Steven Pinker: Stop bashing religion. You’re hurting science.

Connor Wood

Let’s face it: we have a science literacy problem in the United States. Significant percentages of our population don’t know what a genome is, what tectonic plates do, or what a double-blind study accomplishes. Worse, very large chunks of the population actively reject basic scientific claims about our evolutionary origins and our effects on the climate. So why do famous, influential, charismatic scientists – most recently, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the New Republic – insist on selling science to the public by trashing religion? Has it never occurred to them that they might be actively hindering the goal of making science appeal to laypeople?

Pinker’s essay sets out to refute – or, rather, co-opt – the accusation that his views are “scientistic” rather than scientific. Scientism refers to a type of aggressive science jingoism that disparages all other methods of acquiring knowledge. In this latest essay, Pinker seeks to steal the normally derogatory term and make it his own – just as, he says, gay people have done with the formerly insulting word “queer.” In Pinker’s “good” scientism, science will take over as the basic intellectual tool for understanding all aspects of the world, including morality and purpose. This implies, of course, that religion and science are in competition for the very same turf, and religion is destined to lose:

(T)he findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history.…In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.

To be sure, Pinker also makes another, and much more defensible, point in his essay: that the humanities must begin to engage the sciences, or they risk their own extinction. He is absolutely right about this. The humanities need to stop hiding in the sand when it comes to science. For God’s sake, literature professors, social scientists, and critical theorists need to accept basic scientific knowledge about human biology, culture, and evolution. Please. Enough already of the obscurantist baloney of postmodernism and its insufferable refusal to evaluate truth claims or even countenance attempts at objectivity. Just because true objectivity is technically impossible doesn’t mean that attempts to be objective get us nowhere. They clearly get us somewhere – they get us to F=Ma, and special relativity, and the double helix, and evolutionary science. They also get us to the moon.* A creative and rigorous engagement with scientific knowledge led by well-trained, savvy humanities scholars could easily lead to the most staggering era of intellectual advancement since the Renaissance. I am not exaggerating about this.

But if Pinker and his comrades want this era to arrive – if they want science to become integrated not only into technological life and the academy, but also into everyday citizens’ basic personal outlooks about the world – then they need to stop insulting religion. Doing so is myopic and destructive. It does nothing but give scientists like Pinker the warm, self-satisfied feeling that they are better than average people, and it gives those average people every reason in the world to resent and disdain scientific authority.

But What If Science Really Is the Only Way?

You may ask, but what if religious and scientific claims about the world really are incompatible? Shouldn’t we dismiss religious beliefs then? The answer is yes – in cases where the two genuinely do conflict. The earth is not 6,000 years old; sorry, creationists. Humans are evolved organisms, and our biological ancestors were predecessors of bonobos and chimpanzees. Sorry, fundamentalists.

But in most cases, religious claims are nowhere near as determinate and materially precise as Pinker seems to think they are. Famed anthropologist Roy Rappaport claimed – correctly, I think – that religious literature, beliefs, and myths are instead culturally evolved methods of activating particular emotional and bodily states. In other words, the vast majority of religious claims aren’t propositions, such as “the cat is sitting on the bed” or “the gravitational attraction between two bodies follows an inverse-square law.” Propositional statements make clear, verifiable (or falsifiable) claims about the world. When two propositions make competing claims, one of them has to be false: either the cat is on the bed or not. Period. There’s no in-between (even for Schrödinger).

This is why Pinker thinks religion is doomed to the wastebasket of history. He believes that religions make determinate, propositional claims about the universe that directly compete with scientific propositions. But religious claims and stories are almost never propositions. They are attempts to inspire in people a felt understanding of certain aspects of emotional and social life.

WARNING! Slightly Poetic Language Ahead

Want to know what I mean? Read your Bible or Qur’an, but activate your poetic self first. Start with, say, this staggering second verse from Genesis:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

For fun, listen to electronic musician Moby’s meditation on this verse while you read. Let this imagery wash over you; let it infuse the corners of your mind that think not in propositions, but in feelings, images, and metaphors. If you don’t feel something moving your affective, or emotional, self, you’re either dead or an insurance actuary.

Here’s the thing: not only is Genesis 1:2 not literally true, but the assertion that “darkness was upon the face of the deep” is so grammatically and semantically opaque that it could not possibly reference anything concrete. We’re clearly not dealing with Pinker’s kind of truth here. And that’s the point. Instead of looking for testable propositions in Genesis, pay attention to the sensations your body feels as you read – the tightening of your stomach, perhaps, or the hair raising on your neck. If there is such a thing as religious truth, it’s in those internal, bodily responses – not in externalized logical propositions about a man in the sky who made everything.

It might sound like I’m going soft. But I’m about as pro-science as it gets. I grew up learning constellations, watching NOVA specials on galaxy formation, wishing I could be Captain Picard (with hair). Words like “quasar” and “red shift” were bandied easily around our house. When I say that religious truths are different from scientific ones, it’s not because I’m some reactionary anti-science atavism. It’s because I know that the myths and practices of religious traditions speak to our bodies, to our intuited senses, in a way that abstract, propositional, scientific knowledge often can’t.†

Why This Stuff Matters

There are seven billion of us. And we are hungry. We are at the tipping point of our impact on this planet. Science is correctly telling us that the crisis moment is now. But because science has been cast as the enemy of the experiential metaphors that speak to people’s embodied selves, countless millions of us reject science’s desperate warnings. Science has little credibility with them…and scientists like Pinker, by insulting religion in the name of science, are in many ways to blame.

If climate scientists are right – and ask coastal New Yorkers whether they are – we are facing major, major challenges in the coming decades. In order to have any chance of making it safely to the 22nd century, our culture needs to establish some broad societal consensus on scientific ecology. And since ecology isn’t intelligible without evolution, we need consensus on Darwinian evolution, too. In other words, we desperately need to overcome the cultural divides that make regular people feel like science is somehow the enemy – or simply “over there,” alien, not for them.

