“But lots of scientists are religious!” and other arguments on science and religion

So I’ve resolved to get my book’s section on science finished this month. One thing I want to do in it is address responses to Dawkins’ comments on the relationship between religion and science (and responses to the Gnu Atheists more generally here, but Dawkins is the name that comes up most often in this particular debate).

One difficulty here is that, aside from his controversial argument that God is highly improbable, the claims Dawkins makes about science and religion in The God Delusion are actually fairly mild. He talks about how evolution undermines the argument from design, and also talks about how many religious questions may not be scientifically answerable in practice, but they are scientifically answerable in principle. Take the virgin birth–in principle, we could have empirical evidence showing Jesus’ mother either was or was not a virgin when she conceived him, even though we do not in fact have such evidence.

One way to respond to this is to deny that things like the virgin birth are what religion is “really” about. This is the strategy of Gould’s NOMA, and has been adopted by a number of Dawkins’ critic, some explicitly endorsing NOMA, others using other banners like “methodological naturalism.” Not a terribly plausible response, but at least it’s honest.

On the other hand, I have the impression that a lot of people read Dawkins here as saying something that he’s never said. He’s never said that it’s impossible to be religious and a scientist, nor has ever said anything as simplistic as “evolution disproves the idea of God” or “evolution is logically incompatible with God” or anything like that. That people do think Dawkins has said these is suggested, for example, by the fact that people arguing that science and religion are compatible (whatever that means) often stress the existence of religious scientists.

Here, for example, is an oft-quoted bit from Gould:

Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism, thus proving that the two great realms of nature’s factuality and the source of human morality do not strongly overlap.

I’d really like to get more examples of this kind of thing: of arguing that science and religion are compatible because some scientists are religious, or attempts to criticize Dawkins by arguing at length that evolution and religion aren’t technically incompatible, stuff like that. I strongly suspect there are quite a few examples to be found from the Chris Mooneys and Michael Ruses of the world, and perhaps in official statements from organizations like the NSCE. Who can help me out here?

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    Eugenie Scott of the NCSE definitely uses the “some scientists are religious” argument in her talks. I have witnessed this first-person.
    video of Scott (2:56) discussed on Jerry Coyne’s site
    Here’s Peter M. Hess, “Director, Religious Community Outreach, NCSE” in a web page on the NCSE site:
    God and Evolution:

    Nonetheless, according to a 1997 survey by Edward J Larson and Larry Witham, roughly 40% of American scientists are theistic evolutionists themselves!

  • Daniel Engblom

    Why don’t you contact Jerry Coyne over at whyevolutionistrue.com? He’s been writing about these sorts of things for a long time, could probably pull out many examples for you fast.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Here’s a (58:20) video by Eugenie Scott in which she probably uses that argument
    Eugenie Scott: In the beginning, science, origins, and religion
    I haven’t watched the entire video, but the title is similar to the talk I witnessed in person.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Scott gives an entire talk about how science and religion are compatible. It includes the usual, artificial distinction between “methodological naturalism” and “philosophical materialism,” claims that science cannot test the supernatural, etc.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    You could look up the work of Elaine Howard Ecklund, Templeton-funded professor of sociology at Rice U., who has taken surveys of scientists on religious belief. First she draws conclusions contrary to her data, then she ditches the statistics to cling to anecdotes. Also anyone who cites Ecklund to support their own accomodationism is suspect. You can find discussion of this at whyevolutionistrue and elsewhere.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Saying that science and religion are compatible because there are religious scientists is like saying oil and water are compatible because you can put them in the same glass.

    • machintelligence

      All you need is a strong dose of tolerance for cognitive dissonance and it works just fine.

      • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

        While I’m on the analogy kick, saying science and religion are compatible because there are religious scientists is like saying that baseball and football are compatible because there are athletes who do both.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          My favourite argumentum ad ridiculum: A Jew in the SS
          Therefore, Judaism is compatible with Nazism.

  • eric

    Ken Miller has also given lectures and interviews where he uses the “many scientists are religious” argument to support compatibility. You should be able to find some public statements and you tube videos by him fairly easily.
    Here’s one article…published today (1/9/13) in fact!

