Science and religion - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Science and religion
Tuesday, 10 January 2006 at 02:46 pm
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A random passer-by contacted me off LJ to ask: Is it difficult to reconcile science and religion? The flippant answer is: in my world, they never really quarrelled. But I thought I might expand a bit on that, especially as a few people expressed interest in seeing my thoughts on the topic when I alluded to it.

I think asking this kind of question relies on certain (often unstated) assumptions about both science and religion. So let me have a go at defining why I am not religious in the sense that some random stranger probably assumes, and also why science is different from the conception of it I think the questioner holds.

I can't remember who it was that said we shouldn't assume that a certain strand of Fundamentalist American Protestantism represents all religion. (I also suspect that the media portrayal even of that sort of religion is an unfair caricature, but I'm no expert.) My religion, Reform Judaism, is closer to that assumed model than many; we're working from a similar founding principle of monotheism, and we have one major text, the Old Testament, more or less in common. So we're using some of the same metaphors. But I do think the differences between my religious approach and that stereotype is more profound than just, I'm nice and tolerant and emphatically non-proselytizing whereas they are mean old fundamentalists who hate gay people and want most of the world to go to Hell.

So what does religion mean to me? I will admit I am somewhat embarrassed about talking about my personal beliefs and religious understanding (you'll get a readier answer if you ask personal questions about, say, sexuality, for sure). But I'll have a go, and if you want to ask further questions, I'll do my best to answer them.

The starting point of my religion is monotheism: God is One, and almost everything else is up for grabs, but not that. God is so utterly unique that it is not possible to describe or define God, because God can not be compared to any material thing. There is some relationship between the nature of God and the nature of the universe and existence, which for a limited human understanding is partially approximated by talking of God as the Creator.

So far so deist; I suppose where religion comes in is that I believe that this God has, so to speak, chosen to enter into a relationship with human beings. Revelation, not creation, strikes me as the real miracle. By revelation I don't necessarily mean that a particular set of texts were dictated word for word by God, but that God has given people some means by which they can try to relate to the Divine, however paradoxical this may be for a God who is so utterly unique and undefinable. I'm sorry if this is couched in rather abstract terms, but that's the best I can manage for an explanation.

Claiming to know how revelation works would be like claiming to know how God works, which I emphatically don't (to me, that is essentially idolatry). But it seems to me that part of it is living within and exploring the system defined by centuries of religious thought. And part of it is looking for God within God's creation. Believing that God created everything we can observe (and probably a whole load of things beyond what we can observe too) doesn't at all seem incompatible with wanting to know exactly how the universe works. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my belief in a Divine Creator encourages me to study creation in as much detail as I am able.

Science, to put it very simply, seems like one of the best tools available for doing this. To me, science is definitely a tool, a method, not a collection of facts. I've discussed this a bit before (the bits of that post which are about sex point to a post that has unfortunately now been removed). The only way science can be seen as being in conflict with religion is if science makes one set of assertions which conflict with the assertions made by a particular religion. I don't think science is about making assertions anyway; it's about making deductions from experiments to construct falsifiable hypotheses. And my religion is not making the kinds of assertions that conflict with empirical evidence either; I don't hold it as an article of faith that the world was created in 7 days 6000 years ago. This isn't because I have rejected that belief in favour of scientifically derived facts about the history of the universe, but because my religion never asserted that in the first place.

I am aware that to certain people at certain times, science has meant rational positivism or dogmatic materialism. If science is seen as being atheist by definition, then it's pretty circular to point out that it is in conflict with theistic religions! But that's not what science means to me. Equally, I am aware that some religious people, including a minority of Jews, believe that the Bible is literally true and discusses actual historical facts. That belief does require one to deny some empirically derived models of things like cosmology, evolution, and what happened several thousand years ago. I don't think that denying those models is to reject science altogether, because science is not a dogma, but it is very likely to lead to rejecting science.

Anyway, that is not my attitude to the Bible; my religious tradition has a very creative relationship with sacred texts. They are spiritual and moral guides, and they give people an insight, as far as it is possible for finite human beings to have such insight (see above about the miracle of revelation) into the nature of God. My religion has no problem with telling God to butt out of discussions of Biblical interpretation, since God gave the text to us and our human perspective. And it has no problem with making interpretations such as from creating an imagined dialogue between Jonah and the whale about theology and eschatology, to creating an elaborate legal and practical system of separating meat products from dairy products based on the injunction not to boil a young animal in its mother's milk. So it's a long way from being a literalist tradition!

