Sneaky Trick

Sneaky Trick June 18, 2014

This comment by Arcseconds seemed worth quoting on the blog. It is part of a discussion of a recent attempt by P. Z. Myers to make the infamous “religion is inherently opposed to science” claim.

I accept that you and Myers admit that religious people can be excellent scientists. 

But by reifying religion and science as ‘spheres of endeavour’ and talking as if they interact with one another one their own rather than as being human activities that interact with one another only in so far as human beings act in scientific and religious ways, this allows you to pull a sneaky trick and count every time a religious person does good science as a point for science (even though in their minds this might be motivated by their religious beliefs, and not separate from th eir religious practice) , and every time a religious person resists science for exactly the same kinds of considerations, that counts as a point against religion.

This is a little unfair, don’t you think? Heads I win, tails you lose?

Plus, it’s looking awfully like an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Isn’t that supposed to be a problem for you sciencey types? Again, I repeat my request for what would count as evidence against your claim here. It doesn’t seem to me that anything could: on most scientific issues most religions say almost nothing, on science in g eneral t hese days the major forms of most religions are, if anything, somewhat enthusiastic (“you find out about God’s creation!”), there are plenty of religious scientists as you admit, but somehow none of that counts in the face of some resistance from some sects on a small number of issues.

The honest thing to say here is that sometimes religion resist science. Not that they always, and by there very nature, do so.

You could make a similar argument that religions are always anti-music. Despite the fact that religions frequently use music, that a lot of music h as been motivated by religion, there are oodles of religious composers, some of whom have held religious positions. Because music is a distinct sphere of endeavour, and whenever anyone makes music that’s doing music, no matter what their motivation, and whenever anyone resists music for religious reasons, they’re doing religion, ergo religion is always anti-music. Similarly anti-alcohol.

Your characterisation of religion as always been about being static is just false. You know as well as I do that generally speaking attempts to re-establish an original form of a religion just create a new form of the religion, so at best your point can only be about what they think they’re doing, and not what they actually do. I don’t think it can be denied that these new ‘old ‘ forms of religion frequently have all of the features of genuine innovation: imagination to think it up, the courage to make the change, creative adaptation of existing forms of practice to fit the ‘old’ requirements, new prayers, new music, new hymns, etc.

And they frequently think of themselves explicitly as innovating. You are aware that there’s a whole area called ‘theology’ that’s been around for centuries, right? If you think that all theologians think of themselves as re-establishing old truths, you really need to learn more about the area. This might explain Luther, but it does not explain Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas or Abelard, all of them thought of themselves as presenting new information about God, not just rehashing old ideas. I think you’d find most theologians think of their activity in this way. The Roman Catholic church explicitly sees theology as a progressive enterprise and reason as a route to discovering new things about God.

And of course there’s no shortage of examples of religiously-motivated attempts (and even successes) to reform society. For at least the last 200 years these have frequently been thought of as attempting to change existing society for the better, not to turn back the clock to something that existed in the halcyon days of the past.

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  • Yes, that’s a pretty good analysis of the situation.

    Thanks for making it a full post.

  • Chris Crawford

    Great point.

    They say “religion is often on the wrong side of history”, but that’s not completely true. Religion is on all sides of history. Slavers and abolitionists, misogynists and suffragists, anti-science and scientists both.

    It’s very easy to pit church vs. science when “church” is some amorphous entity at opposition to science. The truth is, quite often the other side can represent the church as well, from Copernicus to Galileo to Bruno.

  • arcseconds

    Thanks for the shout-out 🙂

    I should point out that my interlocutor, Nick Gotts, apparently isn’t playing that sneaky trick at all, although it did seem that way to McGrath and I. I’m not quite sure of what he is arguing now, but he thinks Myers’ statement, (recall, if you will):

    Why are science and religion in conflict? Because changing ideas and new knowledge are sacrilegious.

    Is a good generalization, despite the fact he largely acknowledges (with caveats and restresses) everything I wrote above.

    • histrogeek

      It is probably more accurate to say that changing ideas and new knowledge are challenging to religion. That’s pretty much true, but “science” in a generalized, amorphous sense is often challenged by new ideas.
      Pasteur didn’t spend years demonstrating that abiogenesis doesn’t happen because scientists are cool with new ideas. It’s just that science has a more systematized way of handling those new ideas. The sturm-und-drang that often accompanies the religious experience of new ideas makes it look like there always is a conflict.

      • arcseconds

        ‘sometimes challenging to religion’, surely.

        I mean, there’s an awful lot of new knowledge being produced every day. Proportionally speaking only a tiny amount of that knowledge is acknowledged as a challenge by any religion at all, excluding perhaps a small number of sects engaged in a wholesale rejection of modernity.

        Where is the religious outcry against chemistry? Computer science? Physics? Post-biblical history? Linguistics? Engineering? Architecture? Management techniques? Geography? Mathematics?

        Acres and acres of knowledge is produced every year in these subjects, and virtually none of it is objected to, or felt to be challenging, by any significant number of religions or religious people.

        Yes, OK, young earth creationists do reject some physics when it’s involved with the earth being old, but most physics that’s published isn’t in this area. In the rest of those subjects, sure, you can occasionally find a tiny number of people quibbling about a small part of it, especially if it’s related directly to their religion (like lingusitics with regards to biblical Hebrew), and an even smaller number with completely wacky ideas about it (like that ‘Hebrew code’ thing James linked to a while back)). But there’s neglible numbers of people protesting transformational grammar, or blacklisting de Saussure for religious reasons.

        And of course, there’s plenty of people with wacky ideas about linguistics or whatever who aren’t inspired by religion in their wackiness.

        • histrogeek

          Fair enough. Most new knowledge or new interpretations are especially challenging to the wide world in any event, just to the relatively small area that it applies to.
          And that makes this religion v. science trope so much more frustrating. It draws conclusions based on the most dramatic, most atypical moments in history. Even then the trope tends to ignore any dynamic going on that doesn’t directly fit that trope.
          There was little or no religious objection to Hutton and Lyell’s theories of geology, without which Darwin would never have conceived of a general theory of evolution, and pretty much put the last nail in the coffin of a young earth. Why? Probably because there wasn’t a major split in Christian denominations at that time. Darwin’s theories were publicized when there was a big split, so opposition to Darwin became a shibboleth for the fundamentalist side of the debate. That opposition has metastasized since then into the wacky world of creationism.

  • arcseconds

    The style of argument embodied by Myers and Nick Gotts (or maybe we should discuss rather ‘anti-religion’ as a form, not necessarily held or acted on by any individual?) depends on the anti-religious once again basically accepting the understanding of religion that fundamentalists have: of an unchanging thing, established for all time in a singular moment of revelation, which any attempt to improve on or even adjust to modern society can only undermine, and if that’s happened the only thing to do is to turn back the clock.

  • histrogeek

    One point I like to make when dealing with the “science can change but religion is fixed” trope is that the Creation story in Genesis 1 is very likely a response by a religious community to new “scientific” (probably “naturalistic” is a better term) knowledge.
    The P source was using Babylonian science/knowledge to construct a new understanding of YHWH and how he/she/it made the world. It wasn’t a case (as the occasional very ignorant internet commenter throws out) of copying Babylonian creation; Genesis 1 has a shocking lack of giant chaos monster-gods. The P authors took ideas of the natural world from the Babylons and wrote a hymn praising God, which was completely different from their earlier stories.
    But “of course” it’s the literal truth and you’re a terrible CHINO if you think otherwise.