What’s Wrong With Religious Scientists?

As we have already noted previously, Jerry Coyne has attacked the notion that scientific illiteracy can be blamed on the recent rise of the New Atheists as though they have scared religious people away from science in their mere 5 years as an identifiable movement. Recently in reply to this debate between “New Atheists” like Jerry Coyne on the one hand and those who think science should accommodate faith as a separate respectable arena of knowledge from the scientific one on the other, Michael Ruse attacked the New Atheists and Jerry Coyne responded in kind.  Now David at He Lives has a polemic against Coyne that ends this way:

the part of Coyne’s rebuttal I found most amusing was his demand for evidence that new atheism is harming the cause of evolution—otherwise this is only an opinion.

I agree with him! I have made a very similar argument myself. It doesn’t take many mutations to morph Coyne’s argument into one familiar to my readers:

“Where’s the beef?” Where is the evidence that science and faith are incompatible? This is only an opinion, and no better than the opinion that if Dawkins accepted Christianity he would actually be a better scientist.

Coyne’s argument is not an empirical one, it’s a normative one.  No one is saying that having faith outside of the laboratory necessarily makes you a bad scientist when within it.  Nonetheless there are infamously bad examples of people who bring their faith into the laboratory doing bad science and this is something to worry about because faith of the dogmatic religious kind is antithetical to the scientific methodIt prejudices a faithful scientist against contrary evidence, arbitrarily closes off lines of plausible investigation and gives motivation to exaggerate the fruits of bad theories which superficially confirm one’s faith.

But of course there are many nominal believers who take off their Sunday best when they put on their lab coats.   The are at least four major challenges to level at them:

1.  Insofar as religion inculcates habits of believing without adequate reasons it habituates people towards bad critical thinking skills which involve accepting badly formed premises and assumptions without adequate justification.  This sounds to me at least, by its nature, more likely to lead to bad habits of scientific and other kinds of philosophical and intellectual inferences in general.

Whereas the scientist may be good at only believing stupid things for bad reasons on Sundays while otherwise being a scrupulous thinker the rest of the week—by propping up religious institutions, religious scientists  encourage bad habits of thought in the rest of their fellow churchgoers indirectly through those institutions.

2. Scientists, however good they are in the laboratory, can be challenged on epistemological, metaphysical, and scientific grounds to reject belief in the existence of God.  Every one is responsible for having a good philosophical reason to believe or not to believe.

And it is perfectly acceptable, and even necessary, that intelligent atheists make such public philosophical arguments lest the only voices in this crucial debate in the public square are the religious ones.  And it IS a public debate since beliefs have public consequences.  The decision to believe or not is a private one.  The debate about what one should believe should be extremely public and treated seriously.  And atheists (be they scientists, psychologists, philosophers, or whomever else) have every right to push back against religious scientists whenever they draw dubious philosophical conclusions in the public square.

And scientists do not get a free pass to have bad philosophical views on metaphysics or epistemology or religion simply because they are good at science.  And scientists who think that their scientific insights help us understand the question of the existence of God have every responsibility to relay to the public how their findings might contribute to that important question.

3. Normatively speaking, I think a case can and should be made, that scientists betray the epistemological standards of the laboratory when they do not apply equally rigorous standards of belief in philosophical and religious matters.  Of course many philosophical questions do not admit of solution by the scientific method.  But that does not mean that there is no difference between a good and a bad philosophical argument and that the scientist should complement her rigor about scientific matters with a willingness to assent to irrational propositions in every area in which the scientific method does not provide the conclusive answers.

So, yes, science cannot answer everything.  But that does not mean that theology answers anything. And it does not mean that there are not good philosophical reasons available to reject religious epistemology on principle and theological claims in substance.  It’s not “just an opinion” in the sense of just a completely subjective feeling that can be neither defended nor challenged with reasons.  And it does not mean that what anyone, scientist or otherwise, believes about matters unsettleable by the scientific method is a matter of indifference. And it does not mean that a scientist is off the hook so that she may be less intellectually scrupulous outside the lab than within it.

4. When it comes to the specific question of whether we can demonstrate that faith is in practice an aid or a hinderance to the acceptance of science one only need look at the number one cause of denials of the truth of evolution—religious faith.  Without it, people lose one of the few genuinely motivating incentives they ever have to twist and contort their way around scientific truths.  Regardless of whether you think that those who interpret their faith to necessarily entail denying evolution, people do so on faith all the time and those who accept things on faith are in principle closed-minded about those matters about which they have faith.  Because that’s what faith is, in its epistemological function at least—the firm unshakable commitment to propositions which either lack warrant or have strong evidence against them.  It’s not “mere opinion” to say that that is incompatible with scientific commitment to scrupulous thinking.

For a follow up to my remarks here see More Thoughts On Scientists In The Public Square.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.bodhibonsai.blogspot.com JayVee

    Wow where has this blog been all my life.. :)

    You’re underlined response – or quoted response from one to another – is essentially how I feel about the earlier statements that these are responses of.

    I’d go further, and ask the simple question..

    What ‘is’ God?

    And..

    Why does one have to be wrong, for another to be right?

    Which brings to mind a terrific book I once read: You don’t have to be wrong, for me to be right. Written by a very open minded Jewish Rabbi, of all people (maybe that’s why I find it so captivating)

    What worries me more – is the amout ‘of’ debate that people on both sides seem always ready to bicker about; to counter, to always have to give ‘their’ view. Nothing wrong with that either – but takes away from both their bases with all the Fear behaviour.

    Let people have their God/Allah. Religion played it’s role in humanities civilization, and still has tactful uses today; To those that want to live in ancient scripture, created by ‘man’s hand (how do I BOld that in a reply.. LOL), will simple have very tight walls in their life. That is to say – you live within your beliefs, and they are as walls. When our beliefs are shattered, the walls in our reality are quick to flux; Live with beliefs that are as glass, or at least have really big windows – and a door so you can get in and out yourself. (IE: don’t be a zealot for ‘any’ cause)

    Great post, thanks, going to follow the blog for sure. :)

    Namaste,

  • Dan Fincke

    Thanks Jay for the kind words (and especially for taking the time to generously review Camels With Hammers on Blog Explosion)!

    In addition to some of the posts I linked to above in the body of this post, I recommend you check out this post which explores what you just said about the challenges that absolutists have in keeping their world coherent.

    I do disagree about whether it is relevant that we be right or wrong or whether we can all be equally right about these issues. It is possible that we often mean the same things translated through different symbols but there are some genuine disagreements and I hope to demonstrate why they matter.

    Thanks again for coming by!

  • RickRay

    I have seen cartoons where the religious scientist works out the solution for a life saving medicine up to about 99% and then says, “Let god take care of the rest of it.” That’s what the real problem is with this kind of teeter tottering.


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