Science is a good tool for understanding how the material world works, and the latter is a religious duty for me personally, as I understand these things. Science is not a good tool for probing the question of whether there is anything out there which is metaphysical, whether God or anything else. Because by definition if metaphysical entities do exist, they are not susceptible to empirical analysis. God who can't be defined is also God who can't be measured or tested or analysed. Science is not a tool at all for defining moral values, because it isn't really even possible to frame the right questions in a scientific way. But science may well be a good tool for working out the practical consequences of moral values once defined.

So, primarily I see science as a religious value because as a scientist, I am devoting a great part of my life to studying an aspect of how God's creation works. It's also a religious value because using science to know more about how the world works helps people to create technology to improve the human condition. This is not an essay about technology and religion, but if you are curious, I am (from a religious standpoint) absolutely pro technology. My religion does not give value to leaving God's creation in its so-called "natural" state; we are specifically enjoined to have dominion over the earth, and later tradition has built on this to regard people as God's partners in creation. The world is not perfect; to regard it as such is pretty insulting. I don't claim to know why God decided to create an imperfect world, but I see it as a core religious value to try to improve and repair it.

As it happens I have ended up in a quasi-medical field. It's easy to justify that helping to find better cancer treatments is a good thing for a religious person to be doing, but I am very suspicious of the attitude that directly medical research is somehow worthier than any other kind. Primarily, I think what I do is morally good because it adds to human knowledge, and that's true of much less directly applied scientific research. I also think it's religiously good to try to maximize one's potential as a human being, and science is something that I happen to be good at so it seems morally right for me to put effort into that area.

So the only conflict I am left with is deciding whether I should use my science icon or my religion icon for this post...


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cakmpls: default
From:cakmpls
Date:January 10th, 2006 02:59 pm (UTC)
13 minutes after journal entry, 08:59 am (cakmpls's time)
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Whether one can reconcile science and religion depends largely, IMHO, on what one means by "religion," and to a lesser extent on what one means by "science." (I think that the former encompasses a much greater variety of definitions than does the latter.) You address this nicely.

Even though I (currently, at least) call myself a non-theist, I agree completely with your statement that "God is so utterly unique that it is not possible to describe or define God, because God can not be compared to any material thing." That is, in fact, the basis of my calling myself a non-theist rather than an atheist or agnostic. Where we part company is in regard to the existence of revelation; however, were I to accept revelation, I would have very much the same take on it that you express here.

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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:January 11th, 2006 12:45 pm (UTC)
21 hours after journal entry, 12:45 pm (livredor's time)
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what one means by "religion," and to a lesser extent on what one means by "science."
Yeah, that's the salient point of what I was trying to say. I think the germ of where I'm coming from on this is that Dawkins and his ilk are horribly wrong about what science is; that they are wrong about religion is less surprising, considering that they are rabid polemicists.

You address this nicely.
Thank you. I was making that point as a jumping-off point to talk about my own views and experience, but I'm glad I expressed it clearly.

calling myself a non-theist rather than an atheist or agnostic
Sounds very reasonable to me. I think if one believes that God exists but has no direct interaction with people, then that is a non-theist rather than a theist or atheist position. Yay for precision of language.

Where we part company is in regard to the existence of revelation
I can't justify my belief in revelation. It is an aspect of my belief that is more readily challenged than my basic assumption that God exists. I mean, if an atheist came along and said I was wrong to believe that, I could counter that by my definition of God, there's no way of knowing which of us is right. But revelation depends on evidence in this material world which can actually be examined or found wanting. Not that I'm accusing you of starting that kind of obnoxious debate, mind you! I guess my point is that it seems to me an issue that is so inconclusive that accepting or not accepting the view seem equally sensible decisions.
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quizcustodet: default
From:quizcustodet
Date:January 10th, 2006 03:21 pm (UTC)
35 minutes after journal entry, 03:21 pm (quizcustodet's time)
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I think that - in the Western world, at least - the main reason that science and religion are often presumed to be in conflict is not so much the furore over Young Earth Creationism/ID/etc, as you identified, but because the dominant religion is still Christianity. And Christianity makes historical claims that are both much more difficult to reconcile with science than Judaism's and much more central to its existence. This, at least, was my problem with the faith I was raised in (Roman Catholicism).

