Endorsing the compatibility of science and religion

One of the science and religion related debates online that caught my eye lately is aired by people such as the biologist Jerry Coyne and philosopher Russell Blackford, on their blogs.

They argue that in their zeal to defend evolution education, many American scientific organizations, from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Center for Science Education, have endorsed what amounts to a liberal theological doctrine concerning the compatibility of science and supernatural religion. Indeed, they do so with an explicit concern to reassure the public that science is not associated with dirty ideas such as atheism. Given that natural science is notoriously an area where nonbelievers are overrepresented, this is odd. Indeed, some of those nonbelieving scientists who expect to be represented by scientific organizations naturally feel put up upon by all this.

This isn’t anything new. I think Coyne and Blackford are correct, and obviously so. I’ve written about this in one of my books, Science and Nonbelief. But I also think Coyne and Blackford downplay the political rationale behind endorsements of compatibility. The arguments endorsed by NAS, AAAS, NCSE and so forth are bullshit. But the protective coloration provided by the bullshit (especially if sincerely believed, as it almost always is) may well be vital in order to defend the institutional interests of science in highly religious environments.

Now, whether compatibilist bullshit is good strategy is certainly debatable. Some point out that American scientific organizations have endorsed compatibilism for many decades now. But creationism, New Age physics-abuse, and other spiritually-flavored antiscientific convictions are as strong as ever. So saying that science does not threaten religion in a louder and louder voice does not seem to be a winning strategy. Maybe. But it is hard to judge the effectiveness of a strategy this way. Perhaps without scientific organizations trying to accommodate religion, public attitudes toward science would be even worse. Perhaps holding the line against the fundamentalists by supporting liberal religion is the best that one can expect. Perhaps what scientific organizations do is largely irrelevant. My view is that science has very little influence on religiosity, but religion can affect politics and therefore funding levels, so protective coloration is probably prudent.

So, personally, I support NCSE all the way, including what strikes me in more intellectual contexts as bullshit. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the ones in the trenches, the ones with the expertise. Their political judgment about the best way to defend the interests of science and science education is worth a hell of a lot more than my judgment.

I think I can find some support for the political virtues of compatibilism from my experience with debates on science and religion in Islam. For example, Last month BBC radio 4 ran a series of programs on Islam and Science. They included brief snippets from an interview with me, among lots of others. Indeed, I know many of the others interviewed, or know their work. Some of these scientists are (what a surprise) nonbelievers. Some are devout Muslims. But there was a curious asymmetry in the views we voiced. The skeptics, myself included, were careful not to offend religious sensibilities. We expressed hope that in times of religious change, more liberal forms of religiosity may come to prevail. Indeed, we were careful not to give too many clues about our lack of faith. The devout scientists, on the other hand, waxed eloquent about how Islam and science were inseparable, and how the Quran demanded and inspired scientific investigation. One warned about the dangers of science being associated with atheism, and said that emphasizing how science and religion were compatible and indeed mutually supportive was important for improving popular Muslim attitudes toward science.

All of this happy-talk about the compatibility of traditional Islam and modern science is bullshit. I’ve spent too much time with too many varieties of Islamic apologetics concerning science and religion, and I think I can safely say it’s unimpressive unless you already have faith. And yet, politically speaking, I see few other options. Among many Muslims today, religion is such a force that any institution perceived as holding itself aloof from religion, never mind in opposition, is bound to suffer. If you want to legitimate any political view, even a degree of secularism, you have to present it as being Islamic. Otherwise your cause is hopeless. This is also true for the cause of science. If you want to build support for the institutions of science and science education, you have to present this as not just compatible with faith but a demand of Islam.

As someone who is both severely unimpressed with almost all varieties of Islam and who identifies with the institutional interests of science, I see little option other than to do what I’m doing. I’ll be as skeptical as I please in my books, articles, and blog posts. Very few actually read them, and even less care about what I say, so the damage I can do by being honest is very limited. But if my political hopes for science are to be realized, the only feasible way I can see is for more liberal forms of religiosity to provide a buffer zone. I want superficial, bullshit varieties of compatibilism to become the conventional wisdom.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Does anyone even read this blog anymore?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09891160904748206385 AYDIN ÖRSTAN

    “The skeptics, myself included, were careful not to offend religious sensibilities.”

