How Jon Stewart Dropped The Ball On The Faith And Science Quesiton (But How Religion Can Be Redeemed Nonetheless)

How Jon Stewart Dropped The Ball On The Faith And Science Quesiton (But How Religion Can Be Redeemed Nonetheless) July 9, 2010

Marilynne Robinson is the author of Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Terry Lectures).  In the interview below from last night’sDaily Showshe gives a standardly awful false choice between thinking scientific methods can answer every question on the one hand and accepting religious explanations of questions as valid on the other.   But it is clear that you can understand the relative scope of scientific explanations is not infinite without thereby being forced to conclude that religious traditions or authorities have any better explanations whatsoever for those things science cannot explain.

And Jon Stewart does nothing to provoke her to actually prove, or clarify in what ways, science is deficient or in what ways religion should be supposed to provide genuine intellectual insight not otherwise attainable simply with recourse to philosophy.  And worse, as PZ Myers complains, Stewart badly confuses scientific inferences for just more faith-based beliefs, at least when it comes to certain issues in physics about which Stewart himself is unqualified to speak.

Here’s the interview and below it are my suggestions about how to conceive of a form of religion that would be, as Robinson suggests, “quality religion”,  which would be properly compatible with science:

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Marilynne Robinson
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There are indeed some matters on which science cannot speak, but about some of them, which we simply be silent. And if religions thinking itself were really the path to humility, then religious leaders’ humility would much earlier in our increasingly enlightened modern era have either expunged all the wild mythical, superstitious, and sheerly fantastical presumptuous claims of their traditions or, at the least, rejected them all as insights into life, death, salvation, etc., except in the most adamantly and unequivocally metaphorical, literary ways.

And there are some questions which science cannot answer which should not send us to religious authorities but instead to the on-going, rigorous, revisable philosophical tradition, where rather than binding ourselves arbitrarily to the formulas of dogmatic religion we can free ourselves to accept, reject, and improve each and every offered idea by the light of our own reason.   On many questions, philosophy can and does attain tremendously clarifying insights and the ongoing philosophical tradition should be engaged seriously before one throws one’s hands up in the air in despair or decides the only solution is deference to tradition or myth or mysticism, etc.

Robinson is right about one thing though—our choice is not, or does not have to be, between science and religion.

I would say that various practices called religious, if stripped of all their dogmatism, traditionalism, literalism, and authoritarianism, can and do certainly coexist with and complement science in the overall scope of human lives.  There is a place for ritual, for myth, for shared community, for groupings oriented around concern for charity and ethical formation, for meditation, for metaphysical speculation, for rites of passage, for wonder and gratitude at nature, for solemnity, for pageantry, for ecstatic experiences, and for strong identification with previous generations of members of various institutions and one’s culture itself.

An atheism that abandons all those life-enhancing parts of the human experience and the human possibility because of their cultural and institutional associations with personal-God theism, faith, superstition, authoritarianism, and excessive traditionalism is one that would throw out a truly vital baby because it is presently drowning in some truly disgusting bathwater.  It is an easy mistake to make, but still a mistake

So, yes, Marilynne Robinson, is quite a bit that people quite rightly feel as valuable that hinges on their religiosity.  But it need not have anything to do with what they think of as religious truths.   What religion does not offer is an intellectual complement to scientific knowledge.  Religion knows nothing.  It does things.   And for religion to be the “quality” sort that Robinson wants it to be it must be put to the service of truth and justice.

And we achieve the truth most precisely, profoundly, progressively, and persuasively only when we think with scientific, philosophical, mathematical, and logical forms of thinking which reject the hallmarks of religious thought—dogmatism, traditionalism, superstition, mythic obfuscation, anthropomorphism, and the countless intellectual vices and cognitive biases all unjustly praised by the theistic religions as “faith”.

And we can only achieve justice when to the extent that we transcend traditional religion’s strong tendencies towards reinforcing group hostilities by binding up group identities with special claims of divine favor.  We can only get justice to the extent that we break unjust, morally and intellectually bankrupt caste orders (between economic classes, races, sexes, sexual orientations) which presently get their strongest emotional, political, and spiritual support in otherwise intellectually advancing cultures from those same cultures’ regressive, fundamentalist, traditionalistic, intellectually authoritarian religions.

But find me the religion that rigorously defers to the ongoing development of  natural science, social science, philosophy, mathematics, and logic in determining its every belief and practice, and which forswears all dogmatism, faith, and tribalism, and commits itself in demonstrable practice to universal justice and maximal human flourishing for the maximal number of human beings, and I’ll be happy to join on.  That could be quality religion—assuming it can also get all the religion-specific features right, which is hard to do.

But religion that pretends to say or think or guide some valuable things that science and philosophy cannot, rather than do some things that science and philosophy cannot, is the old fashioned, poor-quality religion we could sure stand to be delivered from around the modern world.

And, finally, I defer to PZ to take apart Stewart on his conflation of scientific thinking with “faith” based thinking.

The low point came as Stewart tried to justify Robinson’s nebulous argument that science and religion need each other, and he offered stock apologetics.

The more you delve into science, the more it relies on faith.

No, it doesn’t. The less you delve into science, and the more superficial your understanding of the evidence, the more likely you are to ascribe its more difficult concepts to faith. Faith is the product of ignorance.

When Stewart strained to give an example of faith-based conclusions in science, he came up with one: anti-matter. He’s never seen it, so obviously it must not be real, but only the imagined fancy of some egghead physicist somewhere.

Unfortunately for Stewart, anti-matter exists. It’s been observed, measured, analyzed. Its existence is not a matter of faith, but of knowledge and experiment.

My broader argument that not all uncertainly held beliefs are faith beliefs is here.  My argument that the subset of beliefs properly called “faith” beliefs is that set of beliefs which either go illicitly beyond evidential warrant or outright contrary to what evidence indicates is here.  My previous attempt to critique Jon Stewart’s remarks on religion (but with a possibly different outcome) are here.

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