Times Higher Ed promotes a science-faith lovefest

October 1, 2010 • 9:05 am

The “science-and-faith-are-friends” articles just keep on coming as religious people try to neuter the discipline most dangerous to their faith.  Here’s one more. I don’t want to dissect it in extenso, but I’ll call it to your attention. Matthew Reisz, a features writer for the Times Higher Education, has written “The Dogma Delusion,” a long analysis of the science-faith “war.”

It’s wearingly familiar, and pretty much biased against atheists.  While a few token atheists appear, like Peter Atkins and Steven Weinberg, Reisz quickly shoots them down:

“You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs,” Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, once conceded. “But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

This view would, of course, demote Isaac Newton, to name but one, from the ranks of “real scientists”. Is such a “conflict model” either accurate or helpful?

Reiz devotes far more space to the lucubrations of Elaine Ecklund (reprinting without criticism her misleading take on her own survey data), David Wilkinson, a religious physicist at Durham University, and Karl Giberson of BioLogos, who gets the lion’s share of the space and comments.  Atheists are decried again for their theological ignorance.  Reisz even raises the charge of scientism (“But is it really the job of chemists to pronounce on whether love exists, or any wonder that such ‘scientism’ alienates many readers?”).

The quality of Reisz’s “analysis” can be roughly seen by these two paragraphs, meant to underscore the importance of faith:

So, many people devote their lives to scientific work but still find – more or less comfortable – ways of combining [their science] with their religious beliefs and practices. Yet this also implies something else. “Arik”  [an atheist physicist in a U.S. university] may despise religion, but by the sheer law of averages, progress within his discipline, and probably within his department, depends on collaboration between religious, agnostic and atheist scientists.

Science and religion also seem to have rubbed along well during one of the golden ages of scientific discovery. Peter Harrison is Andreas Idreos professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford. Much of his research has focused on the 17th century, when, he says, “virtually all the key natural philosophers (early scientists) were religious believers. Some were clearly motivated by religious considerations – notably Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle – although different individuals had different motivations. Most, however, thought that religious beliefs were consistent with their scientific findings, and indeed that religious beliefs and science were mutually reinforcing.”

In the end, Reisz—as did Ecklund in a recent piece—calls for a greater presence of religion in “secular” college campuses, enabling everyone to study theology so that we can have a “wider conversation.”

I’m not sure if Times Higher Ed sees this as an opinion piece or a news piece, but it’s certainly not the latter.  It’s terribly biased towards accommodationists, and quotes atheists only so their ideas can be dismissed.

The number of these types of articles is increasing, and believe me, it’s no fun to do exegesis on the same old arguments.  But I think we need to keep them on our radar screen, for, as accommodationists always emphasize, we need to know the quirks and wiles of our opponents.

63 thoughts on “Times Higher Ed promotes a science-faith lovefest

  1. Yes yes yes, Newton was a Christian back then.

    Would he be a Christian TODAY?

    Seriously doubt it. He’d be out-PZing PZ.

    He’d probably also be a cold fusion nutter.

    1. Seriously, what is the relevance of pointing at scientists from 3 or 4 centuries ago and say “they saw no conflict”? Isn’t he aware that there were a few significant scientific advances with theological implications between then and now? You know, like evolution, Big Bang cosmology, neuroscience? Even the scholarly analysis of the Bible and its history has radically changed since then.

      Scientists then had far fewer reasons to doubt their religion. Scientists today have a host of reasons to doubt religion, and very few, if any, excuses not to.

      1. Newton saw no conflict because (IIRC) he worked out that any three-body orbital system must be chaotic and would probably eventually collapse; he then attributed the fact that our solar system (which is far more complicated than a three-body orbit) doesn’t collapse and in fact is rather orderly to God, giving up on the question.

        About a hundred years later, Laplace basically said “fuck God, I’m figuring this shit out” and discovered the mathematics behind the reason why our solar system doesn’t collapse, inventing a ton of neat mathematical tricks and algorithms and other stuff in the process.

        And people say that religion doesn’t interfere with science. If Newton had just kept on pushing, he might have been the one to make some of Laplace’s discoveries. Instead, he hit a wall, said “Beyond here, God did it” and gave up.

      2. Way back when there was a much higher price paid for disbelief, including loss of livelihood and loss of life.

  2. Religious scientists pre-Darwin do not count. It’s so frustrating that whenever anyone undertakes to spout off a list of devoutly religious scientific greats, they are all pre-Darwin, without exception. Don’t they get that that matters???

