Today we have yet another guest post by reader Sigmund, who has bravely volunteered to keep a watch on matters accomodationist at both BioLogos and PuffHo. Here he considers an accommodationist plea to judge scientific and religious “facts” by different standards.
Two scholars take on scientific “extremism”
The Huffington Post continues its war on gnu atheism with a new piece, this time penned by Philip Clayton, a theologian, and Steven Knapp, professor of English and president of George Washington University. The article follows the theme of a previous Clayton HuffPo article that vainly attempted to claim new gaps in which to hide Jesus.
In the current piece, Clayton and Knapp praise the work of Christian apologists such as the Johns Polkinghorne and Haught:
Their numerous books and conferences have explored a wide range of approaches: sometimes isolating areas of science, such as quantum mechanics, that seemed to cry out for supernatural forms of causation (or at least leave an opening for them), and sometimes seeking methods for testing religious claims in ways that are analogous to the ways that scientific claims are tested by experimentation and critical feedback. Despite their often heroic efforts, this project has not given rise to a broadly compelling research program. In fact, it has come under attack by scientists as well as religious persons. Why is that? Why would both sides not welcome these attempts to establish harmony?
As usual for HuffPo religion articles, the standard tactic is applied: dividing the science/religion world into a battle between two extremist armies—the religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists—and arguing that the ideal solution is to be found by adopting the middle ground.
Clayton’s personal bio, linked to the article, gives a clearer picture of the strategy:
Rejecting the scientism of Dawkins and friends, he argues, does not open the door to fundamentalism. Instead, a variety of complex and interesting positions are being obscured by the warring factions whose fight to the death is attracting such intense attention today.
As to which complex and interesting positions Clayton means, it’s helpful to note where, exactly, he finds compatibility between science and religion.
As a philosopher he works to show the compatibility of science with religious belief across the fields where the two may be integrated (e.g., emergence theory, evolution and religion, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and consciousness).
The continued assault on the ‘scientism’ of the New Atheists forms the central argument of the current article.
Critics such as Richard Dawkins misunderstand how religious beliefs are formed and defended when they claim that religious reasoning is purely circular, or that all religious claims are equally true — and therefore equally false!
But most religions are partly historical systems, containing claims about both factual and supernatural events. Claiming an individual named Jesus entered Jerusalem while riding a donkey is at least physically plausible in terms of what we know of the common names of that time, the animals living in the region, and the evidence that Jerusalem has existed for thousands of years.
The claim that he died, rose from the dead after three days and later ascended into the heavens, defies all we know about the sciences of cell biology and cosmology (to name but two fields). Broadly speaking, it is only this second claim that is regarded by the gnus to be as ‘equally false’ (or more accurately as ‘equally improbable’) as every other supernatural religious claim about any deity from Allah to Zeus.
Yet for Clayton and Knapp it’s all about the failure of gnu atheists to understand things from a believer’s point of view:
That misunderstanding is no doubt part of what has been driving the indignant attacks on religion in recent years from certain scientists, philosophers, and journalists. It also helps to fuel the fires of the New Atheist attacks. But the fact that a traditional claim is hard to evaluate from outside that tradition does not show that the claim is false. It merely shows that the claim is hard for outsiders to evaluate.
But wouldn’t this mean that religious claims are incompatible with science, at least in terms of how science deals with every other type of hypothesis about the natural world?
The entire article appears to be an advertisement for Clayton and Knapp’s new book The Predicament of Belief, described as follows:
In eight probing chapters, the authors of The Predicament of Belief consider the most urgent reasons for doubting that religious claims – in particular, those embedded in the Christian tradition – are likely to be true. They develop a version of Christian faith that preserves the tradition’s core insights but also gauges the varying degrees of certainty with which those insights can still be affirmed. Along the way, they address such questions as the ultimate origin of the universe, the existence of innocent suffering, the challenge of religious plurality, and how to understand the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead. They end with a discussion of what their conclusions imply about the present state and future structure of churches and other communities in which Christian affirmations are made.
“How to understand the extraordinary claim that an ancient teacher rose from the dead”?
Or how to understand the story of the red-coated elf with the white beard who visits every child’s house on Christmas Eve to deliver toys?
Strangely enough, ‘extremist’ interpretations of the Santa story, based on the scientific consensus about aerodynamics and reindeer biology, are acceptable. Using science to consider the factual claims of the zombie hypothesis are, however, deemed beyond the pale—at least amongst ‘the moderate majority’.
Not surprisingly, Clayton and Knapp end with a call for moderation, or as they put it, “minimalism”, hinting that their approved religious beliefs are of the ineffable variety.
We suggest that the humility of religious minimalism is the right stance for everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to adopt.
“The humility of religious minimalism” sounds curiously like a call for religious beliefs to be kept in the private realm and not imposed on others.
Isn’t that rather extreme?