So, then, what do science advocates such as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne really want? Do they want to feel like the privileged and superior guardians of an esoteric, hard-to-gain knowledge? Or do they want to live in a world where everyday people – who, by the way, are the ones who build the roads professors drive on, grow the food they eat, and make the beds in their hotels – feel comfortable welcoming basic scientific knowledge into their worldviews?

Because you can’t have both, at least not in equal proportions. If you force people to choose between the traditions and metaphors that give their lives embodied meaning and objective knowledge, they will damned well choose meaning – and I don’t blame them. So, please, don’t force that choice. Most religious claims are not propositions, and are thus not in competition with science in their own terms. Get off your smug horse and stop bashing religion, spiritual beliefs, and traditions when advocating science. Let people feel that science is something they can actually engage, something accessible. Our descendants, should we survive the onslaught nature is almost certainly gearing up to unleash against us, will thank you.

Addendum: Don’t worry, I’m not letting religious believers off the hook when it comes to science. Check back in a couple of weeks for a follow-up post, in which I’ll be just as stern with religious believers who DO make propositional claims that contradict science as I am here with reflexively antireligious science advocates.  

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* In case you haven’t picked up on this by reading my other posts, I really like space. Space is awesome. I had to tell my advisor the other day that if NASA succeeds in developing warp drive, I am done with religious studies and am enrolling in astronaut training.

† Many scientists may counter that gazing up into the night sky or looking through an electron microscope speaks volumes to the emotional self. This is true, but science is far more about extracting ourselves from such experiences in order to reflect on, ruminate about, and form mental models of them than it is about immersing ourselves in them. Religious experience is about immersion; science, in the bulk of its practice, is about extracting ourselves from immersion in order to create and evaluate models of it.

  • Eli

    The reason scientist and science-minded people criticize religion is because religion is the reason people reject science. You think evolution and climate deniers don’t base their misinformed opinions on their literal religious beliefs? It doesn’t matter that you think “Most religious claims are not propositions, and are thus not in competition with science in their own terms” because clearly, at least in the US most (religious) people disagree with you, given our absurdly high percentage of creationists.

    I agree that simply bashing religion isn’t going to win people over. But to call us “smug,” “self-satisfying,” when we’re the ones being accused of bias, of following Satan, of trying to control the world and ruin it for all the “good Christians” or whatever religious group decides we’re wrong this time because facts don’t tell them what they want to hear, well I’m sorry, you’re being no better than them by claiming WE’RE the arrogant ones. They’re the ones framing it as having to choose between facts and their feelings, and I DO blame them for both that dichotomy and choosing their emotions over reality. Especially when people are perfectly capable of finding meaning within reality, not just by rejecting it.

    So absolutely, make the case that religion and science are not in conflict, that religion should be about meaning and emotion, not facts. But religious people are the ones you’re going to need to try to convince, not scientists. I think most scientist would have no problem leaving religion alone if it would stop lying about us. After all, what’s the alternative that you propose? Give our distrust among religious people, we’re not really in the position to tell them they should focus more on the personal meaning their religion brings them and leave the descriptions or reality to us. That’s kind of what got us to this point in the first place.

  • Jim

    Unfortunately, I see the split between religion and science especially in what you say in your comment. Science deals in facts (that is, the only knowledge that is important in the public sphere) while religion deals with personal emotions and meaning (knowledge that only matters in a person’s private life).

    I am quite religious (A pastor in a conservative but not fundamentalist church) but I also love science. As far as I can tell, science is the study of what is. The physical. What upsets me is when people use their own religious or philosophical assumptions under the guise of science to tell us what ought to be. The study of what is can’t ever lead us to what ought to be.

    What ought to be, discussions of meaning and purpose that include present and eternal consequences, are not scientific facts, but they are discussions that deal with public knowledge and public good.

    I am not defending religious people who recklessly and foolishly dismiss science by misreading the bible or other religious texts. It’s especially fun when they do it on the internet or while holding their smartphones, made possible by the same science they decry.

    Oh… Connor, I would be in line right behind you to sign up for Astronaut school. I grew up dreaming of zipping around the galaxy with Kirk or Picard.

  • Brian Westley

    Scientism refers to a type of aggressive science jingoism that disparages all other methods of acquiring knowledge.

    What other methods work nearly as well? I would also disparage e.g. all other explanations of apparent retrograde motion of the planets that differed significantly from the conclusion that the earth and the other planets orbit the sun.

    Some religions pretend they result in the acquisition of knowledge, but since they regularly result in mutually contradictory untestable statements that cannot be demonstrated, I don’t consider these untestable assertions to be knowledge.

  • connorwood

    You haven’t understood what I’m saying about religion. It’s not about propositions. It’s about evoking subjective states that generate insights into existential, social, and affective realities. If religious people treat their faiths’ teachings as testable scientific propositions, then they’re making the same mistake you are. In fact, many religious people DO make this mistake. But I’m not writing this article for them – I’m writing it for science advocates. So they’re the ones I’m telling to rethink their relationship to religion.

    If you really think you can get somewhere with religious people by insulting them, then you live in a very different world than I do…one in which the basic rules of social life are very, very different. In fact, I think it’s probably imaginary; in real life, you never get ANYWHERE with people by insulting them. Period.

  • connorwood

    A professor of mine at BU, the historian of science Jon Roberts (http://www.bu.edu/history/faculty/jon-h-roberts/), makes a very good case that since the 19th century, the cultural antagonism between religion and science has been driven significantly (but not entirely) by the aggressive public-relations tactics of science advocates like T.H. Huxley and Ernst Häckel. According to his thesis, Huxley and his followers attempted to carve out a place for the newly professionalizing sciences in public culture by denigrating religion, thus causing established churches and religious leaders to lose significant credibility among educated people – credibility that was transferred to the new professions of physiology, biology, chemistry, and so on.

