• October 23, 2014

War Between Science and Religion Still Rages

Mano Singham's piece "The New War Between Science and Religion" (The Chronicle Review, May 14) conveys the idea that God still is used to explain gaps in our scientific knowledge, as outrageous as such explanations are today. He opines that not only are religious people foolish, but also any accommodation pertaining thereto, such as that of the National Academy of Sciences.

For Singham, the foolishness of the God of the gaps becomes increasingly evident as science fills those gaps, dispelling the formerly mysterious. There is nothing divine that science cannot explain, unless it is a deity who does nothing at all. In actuality God is a cipher, a figment of the imagination. As Singham alleges, scientists who believe in God or who think science can accommodate religion have such "weird" notions because they are "non-smart" in this aspect of their reasoning.

Why is it stupid to recognize that we have come a long way since the Enlightenment physiocrats held an earlier version of Singham's reductionism? And his "God of the gaps" criticism strikes me as less powerful today than amid yesteryear's optimistic view of science as progressively displacing every mystery by its singularly comprehensive and true methodology. More questions arise than are answered with each new mission to other bodies within our own solar system. Caltech's astronomer Michael E. Brown recently stated: "Every planetary system that we get to see in detail appears different from anything that I would've expected."

It is difficult to know how scientific scrutiny of beliefs that led to the founding in virtually every U.S. city of hospitals bearing names such as Presbyterian, Jewish, St. Francis, etc. would lead to the determination that religion is an insidious fiction. My doubts about my own faith are much deeper than applying scientific method to it. At the same time, I have witnessed too much truth, beauty, and goodness in my religion and too much of the paranormal (both good and ugly) to accept the notion that existence boils down to what modern physiocrats would have us believe. In any case, we need less contempt all around, not more.

James C. Pakala
Library Director
Covenant Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Mo.

From chronicle.com:

While I agree that scientific organizations should advocate for good science, I think they (and scientists in general) need to do that without alienating the public. The war on science and the growing distrust of science and scientists have immense costs ranging from the declining quality of education, the public's wavering belief in and motivation to combat anthropogenic climate change, etc. If we alienate the public now, by telling them that they are irrational for believing in God, then we make the problems greater in the short term.

While I, too, hope that scientific truth will win out in the end, how many generations will we have to wait for the truth to emerge in the mind of the public? And at what cost to education, scientific funding, public policy? While scientists don't need to accommodate others' religious views in our communication, teaching, and research, I think it would be a mistake to alienate a huge percentage of the population. We need them to listen to us if we are going to help "the truth win out."

***

The deep flaw in Singham's argument is the acceptance of evolution itself without integrating it into his complaint against religion (as evidenced by the really weak sources he cites against religion).

If religion is so stupid, why is it still around? It should have "evolved" out of us by now—or at least be vestigial. Belief must have some sort of evolutionary power, some adaptive power that fits us to this world. If not, it would be like that tail we all carry around inside us ... at the end of our spine.

***

Plenty of recent studies suggest that not only religious beliefs but beliefs in general (such as belief in the scientific method, technology, etc.) are made at a gut level and then rationalized afterward.

Given that "science," as Singham seems to use the term, has only been practiced for the last few (hundred) years, what kind of evidentiary base could there be, without gross distortion from projection? Somehow, from what we can gather, humanity progressed and survived without this modern science for millennia, perhaps eons.

And if some of the "science" that we now practice is correct, it has also contributed to global warming and climate change, not to mention the atomic bomb and its missile delivery system, and our progress and survival is being threatened by such "science."

Finally, I simply mention any number of cases of overstatement, misrepresentation, deceit, fraud, and corruption on the part of scientists as they promote their ideas to gain prominence, grant money, awards, and the like—for example, suppression of evidence from the East Anglians on climate data, Dr. Mengele and his Nazi scientists conducting their experiments to prove social Darwinism, and their American counterparts conducting experiments on Tuskegee blacks, undesirables, and "imbeciles."

***

Militant new atheists and militant religious fundamentalists seem to me to have a great deal in common: intolerance, incivility, self-righteousness, and breathtaking lack of humility.

Frankly, I am less disturbed by the bigotry, rudeness, and blinkered pig-ignorance of those whose beliefs appear to me to be mistaken—they are, after all, in my opinion, wrong in their understanding of the world, so why wouldn't they talk and behave wrongly?—than I am by the graceless, boorish behavior and speech of those whose beliefs I happen to share.