  • Bob Jase

    “But lots of scientists are religious!”

    And an even higher percentage of convicted criminals are religious but you never hear the religiosi bragging about that.

  • Counter Apologist

    I think the most unique problem with science and religion is that sure, you can mix the two and “keep the faith”.

    The problem is that lots of science will contradict specific dogmas or miracles and specific instances of miracles, which will create huge theological problems.

    In Christianity, Evolution and genetics disproves the concept of a singular Adam and Eve that could have sinned. But Paul references the fall of Adam and his headship of the human race as the reason Jesus had to die. If Adam and Eve are just a metaphor, then did Jesus have to be sacrificed for a metaphor?

    Further, how is death introduced via sin, if death is required for evolution to work for Adam to get here? What’s worse is that while Natural Selection is a very elegant method for the development of divergent species, it’s fucking cruel as hell.

    If that was “designed” as the method for us to get here, then god is one hell of an asshole.

    You see this also with Special Relativity and the Kalam argument, if you accept the standard interpretation of a 4D spacetime and Relativity, then not only do you undermine the Kalam argument, but you also get rid of the Christian dogma of “creation ex-nihilo”.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    This book is a collection of essays from various Christian scholars trying to reconcile science, especially evolution, with the Christian faith. There are some pretty creative “solutions” here.


    I took an entire college course on faith and science. I can lend you this book, or others from my collection, if you would like.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    These were the titles from the class I took in 2007 on Faith and Science.

    Can A Darwinian Be A Christian — Michael Ruse
    God Did It, But How? — Robert B. Fischer
    The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science — Conrad Hyers
    The Unrandom Universe — Sigmund Brouwer
    Belief in God in an Age of Science — John Polkinghorne
    When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? — Ian G. Barbour

    • Reginald Selkirk

      I haven’t read all of those, but from the names and titles, it looks heavily slanted towards accomodationism. Did they have someone holding up the other side?

      • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

        The Barbour book was used as an outline for the class and the different methods of approaching science and religion were titled: Conflict; Independence; Dialogue, and Integration.

        Conflict is just as it sounds, but we were never went deeply into this one, on either side. Creationists were dismissed, as was Dawkins.

        Independence is basically NOMA.

        Dialogue is basically accomodationalism, and the class was pretty heavily slanted in this direction.

        Integration went into more interesting theories like process theology. These didn’t result in a particularly orthodox god, but some Christians take this route. It’s also something I haven’t seen an atheist author address specifically, probably because it’s such a minority view within Christianity.

  • Steven Carr

    The contraceptive pill was developed mainly by a Catholic. (John Rock)

    So contraception and Catholicism must be totally compatible.

  • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    Michael Dowd gets absolutely preachy about it. All he really says, IMO, is that God = everything, but he does a lot of other redefining of language to make religion sound like science. I gotta give him some credit though, because he manages to get into churches and Sunday Schools and talk about science. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eqfvb4Mvaqk

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    The statement quoted in the title refers to the fallacious argument that if a person who practices one method of thinking also practices a very different method of thinking, then the two methods are compatible, and the beliefs resulting from those two methods are not contradictory.

    Coming from my background in psychology, I usually respond to this argument by talking about the human mind’s ability to compartmentalize conflicting ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compartmentalization_%28psychology%29
    It really is remarkable how some very intelligent and sane people can have minds like the pigeon hole sorting cupboards in a post office. Completely contradictory beliefs can cohabit in the mind because they’re only brought to consciousness (pulled out of their pigeon hole) according to a context where they will be useful. So a scientist can wear his “scientist hat” in the lab Monday through Friday, his “party animal” hat on Saturday, and his “pious true believer” hat on Sunday, and he has little or no discomfort from cognitive dissonance. If he accidentally or is compelled to look at all the disparate compartments at once, like a postal worker seeing the whole thing, he will feel anxiety and will shut that down by distracting himself, or by using the balm of more elaborate rationalizations about why two ideas are somehow not really in conflict. These rationalizations usually don’t hold up if they’re examined more closely, but the person is usually able to avoid having to do that.
    Cohabitation does not mean compatibility.