    I think that the real story is more complex than this, of course, but I also think that Roberts (who is a top historian of science, and a really great guy to boot) is probably correct about the basic thesis. Science advocates did a LOT to start the antagonistic relationship between religion and science, particularly from the mid-19th century on. Most sociologists of religion consider American Protestant fundamentalism to be largely a reaction to the aggressive cultural ascendancy of science – before this time, it was very rare to meet a Christian who took the Bible literally. The literalism of much modern Protestantism that you are (rightly) so incensed about is, then, in many ways, a direct reaction against the literalism and anti-religion posturing of science advocates (notice that I’m not saying “scientists,” who often were either religious themselves or had nothing particular to say about it one way or the other). So hardline science advocates bear a major part of the historical and current responsibility for the anti-science attitudes you (again, rightly) decry.

    You might not buy this chain of reasoning. If so, I’d just recommend reading up on the history of science in the 19th century (especially in England after 1859 – you should know why that date is meaningful).

    And at any rate, I can’t see how continuing to insult and denigrate religious people is going to get science advocacy anywhere, especially in the US. It’s like telling someone how stupid they are when you’re trying to give them advice about how to paint a house. The more you call them stupid and imbecilic, the more they’re going to be like, “Well, %$@ you, I’m gonna paint my house the way I want to, then!” If you disagree with this scenario, you have a very, very different (and I think mistaken) view of human nature than I do.

    Oh, and I guess I’m a little confused about one of your points. I’m pretty sure that emotions are PART of reality, not counterposed against it. At least in the world I know. Thanks for reading!

  • Brian Westley

    Where did I say anything about insulting people?!

    I was commenting on the nonsensical definition of “Scientism”, which appears to me to mean “reasonably discerning”.

    By the way, “scientism” seems to be an insulting term to me. It doesn’t appear to be a positive trait, and seems to be disparaging people like me for — what? Not believing untestable assertions?

  • autolukos

    I think there are two problems here:

    First, “religious claims and stories are almost never propositions” doesn’t establish what you seem to want it to. It is quite possible both that most religious claims aren’t propositions susceptible to scientific investigation, and that most religious people believe certain propositions that are susceptible to scientific investigation to be true for religious reasons. One may, for example, both meditate on Genesis 1 and believe that the proposition, “God created the world in more or less its present state in the last 10,000 years or so” is true. Indeed, this sort of belief, mixing propositions in with experience, appears to me to be dominant in both the past and the present; it is why, for example, a Catholic mass involves both performing certain rituals and reciting a creed containing certain propositions. If it is the case that most religious people, for religious reasons, believe that false propositions are true, it is not terribly important to science-religion conflict that most religious claims are not propositions; what is important is that religious people find that science conflicts with the propositional content of their religion.

    Second, this ignores what is happening on the religion side. Pinker has been enjoying a moment in the spotlight, but he is still, I expect, a rather obscure figure to most people. Indeed, I doubt that anyone on the “science” side is as familiar to most people who reject evolution, or the age of the universe, or any other scientific claim you care to choose as are religious leaders. If this is the case, the primary question is whether the change in tone you suggest would matter to religious leaders who teach false propositions. I am quite skeptical of this. Insofar as people like Ken Ham are sincerely convinced that YECism, for example, is true, they are unlikely to change their positions because scientists make the same claims in a more conciliatory tone; insofar as people like Ham react to selfish incentives, they are unlikely to give up their power and prestige because scientists are more conciliatory but claim the same turf. I don’t think you are intentionally trying to deny the agency of religious people, but that seems to be the result of framing the issue in terms of scientists pushing people away.

  • connorwood

    >Some religions pretend they result in the acquisition of knowledge, but since they regularly result in mutually contradictory untestable statements that cannot be demonstrated, I don’t consider these untestable assertions to be knowledge.

    This statement not only showed that you had incorporated almost none of the things I said about religion in this essay, but also that you have little to no respect for people who follow a religious tradition. Committed religious believers would justified in feeling quite insulted by your statement. That’s where that came from.

    Scientism isn’t a term I use myself in this essay, by the way – Pinker himself was reacting to it. I tend to avoid it myself, partly for the reasons you mention.

  • Brian Westley

    This statement not only showed that you had incorporated almost none of the things I said about religion in this essay, but also that you have little to no respect for people who follow a religious tradition.

    No, I have no respect for baseless religious statements that pretend to be knowledge.

    Committed religious believers would justified in feeling quite insulted by your statement.

    By pointing out the obvious?

    Most religious believers realize that many of their tenets contradict the tenets of other believers. Hence, they already know that their tenets are mutually contradictory as compared to other religions.

    Most religious believers realize that practically all of their tenets cannot be demonstrated. They cannot show that their god(s) exist, they cannot show that their afterlife/reincarnation/whatever exists, they cannot show that their founders actually communicated with gods, etc. Hence, they already know that their tenets cannot be demonstrated.

    So they ought to already know that religions, including theirs, regularly result in mutually contradictory untestable statements that cannot be demonstrated.

    I’m not telling them anything new, and I don’t consider these kinds of statements to be any sort of knowledge. If people are insulted by the fact that I don’t believe in their undemonstrated and untestable religious assertions, that’s really their problem, not mine, and I would consider it intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise, even if it might “help” make real science more palatable for a few of them.

  • connorwood

    Autolukos, you make some good points. Especially this:

    > this sort of belief, mixing propositions in with experience, appears to me to be dominant in both the past and the present; it is why, for example, a Catholic mass involves both performing certain rituals and reciting a creed containing certain propositions.

