Science and Religion

There is an entrenched idea, even among many atheists, secularists, skeptics that arguments about religion – arguments between atheists and theists, science and religion, believers and non-believers – are futile, at best a waste of time and at worst offensive if not cruel. But the trouble is there seems to be no such idea on the other side. Believers and theists seem to have no hesitation or diffidence whatever about assuming their beliefs are both true and synonymous with virtue, and saying as much. This is a peculiar arrangement, any way you look at it. The side that has it right, that considers evidence and logic and probablities, is politely silent. The side that, if forced to choose between evidence and belief, chooses the latter, is always rebuking the other side for not doing the same. There is much to be said for politeness and tolerance and not offending, but not if it’s all on one side. And in any case, even though there is much to be said, there is not everything. There is also a great deal to be said for understanding how the world is and how things come about there – whether through the actions of an omnipotent omniscient benevolent supernatural being who created a world full of disease, accident, pain, sorrow, hardship and death, or through natural and unconscious causes – in order to deal effectively with that world.

But, sad to say, all too often the much to be said for tolerance trumps the much to be said for truth. Ironically the result is not peace and harmony and mutual respect but rather that the religious crowd gets more and more full of itself, more demanding and aggrieved and truculent, more inclined to tell everyone what to do and slander atheists as immoral nihilists. That’s where tolerance gets you, apparently. The atheist side, i.e. the side that’s able to see the world as it is without the aid of absurd fictions, is (out of pity for the weak-mindedness of the other side?) all politeness and respect and tactful silence. The theist side, the side that prides itself on believing in supernatural beings and heaven and life after death, is all assertion and scorn and noisy disagreement.

So the hands-off policy is no good. That just lets the believers have it all their own way, and they use their advantage to chastise and bully the skeptics. The people who have no evidence for their beliefs rebuke and tyrannize over the people who do have evidence for their beliefs: a highly perverse set-up. Daniel Dennett wrote in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times of matter-of-factly telling a group of clever high school students that he was an atheist.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for “liberating” them. I hadn’t realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They’d never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn’t believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

As Dennett points out, this is what happens when skeptics, atheists, and secularists keep silent: they begin to seem a far smaller percentage of the population than they are: doubters feel isolated and peculiar, and believers feel superior, confident and self-righteous. It simply doesn’t answer in the long run to give way to error and bad thinking, it only encourages it.

But it’s futile, goes the cry. It’s a waste of time, it’s useless, people never change their minds about these things. So Susan Greenfield, in an interview a few years ago:

I’ve sat through many science-religion ding-dongs, and they strike me as a complete waste of time. No one is going to change their views. The Atkins-Dawkins stance treats science almost as though it were a religion, and evangelically try to convert other people. Meanwhile, the religious person can’t articulate why they believe what they do: they just do.

But people do change their views. Not all of them all the time, not easily, not necessarily even when they are confronted with evidence or good arguments. But they do change them sometimes, and it’s impossible to know in advance what those times are. People read books, they discuss, they think, and sometimes they do change their views. Sometimes from atheism to theism, alas, but also sometimes the other way. And as for ‘just believing’ something, what of that? We can all believe all sorts of things that are not true. We can believe the sun travels around the earth, or that crystals have healing powers, or that it’s a good idea to take antibiotics when we have a cold, or that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an authentic document. What is wrong with someone better-informed disabusing us of our mistaken beliefs?

I don’t believe in God but that is a belief, not some thing I know. I believe I love my husband, but I couldn’t prove it to you one way or the other. How could I? I just know I do. My particular belief is that there is no Deity out there, but I can’t prove it and therefore I would not have the temerity to tell other people they’re wrong. The coinage of proof is not appropriate for belief…

But belief in one’s own internal emotional state is not the same thing as belief in the existence of an entity in the external world. Naturally we can’t prove our own emotions to other people, any more than a bat can prove to us what it is like to be a bat. But what does that have to do with truth-claims about a supernatural being? And in any case the issue is not one of proof but one of evidence. We can’t prove our emotional states, but we can offer evidence. We can’t prove the non-existence of a deity, but we can ask why there is no good evidence of its existence. Bertrand Russell pointed out that we can’t prove there’s not a china teapot orbiting the sun, and Carl Sagan pointed out that we can’t prove there’s not an invisible odorless inaudible dragon in the garage, and both pointed out that that’s no reason to assume there is.