    Prior to Darwin, Creationism was the best available hypothesis for explaining the diversity of life on earth. It was still a lousy one, and a handful of great thinkers realized as much even without the benefit of a better hypothesis. But it was much easier to accept for a theistic position to comport with science in those days. Now — not so much. We have no need of that hypothesis.

    Also, even if I were going to play that game, Newton the Alchemist is the last person I would cite. Newton’s contribution to physics is immeasurable, and he will always hold a place of honor in the pantheon of science’s great thinkers — but he makes piss-poor Argument from Authority fodder, because of his unfortunate pseudo-scientific obsessions in later life. I would have named Galileo or somebody. Oh wait, but then that whole faith/science thing…

    1. And don’t forget the blatant hero-worship of Newton in that quote. Heaven forbid we would say anything horrible about Newton! Never mind that his alchemy shows that he indeed wasn’t a real scientist, definitely not according to how we would define “science” now. Newton made some great contributions, no doubt, but he’s not holy. Just deal with it already.

      1. Indeed.

        From the one side there were no means to hanker to an “intellectually satisfying atheism” in those days. That came with the advent of biology and cosmology centuries after.

        From the other side there were no science at the time. Natural philosophers were not “early scientists” but early empiricists, taking up the relay pin from the early greeks and west asians. Science as it is known today was formed by later days physicists, chemists and biologists (such as Darwin and Wallace).

        The reason Newton did so well was AFAIK that he could systematize and quantify observations. It was exploratory work in a new area, and successful for all of that.

        1. Let me add that Newton wasn’t a hero by any means, but an important key figure which by genius crystallized what was set before him.

    2. And Kepler was an astrologer in addition to being an astronomer. He had some very peculiar ideas about how planetary motion would interact with individual souls.

      He also thought the sun was a symbol for God.

      Hmm…a sun-worshiper? This is the religious concordance they’re trying to promote?

      I think not.

      It’s safe to say that if you go back and actually look at the history of the individuals, you will find that every one of them either has a bat-shit loony skeleton in their closet.

      Maybe it’s time just to open the closets. If you’re going to claim Kepler, you have to claim astrology and god=sun. If you’re going to claim Newton and Boyle, you have to claim alchemy.

      Cherry picking; the theist’s first line of defense.

      1. I meant to say…either has a bat-shit loony skeleton in their closet OR was severely criticized by one or more church officials of the day. Possibly both.

        Science to a large extent WAS heresy in those days.

    3. Heck, Kari Mullis invented PCR, and is outspoken in his belief that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Linus Pauli discovered the alpha helix structure in proteins, and then thought Vitamin C cured cancer (he then died of cancer).

      What matters is the data and the evidence… we remember the great scientist because of the great science they did, not the half assed stuff that they did.

  3. “Arik” [an atheist physicist in a U.S. university] may despise religion, but by the sheer law of averages, progress within his discipline, and probably within his department, depends on collaboration between religious, agnostic and atheist scientists.

    “Jerry”, a liberal biologist in a U.S. university, may despise the Republican party, but by the sheer law of averages, progress within his discipline, and probably within his department, depends on collaboration between Republican, Democrat, and Tea Party scientists.

    So. Fucking. What.

    Yes, we on a daily basis we collaborate with people with whom we probably vehemently disagree on various social and political issues. The fact that some of my co-workers are probably don’t believe Obama is an American citizen does not in any way mean that the Birther position is valid, or is not stupid, or does not contain latent racism.

    What a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to write.

    1. Exactly.

      Who are these people who think that Christians are so petty that they will refuse to work with someone like Jerry, merely because he thinks they’re wrong about an issue unrelated to their work?

      Besides, most people scientists work with are atheists. Surely these rogue theists have long ago developed some techniques for working with atheists, just as we develop techniques for working with theists.

      So after arguing that atheists need to shut up and accept religion in order to succeed in science, naturally they will say that Christians need to shut up and accept secularism in order to succeed in the rest of the world. Right? Right.

  4. Not only did this so-called journalist miss the target when he shot his arrow, but it went the wrong direction, came around and shot him square in the ass. What an asshole.

