Science and Religion
Book review by Dr. William Thwaites
Science and Religion: Are They
Edited by Paul Kurtz. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. 2003. (Paper $20)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.