    Now, see, this is what I don’t get. Why is it that the skeptics are expected to be careful not to offend the believers, while the believers couldn’t care less about offending the skeptics? The religionists are going to have the upper hand as long as they are immune from skepticism lest they are offended. I think that’s the real bullshit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00203311711885538229 Daniel A. Wang

    “Indeed, they do so with an explicit concern to reassure the public that science is not associated with dirty ideas such as atheism. Given that natural science is notoriously an area where nonbelievers are overrepresented, this is odd.”

    It is true that many scientists are of a secular persuasion, as it were. This happens to be quite unsurprising given that science is a naturalistic endeavour from the very outset, but religious people are no less able to contribute in the process. In this sense, the compatibility is simply a matter of fact.

    In the sense of, say, reconciling Genesis with evolution… well, good luck.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    It looks like you believe that science and “supernatural religion” (is any other kind?) cannot be compatible. But science is about physical phenomena and “religion” denotes a particular kind of metaphysical theories about how reality is – which reality among other things produces the phenomena that science studies. So, prima facie, it’s not easy to see why the two must be incompatible because they belong to different conceptual categories. Of course a particular religious claim, like any metaphysical claim, *may* contradict science (e.g. the religious claim about the statistical efficacy of prayer for healing illness). On the other particular naturalistic beliefs may also contradict science (e.g. the claim that reality is local – which famously Einstein very strongly believed in). But the issue at hand is whether all religious worldviews *must* contradict science. It appears that you very strongly believe that, but I wonder: do you have any argument to justify this belief?

    As an exercise I have tried myself to find examples of a religious worldview which contradict science, and I was surprised how difficult this really is. For example even as harebrained a religious worldview as young Earth creationism does not contradict science, correct? The various miracles described in the Christian scripture do not contradict science either, because science only describes natural phenomena, and here, by definition, we have claims about supernatural phenomena. There is nothing is science that makes the existence of God impossible, correct? But then if God does exist then God surely could perform such miracles. Indeed since quantum mechanics we know that all miracles in scripture do not even describe events that contradict natural law, but only events that are extremely unlikely but are actually allowed under natural law.

    Or perhaps you are confusing the concept of “science” with the concept of “scientific naturalism” which is one more metaphysical theory. If so you are absolutely correct; by definition all religious worldviews do contradict scientific naturalism. But that’s not what NAS, NCSE, etc. as well as many philosophers and scientists are saying. What they are saying is that science proper does not necessarily contradict religion, and I think they are absolutely right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    As an exercise I have tried myself to find examples of a religious worldview which contradict science, and I was surprised how difficult this really is. For example even as harebrained a religious worldview as young Earth creationism does not contradict science, correct?

    I’ll poke my nose in to say you can’t have looked very hard. Start here with this:

    “We also desire to train others to develop a biblical worldview, and seek to expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas, and its bedfellow, a “millions of years old” earth (and even older universe).”

    AIG has lots of distortions, misrepresentations, and plain lies about science.

    Or how about the Institute for Creation Research. Read this, particularly the italicized phrase:

    “The Bible, consisting of the thirty-nine canonical books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven canonical books of the New Testament, is the divinely-inspired revelation of the Creator to man. Its unique, plenary, verbal inspiration guarantees that these writings, as originally and miraculously given, are infallible and completely authoritative on all matters with which they deal, free from error of any sort, scientific and historical as well as moral and theological.”

    And that’s why discussing things with you is ultimately fruitless. That you can say you cannot find examples of religious worldviews that contradict science is enough evidence for me to conclude that you haven’t looked and are therefore not worth a whole lot of effort. Hence my disinclination to re-engage in the earlier thread.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    RBH said: “I’ll poke my nose in to say you can’t have looked very hard.” [snip examples of stupid things that theists have said]

    Well, theists have been known to say wrong things about science. Misunderstanding the ontological relevance of science (and typically misunderstanding theism also – e.g. “the God hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis about the universe”) many naturalists too think there have to be contradictions between science and a theistic worldview [1]. It’s the more thoughtful naturalists and theists who see that there need not be any contradiction between science and theism (for each describes different things: the former describes the phenomena and the latter the reality that ultimately produces them, the former is about physics the latter about metaphysics). So what else is new?

