I don’t know what’s going on with Science and Nature—perhaps the two most prestigious science journals in the world—but both are increasingly catering, if not pandering, to religion. Science and its sponsoring organization the AAAS have a program, funded by Templeton, to increase dialogue between science and religion, and the AAAS has faith-themed events at its annual meeting. Nature publishges editorials and pieces speaking positively about religion, claiming that science and religion both depend on “faith”, and arguing that science and religion are compatible (see here and here, for example).
Now Nature has jumped the shark even farther with a new article by Kathryn Prichard, who works for the Church of England, called “Religion and science can have a true dialogue.” This short piece is still too long, for Prichard simply claims that science and religion can have a fruitful dialogue because religious people are avid followers of—indeed, are hungering for—science. This, she argues, should lead to useful discourse between the two areas, discourse too often stymied by popular misconceptions that science and religion are in conflict.
But her article is one of those well-meaning bowls of mush that hasn’t been properly digested, and Prichard tries to veil the very profound conflict between religion and science with a rain of sweet words.
My counterarguments to her pap are these:
Science and religion are in conflict. I lay out the reasons in Faith Versus Fact. Suffice it to say here that both areas endeavor to find truths about the Universe, but only science has a way of verifying its truths. The “truths” of religion—about the existence of God, the afterlife, saviors and prophets, the nature of God, His moral code and so on—differ among faiths, and none can be verified empirically. In other words, scientific claims are made on the basis of observational and experimental evidence that is widely agreed on (and makes testable predictions), while religious claims are made on the basis of revelation, dogma, scripture, and authority. Only one of these epistemological methods is reliable.
Prichard claims that the conflict simply doesn’t exist, it’s a misleading “popular narrative of science-faith conflict that pervades contemporary culture.” She also argues that this false argument is used to dismiss the ethical concerns of religious scientists:
Too often, this simplistic claimed tension is used in the media, for instance, to pigeonhole ethical arguments from (even highly scientifically literate) religious figures as being relevant only to those ‘of faith’, rather than expressing a broader concern for human welfare. This biases the way that their engagement filters into public consciousness.
Her unwillingness to give examples of anything (and her tedious prose) makes this a bit hard to parse, but I’m not aware of secular ethical arguments being dismissed simply because a scientist is religious. Plenty of religious scientists are pro-conservation and anti-global warming, and I’ve never seen anybody say, “Well, we can dismiss her arguments because she’s a faithhead.” On the other hand, when some religious scientists argue, as does Francis Collins, that human morality, lacking an evolutionary explanation, much have been vouchsafed us by God (shades of C. S. Lewis!), we can dismiss their arguments out of hand because they involve a deity for which there’s no evidence.
Finally, Prichard hints that the historical conflicts between churches and science are overblown. This is a common theme of accommodationist historians like Ronald Numbers, who say that the Galileo affair, as well as creationism, have nothing to do with religion. In fact, in this way the accommodationists are of a piece with those who claim that terrorism has nothing to do with religion. It’s always politics, personal frustration, colonization, and so on. To argue that creationism is not a huge instantiation of the different “ways of knowing” of science versus faith is to brand yourself as an ideologically blinkered zealot. And the motivation of both groups is the same: to show that religion can’t inspire anything bad.
A “constructive” dialogue between science and religion can go only one way: science tells religion what’s true, and religion has to deal with it. Although Prichard claims that fruitful two-way dialogue is possible (“Our projects express the conviction that science and theology — at the church, cathedral and local-community level — can illuminate one another to the benefit of all. We will report on the results”), she only gives us ways that science can help theology. For example:
Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common. Yet in this enjoyable, high-energy context [a meeting of the Archbishops’ Council of the CoE related to science], there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses? Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny? The event was transformative in ways that none of us — the cosmologists included — could fully articulate.
Well let the faithful masticate these metaphysical questions until their teeth are worn down, for they won’t find any answers. But scientists have even less to gain—in fact nothing—from theology. Ours is an atheistic, naturalistic discipline, one that needs no input from religion. As Laplace is supposed to have said about God, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”
At the end, Prichard describes some projects intended to educate the faithful about science, like a “Scientists in Congregations” project that brings science and its practitioners into Christian churches to educate believers. That’s fine with me: the more science the better, and maybe a few people might even give up their superstitions. But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Let us not come with any patronizing nonsense that science has something to gain when believers discuss their faith with scientists. Science has not left that open to us. That is not the way it works.”
The asymmetry between science and religion—science can force religion to change its theology, while religion can have no effect on science—is, I think, known to most believers. And it infuriates them. It shows the epistemological inferiority of religion and the vapidity of religious belief. To deal with this cognitive dissonance, people like Prichard pretend that their faith has something to contribute to science, so that the areas are not only not in conflict, but mutually supportive.
That, of course, is hogwash. But it pains me to see the hog being bathed in the pages of Nature.