    Clearly, religions also do have propositional content. I do happen to think that the “truths” to which religion claims point, however, are essentially not articulable in a verbal medium – a claim with which a great many theologians throughout history, from Pseudodionysius and Aquinas to the Baal Shem Tov, would agree. For instance, the Catholic Eucharistic claim, “This is the body of Christ,” while intended literally, ought to be something one understands with the “heart,” so to speak (or with non-verbal bodily awareness), not as a purely abstract formulation. So in a sense I think that even propositional religious claims are, as the Buddha put it, fingers pointing to the moon, not the moon itself.

    As to your second point, don’t worry – I’m not letting religious people off the hook (or denying them agency). Check back in a couple of weeks for a second essay on this subject, in which I’ll call on religious believers to be a LOT more responsible when it comes to science and physical knowledge.

  • Joseph M

    At this very minute I am watching a lecture on persuasion and it makes the point that when people are not very engaged in an issue central arguments (facts and statistics) are much less persuasive than peripheral techniques (tone images music) foremost people who are not scientists,the propositional facts of science are not salient therefore tone and presentation becomes much more important (consider how much more likely people are to take relationship advice from Cosmo or Dear Abby rather than Psychology Today).

    For most people their religious tradition is fundamental to their understanding of how to do the most important thing that they do – be a successful member of a community (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/how-did-general-intelligence-evolve). Tasks such as getting along with co-workers, having a good marriage and raising children are things that the part of our brain that does science is bad at(http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201003/if-liberals-are-more-intelligent-conservatives-why-are-lib) and conversely it is the part(s) of our brain that does religion that is good at them which is why only 19 out of 1500 distinct documented cultures are majority atheist (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201004/why-atheists-are-more-intelligent-the-religious) indeed for the major portion(99%) of the worlds historical population there was no difference between religion and culture.

    As most people can get by without having to deal with the scientific underpinnings of how things work but not without understanding how to deal with other people science falls into that category where presentation is much more important than content. And attacking peoples fundamental framework for getting through the majority of their life is bad presentation.

    Re conflicting propositions again Science and religion are tools for solving different classes of problems and telling me that a screwdriver is much better for taking apart the world and understanding it so I should toss all my band-aids dosen’t get very far.

    And I would say that the realization that we use different parts of our brain in these different domains is not exactly a new idea

    “1 Cor. 2:11 (10–12)

    10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
    11 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
    12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.”

    Side note: interesting blog on creativity, intelligence and religion (http://iqpersonalitygenius.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/why-concientiousness-agreeableness.html)

  • Eli

    First, I just want to apologize for breaking two of my rules
    of commenting: don’t post when I’m angry and haven’t thought about it, and don’t post when I don’t have time to reply. So I’m sorry about that.

    Second, I do agree with your main point. I don’t think “bashing”
    religion is at all productive or helpful to science, and to a large extent, I do wish people who are promoting science would stop doing it. I’m not very familiar with the history you described, but it sounds very plausible from what little I do know, so I’d say it unfortunately makes a lot of sense.

    At the same time, I do think it’s unrealistic to claim that religion is ONLY or PRIMARILY about personal meaning because so many people rejecting scientific consensus, dumbing down our science education, etc. do so precisely because scientific discoveries conflict with their religious understanding of the world, even if they’re not truly literalists. For example, people who think that human values somehow become meaningless if we think of ourselves as animals. Emotions, feelings, etc. are an important part of reality (again, my apologies for implying they’re two different things), but that doesn’t make us *not* animals just because that reality doesn’t provide the meaning some people want.

    As for the question of is/ought that Jim mentioned above, while I find it to be an interesting question philosophically, I don’t feel I personally can fairly take a position on what religion “ought” to be since I don’t feel I’m in a position to really make that kind of judgment. I think people more religious or more knowledgeable about religion are in a better position to make that case. So I’d like to agree, but i can’t help but think that I agree because I LIKE that answer, rather than because it necessarily makes sense.

  • Brian Westley

    Re conflicting propositions again Science and religion are tools for solving different classes of problems

    I disagree with that. In my opinion, religions make statements that purport to be facts but have no support, which makes such statements not useful for solving problems.

    Telling people that e.g. praying can heal the sick can result in preventable deaths. Any statements that are useful, such as some moral precepts, are not the exclusive property of religion.

    I think religions worsen things by pretending to be avenues of knowledge; what they get right is not due to religion, and what they get wrong can be disastrous.

  • connorwood

    > I just want to apologize for breaking two of my rulesof commenting: don’t post when I’m angry and haven’t thought about it, and don’t post when I don’t have time to reply. So I’m sorry about that.

    Apology accepted! I try to follow those rules too, and I don’t always succeed. Thanks for being honest.

    >I do think it’s unrealistic to claim that religion is ONLY or PRIMARILY about personal meaning because so many people rejecting scientific consensus, dumbing down our science education, etc. do so precisely because scientific discoveries conflict with their religious understanding of the world

    I agree that religion is not only about personal meaning, because it’s actually mostly about communal meaning. I don’t think I made this as clear as it should be in the article. My basic position is that people have very strong, and very valid, motivations to retain their religious commitments. One of the most important is that religion is what binds communities together. Check out Joseph M’s reply to Brian Westley, below, for a very admirable articulation of this point.

    Finally, I completely agree that religious believers have the responsibility to tackle scientific knowledge head-on. Religious leaders have a major responsibility to communicate their (valid) traditional wisdom in ways that make sense in light of contemporary knowledge. When it comes to the animality of humans, I think this should come very naturally; as Ecclesiastes 3:18 says, “As for the sons of men, God tests them, so that they may see that they themselves are like animals.” In fact, a lot of scientific insights are actually prefigured in religious literature. Muhammad in the Koran constantly talks about how life’s game is about procreating and having children. Darwin, anyone? So I think there’s a lot of potential for religious believers to constructively integrate scientific knowledge, and the barriers to this integration aren’t primarily epistemological. They’re social and emotional – which is why scientists need to start communicating in ways that are less hostile to religion.

