Last night, I went out with a friend from high school. Let’s call her… Bob. Bob’s an engineer and she’s religious. At some point, conversation turned to God (I swear, it always does when I’m around…) and I mentioned that I’d been reading a lot of the back and forth over Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.
The authors make a claim that scientists hurt their own cause when they say you can’t be both scientific and religious.
I really want to support what Mooney and Kirshenbaum say. It’d be great it that were true, because it opens the door for extremely religious people to also share in the joy of science. My friend, who doesn’t get involved in a lot of religious debate, thought their position was obviously right. She believes in God, and she accepts science. She wondered: Why is that so hard to do?
So what about the virgin birth? I asked. That’s an example of something that directly contradicts what we know about how babies are made.
Bob said that was true… but she didn’t really believe in the whole virgin birth thing. Crisis averted.
So what about Jesus resurrecting himself three days after he died? Surely, that goes against anything science has shown us about the nature of death.
Bob wasn’t sure about that one.
But she wasn’t about to let go of the God concept.
And that’s really the gist of the argument. Ultimately, if you think good science can be trusted to predict what’s going to happen in certain situations (and what happened in the past), then you can’t accept that God will intervene. That would undermine everything we know about science.
How can you reconcile the two? By compartmentalizing faith and science, treating them with different gloves.
That’s why people like Francis Collins can accept evolution while believing God started the whole process. He believe in different kinds of evidence — one that involves logic and reason and another that I guess involves whatever makes you feel happy.
M & K offer this suggestion:
The public’s willingness to reject science for religious reasons is certainly lamentable. But by arguing that science contradicts religion and makes it untenable, many atheists reinforce the very concerns that are keeping people from accepting science to begin with….
A far better approach is to work with religious believers to help them separate their personal religion from everybody’s shared science, and move toward a much needed middle ground.
I think they’re right in one point… if we say science contradicts religion, it does indeed make it difficult for the religious to accept science.
But it’s their loss, not ours.
While we can bend over backwards to show them ways the two areas can reconcile, we’ve already gone too far. At some point, we have to be able to say that there’s no evidence that God plays any role in the world as we know it, no evidence that Biblical notions of Creation and miracles are true.
It’s virtually impossible to find a “middle ground” because religious people constantly want to draw the line further into the realm of science — where it doesn’t belong.
For the Intelligent Design proponents, “shared science” includes the notion that evolution is bunk. They’re not about to accept that it’s just part of their “personal religion.”
If M & K really want their book to have an impact, here’s what they should do:
Stop going to bookstores for the book tour.
Go to churches instead. (Good luck getting invited.)
Make the case that Christians ought to embrace science and explain what that entails — acceptance of evolution, climate change, and the age of the earth, to name a few. Tell them that it’s possible to believe in God and those scientific concepts.
See what the response is like.
Try to avoid getting lynched.
If they can do that successfully a few times, I’ll take them more seriously.
And when that doesn’t go well, it’s not the fault of pro-science/anti-religion advocates like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. I guarantee most evangelicals have never heard of either. The problem is that scientific facts contradict popular religious beliefs, and the other side is not about to compromise.
I doubt an army of Neil deGrasse Tysons and other great science communicators can fix that.