Eric MacDonald reviews Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction

December 16, 2010 • 6:43 pm

I’m pretty much a fan of the Oxford University Press “VSI” (Very Short Introduction) series: they’re often quite useful introductions to many areas of human thought.   But one of them: the Science and Religion VSI (2008), an accommodationist tract by Thomas Dixon, isn’t up to snuff, at least according to Eric MacDonald, ex Anglican priest and regular commenter on this site.

Eric has written a longish but valuable critique of this VSI over at Butterflies and Wheels. Like all good book reviews, it’s far more than just an accounting of a book’s merits and demerits: here Eric takes on the whole idea of “harmony” between science and religion.

A few excerpts:

What may be an issue is the continuing attempt by religionists to claim a relationship between science and religion, an attempt to harmonise religion with science, and to accommodate science to religion. But this cultural struggle is not a scientific concern, except insofar as it interferes with the proper function of the sciences; the pretence that it is, and that there are meaningful parallels between science and religion, is the entire burden of this book. In my view the case is simply not made. . .

Though there is no conceivable basis for speaking of God’s will in regard, say, to specific questions such as the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality, or the ordination of women, continuing as a religion means that such speech must be privileged. In non-religious contexts such disagreements would be about matters of fact, or about disagreements regarding ethical principles which are, at least in principle, resolvable. In religious contexts the assumption is that there is one correct answer to the questions in dispute, and that God knows that answer. The task of the religious is, in humility, to seek to know God’s will, and when found, to submit, in humility, obediently to it. Yet there is no conceivable way of resolving the issues in dispute, if that is what they are. We will come to the question of revelation in due course, but it is clear that where claims are made to revelation, they are always to sources which are unquestionably human and fallible, and, moreover, open to interpretation. There is simply no way that this problem of sources and authority can be solved, except, of course, by main force. So, the simple truth is thatreligion’s continued prominence cannot underwrite religion’s claim to epistemic respectability. And yet it is almost entirely upon this that its claim to relationship with science is based. There is no sound epistemological basis for relating religion and science. If religionists wish to form a bastardised academic speciality it should be called ‘Religion and Science’, not ‘Science and Religion’. But it cannot be a field of knowledge for the simple reason that theology is not one . . .

. . . But Darwin had noticed something that most religious believers simply have not even considered. It is said that after his beloved daughter Annie died of tuberculosis at the age of 10, Darwin stopped attending church. [JAC: I think Annie’s TB is a matter of dispute.] He would accompany his family to the church door, and then carry on with his morning walk. Why? Scarcely anyone asks this question. Why did his daughter’s death topple whatever semblance of faith he had managed to preserve, mainly for his wife’s sake, over whose letter expressing her sense that life would not be worthwhile if she could not believe that they would be reunited after death, he had so often cried? I think I know the answer. It was not just that someone deeply loved had died. The reason was that Darwin had seen, in the death of his ten-year-old daughter, the process of natural selection at work, and the horror of that process, the pain and suffering and the snuffing out of a bright life and all its hopefulness, made it brutally clear that this was an impersonal process, indifferent and blind to the suffering it caused. This was not the product of a caring or benevolent being. It was a mechanical process in which life was indifferently selected for or selected out, much like a stock breeder will choose between the animals that are chosen as studs for breeding and those that are turned into steers for slaughter. And Annie had been selected out. Belief in God could not survive that. . .

. . . The attempt to harmonise religion and science (rather than science and religion) is in fact an attempt to reinterpret scientific findings in such a way that they can be reconciled with people’s religious beliefs, so that people can hold incompatible ideas in their minds without noticing the incompatibility. This will also make it look as if science and religion never conflict, but this is just for religious consumption. It has absolutely nothing to do with history, and even less to do with science.

Eric is particularly good on the repeated and annoying claim that the Galileo affair didn’t really have anything to do with a conflict between science and religion.  I’m going to hurl if I see the apologists make this claim one more time.  But do go read Eric’s piece; he’s been on both sides and knows whereof he speaks.


UPDATES:  Jason Rosenhouse also panned Dixon’s book about a year ago.  Re Galileo:

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

Also, Thomas Dixon has replied to MacDonald’s review at Butterflies and Wheels.

