Nuance Needed

Nuance Needed March 19, 2014

Jason Rosenhouse posted on the series Cosmos and some reactions to it. In it, he complains about what he calls “the script,” an emphasis that the conflict model of the view of the relationship between religion and science is not the only or even the predominant one, historically speaking. He writes: “Prior to reading any essay about science and religion, do a search. If the words “nuanced” or “complex” appear then don’t waste your time. You’re about to get the script.”

Being nuanced and acknowledging complexity are what scholarship, and any attempt to describe things accurately, aim for. And what Rosenhouse writes next seems like it ought to support nuance and complexity:

As I’ve noted before, one problem in discussing conflicts between science and religion is that the term “religion” is very broad. It covers everything from, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” at one extreme, to “Gosh, that sunset sure is beautiful,” on the other. Moreover, many of the conflicts do not involve questions of fact that can be definitively resolved. Evolution poses serious challenges to major points of Christian doctrine, for example, but maybe those challenges can be overcome. There are lots of different arguments on offer, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they find plausible. That’s why I don’t generally say bluntly that science and religion must be in conflict. I think the challenges are sufficiently formidable that a reasonable person should reject all but the most liberal versions of Christianity, but many others disagree. Such is life.

But there is another way of framing the question that is much more clear cut. Science and religion are not necessarily in conflict, but science and religious authority certainly are. By “religious authority” I mean an attitude that says that there is a non-scientific source of knowledge about the natural world, such as divine revelation or the historical teachings of a church, that trumps all other claims to knowledge. When a governing body in thrall to such an attitude has a loyal police force at its disposal, look out! The best you can hope for is that they don’t do anything too sadistic to those who dissent from orthodoxy.

Oh, so close. Rosenhouse rightly acknowledges that religion covers a range of phenomena and views. But then he goes on to ignore that there are just as many different views of religious authority.

What is the appropriate response to this? Presumably to call for nuance and emphasize that this area is much more complex than he acknowledges.

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  • I thought of commenting on Jason’s post, but have yet to decide whether it is worth the effort.

    I’m one of those who thinks religion and science are compatible, and I disagree with Jason’s analysis.

    Basically, Jason is pointing to a conflict between science and certain religious authorities. I’ll grant that there is such a conflict. But religious authorities disagree over many of these issues.

    For me, back as a teenager which was before I quit religion, there was never any conflict. Sure, I accepted the theological view that God created the universe. But I also accepted that science gave us the best description of the universe (or, of what I took God to have created).

    Jason sees evolution as challenging Christian doctrine. And, for some people, it evidently does. But I never saw that as a challenge. I had already questioned “original sin”, not because of evolution but because it was inconsistent with the loving God depicted by Christianity, and because I could not actually find a clear biblical case for original sin.

    I suppose it doesn’t matter much whether some people think there’s a conflict. But the reason it concerns me, is that I have seen some scientists raise questions about whether Ken Miller and other Christians can be trusted as scientists. And I see that kind of questioning as misplaced.

    • I was raised as an American Catholic (a very different breed) and, like you, Neil, was neither taught nor imagined that science was incompatible with religion. It certainly wasn’t science that made me lose faith … it was an inability to find a satisfying theodocity that did that.

      The whole business of ancestors of mine sinning by eating a piece of fruit that magically gave them the knowledge of right and wrong (if they didn’t know right from wrong before that, how could they “sin” by innocently eating it?) then somehow being imposed on me was, at best, a quaint story and, at worst, revealed a rather ugly and unjust god. Only the second could possibly conflict with Christian doctrine. I figured that just looking around at my fellow humans was proof enought that we could use redeeming.

      Jerry Coyne accused Miller of “polluting” science with his beliefs because he has argued that science leaves enough “space,” as in quantum mechanics, for god to interact with the world. But Miller has never (as far as I know) made a scientific claim that god does that. Therefore, he could not be “polluting” science because he wasn’t making a scientific claim. On the other hand, Coyne make a scientic claim against religion. Who is polluting what?

  • I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s very nuance-less evaluation of Paul Tillich’s scholarship:

    “I have never read Tillich, but everything I have heard of him seemed to place him clearly side by side with Pittenger (tho’ of course far superior in talent) as one of those sincere semi-Christians who are now a greater danger to the Faith than the open unbeliever … What puzzles me is why thousands of believers, like yourself, continue to expose yourselves to the temptations against faith which such men will present to you, and swell their fame by attending their lectures!

    What ‘existentially’ means – unless it means ‘melodramatically’ or ‘ostentatiously’ or ‘making no end of fuss about it’ – I have never been able to find out.”

    C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Mary Van Deusen, Jan. 16, 1959