Over at the “Cogito” (philosophy) section of The Conversation website, Brother Russell Blackford discusses (and dismisses) the compatibility of science and religion in a short essay called “Against accomodationism: How science undermines religion.” A substantial part of his piece is also a review of Faith Versus Fact, which I’m happy to see is positive.
I won’t summarize Russell’s article, which you should read in full on The Conversation site, but I wanted to highlight a few issues that Russell, as a philosopher, has clarified for me. And I’ll include at the end a bit of self promotion.
Blackford’s thrust is a philosophical analysis of the incompatibility between science and religion, and part of that is an attack on the most common way people try to comport the areas: Steve Gould’s NOMA gambit. In short, Gould claimed that “proper” religion didn’t make any empirical claims about the cosmos (that’s the ambit of science) but rather encompassed the area of meanings morals, and values. Thus science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). To effect this concordat, Gould had to claim, for instance, that creationism wasn’t part of religion. You have to squint pretty hard to see that as true!
Gould’s argument failed on two grounds. First, most religions, and all the Abrahamic ones, make claims about reality: the existence of gods that have a certain nature, how life came to be, the existence of souls and afterlives, Heaven and Hell, the moral codes dictated by deities, and so on. Some of these are empirically testable, some are not, but all are claims about reality. Gould’s denial that such claims are valid parts of religion is the reason most theologians have rejected the NOMA solution (see pp. 106-112 in Faith Versus Fact for statements to this effect). As Russell notes in an earlier essay (see link below):
Unfortunately for Gould’s enterprise, religions are not secular ethical philosophies dressed up with symbols. They are encyclopedic explanatory systems that make sense of the world of human experience in terms of a supernatural realm and its workings. They end up making statements about humanity’s place in the space-time Universe that are open to conflict with scientific statements about physical nature. With the example of Genesis and its genealogies, reinterpretations are possible, and not just of the first three chapters, but it seems wrong-headed to rule out the religious legitimacy of accepting the book’s literal words.
Second, it’s palpably clear that religion is not the sole source, or even a good source, for meaning, morals, and values. Those who make such a claim neglect the long tradition of secular ethics—extending from the ancient Greek philosophers, through Kant, Spinoza, Hume, and Mill, down to people like Peter Singer and Anthony Grayling in our own day.
Blackford published a longer critique of NOMA that I highly recommend. The link to that critique on his own website embedded in his present essay doesn’t work for me, but you can find it at the following link: “Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion.” If you want a definitive philosophical refutation of the most common brand of accommodationism, that’s it.
In showing how the advances of science have forced religion to constantly rejigger its dogmas, Russell brings up a point that I’ve unduly neglected: those god-killing advances have come from the humanities as well.
I need to be add that the damage to religion’s authority has come not only from the sciences, narrowly construed, such as evolutionary biology. It has also come from work in what we usually regard as the humanities. Christianity and other theistic religions have especially been challenged by the efforts of historians, archaeologists, and academic biblical scholars.
Those efforts have cast doubt on the provenance and reliability of the holy books. They have implied that many key events in religious accounts of history never took place, and they’ve left much traditional theology in ruins. In the upshot, the sciences have undermined religion in recent centuries – but so have the humanities.
In my own book I didn’t concentrate as much on the historical damage of science to religion’s authority as on their present incompatibilities. Nevertheless, I see “science” not as a body of facts, but a way of understanding reality that combines reason, empirical observation, testability, doubt, and so on. Using that definition, enterprises like Biblical scholarship (e.g., did the Exodus occur?), plumbing, car mechanics, and linguistics can, if approached using science’s toolkit, be seen as “science broadly construed.” My point was not really to redefine science, but to show that the way people accept important truths in their everyday lives differs profoundly from the way believers and theologians approach religious “truth.”
Russell has a minor quibble with my expansive conception of science, but I can live with that. The important point is that there’s really only one way of knowing, and that’s the way that’s either based on or mimics science. Religion, in contrast, is not a way of knowing. Russell continues from the above:
Coyne would not tend to express it that way, since he favours a concept of “science broadly construed”. He elaborates this as: “the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.” On his approach, history (at least in its less speculative modes) and archaeology are among the branches of “science” that have refuted many traditional religious claims with empirical content.