I would say the most widely accepted definition of Christianity (I'm aware that there are some groups who would identify as Christian but mean only that they follow the moral teachings laid out in the Gospels.) is that you believe God was made man, was born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and rose again from the dead, doing all this for the forgiveness of sins.

Even if you neglect everything else in the Gospels (which includes raising others from the dead, multiplying food, commanding devils and/or curing psychiatric conditions, etc) this is a fundamental claim that is scientific in nature: at some stage around 30 AD, it is claimed that a man died and then rose again from the dead. While science certainly cannot claim that this is impossible, I think it can reasonably be taken to say that this claim is so far outside our everyday experience that it requires more than hearsay to support.

I rambled a bit - my basic suggestion is that there is expected to be some conflict between science and religion because the dominant (at least culturally) religion is Christianity, and because Christianity makes claims that at the very least require more explanation to fit in with science than Judaism's.
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midnightmelody: default
From:midnightmelody
Date:January 10th, 2006 04:42 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 04:42 pm (midnightmelody's time)
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I think that - in the Western world, at least - the main reason that science and religion are often presumed to be in conflict is not so much the furore over Young Earth Creationism/ID/etc, as you identified, but because the dominant religion is still Christianity.

PoI - if we're talking about the volume of the population, it's because the conflict model of science (set up fairly deliberately by Draper and White in the 19th century) is a damned successful meme with lots of excellent mythological images. For example, far more people heard and believed schoolbook accounts of the Galileo-Vatican fight than have genuinely considered the historically 'problematic' claims of Christianity's various forms.

Robert Merton makes a good case for Christianity's belief system being favourable to science (with monotheism being an important part of that), but it's a rubbish meme because it doesn't soundbite easily.

I'm taking major liberties with 'meme' assumptions here. I think the argument holds without it, but feel free to call my bluff. :)
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:January 10th, 2006 05:06 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 05:06 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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Draper and White?
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midnightmelody: default
From:midnightmelody
Date:January 10th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry, 06:51 pm (midnightmelody's time)
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Um, some information at http://www.bede.org.uk/conflict.htm Does that help?

Undoubtedly ideologically biased, but their facts are correct as far as I've checked them.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:January 10th, 2006 10:17 pm (UTC)
7 hours after journal entry, 10:17 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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Thanks!
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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:January 15th, 2006 06:43 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 06:43 pm (livredor's time)
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the conflict model of science (set up fairly deliberately by Draper and White in the 19th century) is a damned successful meme with lots of excellent mythological images
Very good point. I didn't know the detail of the history of how that meme happened, so I've learnt something. But yeah, definitely.

I'm taking major liberties with 'meme' assumptions here
On the contrary, I think this is a very good example of how the meme concept is powerful for explaining this sort of situation! It's a shame that the inventor of such a great concept decided to use it as a stick with which to bash his imaginary idea of religion...
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:January 15th, 2006 05:28 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 05:28 pm (livredor's time)
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And Christianity makes historical claims that are both much more difficult to reconcile with science than Judaism's and much more central to its existence.
This is a very good point. I can't remember if it was pw201 or Gerv who first pointed out to me that Christianity depends on some very specific factual claims about historical events, and this is why at least some Christians are inclined to insist on anti-scientific Biblical literalism. I get the impression it's a lot harder for a Christian to regard the Bible the way I regard Jewish scriptures.

Christianity makes claims that at the very least require more explanation to fit in with science than Judaism's.
In some ways that is true. My mother likes to quote: Judaism does not require one to believe absurdities. But the fact is that some Jews are very anti-scientific, and many Christians are perfectly happy with the scientific method in the appropriate domain, so that's not the whole story.
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hairyears: default
From:hairyears
Date:January 10th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 03:47 pm (hairyears's time)
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A suggestion: read the Dover County decision. All of it.

One of the most damning comments from the judges was that 'ID' (intelligent design, or 'creationist') proponents forced the issue into a strictly polarised choice between 'Good' and 'Godly' creation science in which all is subject to received teaching (albeit somewhat masked in scientific-sounding language) versus the evil materialism of atheist Darwinism.

The judges point out, in detail, that no such dichotomy is visible across a broad spectrum of the many and varied mainstream christian doctrines, nor by the mainstream of scientific reasoning (including almost all proponents of evolution who are engaged in peer-reviewed scientific research).