Of course, if we simply want to believe in orbiting teapots, or fairies at the bottom of the garden, or Quidditch, or the Easter bunny, for our own amusement, that’s reasonably harmless (except for the state of our intellects). But religion is a public matter, to put it mildly. Religion doesn’t just sit back and let the world go its own way and believe whatever it ‘just does’, religion intervenes. Religion makes truth claims about the world, and on the basis of those truth claims, it tells us all how to think and behave. That alone is reason enough to consider the assertions of religion every bit as open to contradiction and challenge and discussion as any other set of truth claims.

One way people try to protect religion from these harsh inquiries is by declaring that it inhabits a separate sphere from that of science, that it is more like poetry or story-telling than it is like science. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a surprisingly silly book making that claim a few years ago. But it won’t wash. First because of the truth claims issue: religion doesn’t act like poetry, it doesn’t just tell stories or create images, it makes assertions that we are expected to believe. Second, because religion does not have the expertise that is claimed for it, even in that ‘separate’ sphere. Gould (this was one of the silliest things in the book) repeatedly said that religion had expertise in morality among other things. But why? What conceivable expertise does religion have on moral questions? What does religion know that moral philosophers do not know? Richard Dawkins is incisive on this point in his classic essay ‘Dolly and the Cloth-Heads’:

Religious lobbies, spokesmen of “traditions” and “communities”, enjoy privileged access not only to the media but to influential committees of the great and the good, to the House of Lords (as I mentioned above), and to the boards of school governors. Their views are regularly sought, and heard with exaggerated “respect”, by parliamentary committees. Religious spokesmen and spokeswomen enjoy an inside track to influence and power which others have to earn through their own ability or expertise. What is the justification for this?…Isn’t there more justification for choosing expert witnesses for their knowledge and accomplishments as individuals, than because they represent some group or class of person?

Or there is the notion that science can answer ‘how’ questions and religion can answer ‘why’ questions, as in this item from a television discussion of science and religion.

Science can tell us how chemicals bond but only religion can answer the why questions, why do we have a universe like this at all?

But of course religion can’t do any such thing. It only says it can, which is a different matter. Anyone can say that. Anyone can say anything at all. But since the answers religions give are not true, it is not clear why their answers to the ‘why’ questions are any better than their answers to the ‘how’ questions, or any other questions. Richard Dawkins, again, puts the matter well:

I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the big bang theory to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. “Ah,” he smiled, “now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand you over to our good friend, the chaplain.” But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Of course chaplains, unlike chefs and gardeners, claim to have some insight into ultimate questions. But what reason have we ever been given for taking their claims seriously?

Needless to say, it’s a large question. So all the more reason to pull together some material on the subject.


Apposite Quotations

Unfortunately, the hope that religion might provide a bedrock, from which our otherwise sand-based morals can be derived, is a forlorn one. In practice, no civilized person uses Scripture as ultimate authority for moral reasoning. Instead, we pick and choose the nice bits of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount) and blithely ignore the nasty bits (like the obligation to stone adulteresses, execute apostates, and punish the grandchildren of offenders)…Yes, of course it is unfair to judge the customs of an earlier era by the enlightened standards of our own. But that is precisely my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source of ultimate moral conviction that overrides Scripture when it suits us.
Richard Dawkins: Free Inquiry Spring 1998

I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.
Steven Weinberg: A Designer Universe?

What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry…
John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

Religious belief is supposed to be, not tentative or hedged, but a profound, and profoundly personal, commitment. To disbelieve, or to believe wrongly, is sinful, and faith, i.e., commitment in the absence of compelling evidence, often conceived as a virtue…By contrast, although in their professional capacity scientists accept many propositions as true-some of them very confidently and firmly, and not a few pretty dogmatically–faith, in the religious sense, is alien to the scientific enterprise…As I see it, religion and science really are profoundly at odds on all the dimensions I have distinguished; and science really is, on all those dimensions, far and away the more admirable enterprise.
Susan Haack, Defending Science

Internal Resources

On Richard Dawkins

On Ruse on Dawkins

External Resources

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