Quote of the week

June 24, 2009 • 3:52 pm

From Peter M. J. Hess, Catholic theologian and director of the “Faith Project” of the National Center for Science Education, comes this trenchant analysis of the faith/science dichotomy.  Quote of the week in bold:

Evolution can certainly be compatible with religious faith. Because the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, we must consider it to be a truth about the natural world — the world which we as people of faith believe was created by God, and the world made understandable by the reason and natural senses given to us by God. Denying science is a profoundly unsound theological position. Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths.

Lordy, I’m so tired of hearing this statement over and over again from accommodationists (over at The Intersection, Chris Mooney praises Hess’s “great column”).  We’re both searching for the same truths?  That’s news to me.  I didn’t know faith was trying to find out where the genes are for reproductive isolating barriers between species of fruit fly. Or that the faithful are praying for some revelation about dark matter.  Likewise, I don’t know many scientists who are working on the Big Question of whether unbaptized babies go to limbo.

Really, we need to think about statements like Hess’s. They may sound good — for a nanosecond — but they’re intellectual pablum.  They are balm for believers, Panglossian tactics meant to reassure everyone that, hey folks, we’re all in the Big Search for Truth together!

As I’ve maintained repeatedly, religion is neither set up for finding truth nor very good at finding truth. Let me correct that — faith is incapable of finding truth, or at least no more capable than is astrology.   The methods of ascertaining “truth” via faith are either revelation or acceptance of dogma.   These methods have produced “truths” like a 6,000-year-old Earth and the Great Flood.  Not a very good track record.  In fact, I have yet to find a single truth about humans, Earth, or the universe that has come uniquely from faith.  If you have one, please send it to me!  If faith did hit on truths, the tenets of all the world’s religions would not be in irresolvable conflict.  But they are.

In all these debates about the compatibility of science and faith, I have yet to see an intellectually respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.”  Instead, people like Mooney go after us for our tone, for polarizing people, and so on.  Does Mooney sign on to Hess’s statement that the faithful and the scientists are all really engaged in the same endeavor?  If not, why does he call Hess’s column “great”? Instead of beefing about our “militancy,” why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true? Let’s hear about whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence.   Now that would raise the tone of this debate.

33 thoughts on “Quote of the week

  1. In principle, religion could tell us all sorts of true things about the world. I.e., it could do so if one of these religions did actually have a holy text dictated by an angel, or whatever. Angels should know stuff about the age of the earth, the orbits of the planets, the evolutionary origin of Homo sapiens, etc. They should have got these right before science found out about them.

    That’s one of the problems with most of the accommodationist positions that are on offer. They want it to be so that the failure of religion to teach us truths about the world is not a DEFICIENCY. They want it to be that we shouldn’t EXPECT religion to teach us truths about the world (as opposed to truths about some supernatural world that is otherwise closed to us). But it really is a deficiency, and we really should expect religion to provide us with such truths … if it really is divinely inspired rather than man-made.

    Don’t forget to read the review of WEIT in JET, Jerry.

  2. The problem with the anti-accommodationist stance is that it doesn’t hold the IDiots’ and other creationists’ to the flames for telling the truth about the evidence.

    Sure, it’s easy to show incompatibilities of religion and science, but it’s just as incompatible with the typical religionists’ position to lie repeatedly to people about the status of evolution.

    I know, that’s not your concern. The trouble is, it should be for anyone promoting science. I’d say that it’s one thing to tell people that religion and science are truly compatible (other than in a largely theoretical stance), it’s another to tell them that it’s not.

    I would prefer to at least start out by telling them just how incompatible with their religion it is to lie about scientists (as virtually all of them do, if by failing to learn what they ought before expounding on science). True, that won’t necessarily make much difference, and most of them already do know that science isn’t compatible with at least their religion. Nonetheless, why let them off morally at the outset?

    I know that being honest about science and scientists played a role in my rejection of creationism when I was young. It really is true that even if evolution is not very (anyhow) compatible with religion, neither is lying about scientists and their desire to destroy religion.

    That fact is part of what the accommodationists are trying to combat. Of course it’s fair to question their particular tactics in trying to counter it, yet there is no reason to give the IDiots and other creationists any points for honesty–they’re a long way from the point of truthfulness.