There is a very pointed rebuke to those Creationists who sought to impose that artificial choice between 'Good' Creation science and the study of evolution on schoolchildren.

This case study is applicable to all cases where priests, preachers and paperback philosophers seek to portray scientific investigation as being in conflict with religious belief.

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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:January 15th, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 07:00 pm (livredor's time)
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read the Dover County decision
Thank you. That was well worth reading. Obviously I'd been aware of the case but media reports don't have quite the impact of actually reading the original decision. I'm amazed at just how acerbic that judge is on the one hand, and how much the Dover county board deserved his venom on the other. That degree of deliberate dishonesty in pursuit of a political agenda is quite scary.

Other than further decreasing my already low respect for the ID brigade, it occurs to me to wonder why exactly people like that think it would help them if they succeeded in their machinations. Supposing they had won the case, or got away with not being sued... how exactly would their brand of Christianity be better off?
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hairyears: default
From:hairyears
Date:January 15th, 2006 08:26 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 08:26 pm (hairyears's time)
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A great many causes suffer more from the fanaticism of their supporters than from the actions of their opponents (I'm sure that's a quote from somewhere). This is equally true of bad causes as of good ones!

it occurs to me to wonder why exactly people like that think it would help them if they succeeded in their machinations.

The answer here is that they don't think at all. Fundamentalists are the recipients of received wisdom, and all debate and doubt is an evil which must be suppressed. This extends to self-examination and internal debate: their cause is just and holy and all actions that support it are inherently good, all statements that promote it are unquestionably true, and all who oppose them are atheists and blasphemers.

It is predictable that such organisations - even those who start out with praiseworthy goals for the common good - will eventually descend into patterns of thought and behaviour that would, in an individual, be grounds for a psychiatric referral. Or incarceration.

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smhwpf: Treebeard
From:smhwpf
Date:January 10th, 2006 04:32 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 05:32 pm (smhwpf's time)
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*nods*

Very well expressed, and I would concur with most of what you say here.

One question: you imply that you don't consider that the Bible discusses historical facts. From my perspective as a Christian, I consider it quite central that God acts in history. As you say, "By revelation I don't necessarily mean that a particular set of texts were dictated word for word by God, but that God has given people some means by which they can try to relate to the Divine". And for most Christians, this involves the Divine (as you say, paradoxically for this undefinable God) interacting with humans through historical events, people, etc. For Christians of course, the central such event and person is the Incarnation, God becoming man in Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously that is not the case for Judaism. But do you, for example, see it as important to your faith that the Exodus from Egypt literally happened, that in some way God acted in history and through various human and/or natural agents to liberate the Israelites from oppression? (Albeit that one might be cautious in interpreting the exact details of how this happened as recorded in the Torah.) Or that there was a historical Abraham who, in some way inspired by an encounter with the Divine, left Ur of the Chaldees for the Promised Land and became the father of the Hebrew (and Arab) peoples? Or that the history of the Hebrew kingdoms, their destruction and deportation to Babylon and subsequent restoration were in some way revealing God's working and interaction with humans? And so forth. To what extent do you consider the actual historical events described in the Bible to be significant for understanding your faith, and understanding God's interaction with humanity? Or are you happy to consider these as stories and myths from which moral and spiritual lessons may be drawn, but of which the historical truth is not really very important?

(I am aware in asking this that, despite modern efforts by Christian theologians to improve their understanding of Christianity's Jewish roots, there is an enormous gulf between Christian and Jewish understandings of the Hebrew scriptures (even in their own terms, aside from any question of their relationship to Christian claims about Jesus), and that I am fairly ignorant of the Jewish understandings.)

Of course this doesn't necessarily impact the religion/science debate, unless one is particularly picky about the exact historical truth of various parts of scripture. I would generally consider that modern historical and archeological discoveries may have changed our understanding of the events related in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but have not undermined what I would see as the fundamental ideas of either. It is an interesting question though about whether a religion is historically falsifiable. (Which is different from scientifically). For example, if somehow it were possible to definitively identify some human remains as being those of Jesus of Nazareth, would that falsify Christianity? In my view, it would, though I know that there are many Christians who would differ.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:January 15th, 2006 09:26 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 09:26 pm (livredor's time)
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OK, this is a very good question. I think part of my problem here is that I don't really have a good mental slot for history. I sort of file it under the same category as science, and on reflection I don't think that's entirely accurate. I should think about this more and make a post on the subject. But let's see how much of an answer I can give you straight off.

you imply that you don't consider that the Bible discusses historical facts
I think the Bible does discuss some historical facts, but we don't really know which parts of it are factual. And if none of it is historically accurate at all, that wouldn't bother me particularly; that's not where its value lies, for me. Rabbinic tradition tends to do things like put it to the vote whether a particular Biblically recorded event actually occurred historically or not, which is a more subjective approach than our post-Enlightenment culture would expect when dealing with "historical facts".