    Anyway I notice you did not answer the relevant question: Is there any necessary contradiction between science and Young Earth Creationism, i.e. the idea that God created the physical universe by supernatural fiat less than 10 thousand years ago? I claim there can’t be any contradiction because if YEC is true then science would have followed its course exactly as it has in fact done. (I do of course see a contradiction between the naturalistic interpretation of science and YEC, but this is a truism for by definition all possible naturalistic worldviews necessarily contradict all possible theistic worldviews.) Indeed even Descartes’s hypothesis that reality consists of an evil demon who enjoys leading us into forming false beliefs – cannot contradict science and for the same reason. The same goes with the computer simulation hypothesis which may be super weird but nevertheless stands on solid materialistic premises. My point then is this: If metaphysical worldviews as naive as YEC or as absurd as Descartes’s evil demon or as weird as the computer simulation hypothesis cannot possibly be falsified by science, then the whole issue about how theistic worldviews necessarily contradict science is a red herring not worthy spending one’s time on. And clearly if scientific knowledge alone cannot help us differentiate between all these possible worldviews, then we need knowledge beyond science or arguments beyond scientific ones or data beyond scientific data to decide between them.

    In short: Science gives us knowledge about the shadows that reality produces onto a limited part of our experience (namely our observations of physical phenomena). There are many worldviews that could have produced the very same shadows, so we can’t use science to differentiate between them. It’s as simple as that.

    On the other hand, and for the same reason, it is possible for science to falsify a particular ontological worldview when it demonstrates that the shadows we observe cannot be produced by it. (I am saying that science does not *necessarily* contradict metaphysical worldviews, not that it is not *possible* for science to contradict a particular metaphysical worldview.) For example science has moved naturalists away from the idea of a physical reality which is local. And, more dramatically, a combination of already verified predictions of quantum mechanics and special relativity falsifies scientific naturalism, or at least reduces it to epistemic incoherence (the idea is that two scientific naturalists observing the same event will form contradictory beliefs about the reality that produced it). I think Alvin Plantinga is right when he argues that even though there is superficial conflict between science and religion there is in fact deep concord, and that even though there is superficial concord between science and naturalism there is in fact deep conflict.

    [1] We’ve been discussing one such case in the context of the scientific theory of evolution. When science speaks of random events that shape the evolutionary process it means that one can model the phenomena at hand (i.e. the variety and complexity of the species) without *assuming* any order in these events. Many naturalists misunderstand (or else misrepresent) the science as saying that these events are indeed random and do not follow any order. In other words the thesis that it is possible that the species are the result of unguided/naturalistic processes does not imply that they actually are. That it is possible that p does not imply p – to think otherwise is a gross logical error. Actually there are naturalistic interpretations of quantum mechanics according to which no random events exist, but no naturalist says that they contradict the theory of evolution. In conclusion the belief that most naturalists and certainly many theists too hold in the sense that the theory of evolution contradicts the theistic belief in divine design – that belief is simply false.

    Interestingly enough, even the premise that we are entirely the result of an unguided naturalistic process does not contradict divine design. I mean even if one accepts naturalistic speculations which go way beyond science there is not necessarily a contradiction with the theistic belief about design. Here is a possible scenario: God first designs us in God’s mind as it were. Then God instantiates a physical universe with random laws, constants and initial conditions – and waits to see what happens. If we don’t naturally evolve in this universe God destroys it and then repeats the whole process until we do naturally evolve. Voila: a physical universe in which we are the result of an entirely unguided naturalistic evolution and in which we have also been designed by God. – Of course, I am not claiming that the above is what actually happened, but use it to demonstrate how easy it is to see contradictions where none exist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dov.henis Dov Henis

    More on science-religion:
    On religion-accommodating AAAS science
    Science and Religion?

    How can science be more theosophized than by regarding
    life-brain-mind-spirituality essence as being mysteriously apart-different from
    other mass formats?

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)