This bit of the Dawkins/Pell “debate” touched on something I’ve been thinking about.

Pell trots out that old chestnut that religious people like to say about science: science tells us “how”, and religion tells us “why”. I’d like to challenge that.

Sometimes we’re touched by tragedy. We lose someone close to us, and sometimes it’s not in a “good way”, like when someone is very old and ready. Sometimes it’s someone young and someone who really needs to be here with us. Sickness and death in that kind of situation is horrible and pointless, and there’s no good reason for it to have happened. And then people who are left alive, trying to pick up the pieces, will say something like, “It sure is hard to understand why this is happening.”

It’s completely understandable to ask why. But wait — wasn’t religion supposed to answer why? It doesn’t do the job in these situations.

Science can answer why. The person died because our bodies do a pretty good job in most circumstances, but not all the time, and sometimes they can’t heal themselves of everything. Our cells reproduce the wrong way, or a virus gets us, or we have a stroke, and we die. That’s why.

But that’s not a satisfying answer because it doesn’t speak to that person’s expectations. What the person is saying is: I had a belief that a loving god was watching over me, and was going to answer my prayerful requests, perhaps if I did the right things and/or had enough faith. Given those beliefs, it sure is hard to understand why this is happening.

So drop the belief. Without the expectations caused by this belief, things become a lot easier to understand. That’s important, because understanding why (say) cancer happens can lead to a way to beat it. But relying on religion to provide ‘why’ answers is confusing and just makes us ask the wrong questions.