30 thoughts on “Eric MacDonald reviews Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction

  1. Another excerpt:

    Dixon raises the issue of authoritative sources of knowledge without addressing any of the problems associated with the idea of authoritative knowledge. Religion, throughout the book, is merely assumed to produce knowledge. The bona fides of this purported knowledge and its sources are nowhere examined. However, clearly, to show that there is a substantive or meaningful relationship between religion and science, some epistemological work must be done. Dixon, however, never raises the question at all – not once. Yet he makes it clear that the “field” of Science and Religion is about harmonising science and religion.

    That’s what I keep noticing in the books and articles on this subject: epistemology is just outside the frame. But epistemology is the whole point. They don’t know what they claim to know, and that’s why there’s a conflict. Duh.

    1. I’d even go a step further, and say that they don’t even know what they don’t know what they claim to know.

      Epistemology I don’t think is even a factor in this when you consider that in this type of mindset they tend to flutter back and forth between God as a materialistic interventionist deity and God as an emotional impulse and spaces in between sometimes faster than the eye can see.

      In the end, they’re trying to justify their communities. Which is kinda sad if you think about it.

    2. Ophelia, has any of the theistic philosophers addressed this? Doesn’t Plantinga attempt something like this with his reformed epistemology? I have no idea if it’s a goer, seems to me that saying belief in God is basic is equivalent to belief in Krishna or whatever supreme deity Hindus worship. I can not get by without belief the world exists, I can get by without believing in God. Perhaps it isn’t a goer? Any others that have tried?

  2. Maybe the next installment of the Very Short Introduction series will be titled Fiction and Non-fiction and will feature a learned author who will tell us that there’s no conflict at all between the two genres.

  3. I’m sick of reading about these one-way dialogs between science and religion. What in the hell (even in principle) is in it for science? Could somebody please answer this? I’m fairly convinced that (given that I believe that religion’s claim to knowledge is a lie) there is nothing to be gained. But I am curious what people think could be gained by such dialog?

      1. Hah. That sounds cute at first blush, but on further consideration, is probably close to the truth.

        And also a clarification: I’m not tired of hearing Jerry or Eric posting about this. I’m tired of seeing the accommodationism that prompts their posts. My complaint was ambiguous. 😛

    1. The cynic in me wants to point out how much funding a 10% tithe would provide…

      Picture a dark alley, a priest furtively glancing back and forth as he says:

      “Don’t queer the deal, kid. You have no idea how sweet it is. You don’t tell people we are making it up as we go along and maybe we’ll cut you in for a taste. I hear those experiments and equipment aren’t exactly cheap… Of course we can only fund the ‘right’ sort of research.”

      The accommodations have the unenviable task of making it seem respectable.

  4. Seems to me these attempts to reconcile science and religion come down to a case of “wouldn’t it be nice if…” Far as I can see religion is a matter of, “this is what somebody long ago thought happened.”, which then became received wisdom and/or the word of God.

    In contrast science is all about, “here’s what we think happened, and here’s evidence to support it.” Sometimes the evidence supports the proposition, sometimes the evidence does not, and in the long run we find ourselves with a working model of how the world works.

    Religion is an example of magical thinking, where knowledge is received and understanding is particular to the individual.

    In contrast scientific thinking can be learned, can be improved, and can be disproved through application of the scientific method and through the amassing of evidence. In a scientific world like ours science works so much better than magic.

    I once put it this way; A scientific world is one where the world is understandable. This understanding can be taught, can be improved upon, and can be falsified. A magical world, in contrast, is one which is understandable. But this understanding comes about through revelation, and is particular to the individual. Should this understanding being changed, it is most often through a new revelation, one which replaces the previous understanding. Since I like a world that makes sense to me, I much prefer the scientific world.

  5. Prof. Coyne, thank you for posting the link above to the reading guide (the PDF file). The 20 bullets of questions make me curious enough to read the book to see what Dixon is doing.

    For example, bullet #19 asks, “What connection is there between ethical and religious criticisms of modern science?” But that question really makes me wonder — is Science and Religion a two-way street (that goes the other direction, to include ethical criticisms of religion), or is Science and Religion a one-way street (where religion is an authority on ethics without question)? I’ll be happy to read the book to see what Dixon does there.