    Glen Davidson

  3. It is quite apparent that neither Peter M. J. Hess or Chris Mooney understand the meaning of the word truth.

    Jerry is waiting for a respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.” First there has to be respect for facts, evidence, logic and honesty. Few Religionists or accommmodationists show that respect. Faith is a place to hide dishonesty and obfuscation.

  4. …why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true?

    Any time someone says that faith is just “another way of knowing,” I ask them to use faith to tell me the model of the car I drive. Or my mother’s maiden name. Or the boiling point of lead. They usually get very indignant and complain that isn’t how it works, but I make the point,: “If you can’t use faith to answer simple questions like these, what the in the world leads you to believe faith is capable of answering monumental questions about the origins of our Universe?”

    1. This resonates well with Albert Einstein’s words: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

  5. The thing is, there is this big disconnect. It happens right after you carefully explain all of the evidence in favor of your position to a person who shows all the signs of understanding your points, seems to accept your logic, and when you reach the inevitable conclusion, replies: “Well I feel…”

    They don’t think, they feel. When it comes to sky-fairies and Great Eternal Questions, they don’t think, they feel.

    1. In the catholic church they do a lot of feeling – especially with little boys and little girls. I’m sure there’s no thinking involved then either.

  6. The fact that the NSCE actually employs this guy is quite disturbing. When I read that article a week ago I had to blog about it; it was just too silly and nonsensical and filled with illogical arguments. The only defense he ever presents for his position is that other people agree with him and his non-analogous analogy.

  7. “Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths.”

    Hess seems to be out of touch with the accommodationist party line, that science and religion answer _different_ questions. Oops!

  8. Joshua Rosenau from the NCSE has a piece on his ‘Thoughts from Kansas’ blog about the current debate. Its incredibly waffly and difficult to discern the essence of his argument but it seems to boil down to a contention that religious people can gain a deeper understanding of the world through the use of the metaphors provided by religious texts (such as the passover Exodus story).
    The implication is that non religious people have no understanding or requirement for metaphors in their lives. Correct me if I’m wrong about my interpretation of Joshuas piece but that did seem to be the underlying theme. If so its a rather amazing claim. I am non-accomodationalist yet have zero problem in people using religious metaphors. Do religious people really think the non religious want to end the use of holy books as a source of metaphor? In fact the whole debate could be ended in a moment if the religious confined their interpretation of their holy books to the sphere of metaphor. It’s the opposite case where holy texts are cited as irrefutable facts about nature that causes the objections from the non-religious.
    There is one area, however where both the accomodationalists, the non-accomodationalists and even the religious scientists could unite to educate the public on a central question – that is the question of the definition of science as the practice of methodological naturalism.
    Unfortunately I get the impression that, while this is the consensus view within science, it is a bit of a guilty secret for religious scientists – indeed this definition is the major target of the Discovery Institute. If we cannot get a consensus definition of either God or religion, lets at least get a definition of science taught to the public.

  9. If religion is looking for the same truths, they’re doing an absolutely crappy job of finding any.

    The claim that religion is looking for any truth at all is such an abject lie, how can anyone believe that nonsense? History shows that truth (and education) has been the eternal nemesis of religion.

  10. There are two key points that I would like to make:

    1) When scientists debate against religion, they should not discard the whole of religion. They must realize that some aspects of religion do play a positive role in this world.

    2) A hunger for power is a very basic characteristic of human nature. Science must make sure that in its fight against dogma, it should not become dogmatic itself.

    For details, please see:


    1. to 1) Ah, which would that be?

      to 2) Any serious Scientist bow before the Evidence, there is nothing Dogmatic about it.

      1. 1) Not everyone is intelligent enough to appreciate the ideas of science. For such people, religion gives them some meaning in life, a purpose that can make life seem worthwhile.

        2) There are many areas of science where people have made certain assumptions to proceed with the theory without being able to give a proper justification for the same. And when these theories remain around for long, it becomes almost like a dogma.

  11. When Hess talks about “the same truths” he isn’t considering mundane scientific truths, e.g., “Condoms slow the spread of AIDS.” Rather he is thinking of “big question” truths. Truths like: God created the universe and invented evolution to produce humans that could become aware of her and worship her. Science needs religion to explain its true meanining, which is why science will always be religion’s handmaiden.

