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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University