Letters to the Editor

War Between Science and Religion Still Rages

June 13, 2010

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.