The Big Think seems obsessed with the relationship between science and religion. I can’t think of how many posts I’ve done about their interviewees discussing this issue. The 14-minute video below features a number of prominent people weighing in on the question, “Has science made religion useless?” That’s a question different from, “Is there a clash between science and religion?” Religion can still be falsified by science, as it has been, and still be “useful,” though I agree with Sam Harris that finding something useful that’s palpably false is not a good way to live.
The discussants include Frans van de Waal, Reza Aslan, Francis Collins, Robert Sapolsky, Alain de Botton, Penn Jillette, Bill Nye, Rob Bell, and Pete Holmes (I didn’t know Holmes, but guessed he was a believer from his remarks below. It turns out he’s a comedian who not only makes jokes about god and religion, but also believes in some kind of deity. I didn’t know of Rob Bell, either, but he’s an author, a former pastor, and certainly a believer.
Actually, nearly all the respondents say that yes, despite science, religion is still useful. A couple of folks, including Sapolsky and Aslan (one an atheist, the other a mushy believer), float theories about why religion could have been evolutionarily or culturally adaptive. Culturally, yes, in the tautological sense that religion fulfilled or fulfills some social need. But something has made religion more useless than before, for, at least in the West, belief in gods is waning rapidly. And, truth be told, we have no idea why religion arose in the first place. We know only how it’s perpetuated. As for Aslan’s claim that there are genes for religion that have evolved by natural selection, well, we have no evidence for that. He’s just making stuff up, as he does so often.
You can find the complete transcript of this discussion here.
By the way, if you want the source of Nye’s claim that a good value for π is given in the Bible, go here.
Some selected quotes (indented) and my brief take (flush left).
ASLAN: Religious thinking is embedded in our cognitive processes. It is a mode of knowing. We’re born with it. It’s part of our DNA. The question then becomes why. There must be some evolutionary reason for it. There must be a reason, some adaptive advantage to having religious experience or faith experience. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist.
This is arrant nonsense. Religion could have hijacked other evolved tendencies of humans, such as the tendency to believe our elders or to attribute agency to natural happenings. There need be no explanation of “why believers had genes that left more copies than those in nonbelievers.”
DE WAAL: Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young and our species is much older. And I cannot imagine that, for example, 100,000 years or 200,000 years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course the had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others. All of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system. And then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think were sort of tacked onto the morality that we had. In societies with 1,000 or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other and that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a god kept watch over everybody and maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer. And so instead of saying morality comes from god or religion gave us morality, for me that’s a big no-no.
De Waal is reasonable here, but again, we do not know that religions got off the ground by hitchhiking on morality that already existed, though of course that’s what they do today. But he’s absolutely right in making the Euthyphro argument.
PETE HOLMES: It’s not about literal facts or the unfolding of what happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a story because sometimes you need an explanation and sometimes you need a story. And a story is going to transform you and symbols are going to transform you. You see this in our culture. Batman is a symbol. Go out on the street and look at how many men, especially are wearing Batman shirts. It’s a symbol. It’s something that speaks to our psyche about the pain of a boy who lost his parents using his wound to become super and try and change his reality. That’s a symbol. That’s a Christ story. That’s a hero story and we need those because it’s not about at the end of the day winning a televised debate or finding DNA on the Shroud of Turin or proving his burial was here. I’ve been to Israel. I studied in Jerusalem. They’re like he was crucified here and then they’re like well, he was crucified here. Guess what? We didn’t start writing that down until 150 years later because nobody gave a shit. It wasn’t about that. It was about your inner transformation. You. Yours. I don’t care how you get there. It can be photos from the Hubble telescope. It can be Buddhism, atheism, agnosticism, Catholicism. It doesn’t matter. Who fucking cares. Whatever gets you there because we’re talking about something. An energy that you can feel and be quiet to and respect, but most importantly you can flow with and dance with and feel and listen to and attune to.
Here Holmes expresses the idea that it doesn’t matter whether Biblical stories are true, but they are of value because they bring us solace in time of need. All well and good, but does Holmes think that the stories need to be true to be efficacious? Apparently not, but this ignores the fact that the majority of religious people really do adhere to factual claims that are either false or untestable. (For Christians, it’s that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and was crucified to expiate our sins. If you don’t believe that, how can you adhere to Christianity?) My own take is that if believers really knew that the foundational truth claims of their faiths were wrong, they’d give up those faiths.
BELL: This idea somehow that faith and science are in opposition I’ve always found to be complete insanity. Both are searching for the truth. Both have a sense of wonder and an expectation and exploration. They’re each simply naming different aspects of the human experience. One thrives in naming exteriors – height, weight, gravitational pull, electromagnetic force. The other is about naming interiors – compassion, kindness, suffering, loss, heartache. They’re both simply different ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience.
. . . Everything is driven by the desire to know the truth. There’s an exploration. There’s a wide-eyed sense of wonder. If you talk to the best scientists they have this sort of gleam in their eye like ‘This is what we’re learning. And we don’t know what’s actually around the corner.’ And if you talk to the best theologians and poets and scholars they—ideally—have the same gleam in their eye which is ‘Look what we’re learning. Look what we’re exploring.’ And so to me they’re not enemies. They’re long lost dance partners.
No, religion and science are not naming different “aspects of the human experience”—unless you conceive of the cosmos as an “experience”. One field makes up stuff to make people feel better, and makes claims about reality that are either falsified, untestable, or unlikely. The other, science, helps us understand how the Universe works. Just because scientists and believers share a “sense of wonder” does not mean that seeing their conflict is a form of “complete insanity.” And as for “the desire to know the truth”, well, science has ways to figure out if it’s homing in on the truth. Religion does not. Each faith has its own distinct “truth” (they often conflict), and our understanding of the nature of gods or divinity, assuming that they exist, has not changed in millennia. Christianity, for instance, is not an iota closer to the truth than it was 1900 years ago.
COLLINS: Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict I’m afraid.
You can always make up ways that religion and science are in harmony. You can assert that there are religious scientists (like Collins himself). You can say that most liberal faiths accept science (generally true, though Catholicism, which claims to accept evolution, is at odds with it in several important ways, like the position of Adam and Eve.) But in terms of knowing what is true about the Universe, there is no harmony. Theology and religion are useless in that endeavor (even when trying to know about whether God exists and what He/She/It is like). Science is the only game in town when your aim is to find out what’s true about the universe.