Pressing Concerns and Misconceptions Involving Faith and Science

Pressing Concerns and Misconceptions Involving Faith and Science September 7, 2019

“Galileo before the Holy Office,” Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury; Wikimedia {{PD-US-expired-abroad}}

Earlier this week, a group of scientists and theologians met to discuss various issues of importance in society today and how they might partner in different ways. One of the areas of discussion focused on what they considered the most pressing questions and misconceptions involving faith and science. I was part of the discussion and offered four reflections. I have developed the four points in what follows.

Conflict: The Draper-White conflict thesis involving the supposed divide between faith and science continues to surface in public discourse. For critical treatments of the conflict thesis, refer to this excellent video produced by AAAS titled “Science and Religion: The Draper-White Conflict Thesis”, as well as this BioLogos article by  Ted Davis and Stephen Snobelen titled “New Atheists and the ‘Conflict’ between Science and Religion.” For an important volume that addresses several important historical themes related to the conflict thesis, see the volume Galileo Goes to Trial and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers, Harvard University Press, 2010. Even though numerous scholarly treatments have very effectively dismantled the faulty historiography with its premise that where science advances over the centuries, faith retreats, the Draper-White thesis dies an extremely slow death. Of course, it is not simply members in the scientific community that propagate an apparent conflict between faith and science. Many people in the faith community appear antagonistic to various sectors of science. Barna has documented the apparent antagonism to science in the faith community, as seen through the eyes of many in the Millennial generation and Generation Z. It is vitally important that the faith and science communities work together to dismantle effectively the conflict thesis and related misconceptions in public discourse for the sake of human flourishing involving all sectors of society.

Compartmentalization: Related to the conflict thesis is the problem of compartmentalization. While there needs to be an informed respect and appreciation for the distinctive subject matter and methodologies employed within various disciplines which guards against facile forms of integration, nonetheless, conversations involving members of the faith and science communities must occur. Faith and science will not evaporate anytime soon. Rather than isolate ourselves in hermetically sealed compartments and departments in universities and the public sector, we must find ways to bridge the divide that so often exists. One psychiatrist at an ivy league university who participated in our dialogue spoke of how difficult it was for him to cultivate conversations on spirituality and health with members of the medical school and divinity school respectively. It is extremely hard to do hybrid work given a microscopic emphasis on specialization, and perhaps even suspicion of other disciplines in many universities. Against this backdrop, it is encouraging to hear of growing appreciation for the place of spirituality in human flourishing at the end of life, as reflected in this interview with a pioneer in palliative care who discusses such positive signs: “Risk Floating in the Ether”—A Conversation on Faith and Health,” with Robert Lyman Potter. Of course, it is hoped that we find evidence of such mutual respect involving faith and science not only at the end of life, but throughout life. Along these lines, refer to these encouraging interviews with a Christian astrophysicist, a Buddhist immunologist, and a Muslim geneticist found here: “Are Religion and Science Always at Odds? Here are Three Scientists Who Don’t Think So.”

Contraction: Also related to the conflict thesis in my estimation is the problem of contraction. If it is believed that wherever science advances, faith retreats, one may presume that science will eventually replace faith. Contraction or reduction of faith, and also morals, to science is found in such figures as E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology. I find Wilson a fascinating figure, as he is not content to engage only in his areas of expertise, including ants and their import for sociobiology. Wilson also extends the import of his sociobiological research into the domain of morals. Take for example his interview with Spiegel on “The Origin of Morals.” Elsewhere, Wilson, along with Michael Ruse, presents what Whitley Kaufman refers to as an emotivist ethic, which is sometimes offered as an attempt to get beyond David Hume’s logical cautionary note that one cannot infer what ought to be the case from what is the case. In an article titled “The Evolutionary Ethics of E.O. Wilson” in The New Atlantis, Kaufman argues:

Wilson and Ruse here, like many evolutionary ethicists, are engaging in what philosophers call “emotivism”: reducing moral judgments to emotions or sentiments, and denying those judgments any claim to objectivity. Among the many troubles with this position is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing what are generally thought of as morally good emotions, like love, kindness, and trust, from bad or selfish ones, like greed and hatred. This is one reason most moral philosophers have rejected emotivism: treating mere feelings as moral principles means that any such principle has a binding force no greater than that of any person’s or group’s preference for one thing over another. Wilson insists that we can hold on to our moral values and even improve them — but why should we, if they are no more than emotions that evolved to further the reproductive success of our ancestors? Even if we could establish scientifically that all human beings share certain preferences, it is far from clear which we should consider good, or why in any case we should not break our own molds and remake ourselves in pursuit of other preferences.

In Kaufman’s estimation, Wilson cannot safeguard against “moral nihilism,” which he vigorously seeks to avoid. Even Charles Darwin understood that science cannot answer all important questions, and safeguarded space for religion and philosophy to address matters of morality. See the distinction made between Darwinism and Social Darwinism, as well as the discussion of Darwin’s appreciation for religion and philosophy’s import for ethics, in the essay on Darwinism in Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition (Oxford University Pres, 2013), pages 251-252, 254-255, 257-258.

Cynicism: One wonders if the conflict thesis involving faith and science also helps to foster the “fake news” mantra in various circles. When people in the scientific community dismiss and demean faith, perhaps as a response to those people of faith who dismiss and demean science, it may lead to the charge of “fake news” aimed at science. Certainly, faith and science claims should be open to rigorous critical analysis, which accounts for consideration of the proper limits and methodologies of the theological and scientific disciplines. Peer review is certainly a key part of rightful analysis, as well as discerning what bearing faith and science have on human flourishing. An interview I did with an environmental scientist on comprehensive health engages such concerns as how to navigate various arguments regarding pollution. See “Clearing Up the Smog: An Interview with an Environmental Scientist on Comprehensive Health.” The environmental scientist, Dr. Steve Kolmes, helps us navigate such important matters as discerning what really is fake news on the subject of climate change. Regardless of where we stand on this or other subjects in scientific and theological inquiry, we must guard against sweeping character attacks and generalizations that do not account for engagement of the particulars on a given topic. Cynicism is paralyzing and does not help us take action to address pressing concerns in various domains. The loss of realism, along with mistrust of science and theology along realistic lines, will take an increasing toll on our society and world in the coming years and generations. After all, a house or university or society or world divided against itself cannot stand. Perhaps the best way to address such cynicism and to build healthy trust is to bring faith leaders and scientists together in a spirit of collaboration to engage in healthy conversations, as occurred earlier this week. As an anthropologist at the meetings suggested, “The best way to fight ethnocentrism is to get everyone in the room.” No doubt, the same solution could pay real dividends for fighting cynicism and tribalism involving faith and science: get everyone in the room.

Browse Our Archives