    1. It is clear that when Hess said “same truths” he was wrong. Apparently you can read minds in that you know what he really meant to write.

      How can we tell if religion is accurate in answering those “big question” truths? Different religions seem to come up with different answers, and there is no way to reliably which religion, if any, gets it right.

    2. What exactly has religion done to answer these “big questions”? As Coyne often says, religion is in “permanent and irresolvable conflict.” There is no one answer on the question of the universe’s meaning or the purpose of human beings. There are thousands, and many of them are mutually exclusive with each other.

      When science is faced with competing hypotheses, there is a scientific method for determining which is correct. Now, science isn’t perfect. The technology to test some hypotheses may not be available yet. On the whole, though, science has done an excellent job of separating the wheat from the chaff.

      There is no “religious method.” There is no way of arbitrating competing religious hypothesis about the so-called big questions. That’s the difference. If religion had a method of determining truth, I’d be the most stalwart accommodationist, but it doesn’t. It just spins out pleasant-sounding sophistry that perpetuates an intellectual quagmire.

    1. Now this discussion is narrowing down. Good. I agree with Tulse, Rules For and sduford over there on discover blog.

      The religious scientists like Francis Collins and Ken Miller should keep their faith personal and private; if they don’t they deserve the criticism they receive.

      1. NEB, I agree with you for some values of “should”. I.e., if they don’t want to be criticised they should keep their faith private. Of course, I would never tell them to shut up and would certainly never support the state telling them to shut up. I’m sure you agree with this, but just thought it worth spelling out.

  12. I’m perfectly willing to accomodate the accomodationists so long as they accomodate my view that faith is not a means of knowledge and religion is on par with every other superstition.

    I feel towards Christianity the same way the Christian might feel towards Scientology–of course the former has been around longer and, so, has caused a lot more harm. Science, however, should treat them both equally, and the only way to do that is if the public sphere (including classrooms) remain secular without teachers having to worry about who’s meme infection might flair up.

  13. Since I was siding with our host over at Jason Rosenau’s blog, I’ll take an accommodationist tack over here. For the most part, people find narratives more convincing than arguments, and they favor narratives that privilege them.

    Religions provide narratives that tell people that their lives serve a purpose and are imbued with meaning, in part continuing the assurances that parents give their children. Although in biology the notion of purpose is a fallacy of which students have to be disabused (and may be in politics as well) it’s generally useful in human intercourse and might arguably need to be encouraged, even for adults.

    Gould gets some undeserved abuse for NOMA. He didn’t consign everything outside science to religion, he merely located it among the humanities as another field of endeavor which can’t be uniquely evaluated on a practical basis.

    1. Gould gets some undeserved abuse for NOMA. He didn’t consign everything outside science to religion…

      But he did specifically assign some things outside of science to religion:
      Nonoverlapping Magisteria

      The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.

      So then:

      Has religion historically confined itself to things within its Gould-designated magisteria? What fraction even of modern religion confines itself to these areas?

      Should religion really be granted control of questions of moral meaning and value? Should non-religion, e.g. philosophy, be excluded from this realm?

      Which religion? How can we verify which religion gets it right? Why is one version of making **** up better than another?

    2. No, all the abuse is deserved for Gould. He was completely off base with NOMA. It is a failed hypothesis.

      Religion has no authority for morality whatsoever. Morality existed prior to any and all religions and has more to do with genetics, kin selection and altruism that it ever has to do with religion. Therefore one can make a much stronger case that morality belongs within science.

      Gould did much damage by this even to this day.

      Religions provide narratives that tell people that their lives serve a purpose and are imbued with meaning…

      Which purpose does religion provide? The purpose of slavery? To kill all those who do not believe the same? To condemn someone to hell for eternity for riding a goat on the sabbath? To oppress and rape all women? Please!

      The only purpose from religion is to control people and propagate the dogma.

    3. Religion does provide answers to moral questions, albeit not terribly good ones. Gould wasn’t saying it had dominion over such questions, but rather that it’s domain was restricted to such.

      We do all understand quantitative logic, don’t we? Excluding R from S doesn’t imply anything about its applicability to non-S.

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