Calling 911

Calling 911

Calling 911

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 11 2009 10:59 AM

Calling 911

On this day, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, it's common for people to look back at what they were doing at that time, how they were involved, what they were thinking. It's human nature to look back on big anniversaries, both happy and otherwise, and recollect.

It's also natural to seek meaning in such acts, try to make sense of them, fit them into our view of how the world works and how it should work. Sometimes the pieces fit. Sometimes they don't.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Today I saw once again a picture that's been floating around the web for a few years now. It shows the Twin Towers, and the caption reads, "Science flies people to the Moon. Religion flies people into buildings." It's an interesting quotation. It'll guarantee enraging religious folks, while self-satisfying people who are antireligious.

But is it accurate? After all, it was science that created the airplanes, science that built those buildings, science that developed the technology to bring the two together at high velocity. You might then say yes, but religion was the pilot; it was the fundamentalist jihadic brand of Islam that guided those men to do what they did.

And I say, yes. Exactly. In this case, both science and religion were tools, used for nefarious ends.

Defining science can be difficult. It's a method, a way of looking at things. It's a compendium of facts, knowledge, data. It's a tool, used to investigate the world and to make sure we don't let our biases, egos, and wishes get in the way of finding what's real. Science (and skepticism) boil off the dross and leave the pure nugget of reality.

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Religion, to those who are religious, is similar in that they believe it is a way of making sense of the world. It is of course entirely different than science in its methodology, but it holds no less thrall over the way people see reality. To someone who is very religious, there is no other way to perceive life.

In that sense, religion and science are different because to a scientist science is a tool used to help understand the world, but to the religious religion is the way to see the world.

However, religion can be a tool as well. It was used to brainwash 19 young men, to convince them to do something that countless generations of evolution have almost completely bred out of our systems: commit suicide. With fantasies of an afterlife and admonitions of the greater good, those men flew multiton jets into buildings, and changed our lives forever.

But it's not hard to imagine things being a little different. Had those men not been subjected to that fringe religion, had they instead grown up in a more open environment, exposed to things like diversity, open-mindedness to other people's ways of life, and the realization that they may be wrong and that all knowledge is tentative... we might not be spending this day in remembrance.

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Still. They were immersed in their beliefs, told what to think, how to think. In this case, religion was a tool for abuse.

It's not difficult to create a list of both good and bad things both science and religion have brought us. Such lists have been debated and used as bludgeons for years, so I won't belabor them here. The point is, as tools, science and religion are neither good nor evil. They can be used either way.

Note that I am not saying any particular religion is right, or even that any of them accurately portrays the Universe for what it is -- it should be clear by now I don't think that at all. As a tool to seek truth in the Universe, I don't think religion works very well. But as a framework for many people, and as tool to inspire them, its motivational abilities are without question. For good or for ill.

I'm not necessarily trying to make any grand point here. All I'm doing is making an aside, if you will, a mumbled comment amidst all the rhetoric that will no doubt fly today about moderate versus fundamentalist religion, about atheism versus religion, about us versus them, and this versus that.

In the hand of a carpenter a hammer can build a house, and in the hand of a madman it can stave in a skull.

Which will you be today?