    Thanks for a good discussion.

  • connorwood

    Excellent points, Joseph M. Especially this:

    >For most people their religious tradition is fundamental to their understanding of how to do the most important thing that they do – be a successful member of a community

    This is the basic crux of the issue, and I actually wish that I had articulated the relationship between religion and community more clearly in the essay. Religion is about social living. There has not been a difference between religion and culture throughout most of human history, and religion offers extremely effective tools to bind communities together: rhythmic motion during worship that syncs up people’s physiologies; compelling symbols and myths that articulate an identity for the community; emotionally cathartic practices such as communal prayer and singing; and many more.

    And you’re also right about the difference between the networks of the brain that are used for science and those that are used for sociality. These two networks are, in fact, distinct and mutually inhibitory: http://scienceonreligion.org/index.php/news-research/research-updates/553-thinking-about-physics-suppresses-our-social-minds

    Finally, I couldn’t have put this better myself:

    >science falls into that category where presentation is much more important than content. And attacking peoples fundamental framework for getting through the majority of their life is bad presentation.

    Thanks for commenting.

  • kso721

    I mean if it weren’t something like a powerful illustration about ‘religion’ like this, then why shouldn’t certain tenets be questioned?

    Interactive Bible Visual: http://www.bibviz.com

    yeah.

  • Pofarmer

    “that religious literature, beliefs, and myths are instead culturally evolved methods of activating particular emotional and bodily states.”

    I think that’s undoubtedly true, but you are going to have to convince a whole bunch of religious folks that that is “all” their religion is.

  • Pofarmer

    “In fact, a lot of scientific insights are actually prefigured in
    religious literature. Muhammad in the Koran constantly talks about how
    life’s game is about procreating and having children. Darwin, anyone? So
    I think there’s a lot of potential for religious believers to
    constructively integrate scientific knowledge, and the barriers to this
    integration aren’t primarily epistemological.”

    O.K. That sounds like a horrible idea, honestly. Religion, by definition, tends to stagnate, science, by definition, tends to advance. By trying to mold the two, it seems like you’re going to just stagnate folks in a different spot.

  • Pofarmer

    “For instance, the Catholic Eucharistic claim, “This is the body of
    Christ,” while intended literally, ought also to be something one
    understands with the “heart,” so to speak (or with what I’d call bodily
    awareness), not as a purely straightforward, categorical formulation. No
    Catholics are not aware that the wafer is also a wafer. The claim that
    it is ALSO the corpus christi is, then, a great deal more complex and
    layered than a strictly literal reading would suggest – it’s an
    intentionally paradoxical proposition that serves to open the
    communicant’s mind to non-ordinary ways of thinking about reality.”

    Yes, but, Catholics are EXPECTED to believe it literally. Bring up that proposition to one of the Catholic bloggers on Patheos and see what kind of responses you get.

  • connorwood

    > Religion, by definition, tends to stagnate, science, by definition, tends to advance.

    Whose definitions? I’m a PhD student in religious studies, and I’ve passed comprehensive exams in the philosophy and history of science. I have yet to encounter any description of these two concepts that matches yours. Cite your scholars, please.

  • connorwood

    > I think that’s undoubtedly true, but you are going to have to convince a
    whole bunch of religious folks that that is “all” their religion is.

    I don’t think that’s “all” religion is. It’s not a reductionistic argument, although I can see how it comes across as one. Think of it this way: all we have as conscious agents is emotional and bodily states. Perception, cognition, emotion – these are all bodily states. By evoking certain states that lead to certain experiences, and by using those experiences to form and shape communities, religions are dealing with the most central aspects of being alive: how to be a body in community with other bodies. I think that’s pretty far from being a “nothing but” description of religion. I also think it’s proper to describe it as spiritual, and to respect it on its own spiritual terms.

  • BillYeager

    I guess you can criticise that statement on the basis that it absolutely did not define what is stagnating and what is advancing.
    There have been a number of articles in the blogosphere recently concerning the accusations by theists that the skeptic community is obsessed by scientism and that the fervour of said ‘ism’ is no less problematic than that caused by the fervour of the theist fundamentalists. But I think it is rather cheap and lazy of the pro-religious to create this particular boogey-monster of science. It doesn’t really exist in any substantive sense and it can easily be dismissed by the skeptic community as being the blinkered and dysfunctional thought process that it is. Science already studies toxic dysfunction in neurology and psychology, there exists a great wealth of knowledge on the subject that can be used as an objective evaluation of the unhealthy psychological nature of scientism and those who, apparently, practice it.
    Religion as Art, with the capital A, is the get-out clause to end all ‘what can religion do that secularism cannot?’ discussions. Secularism can, and does, have Art and artistic expression, but it would actually need the construct of religion, or at least the understanding of same, in order to appreciate Religion-as-Art.
    Unfortunately, Religion tends to follow people home after the performance, whereas Cirque-de-Soleil do not.
    That is why Religion-as-Art can only work for those who can actually see it for what it is, namely, atheists.

  • Pofarmer

    Well, I’m not disagreeing with that. The problem comes when religion then goes on to make claims about the physical instead of the metaphysical. I watched a debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig, where Bart said that Craig was making “A theological argument about a historical problem.” I thought that was pretty brilliant. People try to take things out of theology, and apply it to the real world, and, unfortunately, that leads to things that simply don’t work. Heck, sometimes the theology itself, when applied to our daily lives, doesn’t really work, but people keep doing it, because if they don’t, they are going to hell.

