I thought that, by and large, Aussies were nonreligious, though I’m aware of the hold that the church has on certain Australian states. I’m also aware that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the national public television network—an organ of the government. And its website has just published a pretty dire piece—in its “Science” section, of all places—showing how scientists can reconcile religion and science, and using three scientists as examples. If there’s any freedom of the press at the ABC, perhaps they can put up an article showing the much larger number of scientists (especially accomplished ones) who don’t reconcile religion and science.
Here’s the article, by Anna Salleh, published yesterday (click on screenshot):
The article makes two familiar arguments for the compatibility of science and religion:
1.) Many famous scientists were religious:
Some argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist — but do they realise the father of the Big Bang theory was actually a Catholic priest, the pioneer of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk, or the decoder of the human genome converted from atheism to Christianity in his 20s?
Yes, we are talking here about George Lemaitre (a priest), Gregor Mendel (a monk), and Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health. We can discount much of this argument for scientists who lived before 1900, since before that nearly everyone was religious, or if they didn’t believe they kept mum about it.
And yes, there’s no doubt that some famous scientists, even today, accept superstition. But that’s an argument not for compatibility, but for compartmentalization. If you don’t believe me, take a deep breath and read Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The “evidence” consists of his wish-thinking, his viewing of three frozen waterfalls, a feeling that came over him at evensong, the solace that some believers got while dying, and (Ceiling Cat help him), a “deep” reading of C. S. Lewis. If you’re going to say that religion and science are compatible because some scientists are religious, then add that religion and arrant immorality are also compatible because many Catholic priests raped children.
2.) Even today, a lot of scientists are religious.
Scientists these days may be less religious than the average person, but just over half of scientists surveyed in 2009 said they believed in some sort of deity or higher power.
The interesting thing here, which the ABC conspicuously omits, is that scientists are a lot less religious (in both the US and UK) than are non-scientists. Now why would that be? Here is the comparison from the link, a comparison the ABC doesn’t mention:
And here’s the comparison discussed in my book Faith versus Fact:
Finally, if religion and science get along so well, why are so many scientists nonbelievers? The difference in religiosity between the American public and American scientists is profound, persistent, and well documented. Further, the more accomplished the scientist, the greater the likelihood that he or she is a nonbeliever. Surveying American scientists as a whole, Pew Research showed that 33 percent admitted belief in God, while 41 percent were atheists (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or higher power”). In contrast, belief in God among the general public ran at 83 percent and atheism at only 4 percent. In other words, scientists are ten times more likely to be atheists than are other Americans. This disparity has persisted for over eighty years of polling.
When one moves to scientists working at a group of “elite” research universities, the difference is even more dramatic, with just over 62 percent being either atheist or agnostic, and only 23 percent who believed in God—a degree of nonbelief more than fifteenfold higher than among the general public. Finally, sitting at the top tier of American science are the members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization that elects only the most accomplished researchers in the United States. And here nonbelief is the rule: 93 percent of the members are atheists or agnostics, with only 7 percent believing in a personal God. This is almost the exact opposite of the data for “average” Americans.
(Even more members of the UK’s Royal Society are atheists.) One has to conclude that either nonbelievers are more likely to become scientists, that scientists tend to give up their faith or (as I suspect) both. Whatever the case, we see something about science that’s inimical to faith.
Salleh then highlights three religious scientists.
Jennifer Wiseman is an astronomer who also heads the AAAS’s “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion” program, and I’ve written about her several times. Let’s look at the “evidence” for why she believes in God (she’s an evangelical Christian). Here are a few bon mots:
While science is a “wonderful tool for understanding the physical universe”, Jennifer says her religious beliefs give her the answers to the bigger philosophical questions in life — like how mere humans can be significant at all in the context of the universe.
“In Christian faith, our significance is basically given as a gift of love from God, who’s responsible for the universe,” she says.
Her religious belief gives her one set of answers, other religious beliefs give other sets of answers, secular humanism gives still more answers. How does she know her religion gives her the right answers? And how does she know that? As for “how mere humans can be significant in the context of the universe”, that’s an ambiguous question. We are significant to ourselves and each other, but not in the grand scheme of the cosmos. After all, in a few billion more years we’ll all be incinerated—if we haven’t yet gone extinct. There’s a reason why people were drawn to Carl Sagan’s elegy about the “pale blue dot.”
But wait—there’s more!
Meanwhile, Jennifer sees her scientific work as deepening her faith.
“God’s responsible for everything. So, by studying more of nature you’re … enriching your understanding of God,” she says.
How does she know this? She doesn’t, and couldn’t provide evidence that would convince even a semi-skeptic. That is the disparity between her science and her faith!
Finally, she uses the “metaphor” escape:
While some point to statements in the Bible as evidence Christianity is incompatible with science, Jennifer says the book has to be seen in its historical context.
“You have to look at biblical literature from the perspective of when it was written, the original audiences, the original languages, the original purposes … the message that was meant to be conveyed by it,” she says.
“The Bible’s not a science text.”