    Sometimes Friendship is a one-way street.

    1. One of my friends once quipped “A long time ago, Science and Religion were friends. After a while, Science began to think that maybe his friend was imaginary.”

    1. Thanks for the link, Jason. I believe I did read it when you first put it up, but I had quite forgotten by the time I read Dixon’s book. Of course, I agree entirely with the point you make about the repeated attempt to reduce religion-science conflict to something else. Nor do I think that Dixon makes good his point that it is really about politics. Indeed, by reducing religion-science conflicts to complex cultural stories, the issues become hopelessly confused.

  6. Take the case of Galileo. Usually, this is taken – correctly, in my view – as the opening round in the conflict between science and religion.

    I would set round one at the trial of Socrates, not Galileo, if we include the conflict between reason and religion. Round two was al-Fārābī’s and Averroes’s rationalist attack with al-Ghazālī’s counter attack in The Incoherence of the Philosophers— al-Ghazālī’s anti-science arguments won the battle and the war, with effects we can all see today. Round three was Galileo. Round four is Darwin fighting besides Galileo’s descendants. We’re still in round four with an opponent who is dead but doesn’t know it. They can only win by taking everyone else down with them, like al-Ghazālī did.

    I see from a quick search on Google books that Dixon’s Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction never mentions Socrates, al-Fārābī, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), al-Ghazālī, with only superficial cherry-picked commentary about the Big Bang. This summary book is so summarized that it ignores the most central conflicts of its subject. I’m guessing that the author chose to ignore this critical history for reasons having nothing to do with length.

  7. Could despair resulting from the loss of belief in a deity be a possible backhanded suggestion that the deity (or some “something” still presently outside of our known means of testing) may be real? Why should someone be sorry about losing something that never existed in the first place?

    1. People are quite capable of forming emotional attachments to things which are entirely fictitious. Look at the reactions in movies, TV shows, and novels when a favorite character dies. Case in point, when Chewbacca was killed in a Star Wars novel, some people were so angry about it that they wrote death threats to the author. That doesn’t make Chewbacca anything more than a fictional character.

  8. I’m going to take a rare position and say that harmony between science and religion is not necessary because they are not at odds with one another. For most of history there has been very little conflict between them, so little in fact that historians of science regard any incidence of conflict as the exception rather than the rule. So why try and harmonise two institutions when there is no need? Each can be practiced without getting in the way of the other, and history proves it. Bringing them much closer together will only create more conflict.

    1. It’s interesting, though, that nearly all the impetus for harmonizing science and religion comes from either religious nonscientists or religious scientists. Secular scientists have no interest in this endeavor.

    2. You’re pointing to de facto non-conflict. But many religious people seem to be unwilling to settle for that now; they want as it were de jure non-conflict – they want scientists (including non-religious scientists) to agree with them that there is no conflict in principle, no inherent conflict, no epistemic conflict, no difference that makes any difference.

      Hence there is now conflict.

      Ironic, isn’t it.

  9. For me, an important issue in this exploration is the conflict within religion, especially specific groups. It may be important to remember that there is no factual evidence to support any religious belief; therefore, every effort to establish religious belief rationally must fail. Those committed to trying are beyond reason.

    However, and this is important for me, when considering the source and intention of religion, I am convinced that “way of life” is a better definition than “fear of god.”

    Science, being based on fact and reason, is not at odds with one’s “way of life” whether seen as religious or not. I see myself as a religious person, but not a Religious one. I’m a Unitarian unconcerned with what others believe, more interested in how I behave… which is enough of a challenge for now.

    I wonder how fear of death influences the more rabid religionists. The Lakota Sioux (and others I’m sure) liked to say, in battle, “It’s a great day to die.”

    1. when considering the source and intention of religion, I am convinced that “way of life” is a better definition than “fear of god.”

      But “way of life” has the drawback, for a definition, that it’s far from exclusive. “Way of life” can easily mean secular, so even though it names an important aspect of religion, it doesn’t define it. On the other hand I wouldn’t use “fear of God” to define religion either.

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