Written by Jinwan Cho
In most modern societies, religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Religious freedom grants members of society the right to choose and pursue any form of religion without being subject to social condemnation or discrimination. Unfortunately, many have taken advantage of the right as justification for discrimination, notably Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis refusing to issue marriage licenses for gay couples, or as even criminal defenses for neglecting medical care to a sick child. The abuse extends even further to outright violations of others religious freedom - from rampant Islamophobia to unsubstantiated religious profiling. Nonetheless, most recognized it as an essential element of a just society, one in which individual thought and expression are not persecuted, and I too believe that the value of religious freedom to society undoubtedly outweigh the damage caused by those exploiting it. However, I fear religious freedom brews a far more dangerous issue – a growing contempt of facts, evidence, and science.
My concern traces back to a Facebook post sharing an article about a new fossil discovery that would help mend gaps in our evolutionary fossil records. While most comments on this article were fairly harmless, there were a couple religious fanatics who ranted about how the Bible clearly states that God created all forms of life, thereby invalidating the theory of evolution. On one particularly controversial comment of this nature, I noticed several dozen replies that consisted of back-and-forths between mainly two groups. One fraction in support of evolution and one against were debating as if they were engaged is some grand, scientific discussion. Reading through the comments, I found that one of the most common arguments made by creationism proponents was that evolution was just a “theory,” just like the “theory of creation,” and they were entitled to choose which one to believe.
I was simply aghast at the pure ignorance oozing from those words - I shiver even now as I write this article thinking about it. The “theory” in “theory of evolution” refers to the scientific use of the word Encyclopedia Britannica defines as “a systematic ideational structure of broad scope, conceived by the human imagination, that encompasses a family of empirical laws regarding regularities existing in objects and events, both observed and posited,” whereas that in “theory of creation” is simply a synonym for idea or thought. A scientific theory is an explanation for natural phenomena or observations that are supported by immense, replicable data obtained using the scientific method, meaning that it is orders of magnitude more accurate and precise compared to the colloquial theory. Conversely, a general theory can be any preposterous thought that pops into someone’s head without regard for any empirical evidence, and therefore creationism falls under this category because a book written by men without any quantifiable observation process does not qualify as evidence. To even engage in a discussion about which “theory” should be accepted is ridiculous. The entire reply section could, and honestly should, have been reduced to a single comment explaining this fundamental difference between a theory and scientific theory, rendering any further arguments mute.
Despite my outrage, I tried calming myself by saying that perhaps these people never knew better, perhaps they never learned about the disparate use of the term “theory” in science. But that excuse only deepened my irritation because that meant that they were promoting creationism to the same evidentiary level as the theory of evolution without even understanding this fundamental difference in terminology. By extension, they most likely did so while clueless about the meticulously gathered evidence that corroborates the theory of evolution, one of the most fundamental scientific theories in biology. Alternatively, they could have mistaken the shoddy science-like claims in support of creation, which are all misappropriated data taken out of context or analyzed without the proper scientific procedure, for true science, but that option does not fare much better.
Perhaps I have spoken too vehemently against solely creationism, but I am equally taken aback by those who reject climate change because “man is not powerful enough to influence Earth, employing some distorted version of humility in the face of God, or refuse to consider evidence of both environmental and genetic determination of gender and sexuality because “God created two sexes.” In any case, my outrage stemmed not from their ignorance of the science, but rather the elevation of religion to equal intellectual footing as proper science. Granted, science, by its very nature, is not a pathway to absolute “truths.” Rather, it is the most profoundly precise and careful method at our disposal to produce analyses as close to these “truths” as possible and, most crucially, using the scientific method to generate replicable and quantifiable evidence to support them while continually questioning our assumptions, always searching for even improved theories and evidence. Religion occupies a truly unique position in human history and in the human psyche, but this core focus on the systematic gathering of evidence and constant doubting that distinguishes science from religion, which is a completely different intellectual enterprise that in no way approaches actual “truths” in the way that science does. I am not attempting to devalue religion on its own by any means, but rather point out that they are two completely different disciplines with disparate functions. Thus, to use either one to generate competing explanations for the same physical phenomena is to ignore this fundamental basis of both science and religion.
But to be completely frank, my indignation is purely personal in the sense that freedom of religion unequivocally grants individuals the right to believe in whatever they want, whether it be about creationism, climate change, or sexuality. Furthermore, people certainly have the right to consider religious analysis of how the world works on the same intellectual hierarchy as scientific analyses, for we cannot in any way restrict how people think, no matter how lacking of empirical evidence. I nonetheless voice my concern because today, the questions that have baffled our ancestors for millennia – the creation of our species, the mysteries of extraterrestrial life, the even origins of our universe – are truly within our grasps. Given the extent of progress we’ve made toward finding these answers, it is sad to see our ignorance of the difference between science and religion blind anyone from them.
As University of Manchester Professor of Particle Physics Brian Cox recently quipped, “[One’s] opinion is irrelevant in the face of nature.” The gears of nature turn regardless of our beliefs, and science provides the most accurate and precise lens through which we can observe and describe of our world’s inner workings without human bias. I simply hope that we can all reap the benefits of this growing bank of knowledge without compromising them with opinions – that would be the true sacrilege.