atmosphere, choking the life out of the natural world. It devours everything that stands in its way, leaving destruction, destitution and despair in its wake. Everything that religious people do to try to fight it just makes it worse, because their disputes are the fuel for the fire. The fire gets worse because each religion shows no flexibility when trying to reconcile disputes with each other, constantly referring back to their holy books which, unlike their followers, are forever frozen in time. And as they argue, children burn in their beds. Each religion agrees upon the method to extinguish the fire: get everyone to follow the same religion. As long as it is their own. “Just join our religion and all this can end”, each one says to the others. But this will never happen, because each one is convinced that they have God on their side. And they will never reach a compromise, because there is no road that they can all walk together towards reconciliation. There is no evidence to work with, and even if there were, there would be no method with which to analyse it. They have no system – it is simply one word against another. The more they disagree, the fiercer the fire burns, and the more fervently they blame it on each other.

In contrast to the fire of religion, science is like an engine. It is the engine that powers the progression of civilisation and mankind. Running silently, it is a highly efficient, environmentally friendly engine, emitting no harmful gases or pollution of any kind. It is fitted with filters to prevent personal bias, incompetence and fraud from infecting its output. Dispute is its fuel. Disputes within science happen when we don’t know the answers. This state can be referred to, in a non-pejorative sense, as ignorance. Unlike religion, however, science does not accept that state of ignorance, but labours intensively to purge it. The engine of science takes ignorance and turns it into knowledge. This is what scientists use to resolve their disputes. They put them into the science engine, along with all the available evidence, and see what comes out. All parties involved know how efficient and consistent the machine is, and they have the flexibility to accept being wrong.

Ultimately, when religion fires back at science that we have disputes too, it is arguing against a straw man. It is not disputes in religion that bother us. It is the trivial, frivolous nature of the disputes, the grossly disproportionate pain and suffering they cause, the complete impotence to resolve them and the consequences of perpetuating them through the indoctrination of children. They claim to fight for a noble cause, but there is nothing noble about it – it is shameful to commit and allow atrocities in the name of God. There is no need for compromise here. Science is the only one fighting for a noble cause, but with our minds, not weapons. We strive day in and day out to better ourselves and each other, to increase the quality and length of life for all humans, and to deepen our understanding of the universe in which we reside. It is the engine of science that will continue to propel humanity forward, as stagnant holy water fails to quench the thirst of the relentless religious bushfire.

17 Responses to “The Engine and the Bushfire”

  1. Have to say this is one of the best articles I’ve read on your blog. Very good. It sums up succintly the real difference between religion and science, and should put heed to those theists who go on about ‘You’re just worshipping science; I worship God’.

  2. I can only applaud you for this Tobe, so I will.


  3. If there’s a better article than this illustrating the difference between science and religion on the net, I haven’t seen it!

  4. Talk about category errors. What disagreements in science? There are no disagreements! Everything is in discussion until the theory is accepted. That’s called method. This is a completely different category from “religious” discussion.

    This would be closer to the point. Where does a person’s “science” take them, when applied to life issues – those issues that dictate how to live your life? Well, let’s look at one.

    Science has led today’s top science / philosopher to state that it is better to molest a child that to take him to Sunday School. (now that should start a fight in the science community if one of our’s has reached that conclusion.)

    Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion – Page 317
    “Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing up a child Catholic in the first place.”

    He also likened child abuse to just being “an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience…” page 316

    Now those are “fighting words!”

  5. @ Geno,

    There are disputes within science all the time. For example, there are disagreements within the subject of evolution over whether or not there have been periods of “accelerated” evolution, in between periods of much less activity.

    Dawkins’ comments have nothing to do with this post. Consider yourself publicly and officially warned. Stick to the subject of the post, which is scientific disputes versus religious disputes. If not, I will delete your comments, and if you persist, I will ban you from commenting all together. If you want to discuss Dawkins’ comments, go and sign up at IIDB and start a thread (link on the sidebar, as I told you last time).

    To all other readers: please do not give Geno the satisfaction of responding to his comments about Dawkins.

  6. tobe,

    You outdid yourself this time. One of your best posts. Great writing and analogies. I’m reminded slightly of lyrics from Rush “Cut to the Chase” about fires and engines. Of course they are talking all about science and human drives:


  7. Thanks to XanderG, Nullifidian, Evanescent and Blacksun for your kind words 🙂

    @ Blacksun

    I’m not familiar with that song, but there are certainly similarities, particularly in the first two verses. I felt that the analogy was really a two fold one anyway, with the engine having connotations of science, and the bushfire, well, it’s almost impossible not to think of the burning bush (I think, anyway).

  8. And yet, and yet…. We had geologists who did their damndest to ruin the careers of folks who were deluded enough to believe in Pangea and continental drift. Hooke had a positive vendetta against Newton. And we have Max Planck’s famous quote: “The way new theories get accepted in physics is that the people who believe in the old theories eventually die.”