Okay, so is it a science text about Jesus and his miracles (which Wiseman accepts), and about the Resurrection? Remember, the statement “The Bible’s not a science text” really means “What the Bible says is true isn’t really true. But some parts are true!” The question, of course, is “Which parts are true, and how do you know?” Wiseman is unable to winnow the true from the false, which again underscores the incompatibility between science and faith. After all, science has ways to determine whether an asteroid hit the Earth about 65 million years ago. Wiseman has no way to determine if Jesus was the son of God, or was resurrected.
Andrew Harman is an immunologist at the University of Sydney who is also a Buddhist. He apparently doesn’t believe in God, but adheres to the practices of Triratna Buddhism. Given that he sees Buddhism as answering questions (but really, his gloss says it provides methods to help answer questions), yet he abjures the supernatural and doesn’t proselytize, I don’t have much of a problem with his beliefs, which may not be at odds with science if meditation does work in the ways he claims:
Buddhism, Andrew says, is interested in “creating the conditions for enlightenment to arrive” — a state in which people feel “unconditional love, deep spiritual peace, completely free of inner conflict”.
The trick, he says, is to understand and accept “the true nature of reality” and that attachment to things — like our youth, loved ones, jobs or money — is the source of suffering.
“We’re psychologically dependent on things that, at any moment, could be taken away from us,” he says.
“But they are all impermanent, so you will suffer if you depend on them.”
For Andrew, religions that require “blind faith” in God are at odds with science.
“Science is about seeking truth and testing a hypothesis. I don’t believe you can prove the existence of God.”
By contrast, he sees Buddhism as “very compatible” with science.
“I think Buddhism and science are absolutely in tune with each other fundamentally,” he says.
“They’re both driven by the idea that you can’t just believe something without any evidence.
“The Buddha was very clear that you follow a system of practice and only when you’ve experienced those things for yourself is your faith then justified — because it’s a faith that is based on experience.”
Well, that depends on what form of Buddhism you accept. I presume that Harman doesn’t accept woo like karma and reincarnation (stuff that Tibetan Buddhism accepts),and if he does reject that kind of stuff, you can hardly call him religious! He claims “Buddhism is a faith based on experience”, but “faith” and “experience” are somewhat at odds. If by “experience” he means “this practice often has results X and Y on your mind and behavior”, then that’s not faith, but evidence. If by “experience” he means “revelation”, then yes, he’s religious. But I suspect he’s not religious—at least not in the conventional sense of accepting a supernatural being to whom fealty must be given and who provides a moral code and who takes a personal interest in the believer. And what he means by faith is “confidence born of repeated experience,” which is a far cry from religious faith.
But one thing he says does disturb me:
But, says Andrew, there are some clashes between Buddhism and the idea that we can be reduced to a bunch of particles, and that studying matter will ultimately explain the whole of our reality.
“There’s still a very strong current in science that thinks everything can be broken down into bits and put back together,” he says.
But science is changing, says Andrew.
“I think Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory show you can’t reduce everything to the sum of its parts,” he says.
I’m not sure that he means what I think he means: that there is something beyond the laws of physics. Regardless, he’s not what I’d call “religious”
Fahad Ali is a a graduate student in genetics at the University of Sydney who is also a Muslim. (He’s also been investigated for misconduct and anti-Semitism, but has been cleared; see here.) Again, it’s not clear how religious he is, at least based on his statements. He sees the Qur’an as metaphorical, something that about 90% of Muslims disagree with (the vast majority see it as having to be read literally). He also ignores the nasty bits of the Qur’an, saying that the book encourages “compassion, common decency, generosity and intelligence.” Well, only under the most blinkered reading can you conclude that: compassion towards women, unbelievers, and apostates? I don’t think so.
Ali credits Islamic scientists as having contributed to world science, which is true, but again, that doesn’t do anything to show that the tenets of Islam are correct. After all, in those countries and in those days, virtually everyone was a Muslim. Why should the religion get credit for the scientific advances? Was there something about the Qur’an that brought about algebra and geometry? I don’t think so.
Further, Ali abjures the God of the gaps, but gives no evidence for The God Who is Outside the Gaps:
“Science closes the gap, and then there’s one less place for God to be found.
“Eventually God will vanish entirely — removed from the picture by science — and then people get aggressive and say science is wrong, which doesn’t help anyone.”
While some see evolutionary theory as threatening faith, Fahad disagrees.
“I think it’s a testament to God more than anything — that we can bring about all life on earth from a single origin.”
But again, Ali simple presumes there’s a God—he was an apostate until his mother got cancer, which brought him back to Islam—and I’d ask him, “How do you know that there is a God? Isn’t natural selection capable of bringing about all life on earth from a single origin? And why do you think that Islam is the right religion?”
Nevertheless, if we must have Islam, then I’d rather have a questioning and thoughtful Muslim like Ali than a fundamentalist who simply accepts the Qur’an.
So of the three scientists who supposedly demonstrate the compatibility of science and religion, only two are really religious. And those two make statements that are insupportable by evidence, but are based purely on wish-thinking—on what they’d like to believe and what makes them feel good.
As Richard Feynman pointed out, science is a way of avoiding fooling ourselves by accepting what we want to accept. That is why science and religion are truly incompatible. And that point is demonstrated by both Wiseman and Ali.