  5. Newton was also heavily into alchemy. I don’t suppose the authors of the article are expecting us to bring that back.

    It is an unfortunate fact of life that scientists are not perfect, and thus prone to hold opinions that are not really thought about. I knew a scientist where I used to work that was very knowledgeable about molecular biology, but was a firm believer in the New World Order conspiracy, thinking that the CIA was responsible for everything that happens in the world, the US planned 9/11, blah blah blah. But that doesn’t mean that the science he does is wrong, if it is backed up with the proper amount of proof. And it is process of science that is important, not the individual scientist that may or may not get around to thinking critically about Jesus or Vishnu.

    1. Alchemy and chemistry were not clearly separate in newton’s day. It is just like saying early astronomers were also astrologists.

      1. True, but I seem to recall Newton was connected a lot more to the ‘black magic’ part of it than the ‘pre-scientific chemistry’ part. This in itself isn’t even terribly bad, sure we look on all that stuff as woo now, but at the time they were getting their natural history from the ancient Greeks, they didn’t really know better.

        I have a little less tolerance for scientists now, since there are plenty of ways to check sources before you start to really believe the government took over Afghanistan to sell heroin to Russia.

        1. What we now call the “black magic” part was the search for a method of turning base metals into gold, and Newton, as warden of the royal mint, took a special interest in that aspect.

          1. Newton’s religious views were highly unorthodox and he had to keep them quiet, I find it rather amusing that William Blake who had such a low opinion of him and science in general would probably have quite liked his religion.

  6. So sick of the “science can’t know everyting, ergo religion” argument. Sure, there are other ways of reaching insight that aren’t strictly scientific. Art comes to mind immediately. But what valuable insights has religion ever imparted that a humanistic viewpoint cannot? As Jerry said recently, the only thing that’s unique to religion is the bad stuff.

    1. Yes, and of course Dara O’Briain covered this: “Science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop.”

      Reisz, get in the fookin’ sack!

  7. David Wilkinson?

    I slaughtered him in a debate on his chosen specialised subject at
    http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/wilkin1.htm

    He was so unable to defend the beliefs he has dedicated his life to that he retired from the debate , even after cashing the fee he got for trying to defend the beliefs he allegedly defends for a living.

    1. I like your opening statement a lot…I especially like how you use the writings of those who are supposed to be authoritative historians and use it to demonstrate that they were just as primitively superstitious as the next fellow.

      Didn’t one of the early church fathers write about how Plato was born of a virgin? How the gods prevented his father from “lying” with his mother until after Plato was conceived?

      I know, the devil “pre-lied” about all of the other virgin births. But really, this was reported on by … Origen, maybe? Tacitus? Can’t remember.

  8. It would be interesting to see what portion of these past religious scientists’ religious views were considered heterodox (or heretical) in their time. (Even if they nominally adhered to the faith of their country.) I suspect the majority.

  9. “the 17th century, when, he says, “virtually all the key natural philosophers (early scientists) were religious believers”

    Were the centuries where Europe rediscovered science more or less religious than the centuries previous (aka the Dark Ages)?

    Spoiler: no.

      1. Yes they only appear religious in hindsight because of the conflicts and multiplicity of different faiths and sects, a sure sign that orthodox religion is losing its grip. When that happens unbelief isn’t far below the surface.

    1. Yes, it would have been absurd to expect them to all be atheists in the 17th C without having the alternative explanation of a natural (godless) origin for things which we have had slowly emerging over the past 200 years – via Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire etc & science.

    1. Yes – the TV programme of the same was annoying & cloying. We cannot afford to hold our noses against the miasma of religion – we have to take a deep breath & come out fighting.

  10. Too true that this bilge keeps rolling in – which is depressing as well as massively tedious. The intellectual dereliction is depressing. What is the Times Higher doing sucking up to majoritarian wrongness in this stupid way? The anti-intellectualism of it in a periodical of intellectualism is just infuriating.

  11. Newton was also an alchemist. Surely, it’s a terrible disservice to his legacy to not teach it to our generation of students learning chemistry.

  12. When someone calls for greater dialog between science and religion, what is it exactly that they have in mind? Can anyone point to an example of a meaningful exchange between science and faith, something beyond the mere call for more dialog?

    1. They don’t want a dialog. Their calls for greater dialogue are a defensive response against the encroachment of science and reason. They want to justify their “belief” and maintain the historical respect for “belief” in the face of ever mounting evidence that their beliefs are wrong.

