What’s Wrong With Religious Scientists?

What’s Wrong With Religious Scientists? August 17, 2009

As we have already noted previously, Jerry Coyne has attacked the notion that scientific illiteracy can be blamed on the recent rise of the New Atheists as though they have scared religious people away from science in their mere 5 years as an identifiable movement. Recently in reply to this debate between “New Atheists” like Jerry Coyne on the one hand and those who think science should accommodate faith as a separate respectable arena of knowledge from the scientific one on the other, Michael Ruse attacked the New Atheists and Jerry Coyne responded in kind.  Now David at He Lives has a polemic against Coyne that ends this way:

the part of Coyne’s rebuttal I found most amusing was his demand for evidence that new atheism is harming the cause of evolution—otherwise this is only an opinion.

I agree with him! I have made a very similar argument myself. It doesn’t take many mutations to morph Coyne’s argument into one familiar to my readers:

“Where’s the beef?” Where is the evidence that science and faith are incompatible? This is only an opinion, and no better than the opinion that if Dawkins accepted Christianity he would actually be a better scientist.

Coyne’s argument is not an empirical one, it’s a normative one.  No one is saying that having faith outside of the laboratory necessarily makes you a bad scientist when within it.  Nonetheless there are infamously bad examples of people who bring their faith into the laboratory doing bad science and this is something to worry about because faith of the dogmatic religious kind is antithetical to the scientific methodIt prejudices a faithful scientist against contrary evidence, arbitrarily closes off lines of plausible investigation and gives motivation to exaggerate the fruits of bad theories which superficially confirm one’s faith.

But of course there are many nominal believers who take off their Sunday best when they put on their lab coats.   The are at least four major challenges to level at them:

1.  Insofar as religion inculcates habits of believing without adequate reasons it habituates people towards bad critical thinking skills which involve accepting badly formed premises and assumptions without adequate justification.  This sounds to me at least, by its nature, more likely to lead to bad habits of scientific and other kinds of philosophical and intellectual inferences in general.

Whereas the scientist may be good at only believing stupid things for bad reasons on Sundays while otherwise being a scrupulous thinker the rest of the week—by propping up religious institutions, religious scientists  encourage bad habits of thought in the rest of their fellow churchgoers indirectly through those institutions.

2. Scientists, however good they are in the laboratory, can be challenged on epistemological, metaphysical, and scientific grounds to reject belief in the existence of God.  Every one is responsible for having a good philosophical reason to believe or not to believe.

And it is perfectly acceptable, and even necessary, that intelligent atheists make such public philosophical arguments lest the only voices in this crucial debate in the public square are the religious ones.  And it IS a public debate since beliefs have public consequences.  The decision to believe or not is a private one.  The debate about what one should believe should be extremely public and treated seriously.  And atheists (be they scientists, psychologists, philosophers, or whomever else) have every right to push back against religious scientists whenever they draw dubious philosophical conclusions in the public square.

And scientists do not get a free pass to have bad philosophical views on metaphysics or epistemology or religion simply because they are good at science.  And scientists who think that their scientific insights help us understand the question of the existence of God have every responsibility to relay to the public how their findings might contribute to that important question.

3. Normatively speaking, I think a case can and should be made, that scientists betray the epistemological standards of the laboratory when they do not apply equally rigorous standards of belief in philosophical and religious matters.  Of course many philosophical questions do not admit of solution by the scientific method.  But that does not mean that there is no difference between a good and a bad philosophical argument and that the scientist should complement her rigor about scientific matters with a willingness to assent to irrational propositions in every area in which the scientific method does not provide the conclusive answers.

So, yes, science cannot answer everything.  But that does not mean that theology answers anything. And it does not mean that there are not good philosophical reasons available to reject religious epistemology on principle and theological claims in substance.  It’s not “just an opinion” in the sense of just a completely subjective feeling that can be neither defended nor challenged with reasons.  And it does not mean that what anyone, scientist or otherwise, believes about matters unsettleable by the scientific method is a matter of indifference. And it does not mean that a scientist is off the hook so that she may be less intellectually scrupulous outside the lab than within it.

4. When it comes to the specific question of whether we can demonstrate that faith is in practice an aid or a hinderance to the acceptance of science one only need look at the number one cause of denials of the truth of evolution—religious faith.  Without it, people lose one of the few genuinely motivating incentives they ever have to twist and contort their way around scientific truths.  Regardless of whether you think that those who interpret their faith to necessarily entail denying evolution, people do so on faith all the time and those who accept things on faith are in principle closed-minded about those matters about which they have faith.  Because that’s what faith is, in its epistemological function at least—the firm unshakable commitment to propositions which either lack warrant or have strong evidence against them.  It’s not “mere opinion” to say that that is incompatible with scientific commitment to scrupulous thinking.

For a follow up to my remarks here see More Thoughts On Scientists In The Public Square.

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