  • Pofarmer

    Well, now here’s a fer instance. There are presentations by Laurence Krauss on youtube talking about the origins and end of the Universe. In biblical times, whe had the model of the earth basically as a terrarrium, In about the 1750′s, we finally more or less understood the Milky way, and it wasn’t until the 1920′s we more or less understood other Galaxies, and now, since Einstein, we are understanding and computing more and more of our Galaxy. So, in Early religion, God, was on the outside of the terrarium looking in, and when we discovered more about the Solar System, God was relegated to eternal and all knowing in heaven “out there” somewhere. Has that really changed any? As we accumulate scientific knowledge about evolution of, say, morality, religion seems to also be having a hard time dealing with that, not understanding how morals could have developed without a “supreme being” to hand them down, while simultaneously failing to look around at all the other species that behave significantly like we do. So, maybe religion will catch up, but it’s normally in fits and starts and after much pain. Heck, look at the Muslim world.

  • quickshot

    AWESOME article.

    Since when did science get more focused on what people believe as opposed to results? If you can build a better light bulb, cancer treatment, fuel-efficient car, etc. then I have little care for what your beliefs on religion are.

  • connorwood

    This is obviously a very emotional topic for you and I’m unlikely to change your mind about anything. But I do want to correct your view of my stance as “Religion as Art.” I don’t think that religion is just art. I don’t think I made this clear enough in the article, but the subjective states religion evokes have the effect of bonding communities together and forging long-term, personal relationships. These relationships are between bodies. Religion speaks to people’s bodies. It creates “moods and motivations” (Clifford Geertz’s words – if you don’t know who he is, you might want to look him up) that are essentially not articulable in words, just like the sensations of “hot” or “sad” are only understandable by actually experiencing them.

    Science’s biggest problem when dealing with religious people and with laypeople in general is that it does not speak to people’s bodies. It speaks to abstract minds only – its language is laws, theories, data sets. These are all abstractions whose essence can be easily transmitted in propositional, symbolic code: calculus theorems, formulae, etc. But abstract code is not capable of evoking the kinds of personal, bodily responses that form tight communities. This is why religion succeeds in the personal realm, where science tends, unfortunately, to founder.

  • connorwood

    Laurence Krauss is an admirable physicist but, if you ask any religious studies scholar who knows about him, you will get mostly rolls of the eyes – primarily because he really is pretty ignorant about the subject.

    Gregory of Nyssa, one of my favorite early Christian theologians, wrote in the 4th century CE about the crescent moon being the result of the earth’s shadow projected out from the sun. There was considerable cosmological sophistication much earlier – and in more religious settings – than we tend to realize today. So to retroject a view that religion was sort of always mired in ignorance while science was bravely slaying ignorance’s demons is both historically inaccurate and quite naïve. Unfortunately, it’s also a narrative that a lot of people with a LITTLE education in the history of religion and science are quite attached to, partly because it allows them to feel superior to religious believers.* This feeling of superiority is the major fault I identify in this article, and the major impediment to communication between science advocates and religious people. You can disagree with someone all you like and still have a grand conversation, but the instant you start genuinely feeling superior to the other person, they will notice it – and they will immediately close themselves off to receiving any guidance or input from you.

    This is essentially the state of the current relationship between science and religion – on both sides.

    * Note that I emphasize “a LITTLE.” This is because people who have a LOT of knowledge of the history of science know that this narrative is basically inaccurate. Science and religion have played into each other, influenced each other, and had a much more complex relationship than the “science banishes the demons of religious ignorance” narrative claims.

  • benjdm

    “Religion is about social living.”

    Funny, the religious education classes I attended didn’t teach anything about social living. The Nicene Creed, boiling down the basics of the religion I was being educated in, don’t address it whatsoever.

  • connorwood

    Then you didn’t get a very good religious education. I’m sorry about that. Read Emile Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” for a better intro to the relationship between religion and sociality.

  • Pofarmer

    Yes, but Gregory of Nyssa was probably still working on the Geocentric model, I’d think. If religious scientificanism is all that, then why do you have all these discoveries starting in the 16th century, and really picking up in the 17th and 18th. After the 12th century, why do Islamic discoveries basically drop to none?

  • connorwood

    > religious scientificanism

    This is definitely the first time I have ever heard this phrase.

    Nearly all the major discoveries in the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment eras were made by deeply religious men, although they were often unorthodoxly so. Galileo was a devout Catholic and remained so even after his house arrest. Newton considered his entire scientific corpus to be a search after the mind of God – in fact, he considered the material world to be “God’s sensorium,” and his theological writings outnumber his scientific writings by a significant margin. Johannes Kepler was absolutely devoted to a particular Pythagorean version of Christianity, and argued for Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system on theological as well as astronomical grounds. Kepler also considered the physical universe to reflect the relationship between the three trinitarian persons of the Godhead.

    As for Islam, many of early Muslim science’s advances were accomplished on religious grounds. For example, the development of sophisticated astronomy was motivated by the need to figure out where Mecca was from anywhere within the Caliphate. It does seem that an extreme clerical faction was responsible for suppressing science after the 13th (not the 12th) century, although the Mongol invasions certainly didn’t help. This is an example of the fact that religion is, in fact, a complex and many-faced phenomenon. Just like your good friend can be a loyal buddy and a jerk you want to strangle at the same time, religion is not one thing. Treating it as if it is one thing – all bad, an oppressive force against enlightenment – is a basic error of over-inference.

