On September 20, the prestigious science journal Nature published an article by Kathryn Pritchard, “Religion and science can have a true dialogue“, which I found not only lame, but inappropriate for a science journal (see my post here). Pritchard is identified as someone who “works with the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops’ Council in London and with St John’s College, Durham”; and she was touting a “Science in Congregations” program in which scientists went into churches to educate the faithful about science. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Pritchard also called for the a respectful and mutually fruitful dialogue between science and religion:
Despite what the popular narrative might have scientists believe, there is a genuine hunger in the church to address the questions that contemporary research asks of religious belief. 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.
As I’ve always maintained, what is touted as a fruitful dialogue is really a fruitful monologue: science tells religion what is true about the universe, and religion either rejects those truths or modifies its theology in their light. In contrast, religion has nothing to contribute to science.
Pritchard also neglected to mention that the “Science in Congregations” program is funded by a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In effect, then, Nature was advertising a Templeton project.
I wrote to Nature asking to write a counter-editorial (ca. 900 words—the length of Pritchard’s piece) detailing the incompatibility between science and religion. That idea was rejected, and they urged me to write a shorter response of about 300 words, which they’d consider as a “Correspondence” piece responding to Pritchard. I did that, but that piece, which I’ve put below, was also rejected with the suggestion that I add it as a “comment” below Pritchard’s piece.
I’ve now done that, and you can see all 55 comments, both laudatory and critical, on the page with Pritchard’s original piece. There are two that I want to highlight: mine and Alan Sokal’s, both rejected by Nature. (Recall that Sokal, a physicist, perpetrated a very famous hoax on a postmodern journal.) Our comments and letters are very similar:
In her essay on religion and science (see Nature 527:451; 2016), Kathryn Pritchard promotes a “true dialogue” between these areas, arguing that they are not, as often believed, in conflict. Her examples of dialogue include outreach projects in which scientists visit churches to talk about their research. This kind of interaction, says Prichard, helps the faithful answer questions about “human origins, purpose, and destiny,” and helps science and theology to “illuminate one another to the benefit of all.”
Yet despite Pritchard’s insistence that the relationship between science and religion is harmonious, the two remain at odds in important ways. For example, 43% of Americans are young-earth creationists. Belief in a literal Adam and Eve is also common, though the idea is clearly nonsensical from a genetic perspective.
Both science and religion make claims about the Universe, and sometimes those claims conflict. Confronted with such a conflict, whose claim do we accept? Scientific claims are both reliable and testable – our species arose through a gradual process of differentiation within the great apes, as revealed by genetic and paleontological study—while religious “truths” are unevidenced and, crucially, differ among faiths. (J. A. Coyne, 2015, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible; Viking/Penguin 2015). According to Abrahamic tradition, for example, we are descended from Adam and Eve, with Adam created in the image of God, while many Hindus believe that males and females arose de novo from a god that split into two parts.
The “true dialogue” espoused by Prichard is impossible. Rather, we have a monologue in which science reveals features of the Universe, and liberal religions must evolve to accommodate these findings. In contrast, religion cannot usefully inform the practice of science, for science succeeds only when ignoring the supernatural. As Laplace supposedly replied when Napoleon asked him where God was in Laplace’s great work Méchanique Céleste, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
The University of Chicago, Illinois, USA