    A person can remove these compartments if he or she has enough motivation and integrity, but it is often a painful process because those barriers were put there in the first place for emotional reasons.

    • smrnda

      I agree 100% that it’s compartmentalization, particularly when there might be social incentives to keep up appearances, and think of the status a religious scientist would gain in a church community – their existence alone might prop up a lot of people’s beliefs since if a *scientist says its true, it must be true!*

      Whenever I meet a person who is religious and claims some level of scientific competence, I always interrogate them on the specifics of their belief. Just my own experience, but I find many of them have fairly vague systems of religious belief so their beliefs aren’t precise claims easily labeled true or false.

    • ACN

      I agree in general, but this specifically, was my personal tactic when I was religious.

      There was a line in my brain that neither side was allowed to cross. It was quite painful tearing it down.

  • http://carnedes.blogpost.com LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume

    It hit me last night that yes, people can make the distinction betwixt methodological and ontological naturalism but that is such an ignoratio elenchi in that why, science use mechanism, not teleology, in order to work and besides, as science finds no directed outcomes, then per Lamberth’s the teleonomic argument, no divine intent, and thus God cannot be Himself as Creator, Grand Designer, and lacking those referents and having contradictory, incoherent attributes, He cannot exist! Thus, by analysis, not naturalist dogma, we naturalists do not have to traverse the Cosmos nor have omniscience ourselves to declare no God exists! Besides, the teleonomic and its forming a part of the ignostic-Ockham, other naturalist arguments relieve Him of referents one by one.
    Ti’s not hubris nor dogma, but lack of evidence and incoherence that disqualifies His existence. Like the ontological argument, all theistic arguments reek of animism as Lamberth’s argument from animism notes that theism= reduced animism as it rests on no intent just as full animism with its many spirits behind natural forces lack intent, being thus superstitious. Polytheism fails in the same manner.
    Yes, from the side of religion, incompatibility rules, but from the side of science, incompatibility rules! Thus, let accommodationists just note that religious people can accept evolution.
    By the way, as theistic evolution fails, lacking directed outcomes, ti’s no more than an oxy-moronic obscurantism that Thales of Miletus and Strato of Lampsacus eons ago urged other not to accept as compatible with science. Also, mechanistic philosophers of their time urge mechanism as the process against teleology , but with his teleology and his own science, Aristotle, held back science whatever his merits as a naturalist may be.
    Essentially, as Paul B.Weisz in ” The Science of Biology” notes that teleology implies negating time by putting the future before the past, the effect before the cause, making for backwards causation. Why would then scientists do experiments, as all would be directed outcomes, ever the same results!
    Natural forces then have no director. Randomness also works, so again, no directed outcomes. Carneades’ atelic argument notes that all teleological ones – to design, from reason, fine-tuning, intelligent design and probability beg the question of directed outcomes. This is not as Dr. Scot maintains just a philosophical point, but an essential scientific one!
    How then can one have a relationship with a non-entity? Ah, by magical thinking! As Sam Harriss says, no religious people are not psychologically disturbed but religiously disturbed [my formulation].
    And science finds no virgin births, resurrection, miracle and other such woo that why, yes, science can declare religions wrong!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    And science finds no virgin births…

    Yes it does, but not amongst the mammals; and a mammal giving virgin birth to a male would be wondrous indeed.

  • http://carnedes.blogpost.com LordGriggsSkepticGriggsyCarneadesHume

    No to the Virgin birth.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    Do, ti’s not so simplistic to find that evolution indirectly disprove God as Clinton Richard Dawkins notes@ Theists must in a general way show how He works in the Cosmos, instead of wrongly assuming that evolution is his method of creation! That, as of now is Lamberth’s theists’ false assumption argument. which with the teleonomic keel hauls theism from the inception.
    Both support the Lamberth theism = reduced animism argument, just as superstitious as full animism or polytheism in that they all deny mechanism and affirm teleology.
    My arguments reflects explicitly what the conservation of knowledge finds true. Theistic evolution contradicts then that, being thus no more than an oxyomoronic obscurantism!
    Yes to J Quinton, Richard Wade and Reginald Selkirk! Read carefully my long previous commentary.
    How could one have a relationship then with a pseudo-explanation?