  • Pofarmer

    “This is definitely the first time I have ever heard this phrase.” Was feeling a little frisky. d;0)

    As far as the early scientists being religious, I think one would hardly expect otherwise. The whole world view of the time was generally wrapped around the Church. The Catholic Church in particular was both King maker and Conscience maker. I think the notable thing about the period is that these men were no longer condemned or burned at the stake for espousing or researching views that might automatically seem heretical to the church, although, as you mentioned, some of them certainly did pay a price. And, when you read the very early Church Fathers, say 2nd century, it’s pretty hard to conclude they were pro science, when most of them talk about the way to true knowledge being specifically the Bible.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris

    “Most religious claims are not propositions, and are thus not in competition with science in their own terms. ” Its a really wonderful point.

    And this: “But in most cases, religious claims are nowhere near as determinate and materially precise as Pinker seems to think they are. Famed anthropologist Roy Rappaport claimed – correctly, I think – that religious literature, beliefs, and myths are instead culturally evolved methods of activating particular emotional and bodily states.”

    Great, great, great — except religious traditions have typically used these culturally evolved methods to control and influence individuals and groups. Some of that control has been with the goal of producing a cohesive society where people can live a reasonable life, given the difficulty, in historical times, of even getting out of childhood alive. Other aspects of the control were to exploit one group of persons for the benefit of others.

    I’d like to see more criticism of religious traditions and practices by religions persons. Atheist scholars criticizing religion? Yawn. Religious traditions need to evolve to meet humanity’s changing circumstances.

  • connorwood

    >when you read the very early Church Fathers, say 2nd century, it’s pretty hard to conclude they were pro science

    That’s an anachronism. There was no social institution called “science” at that time which one could support or oppose. There were philosophers who investigated the natural world. Generally, there wasn’t a lot of tension between theologians and these philosophers.

    The main point, though, is this: Do you think that you and other atheists are more likely to improve the world by driving a wedge between science and religion – by making religious people feel at a gut level like science is an enemy – or by being gracious and willing to share the world with people who see it differently than you?

  • connorwood

    Catherine – I agree that the religious ought to be the ones critically examining their own traditions. However, I do think that this criticism is more widespread than it might initially appear. There are plenty of religious leaders out there who are engaged in (sometimes pretty pointed) criticism of their traditions. Here’s a good example: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/

    Nevertheless, I would like to see more rigorous engagement with the sciences – and what the sciences MEAN – among religious leaders, and I do think most traditions are currently derelict in that duty.

  • Pofarmer

    Lets be clear here. I don’t know of an instance of scientists wanting to ban books. I’m not aware of an instance of scientists advocating censure or worse of people who disagree with tbem(except climate science). So the “Lets all get along” rings a little hollow. Until theologins realize that there religion bears no resemblance to the actual physical world, then I would expect the debate to continue apace.

  • Pofarmer

    I think I am coming off more strident here than I intend to.

  • prdee

    My religious education classes taught me that the Nicene Creed has much to say about social living. It begins with the words “We believe…” (unlike the Apostles’ Creed’s statement, “I believe”). As we repeat these words in a gathering of believers, we are reminded that this statement of faith is shared across cultures and through many generations. It seems to me, it has much to say about social living.

  • prdee

    George Murphy, a retired Lutheran pastor in northeastern Ohio, has done some very interesting work on the relationship between science and religion. (e.g., Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World)

  • prdee

    >I think religions worsen things by pretending to be avenues of knowledge; what they get right is not due to religion, and what they get wrong can be disastrous.

    The same could be said of science (e.g., atomic weapons). It is my hope that religion (or ethics, to be more exact) will help people to have the maturity to use the technology well that science has provided us.

    What I find insulting in your arguments is your assumption that religious people cannot be scientific, or that all people who are religious seem to have illogical, unscientific notions. I will admit that I critique science when it is done badly. (An example is pharmaceutical companies who rerun studies on their drugs until they get the “scientific” results that they desire.) I believe that science is an important way of obtaining knowledge. I also believe that there are types of knowledge that science is not very helpful with. (My scientific knowledge and understanding of the scientific method are not very useful when someone is shouting at me about something that I didn’t do. My understanding that we are simultaneously saints and sinners is very useful in that situation.) My point here is that there are different ways of knowing that are more or less useful in specific situations. My life is greatly enriched by both science and religion. I would find it helpful if you recognized that there are a range of viewpoints within Christianity. Not all Christians are anti-scientific or Biblical literalists. My reaction to being painted with such a broad brush is to tend to (unfairly) dismiss everything the speaker has to say. When we lock into that sort of battle, we both lose the opportunity to learn from each other and grow. I believe this is unfortunate.

  • prdee

    Connor, thanks for this thought provoking article.

  • Brian Westley

    The same could be said of science (e.g., atomic weapons).

    Uh, no. Atomic weapons do exactly what people wanted. If people want to kill huge numbers of people, do you use science (atomic weapons) or religion (ask god to curse them)? Which one works better for killing people?

    Science works. That’s one reason why, if you really want to kill a lot of people, you use science, not religion.

    It is my hope that religion (or ethics, to be more exact) will help people to have the maturity to use the technology well that science has provided us.

    Well, religion is full of justified genocide and murder; I’d prefer people NOT use religion, as (as I’ve explained) it isn’t really an avenue of knowledge. If religion tells you to kill people because their god tells them that these other people are intrinsically evil, how can anyone argue against that?

    What I find insulting in your arguments is your assumption that religious people cannot be scientific

    I haven’t said that, nor do I believe it. People can hold all sorts of contradictory ideas at the same time, and be smart in one area and colossally stupid in another.

    or that all people who are religious seem to have illogical, unscientific notions.

    They DO. Their religious notions are, practically by definition, illogical (since logic isn’t used consistently to derive them, if at all) and unscientific (because they aren’t derived using the scientific method).

    Lots of things are illogical and unscientific (emotions, for example, for literally the same reasons). This isn’t bad per se, but neither emotions nor religion are dependable ways to reason, and shouldn’t be regarded as such.