Truth has been said to be the first casualty in war. Perhaps. But an appreciation of our own limitations, a willingness to consider that we may be wrong, seems to have gone to the wall as well. Over 300 years ago, Pierre Bayle produced his masterful Philosophical Commentary on Luke 14:23, showing the futility of compelling any orthodoxy by force. And three centuries later, "We are here, as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night."

***

I'm going with the Dalai Lama on this one, who in his book The Universe in a Single Atom said the most enlightened thing I have ever heard from a religious leader, which is, to paraphrase the man:

If science can prove we are wrong, I will change our religious belief system.

He makes this argument because he is curious enough to want to know if consciousness is tied to the physical brain or if it is indeed "portable," and exists apart from the corporeal. If it is, and consciousness does not "die" with the body, then a central tenet of the faith—in this case, Tibetan Buddhism—is true, and reincarnation is possible. If consciousness "dies" with the body, then reincarnation is not possible, and the faith must evolve.

To the Dalai Lama, the burden of proof is with the believer, not the scientist. In other words, enlightenment in whatever form it takes is a personal responsibility, not a dogma.

So, if the leader of one the largest faiths in the world can quote Karl Popper and test his own beliefs against the intellectual standard of modern science, why is it that other believers will not? Instead, they argue that the burden of proof lies with the nonbeliever, making science and academics the bad guys instead of being curious themselves.

More curiosity and less judgment is what's required.

Comments

1. haohtt - June 15, 2010 at 09:49 am

Those of us who are people of faith and who also welcome the wonderful expansion of our knowledge and understanding through science tend not to worry to much about the likes of Signham, Dawkins, etc. They, like we, are doing the best they can to comprehend their world and have found answers that seem to satisfy them. The amusing thing is that modern science advocates are just a certain that they have all the answers as the former generations of scientists, including all of those whose theories and models have been discarded in the wake of newer discoveries. The "God of the gaps" explanation is simply another attempt by those who put their faith in current scientific knowledge to reduce the position of others in order to make the straw man easier to construct. The bottom line is that Singham and others who are brilliant in their fields still do not fully understand the beliefs of those to whom they look down their noses. They understand God even less. Like the Dalai Lama, I am waiting for that magical moment were science can claim to have answered all questions and has no need of further inquiry or revision.

2. dj_braski - June 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

@ the third comment. "If religion is so stupid, why is it still around?" Firstly, the beliefs and practices of religion despite being around for a long time, may not have been around long enough for selection to weed out. More likely, speaking from my gut, evolution is adaptive. It provides motivation, psychological support, a catalyst for cooperation, etc. But evolution only selects for structures that are adaptive, it cares nothing for truth, unless the truth is useful. So, it may be the case that "religion" is adaptive, but false. Religion, its practices and beliefs, is complicated and its links to behavior and fitness are complicated and a final judgment is probably unwarranted at this time. It needs further, scientific, investigation.

@ the fourth comment. "Plenty of recent studies suggest that not only religious beliefs but beliefs in general (such as belief in the scientific method, technology, etc.) are made at a gut level and then rationalized afterward." Surely, but where does this leave us? If this is a plea for a little humility in discussion, then it is a useful reminder to all. But as an argument it is at best a "you too" claim that leaves us in the same place, that is, needing investigation and rational discourse to overcome our frail cognitive powers.

Lastly, as a general comment, some of these comments seem to be mixing morality with truth seeking. Religion, or science, have moral consequences and are practiced by imperfect moral beings who act in the world. But it is important to distinguish the truth (or truth claims, or truth seeking practices) from moral judgments and consequences. Little progress is made claiming or insinuating that religious or scientific propositions are true or false by using moral language. We will know a tree by its fruit I am told. But we are still left with questions about the nature of the fruit and the tree. There are still truths to be learned: What exactly is the fruit is doing and is there anything we can do to mitigate/increase the effects of the fruit? What is the connection between the fruit and the tree exactly? What can we tell about the nature of the tree, using the fruit, that will help us avoid/find such trees in the future? Can we directly investigate the tree using new technology or methods? It seems like we need to mount an investigation!

3. dank48 - June 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

I think the "war" between science and religion is imaginary. There's conflict between scientism and religion, and there's conflict between religiosity and science. But science and religion as such are no more opposed to each other than are, say, art and literature.

Georges Lemaitre, the priest and physicist who in 1927 formulated what became known as the Big Bang theory, said that there are actually people who look for scientific truths in the Bible and that this was like looking for religious truths in the binomial theorem.

