Why did the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy when he argued that the Earth revolves around the sun? Why do many people today not believe in evolution, despite overwhelming scientific evidence?
The tension between religion and science is not something new, nor is it likely to ever go away, despite accumulating knowledge about the natural world, says Robert McCauley, director of Emory’s Center for Mind, Brain and Culture. His latest book is called “Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.”
“Religion is cognitively natural and comes easily to the human mind. It trafficks in the kind of ideas that minds like to think,” McCauley explains. “By contrast, science is always pulling together representations and models and ideas that are quite contrary to our normal assumptions about the world.”
In other words, science often butts heads with common sense.
“A classic illustration is, even though it’s the case that we think we are all Copernicans and everyone understands that the Earth circles the sun, the fact of the matter is when we look at the night sky, we don’t see the world as Copernican,” McCauley says. “Once you undergo the intellectual exercise to see the world as Copernican, it’s startlingly unnerving.”
"Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition," a painting by Christiano Banti.
On the other hand, the seeds of religious belief may be inherent in our minds as far back as infancy.
“We are having to figure out what other people are thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing in order to anticipate things that they might do, whether it’s for survival in a complex social setting or a more fundamental issue of detecting agents that may want to have you for lunch, ” McCauley says.
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Why religion is natural and science is not