    The big problem I see with religion is, as I’ve said, it pretends to result in knowledge. It doesn’t, it’s just people making up stuff, whether deliberately or subconsciously. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.

  • connorwood

    >neither emotions nor religion are dependable ways to reason

    It’s actually impossible to reason without emotion, because emotion is critical for decision-making. The amygdala adds emotional valence to incoming data, making people feel subjective, affective responses to potential decisions and their outcomes. When the amygdala is damaged or lesioned, people become incapable of making appropriate decisions, even though their other cognitive skills remain intact. The same is true for a condition called alexithymia; it prevents the integration of emotional and propositional or logical data, and its sufferers are notoriously impaired at decision-making. In terms of outcomes – which you certainly do seem concerned about – decision-making is the most crucial component of reasoning, but it depends on emotional input to function.

  • Joseph M

    Review of what looks like a very interesting book exploring the task difference between Religious and Science we have been discussing.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2013/08/the-rejoicing-and-the-torment-of-religion/

  • Brian Westley

    It’s actually impossible to reason without emotion, because emotion is critical for decision-making.

    Well, it’s not impossible (computers can solve some classes of problems), but emotions qua emotions aren’t dependable decision-makers. A lot of logical fallacies are due to emotions (undamaged emotions) steering people wrong — flipping a fair coin and getting 5 heads in a row doesn’t make tails more likely on the next toss, but many people will think it does. People don’t understand why swapping in the Monty Hall problem improves their chances. That damaged emotions can make some decision-making worse doesn’t mean intact emotions always lead to correct decisions; I think it just shows how emotions can mislead decision-making.

    If, say, amygdala damage leads people to make poor long-term decisions for short-term gain, it looks to me like their emotions are what’s responsible for making their decisions worse. A non-emotional analysis of risk vs. gain would still be able to distinguish between a good bet and a bad bet (if enough information is available), so if a person has an emotional urge to go after long shots even after calculating that the expected outcome is negative, it’s their emotions that are doing that.

  • connorwood

    Your analysis is a bit off. No cognitive scientist at this point debate that emotions are crucial – indispensable, even – to basic decision making. We’re not talking just about future discounting, which you seem to emphasize; we’re talking about the basic questions of how to get to work or what food to buy, whether to trust a stranger or to put out a fire. People who operate on purely rational principles without any emotional overlay or input are radically handicapped in every kind of decision juncture. Here’s a good article, picked at random, to start an investigation: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15134841

  • Brian Westley

    People who operate on purely rational principles without any emotional overlay or input are radically handicapped in every kind of decision juncture.

    But does it hamper their ability to reason? Being unable to choose what color socks to wear isn’t a strike against reasoning, it means the person can’t decide between similar outcomes. Does it make it impossible for them to choose between a wearable pair of socks and a pair with holes?

    In any case, this is off-topic to whether religion is a method to new knowledge.

  • connorwood

    > Does it make it impossible for them to choose between a wearable pair of socks and a pair with holes?

    Yes. It impairs any kind of decision making, because all actionable decisions are made on the basis of emotional valence – this will make me feel good, it will be morally wrong, etc. The only type of decision making that remains undamaged is pure abstraction with no actionable consequences, such as the type of reasoning required to do geometry proofs. Purely abstract reasoning with no practical traction on affairs can be logically coherent, but if it doesn’t lead to actionable knowledge it’s scarcely reasonable.

    The point of this post was that religion is not a method for acquiring discursive knowledge, but a set of tools and practices for evoking internal and bodily states. So we don’t disagree there. Have a pleasant day.

  • Travis Greene

    I like a lot of this, but don’t you think the sciences also need to engage with the humanities? Only the most radical postmodernists would say there is absolutely no such thing as objectivity, but scientists need to hear the critique that there are no “pure” facts that aren’t also part of someone’s political/power agenda. That doesn’t mean they aren’t facts! But which facts are under discussion and by whom and how they are arranged and what is left out are all socially constructed realities that the humanities can tell us a lot more about than the sciences. I love science, but when Richard Dawkins says Cambridge has more Nobel prizes than the whole Muslim world, he is not “just stating a fact.”

    Good piece overall, but I think conversation between science and the humanities has to be a two-way street.

  • BillYeager

    Crikey! What an utterly dishonest way to pose a question, Connor. Should I detail the fallacies you have employed or, upon reflection, would you now admit to the devious use of fallacious argument in order to ‘beg the question’?

  • Collin237

    Assuming they believe in hell. Hell is the only part of religion that is worthy of eradication. And it’s certainly not a necessary part. I’d even go so far as to say that religion makes its own case solidly against its own belief in hell.

  • spookiewon

    Is/ought is a false dichotomy. There is only what is, and religion has nothing of value to say about it.

  • Surprise123

    And, “what is” is determined by our five senses, and often not open to legitimate empirical testing. And, even the meaning of accurate empirical data is construed through culture, religious or otherwise.
    Besides, for human beings, there is not only “what is,” there is “what was,” and “what will be.” Our fellow animals not blessed with self-awareness, abstract cognition, and time sense exist only in the “what is.” Not human beings.

  • Surprise123

    Of course, Science Fiction and art that explores the wonders of the astronomical or microscopic world are some of the ways that science engages the humanities.

  • Surprise123

    “Atheist scholars criticizing religion? Yawn.” You go, girl! Not to mention certain atheists actually mocking the most sacred practices of religious people…yuch! Sure, if a specific religious tenet genuinely oppresses people in general, and atheists in particular, criticism or even mockery may be warranted. Otherwise….

  • Surprise123

    “I don’t know of an instance of scientists wanting to ban books.” Were there ever instances of scientists wanting to shut down findings that discounted their life’s work or lifelong field of inquiry? Or, of scientists who withheld findings that countered the interests of the institution or company that paid their salary?

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