Five books, all trying to show that science and religion are BFFs, get my kishkes in a knot

September 1, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:



Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history?  The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?

In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes.  In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:

Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.

Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.

So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.

As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think.  Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.

On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:

It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.

But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.

At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.

Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.

Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.

One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.

A few more items lest I go on forever.

First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):

What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS.  Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)

Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:

To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.

There’s also this:

Interviewer: One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

Harrison: I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.

Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science.  Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:

Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . . I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.

Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:

As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.

It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology.  People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature.  I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.

h/t: Matthew

21 thoughts on “Five books, all trying to show that science and religion are BFFs, get my kishkes in a knot

  1. Remarkable how in every discussion of this sort, ‘religion’ is almost always synonymous with ‘Christianity’.

    1. Or “the peoples of the book” more generally, on occasions.

      If accommodationists can resolve the clash between science and, say, the idiots in India promoting the drinking of cow urine as a cure for Covid then that’ll be the day…!

      Perhaps the only contribution that religion has contributed to science is the methodological observations of the early astronomers; ironically the very thing that subsequently began to undermined belief in the West.

  2. It is so easy to prove incompatibility, just by asking one single question of the religious.

    Are you willing to be wrong?


  3. this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science

    Well this is complicated. The bible generally agrees with a lot of naive and wrong human notions about the world – i.e. that it is young, flat, the earth is at the center, that animals don’t change their forms over time, etc. These ideas are not uniquely biblical, so in the sense that the bible originated them, they are not biblical. But they do sort of get at least implied, allegorical support from the bible. So when Galileo comes around, there may not be anything explicit in the bible that says moons can’t orbit other planets, but the idea was associated with Christianity. Likewise when the early 1800s roll around and we start getting geological clues that earth is far older than the bible implies, this is interpreted by a lot of Christians as contradicting it. So was it a science book? No. Did Christians associate the bible getting these things right with the bible being a solid source of authority? Yes.

    I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology.

    I agree. The ‘necessary but not sufficient’ claim is poppycock, IMO. What science requires is a desire to understand how things work – every culture had that – and an agreement that sharing methods and knowledge is better than hoarding it – most cultures didn’t have that, including medieval Europe. But I can’t see how Christianity is necessary for the notion of peer review or sharing knowledge. Certainly with things like the library of Alexandria, you see pre-Christian societies at least exploring the idea that having scholars record their findings and put them in a place that other scholars can access them is a good thing.

    I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.

    I’m a bit more positive on this point. I think compartmentalization is a positive adaptation, and so wouldn’t call the people who do it well “muddled.” I would say, however, that if someone is carving out a special place for one entity and applying scientific methods to all other entity claims, they are compartmentalizing where they shouldn’t.

  4. I know it’s dated, but my favorite work on the relationship between Science and Religion is still White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.

  5. Anyone who cites Duhem (d.1916; anti-atomism, anti-Maxwell/Boltzmann, anti-relativity) in support of their views is on pretty thin ice.

    And anyone who asserts that naturalism is an assumption is facing the wrong way. Richard Carrier, among others, makes a clear case for naturalism being an evidence-based conclusion from the natural sciences, not a presumption:

  6. Clearly some folks will do all kinds of mental handstands to try to render science and religion compatible. Presumably, their purpose is to preserve hope that their religious worldview still has currency.

    The last few days I have been reading Mario Livio’s book “Galileo and the Science Deniers.” Much of his book talks about the extraordinary efforts the Catholic Church put forth to render the emerging science of the era—including Galileo’s work—compatible with Catholic dogma. Failing to strongarm Galileo to characterize his work as merely a mathematic model and not, as Galileo believed, an actual description of nature, the Church famously placed Galileo under house arrest. Church officials clearly recognized the incompatibility between religious dogma and the new empirical findings of science.

    Today, in lieu of censoring non-believers or putting them under house arrest, the accommodationists do the only thing they have left—perform literary gymnastics that obfuscate rather than clarify.

  7. It seems to me that the idea that religion gave rise to science gets the relationship exactly backwards. It was the human desire to know, to understand why the world is the way it is instead of some other way, that gave rise to religion.

    1. The desire to know contributed to the rise of religion and then science. The latter began when people started looking for non theistic explanations. In the Greek tradition, this probably happened around the time of Thales. The formulation of precise questions and the setting out of empirical criteria for admitting explanations led to the development of science. People who make a distinction between scientific truth and religious truth often do not realize that science developed as a way of getting reliable (true) information about the natural world because religion failed. People who set out to find reliable information about the world gave up religious ‘truth’. When scientists try to mix religion and science, they don’t mix. Instead, religion creeps into the gaps in our knowledge.

  8. The Hellenistic Alexandrians knew the Earth was a sphere (Erathostenes even calculated it’s size pretty accurately), knew that Africa could be circumnavigated (Strabo) and even invented a steam machine (Heroon) and much more. Christianity has been a great setback for science (and arts), not even thinking of Galileo.
    Nearly the same goes for Islam, Al Ghazali’s fundamentalism pretty much destroyed science in the Islamic world (admittedly helped my he mongol destruction).

    Any time an author claims that Darwinian evolution is a random process, you may put his (or her) book down: clueless. A kinda low bar litmus test.

    1. To be fair to Harrison, what he actually says is: “It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process.” So he may well understand how natural selection works, and simply be commenting on how evolution looked/looks to people who don’t trouble to find out what it says. And the second of those adjectives, “directionless” is, as most atheists would take for granted, a correct description of evolution. For the godly, however, anything directionless is by definition also random.

  9. that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science.

    With all due respect to some hoary philosophers, that’s crazy talk. A priori reasoning isn’t suited to settling empirical disputes, and “how to succeed in empirical investigations” is itself an empirical question. Philosophers should quit trying to be philosopher-kings and accept their humble position as street sweepers trying to clean up after science. That is, clean up our “manifest image” as Wilfrid Sellars put it, i.e. our ordinary thought and talk about the world that empirical investigation reveals.

  10. Em, so, before 17th century, “no one” believed Bible’s claim about physics and history were true?
    But Jesus says in Luke 17:

    26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.

    27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.

    28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;

    29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.

    Maybe Mr Harrison needs to read the bible!

  11. Christianity violently and otherwise waste fully upended a fair few beliefs, gods and the like to dominate the west in its history.
    Now its turn to be shaken, squeezed on its flanks and chased down for every claim it holds for our existence we get books giving insight to its desperation and death role… cause no matter how you package it and plead its still a fairytale masquerading as facts.

  12. You can put up strawmen and kick them down, but that is not how knowledge progresses.

    Science versus religion is a false dichotomy, and therefore, a rather pointless discussion. If there is a God, then the most plausible explanation appears to be that we live inside a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation.

    Therefore, you could argue that this world might be created a few thousand years ago as a simulation faking a ‘real’ world that may have emerged like science claims (e.g. big bang, evolution). Religions may be largely fairy tales, but God may still exist.

    You cannot claim that this universe is a virtual reality without evidence, but it is plausible, even if you have no information on the nature of this universe (real or fake). This is the simulation argument put up by Nick Bostrom.

    1. Well put. I’ve come to question BOTH, modern science and religion, while still accepting that both God and virtual reality theory may be true. I’m not certain of anything at this point.

      Anything is possible, or at least plausible. Its fine if people come to different conclusions about this or that.

      1. I presume, then, that you haven’t flown in airplanes, taken antibiotics, used a GPS, or done anything that would require you to trust “modern science”.

        Of course you have. Your comment, I’m afraid, says exactly nothing.

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