Trying not to multiply entities here, I don't think language in the Bible works in a hugely different way from language generally. Which is to say, a description of an event in words is not equivalent to the event itself; there is always going to be some bias in the telling, and some inaccurate recollection, and then there are problems of transmission and translation and so on. So although I do believe that it is God's will that the Bible has the wording it has, I don't believe that the words are a perfect reflection of reality, because I don't think words can do that.

From my perspective as a Christian, I consider it quite central that God acts in history.
That makes sense to me. I think God acts in history just as God acts in the physical world, that's sort of part of the definition of God. But just because God acts in history, it doesn't mean that we humans can know particular aspects of history with certainty.

But do you, for example, see it as important to your faith that the Exodus from Egypt literally happened, that in some way God acted in history and through various human and/or natural agents to liberate the Israelites from oppression?
I think the second part is more important than the first. The Exodus story is a story, it's a national foundation myth, it's a tradition that has been embellished and so on in transmission. Again, the spiritual importance of that story is not necessarily dependent on its literal historical accuracy. But it is important in my religious view of the world that I have a connection with the people who were freed from slavery through God's intervention. The nature of that connection is a bit odd to explain; invoking literal blood descent seems a bit improbable, and even if true, it doesn't account for the custom of saying We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt (rather than our ancestors; every person should consider himself as if he personally had been redeemed).

Or are you happy to consider these as stories and myths from which moral and spiritual lessons may be drawn, but of which the historical truth is not really very important?
To an extent that is a fair summary of my position, yes. Certainly if by historical truth you mean the sort of criteria one would apply to, say, a newspaper article: does this article accurately represent what happened on the occasion described?
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beckyzoole: default
From:beckyzoole
Date:January 10th, 2006 07:52 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 01:52 pm (beckyzoole's time)

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Excellent post. The icon you chose does have a strange resemblance, however, to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:January 15th, 2006 09:37 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 09:37 pm (livredor's time)

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My protein does not look like any Flying Spaghetti Monster! I am offended and horrified! I did not spend 4 years studying noodles, and pasta does not protect your cells from cancer.

(That is to say, thank you.)
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rho: default
From:rho
Date:January 10th, 2006 08:29 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 08:29 pm (rho's time)
(Link)
Interesting entry. I don't really feel qualified to comment on your analysis of the religious side of thing, since your religion is not my religion (though it was interesting to read about your religious beliefs), but I think you've really got to the crux of things on the science side.

There's a lot of dogma that gets associated with science, but which isn't really science. I'm thinking here of things like Occam's razor and parsimony[1]; these are undoubtedly useful tools for scientists, but they aren't actually science themselves. A lot of scientists tend to dismiss religion based on these principles, but really the basic premises of the scientific method have nothing to say about them. A lot of people tend to confuse the philosophy of science with science themselves.

[1] I mean this in a more general sense than the cladistic/statistical meaning, where it does have scientific validity as a way of moving from a theory to a prediction, rather than as a theory in and of itself.
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From:lyssiae
Date:January 11th, 2006 09:47 am (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry
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This was a joy to read; thank you for putting the time and effort into writing it. I started writing a comment but then it bamboozled a little, so I posted it in my own blog instead, where you'll be able to read it if you so wish.
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rysmiel: scale error
From:rysmiel
Date:January 11th, 2006 04:47 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 12:47 pm (rysmiel's time)
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To adapt from a lovely comment of commodorified's, reconciling science and religion, in the sense in which the question appears to be asked, is like removing stains from a white silk shirt with chocolate cake; it makes a terrible mess by virtue of having some very dubious ideas about what each of them are for in the first place.

At least I have no trouble picking the right icon for this comment.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 21st, 2006 10:51 am (UTC)
69 days after journal entry
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interesting
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