4. goxewu - June 15, 2010 at 11:55 am

"Religion," as it's practiced on the ground, is much more (or, from my point of view, much less) than the quite reasonable idea that science cannot, and may never be able to explain absolutely everything in and about the universe. The three main Abrahamaic faiths, for instance, each proffer a rather goofy-sounding story: a) that G-d chose a certain tribe of people to produce a Messiah who's yet to appear; b) that God sent down his only begotten son to die on the cross so that people who believe he's the messiah/savior will go to "heaven" and not to "hell"; and c) that a Messenger came after the the savior in (b) to do a better, if a little more violent, job of it.

It's a looooooooong way between noting that science can't explain exactly why and how the Big Bang occurred or how living organisms originated in inorganic material and sitting in the front row of the First Baptist Church accepting what a preacher tells you Jesus wants in the public school curriculum. The wonder is how top-level scientists who are observant Jews, Christians, Muslims, or members of other religions with equally fantastical creation myths, "salvation" stories, and moral codes that tell them what kind of foods to eat and when for other than FDA-approved health reasons, can function as scientists.

Do they maintain two airtight compartments of thinking about things? (OK, DNA over here, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes over there, the laws of thermodynamics over here, the parting of the Red Sea over there, etc.) Do they, like most religious believers, "believe" because it makes them feel better (i.e., gives "meaning" to life, takes away the fear that death is annihilation, etc.)? Or do they believe because living in a world where people have a "God" telling them not to rape, murder and pillage* is less frightening?

And what do they do about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room of faith: that even among believers, it's an either-or proposition? Which is to say, it's not so much Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett telling Christians they're wrong about (b), above; it's Jews and Muslims. And it's not so much Dawkins or Dennett telling Jews that they're wrong, and that the Messiah has indeed arrived; it's Christians and Muslims. And it's not so much Dawkins or Dennett telling Muslims that they're wrong and Muhammad wasn't the Messenger of God/Allah; it's Jews and Christians?. (And so on and so on, in a great whorl of unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims with Hindus, Buddhists, and a bunch of other faiths thrown in.)

The "war" is not so much between science and religion as it is among religions. Science is like the kid trying to do his homework while everybody else in the family is shouting and yelling in an argument about whether the Yankees will win the pennant again.

(*Yes, I know that occasionally one "God" or another apparently tells people precisely to go out and rape, murder and pillage. But for purposes of discussion here, we'll give "God" the benefit of the doubt.)

5. dank48 - June 15, 2010 at 03:07 pm

Comment 4 is like an out-of-control indoor fireworks display during a discussion of Independence Day safety. It's not strictly speaking irrelevant, but it doesn't seem to me to be very helpful.

6. goxewu - June 15, 2010 at 03:38 pm

Why is #4 not "helpful"? Because it points out that the real ideological/intellectual/sociological "war" is not between science and religion, but among the various all-or-nothing monotheistic religions? Inconvenient for accommodationists, perhaps, but still a truth.

The likes of Dawkins and Dennett may write strident and irritating books and op-ed pieces, but what they and a few other science-minded atheists do in that vein pales (an understatement) in comparison with what religious believers--even the "accommodationist" variety--do in the way of promulgating their credulity in the matter of "faith."

And why is #3 presumably "helpful"? Because it points out that a priest came up with the Big Bang theory? (One does wonder how such a brilliant scientific mind would also entertain, say, transubstantiation.) Well, kumbaya.

7. minnesotan - June 15, 2010 at 04:43 pm

The religious respondent calls for less contempt and in the same breath applies insulting monikers to materialists? Telling.

When the religious start heeding their own high moral advice, maybe the irreligious would show them some respect. Until then, why do they deserve any? Would you claim special treatment for any other sort of hypocrite?

8. dboyles - June 15, 2010 at 08:31 pm

Science is a discourse, a use of language, which--at least in the empirical sciences--attempts a correspondence between physical phenomena and consistency in language descriptions. Religion, too, is a discourse. Both are attempts to say what cannot be said. Science keeps trying to say it better, and religion thinks it has said it best, as does bad science since the best of science has multiple theories (discursive practices) on given phenomena which are hotly contested among scientists themselves. Good science does not pretend to establish absolute truth in its naive sense, and the best of religion points beyond its own discursive practice to the mystery of what is not we do not know and what science does not know. The idea that science tries to fill gaps is coutered by impasses in its discursive abilities which open up new gaps rather than fill them.

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