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.