. . . It follows that I don’t terribly mind Coyne’s expansive understanding of science. If the English language eventually evolves in the direction of employing his construal, nothing serious is lost. In that case, we might need some new terminology – “the cultural sciences” anyone? – but that seems fairly innocuous. We already talk about “the social sciences” and “political science”.
For now, I prefer to avoid confusion by saying that the sciences and humanities are continuous with each other, forming a unity of knowledge. With that terminological point under our belts, we can then state that both the sciences and the humanities have undermined religion during the modern era. I expect they’ll go on doing so.
That’s fine with me, so long as the “unity of knowledge” emphasizes the similarity of methods used by science and the humanities to gain true knowledge. For a lot of the humanities (e.g., the many schools of lit-crit) aren’t engaged in finding reliable knowledge.
When discussing FvF, Russell makes a further point that I’ve neglected:
Coyne emphasizes, I think correctly, that the all-too-common refusal by religious thinkers to accept anything as undercutting their claims has a downside for believability. To a neutral outsider, or even to an insider who is susceptible to theological doubts, persistent tactics to avoid falsification will appear suspiciously ad hoc.
To an outsider, or to anyone with doubts, those tactics will suggest that religious thinkers are not engaged in an honest search for truth. Rather, they are preserving their favoured belief systems through dogmatism and contrivance.
That—especially the last sentence—seems incontrovertible to me, especially in light of those believers like Karl Giberson who aver that no observation could ever refute their beliefs. No scientist would ever say such a thing about the provisional truths we accept. Religion isn’t a search for truth, but a search for confirmation of what you were taught, what you want to believe, or what you find emotionally fulfilling.
Finally, the self-aggrandizement: Russell’s assessment of the book. I’m chuffed here for two reasons. First, he’s not a man who would agree with my arguments simply because we’re friends. Anyone who knows Russell realizes that while he’s even-tempered and kind, he won’t praise something unless he really means it. Nor will he withhold deserved criticism.
Second, he emphasizes that FvF is not a strident or shrill book. Even though it’s been characterized that way by critics like John Horgan, that’s just wrong. The faithful or the petulant may disagree with my arguments, but I don’t think they can support a claim that my tone or arguments are hostile or thoughtless.
In his take on my book at Scientific American, Horgan said this after his criticisms:
In spite of these objections to religion [the problem of evil, the disparity between different faiths, etc.], I’m not an atheist. In fact, I think that science and religion converge in one important way. The more scientists investigate our origins, the more improbable our existence seems. If you define a miracle as an infinitely improbable event, then you could call our existence a miracle. Even Steven Weinberg, a physicist and adamant atheist, once conceded that “sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” My sense of life’s miraculousness keeps me from ruling out the possibility of supernatural creation.
But then what kind of supernatural creation could still be in play? Surely Horgan, a science journalist, doesn’t agree with the Genesis account. Is he then sympathetic to intelligent design? I doubt it, for that would destroy his credibility as a science writer. Perhaps he sees the physical laws of the universe as having been fine-tuned by a supernatural force or being, for he considers our existence as being “infinitely improbable.” Well, that’s his take, and others like Sean Carroll disagree (see yesterday’s post). That’s all I’ll say about Horgan, and I’ll end with Blackford’s overall evaluation of FvF:
A valuable contribution
In challenging the undeserved hegemony of religion/science accommodationism, Coyne has written a book that is notably erudite without being dauntingly technical. The style is clear, and the arguments should be understandable and persuasive to a general audience. The tone is rather moderate and thoughtful, though opponents will inevitably cast it as far more polemical and “strident” than it really is. This seems to be the fate of any popular book, no matter how mild-mannered, that is critical of religion.
Coyne displays a light touch, even while drawing on his deep involvement in scientific practice (not to mention a rather deep immersion in the history and detail of Christian theology). He writes, in fact, with such seeming simplicity that it can sometimes be a jolt to recognize that he’s making subtle philosophical, theological, and scientific points.
In that sense, Faith versus Fact testifies to a worthwhile literary ideal. If an author works at it hard enough, even difficult concepts and arguments can usually be made digestible. It won’t work out in every case, but this is one where it does. That’s all the more reason why Faith versus Fact merits a wide readership. It’s a valuable, accessible contribution to a vital debate.