As wonderful as I think the website Understanding Science is, I do have — as I said — objections to its statements regarding the relationship between science, religion, and atheism. The website lists among its misconceptions about science the notions that “science contradicts the existence of God” and that “scientists are atheists”; it holds that science and religion essentially deal with separate realms, the natural and the spiritual respectively (what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria” ), and that therefore they need not be in conflict — indeed are not in conflict in the minds of many people, many scientists included.
Fair enough; it’s certainly true that people can, if they choose, believe in the claims of science and the claims of religion simultaneously. But just because people can accommodate both in their minds does not mean that both are equally true.
Here is the website’s statement, with the “myth” to be debunked in bold:
Science contradicts the existence of God. Because of some vocal individuals (both inside and outside of science) stridently declaring their beliefs, it’s easy to get the impression that science and religion are at war. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Because science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations, it cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities — like God.
This is, on its face, ridiculous. First, this statement creates a false equivalence between apologists for religion and outspoken atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins by dismissing both sides as “strident” without even a brief mention of the actual arguments involved. Second — and more to the point — it also falsely asserts that science, dealing “only” with the natural world, can therefore have nothing to say about any supernatural claims.
Of course it can. If science can have no say about the supernatural, then doctors would have absolutely no opinion about whether a patient’s condition is due to food poisoning or demonic possession. We would never truly know if the garden out front was ruined by badgers or by elves; or if a tsunami was caused by an undersea quake or by a temper tantrum from Poseidon. And we would never be completely able to rule out the existence of trolls, unicorns, dragons, invisible schools for wizardry, Santa Claus, or the deities and monsters of a thousand different mythologies. But of course we can and do rule out such things, because we accept or reject such claims based on the amount and quality of evidence that supports them. As Carl Sagan often said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Or as Christopher Hitchens more contemptuously puts it: “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”
Science has been debunking supernatural claims and replacing them with naturalistic explanations for as long as science has existed. Earthquakes turn out not to be caused by the rampaging of distant giants, but by the fracture and grind of tectonic plates. Lightning turns out not to be the wrath of God, but a burst of electrical energy that can be safely guided to the ground by metal rods. Diseases of the body and mind turn out not to be caused by demons, but by viruses and chemical imbalances for which medical and psychiatric treatments are available. It’s true that people — including many eminent scientists — have invoked the so-called “God of the gaps” to explain whatever is currently mysterious and unknown, but it’s also true that such mysteries are usually cleared up by other scientists in later generations — and the explanation always, always turns out to be a naturalistic one. As our understanding of the nuts and bolts of the Cosmos grows, we find — like the French mathematician Laplace — that God as a hypothesis is, increasingly, no longer required.
The Understanding Science website concedes as much:
This is not to suggest that science and religion never come into conflict. Though the two generally deal with different realms (natural vs. spiritual), disagreements do arise about where the boundaries between these realms lie when dealing with questions at their interface. And sometimes, one side crosses a boundary in its claims. For example, when religious tenets make strong claims about the natural world (e.g., claiming that the world was created in six days, as some literal interpretations of the Bible might require), faith and science can find themselves in conflict.
I have to admire the determination of the website’s authors to be absolutely diplomatic about the issue; they can bring themselves to say only that in such cases the two sides are “in conflict,” without actually saying which side is right. Would it have been so bad to come out and explicitly declare that the creationist interpretation is, you know, wrong?
And although the authors describe this conflict as an exception, a mere skirmish at the borders, this is precisely the point. Whenever religion makes an assertion about the natural world, or about supernatural forces affecting the natural world, then it makes an empirical claim which absolutely is subject to scientific investigation. This includes, I think, religion’s central claim: that God exists, both as the creator and mover of the physical universe and as the source of human morality. And if the existence of God can be called into question, then the sacred and inviolate rules by which religion would have us live can and should be questioned as well; religious injunctions shouldn’t be obeyed merely because “God said so” (for how can such reasoning stand if God turns out to be a fictional character?) but should be examined and debated to see if such commands actually make sense. In other words, without its supernatural claims to prop it up, religion is simply philosophy — a human-made system of ideals and moral principles that can admit of error, discussion, and improvement.
Which brings me to a related statement on the website:
Scientists are atheists. This is far from true. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and that more than 75% believed that religions convey important truths. Some scientists are not religious, but many others subscribe to a specific faith and/or believe in higher powers. Science itself is a secular pursuit, but welcomes participants from all religious faiths.
I have no problem with the last sentence — provided religious scientists can turn off their faith-brains and turn on their skeptical brains while they’re at work. But I think the rest of the paragraph is misleading, or wilfully dishonest at worst. The fact that many scientists have a “religious affiliation” says nothing about how religious they actually are; and the fact that a majority believe that religions “convey important truths” has no bearing on whether they think those moral principles come from a divine creator, or whether they simply regard religions as human ethical systems with occasionally good ideas. The fact is that there is a much higher percentage of atheists and agnostics among American scientists (60%) than in the general American public (6% or less), and an even higher percentage of nonbelievers among the scientific elite, the members of the National Academy of Sciences (72% or more). Why that should be the case is up for debate, but clearly there is something to the correlation between rigorous skepticism and scientific thinking on the one hand and atheism or agnosticism on the other. The more one adopts a scientific worldview, the more likely it is that one rejects, or at least is less in thrall to, the claims of faith. And that’s something the Understanding Science website glosses over — understandably, perhaps, given its aim of promoting science to a predominantly religious public; but disappointing to me nonetheless.
Can we reconcile science and faith in our minds? Of course we can. But I think this says less about whether science and faith are intrinsically reconcilable, and more about our own willingness to be rational in some areas and irrational in others — to live in the messy gray area between two opposed worldviews, and avoid the uncomfortable questions and hard conclusions.
Recommended reading: Richard Dawkins, When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf
(Photo via Flickr)