Science and Religion

Book review by Dr. William Thwaites

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Edited by Paul Kurtz. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. 2003. (Paper $20) 368 pp.

The title of this anthology betrays its bias. If you polled the 39 authors contributing to this anthology, "No" would be the modal, the average, and the majority response to the question asked in the title. Come to think of it, even the questioning the "compatibility" of science and religion is not something the average citizen spends much time wondering about. Millions of school children study biology, chemistry and physics at the high school level without thinking that there might be a conflict between their studies and their religion. They seem comfortable in both worlds. In one world there is the testing of ideas against observations of the natural world. In the other, emphasis is often put on not asking questions. In this world non-material ideas and concepts abound. For most people the two worlds happily coexist.

As a matter of fact, were it not for being told that biological evolution is in conflict with religion, it is doubtful that more than one in a thousand students would ever recognize any conflict whatsoever. Finding incompatibility between the physical sciences and religion would be even more rare.

Finding incompatibility, without being told previously where to look for it by some assumed expert, is the domain of theologians and philosophers of science. The rest of us need the incompatibility explained to us because most of us study science and, indeed, religion in a very superficial way. And most of us don't spend much time contemplating the basic methodologies of either area of intellectual endeavor.

Thus, Science and Religion and its basic question of "compatibility" is part of an effort to point out and highlight the differences between science and religion. The anthology has a few contributors who, like William Dembski take the side of religion. And there are scientists such as Eugenie Scott who bend over backwards to point out areas of compatibility, and even synergy, between science and religion.

Dembski is an outspoken proponent of something called "Intelligent Design." He tries mightily to make his endeavors sound scientific. He sees examples of "Intelligent Design" in any biological structure that is more complicated than could be selected by natural selection. I would assume that this maximum level of complexity achievable by natural selection is an unknown and is likely to remain that way for years to come, but Dembski claims to know right now what that level is. Anything that exceeds it is said to have been designed by "intelligence." In an effort to appear scientific, Dembski avoids saying that this intelligence that of God, but he seems quite willing to let the public think that his presumed evidence of design points directly to the one and only God of the Abrahamic religions.

Much of Dembski's rhetoric is apparently borrowed from Phillip Johnson, a law professor from the University of California. Johnson doesn't have a chapter in the Science and Religion anthology, but he is well known for claiming that science is not objective and open-minded since it automatically rules out all supernatural explanations regardless of the "evidence" for them.

Johnson evidently is a darn good lawyer. He can make me feel positively guilty for being prejudiced in favor of naturalistic explanations. I have to consciously remind myself that it is the impossibility of testing supernatural explanations that keeps them out of science. Johnson makes it seem as if all scientists were committed atheists hell bent on destroying religion. And he's good at it. Dembski, too, can lay on the guilt for not taking his "evidence" for intelligent design seriously.

Dembski argues that intelligent design is already "mainstream" science because surveys show that a majority of the public thinks that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution in public school classes. Closer examination, however, reveals that the public knows virtually nothing about intelligent design or its scientific merits, or lack thereof. I've seen an article that documents this observation. But I prefer the empirical approach. The next time you sit next to a stranger on, say, an airliner, ask him if he thinks public schools should teach intelligent design theory along with evolution in the schools. If he answer yes, ask him how intelligent design theory works and what the evidence for it is.

It is strange that Dembski uses the public's apparent acceptance of intelligent design to argue that the subject is already mainstream science. Yet, in the same article he points out that virtually 100% of the public currently accepts astrological predictions as valid predictors of the future. There is the implication by Dembski in this later observation that the public's opinions about science can't be trusted after all. I agree.

Dembski and Johnson both carry on at great length that scientists are members of an elite club that demands that the public accept its conclusions on faith alone. This criticism really hurts me. I imagine that it would hurt any career teacher of science. I spent much of my life trying to open our "club" to all comers. Our schools commit large sums of public money in an effort to promote "scientific literacy." The goal is not only to train new scientists, it is also to allow the public to evaluate scientific claims without help from "club" members. Despite all of this effort, we are often regarded as nothing more than a dogmatic priesthood offering beliefs that must be accepted on faith alone. It is enough to make me cry!

Dembski actually plays a rather small role in the Science and Religion anthology. It is just that I find his contribution terribly frustrating. As with the parents of the wayward child, I keep asking myself where we went wrong. In both cases there is no simple answer.

There are some straight forward answers to other questions in the anthology. One of thesequestions is, 'Why do theologians keep finding fault with science?" The Church of Rome was not happy with the conclusion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Many of today's evangelicals get up in arms at the conclusion that people are genetically related to the other animals of the Earth.

Vern Bullough, in an essay entitled "Science and Religion in Historical Perspective" makes it easy to understand the reasons why religion and science often find themselves at odds. Bullough argues that religion has traditionally been very willing to incorporate scientific findings as a justification for maintaining the faith. There must be some intrinsic attraction to the skeptical methodology of science where every explanation of nature is tested against observation. Religion shares this attraction to the scientific method. And it would like to have its supernatural beliefs be as well grounded as scientific conclusions.

But problems develop because science changes more rapidly than religion. Then the two "magisteria" of human knowledge get out of synchronization. Religion finds itself saying to science, "Go back to your older beliefs." At the same time, science insists that religion catch up with reality. <>I am reminded of a creation vs. evolution debate I attended a while back. Dr. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research remarked that it was difficult to get evolutionists to stick to a consistent theory [so that Creationists could disprove it]. I can still hear Duane saying, "Just about the time the evolutionist finds evidence that would disprove his theory [and bring him back to creation], he goes and changes the theory [so he can remain an evolutionist]." So science not only changes faster than religion, it also presents a moving target for theologians who would discredit its conclusions. No wonder they are sometimes frustrated with our behavior.

The asynchrony between fast-changing science and the time-tested "truths" of religion could have been avoided in the first place had religion never looked to the sciences for justification of its supernatural beliefs. But humans do what they like. We're not likely to see such restraint any time soon.

If you like reading what the "Take no prisoners" rabble-rousing fundamentalists write, you're in for a treat when you read, "You Can't Have It Both Ways: Irreconcilable Differences?" The author is Richard Dawkins and of course he is a scientific fundamentalist. Dawkins is not just attracted to the scientific way of knowing. It is the only way of knowing anything. All knowledge that is or has been acquired in any other way is automatically wrong, even if the subject area is not open yet to empirical observation.

I must admit that both my emotional temperament and the application of logic lead me to agree with Dawkins, but there is a huge practical drawback to signing on completely to Dawkins' way of thinking and writing. Dawkins would say that since natural laws and principals explain everything about evolution and presumably the origin of life, there is no need to postulate the existence of a supernatural "Creator." From this reasonable conclusion Dawkins extrapolates into the purely supernatural realm and concludes that there is no God. Logically there may not be a need for a Creator of life, but that doesn't preclude the possibility that one (or more) might exist anyway.

Surveys suggest that it is the extrapolation from realm of science into the realm of religion that keeps so many Americans riled up about the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Even though few public school teachers in the U.S. would ever dare teach pure Dawkinsism, the mere existence of Dawkins and his writings seems enough to keep evangelical tempers flaring far into the future.

I have made no attempt to report on all 39 contributions to Science and Religion, but hopefully the sampling given here will allow you to determine if the book is your cup of tea. I think I would understand if it were not.

Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians For Rationality