    I don’t think science as a methodology or as a frame is an infallible GPS system that’s guaranteed to find the bypass around human orneryness and bloodymindedness.

    The thing that keeps most scientists well behaved is the possibility of eventually finding the right answer. Which means scientists must constantly keep in mind the possibility that they might be wrong.

  9. @ Rev. Bob

    And yet, and yet…. We had geologists who did their damndest to ruin the careers of folks who were deluded enough to believe in Pangea and continental drift. Hooke had a positive vendetta against Newton. And we have Max Planck’s famous quote: “The way new theories get accepted in physics is that the people who believe in the old theories eventually die.”

    Without looking into the examples you cite, all I can say is that my arguments still apply to the majority in both cases (science and religion). There will always be exceptions, but that is exactly what they are – exceptions, not the norm.

    I don’t think science as a methodology or as a frame is an infallible GPS system that’s guaranteed to find the bypass around human orneryness and bloodymindedness.

    I agree that it’s not infallible. It is, however, far and away the best chance we’ve got of accounting for human fallibility.

    The thing that keeps most scientists well behaved is the possibility of eventually finding the right answer. Which means scientists must constantly keep in mind the possibility that they might be wrong.

    You’re quite right, and they do.

  10. An excellent piece. I’d suggest you and your readers check out the book, SCIENCE AND THE GOALS OF MAN by Anatol Rapoport for a more lengthy discussion of the points you make here — it’s not, I believe, currently in print, but is available through the on-line library Questia.com.

    As to Rev. Bob’s comment, I’d agree with part of it, that scientists must, and do, keep in mind that ‘they might be wrong.’ But I have to argue with his statement that scientists hope to ‘eventually find the right answer.’ ‘RIGHT answers’ are what religion looks for. Scientists merely look for the ‘answer that best fits the evidence we currently have,’ knowing that there will always be new evidence discovered that will cause us to rethink those answers, refine them, and, if necessary, change them. RIGHT answers are ‘absolutes,’ which are not the province of science — if they exist at all, which I doubt. And not trying to find them is one of the more important reasons why science has been so successful, and religion has failed so consistently.

  11. Still, scientists have egos, and sometimes and “who got it right” or “what is correct” sometimes becomes more close to a religous discssion than the scientific one cited. Eventually the dust settles (and or someone dies) and the the truth is clarifled, and we all will say that shouldn’t really happen … but it does.

    However, certainly in the long run, your points stand.

  12. Good article, although I kinda agree with some of the replies here. You should have given a bit more attention to the issue that, since it is the work of fallible humans, science does occasionally exhibit moves that don’t match with its presumed superior methodology. Of course it’s bound to get out of those pitfalls eventually, but it doesn’t make it completely immune all of the time.

    Just a matter of not leaving ammo for the opposition 🙂

  13. @ Don Kane and JoH,

    Thank you for your kind words of praise, and your criticism. If you think I’m claiming that science is a perfect system or that scientists are not human beings with egos and prone to error, then I’ve not done a good enough job getting my point across.

    I fully acknowledget that scientists, being human beings, can be arrogant and obnoxious like anyone else, and that they can make mistakes and errors of judgement. But, as I said in my response to Reb. Bob, the scientific method is the best system we have for eliminating, or at least keeping to a minimum, those human fallibilities from our findings. That doesn’t make it perfect, but it does make it a superior methodology.

  14. I really like the way you put this out there. There is a huge difference in the way religion and science battle. Science is open to change where religion is either “their way or the highway” and one must go find a different religion. I wrote a little bit about this on my site the other day and students of science should really understand what it means to be a naturalist while investigating scientific claims. This is important!!

  15. What a great article. I can see where the usual arguments are coming from, but let’s face it, both religion and science are practiced by normal people. Some people are greedy and selfish and territorial and self-destructive. That has nothing to do with the topic, here, it is just the fallibility of mind/ego/soul/whatchawannacallit.

    As far as your explanation and comments go, they are brilliant. I am glad I stopped by.


  16. @ KimBoo York

    Thank you for your kind words 🙂 I’m glad you stopped by too. At the risk of sounding like a shopkeeper, please come again!

  17. Prup, I really do think scientists strive for a “right” answer, but in a highly limited sense: they look for an answer that says, “we don’t have to worry about this any more for a while”; an answer that draws more support than any of the warring factions in a debate. Perhaps it might be best to call it a “non-wrong” answer, and remember to remind ourselves that such distinctions are seldom permanent.

    Is that better?

    After all, a major point of the movie, as I took it, is that scientific debates eventually end. And one reason they end is that some of the ideas eventually turn out to be wrong. Which scientists, if they have any sense at all, had better keep in mind.

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