      I am sure that there are a very small number of people that are truly interested in a dialogue between science and religion, and that there have been meaningful exchanges. But these days religion doesn’t really have anything new to bring to the table, and the average religious debater is not interested in learning about reality if it conflicts with their “beliefs”.

      1. Darrel E is correct in that few people actually are interested in dialog. However, I do not believe that dialog is what is needed. Pinker’s segment on Olbermann highlights what we should be doing – education. Both ends of the science-faith spectrum have unfortunately bought into the so-called culture war. War is a misguided activity and a misguided metaphor – think war on Iraq, Afghanistan, poverty, drugs, cancer, terrorism. It is impossible to educate the pseudo-Christian Hams and Mohlers but we can find ways to reach those who are within the conservative evangelical Christian community. We have to meet them where they are and bring them along slowly, with a bit of respect and grace

  13. It all seems to come back to education. Teaching children how to reason well. Just about every argument and claim in this article can so easily be shown to be bad / false / wrong by anyone who is half way decent at reasoning. And intellectually honest of course.

    Is the author really so blind or stupid? Or is he a manipulative prick who is counting on the fact that his target audience does not have good reasoning skills, and wouldn’t be inclined to use them to suss his article even if they did?

    This article is so fallacious it really just seems to be another case of “lying for jesus”.

    1. The really scary thing is that the Times Higher is for lecturers and teachers in Higher Education not students. I am hoping that lots of them have emailed in with complaints before putting this **** article in the recycling bin or better still in the cat litter tray!

  14. I think a significant portion of academics and science journalists are obsessed with the idea that multiple viewpoints on any topic are not just uncommon but that each are equally valid and worth every consideration, even when they happen to be completely devoid of even a modicum of logic. Any attempt to employ the ‘bullshit detector’ to invalidate a claim is construed as extreme and undesirable.

  15. Particularly in a society as religious as the US, scientists who are keen to reach out and share their work risk alienating their audience if they are openly contemptuous of religion. And, despite his trenchant views on religion, Weinberg shared his 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Abdus Salam, a devout Muslim who quoted the Koran during his acceptance speech.

    What a poor, lost little paragraph. Are we to assume that, with the admirable exception of Weinberg, avowed atheist scientists will be unable to be other than openly contemptuous?

    Harrison has a number of theories about “why there is still a widespread belief in the notion that science and religion are necessarily locked in a to-the-death struggle. One is the seductive but mistaken idea”, he suggests, “that religion is primarily to do with offering explanatory hypotheses about the universe.”

    A supernatural agent is the ground of all being. This is not an explanatory hypothesis about the universe?

  16. “And, despite his trenchant views on religion, Weinberg shared his 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Abdus Salam, a devout Muslim who quoted the Koran during his acceptance speech.”

    So an avowed atheist and a devout Muslim share the Nobel prize. What exactly is the point here? That Islam validates quantum physics? Well presumably atheism does too, with one less hypothesis.

  17. Much of his research has focused on the 17th century, when, he says, “virtually all the key natural philosophers (early scientists) were religious believers. Some were clearly motivated by religious considerations – notably Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle – although different individuals had different motivations. Most, however, thought that religious beliefs were consistent with their scientific findings, and indeed that religious beliefs and science were mutually reinforcing.”

    Wowza. Most 17th century scientists did not feel that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, modern neuroscience, quantum theory, and Big Bang theory, caused any difficulty for religious belief. Maybe that’s because they never freakin’ heard of any of those things.

  18. “…If you’re going to claim Newton and Boyle, you have to claim alchemy…”

    And, for Newton at least, his decades-long obsession with alchemy was driven by his religious views! His pneuma theory of alchemy kept him fixated on a quest to prove that matter contained an ultimate distillate which was the actual all-knowing spirit of the Christian god.

    He squandered much of his best years on this quixotic errand. Reisz could not have picked a worse example to illustrate his point.

  19. As has been noted above, Newton spent considerable time on alchemy but he spent even more time on Biblical analysis and on theology. However, the only work that he did that was really useful was his essentially godless work in physics. Newton did invoke God in his physics when he thought that the Solar System was dynamically unstable and God was needed to keep things from flying apart. But Newton was wrong about the stability question and God proved to be unneeded.

    Also, at a more fundamental level, Newtons conception of Absolute Space and Absolute Time were grounded in his concept of God. Einstein, of course showed that these concepts are an error.

    So, insofar as Newton ignored God he did monumental work but when he based his work on God, he was either in error or produced nothing of value. A valuable lesson.

    1. The key point is simply that Newton, as with all people, was a product of his time, and was human. The problem with Reisz’s argument doesn’t have anything to do with the beliefs or rationality of Newton. The argument is bogus because it ignores the disparity between the general state of knowledge now, and back then. And also because the argument is a non sequitur.

      But let’s give Newton his due. He seems to have been a very troubled person, but he was without doubt a genius of the highest caliber. He produced more key discoveries in physics and math than just about anyone else in history. Ask your favorite scientist who they think the most important (regarding their contributions to our understanding of reality)”scientist” was and you are almost sure to get one of three names. Newton, Darwin or Einstein. Especially if they have studied the history of science.

      1. some think his troubles (mental disorders) stemmed from lead poisoning due to his alchemy experiments. so newton was a brain damaged religious kook by the end.

        1. From the viewpoint of an atheist from any time he was a religious kook from the get go.

          He was a troubled person from a very young age.

          None of which changes the significance of his contributions to our understanding of reality.

    1. What a turkey that guy is! Did you ever read through his cross examination? It makes you squirm to think that anyone could be so lacking in integrity.

  20. This article is so wrong on a number of levels.

    First, it is misleading. It is, at least in part, a writeup about “The Religious Literacy Leadership” programme. But instead of getting right to the point, it mixes it up with the science-religion conflict.

    Second, since it is about religious literacy, of course it takes a religion positive attitude.

    But third, what it says about religion and science and their relationship is totally juvenile. This is evident from its acceptance, without criticism or assessment, of the Ecklund study, but also because of the old chestnuts like: Most 17th century scientists were religious believers. Well, of course they were! This should come as no surprise. Almost everyone was, and saying that you weren’t could get you killed! Jeepers!

    The other chestnuts.

    But what about the aspects of life, such as “love and aesthetic appreciation”, which many people find important?</blockquote.

    Religious people think this is an obvious response to the claim that religion and science are not compatible, but why should they think this? What have love and aesthetic appreciation to do with religion?

    Or this:

    But when science is treated as ‘metaphysical’ – that is, an account of the way things are that is beyond the physical – then serious questions begin to emerge.

    What is meant by ‘beyond the physical’? The mental? Well, in what way is the mental the special province of religion?

    Or this (sigh!):

    “Both ways of reading Genesis are mirror images of one another, and both are modern reductions of the text to a single meaning (held to be false by one group and true by the other). But earlier Christian thinkers, including some of the most powerful and influential, such as St Augustine, held the Bible to have many levels of meaning, and that the allegorical meanings were often the more important,” Loughlin says.

    Of course, let’s take Augustine as an example, but let’s forget that, whether Augustine read some parts of the Bible allegorically or not, he still believed, when he had found the right interpretation (how did he know that it was the right one? — and is this not a single reading, after all?), that God speaks to us through those words so understood.

    And, fourth, the ongoing belittling of atheist scientists proceeds apace.

    [Francis Collins] was denounced by atheist scientists as a “clown” and as suffering from “dementia”.

    No reference given, no evidence offered. Did an atheist scientist call Francis Collins this, or was he denounced by a number of scientists using those epithets? Reisz apparently thinks it’s okay to suggest that many did, without evidence (which might be thought to typify religion). And this in a context where he is complaining that the supposed opposition between science and religion “is taken [by the atheists?] to license a good deal of abuse and stereotyping.”

    But then there are the rich questions raised by a multireligious society: What to do about Jews who can’t work on Saturday, and so can’t qualify as doctors? Really? Jewish doctors can’t work on Saturday? What happens if someone is dying? And can Muslim doctors nor work on Friday, or Christian on Sunday? Well, there we are then. And if Ramadan falls on the same month that students are to sit exams, what then? Why, does the Muslim world close down during Ramadan? If Muslims fast and work during Ramadan, then presumably they can fast and sit exams too. Or what about setting a room apart for prayer, and refusing to call it a Prayer Room. Imagine that!

    And all this in the Higher Education Supplement, and the subject is literacy! The mind weeps!

    1. I’m sure the Francis Collins/clown thing was a reference to PZ’s “clown shoes” post. Which was metaphorical.

      So… what is presented as a literal account in the Bible should be taken as a metaphor, and what was presented as a metaphor on a blog should be taken literally? Nice.

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