A few days ago, a reporter for the Voice of America‘s website called me and said she was working on a piece about the compatibility of science and religion, all prompted by some religionists’ claim that the Webb Space telescope revealed the handiwork of God. I guess she interviewed me because I’m an advocate of incompatibility, and it was clear she was looking for voices on both sides (I suggested that she contact some accommodationists, including Ken Miller at Brown, who features in her piece).
You can read the article below for free (click on screenshots):
The article begins with a tweet by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who clearly saw the Webb’s first images as, well, you can see what he said:
The heavens declare the glory of God
Psalms 19:2 pic.twitter.com/ny17JJI0Om
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 12, 2022
Author Mekouar notes that Rubio’s post got pushback on social media from those saying that it was science, not God, that not only provided the images, but would analyze them. She then begins quoting from the dueling interviews.
Unfortunately, I’m the only one quoted arguing that science and religion are incompatible. In contrast, three people (four, if you count Georges Lemaître) argue for compatibility of science and faith. As for “equal time,” well, a crude count on my part showed that in an article whose content was about 1150 words, 214 came from opponents of compatibility (i.e., me) and 753 from the four who see no incompatibility. That’s a ratio of 3.5 words from incompatibilists to words soothing accommodationists.
To me that seems unbalanced, both in terms of space (which doesn’t concern me so much) but especially in terms of the”experts” consulted. The ratio is four to one against atheists. Where are the other scientists who see an incompatibility between science and faith: people like Richard Dawkins, Steve Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss—or even Carl Sagan? These people wrote and spoke far more eloquently than I about the science/faith incompatibility. They are not mentioned, though two of these (and a passel of others) could have been interviewed. So it goes.
I’ll put the entirety of what I said below and some quotes from the accommodationists, along with my comments. All indented quotes are from the article.
The skeptical comments are emblematic of the long-standing, ongoing debate about whether science and religion can be reconciled.
“There are a gazillion religions, each one making a different set of claims about reality, not just about the nature of God, but about history, about miracles, about what happened. And they’re all different, so they can’t all be true,” says Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
Coyne, who likens religion to superstition, wrote a book called, “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”
“The incompatibility is that both science and religion make statements about what is true in the universe,” Coyne says. “Science has a way of verifying them and religion doesn’t. So, science is based on this sort of science toolkit of empirical reasoning or duplication experiments, whereas religion is based on faith.”
Coyne says he was raised a secular Jew and became an atheist as a teenager.
“Scientists are, in general, much less religious than the general public. And the more accomplished you get as a scientist, the less religious you become,” he says.
A 1998 survey found that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the U.S., don’t believe in God.
I’m happy with what I said. (I think the “duplication experiments” will be changed to “duplicating experiments”).
The rest of the article is about scientists who see science as not only compatible with religion, but also buttressing religion. One of these is Ken Miller, who first explains, to his credit, that people see an incompatibility because religion is sometimes hostile to science. (He says there are other reasons, but this is one, and I’ve seen it cited in surveys assaying why young people are becoming “nones”.)
“I personally think there’s a couple of reasons for that,” says Kenneth Miller, a devout Roman Catholic and professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown University in Rhode Island. “One of them, to be perfectly honest, is the out-and-out hostility that many religious institutions or many religious groups display towards science. And I think that tends to drive people with deep religious faith away from science.”
Later, however, Miller explains why science has actually buttressed his Roman Catholicism. First, though, we have a STEM person from Boston University explaining the supposedly reinforcing nature of science and faith:
“Science actually underlines the importance of religion because God told us that He created the Earth and the heavens,” says [Farouk] El-Baz, who is also director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. “And the heavens, there are supposed to be all kinds of things out there. And scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there.”
Maybe God told El-Baz that, but he forgot to tell the rest of us doubters. He argues that “scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there”, but what kinds of “things” constitute evidence for God? El-Baz doesn’t say (or maybe he told the interviewer). And yes, of course there are things out there that we don’t understand, like dark matter, but why on Earth would that be evidence for God? That’s the Argument for God from Ignorance.
People like El-Baz are not objective about their faith: they’re looking to the Webb photos—and the rest of science—as evidence to reinforce religion. It’s confirmation bias, and not very good confirmation bias. One could argue, for instance, that the vast, lifeless emptiness of most of space is evidence not for God but for the laws of physics.
Miller argues that the perceived conflict between scripture and science comes from those people who take the Bible literally:
Miller accepts the theory of evolution and says much of scripture is metaphorical, an explanation of the relationship between Creator and His creation in language that could be understood by people living in a prescientific age.
“[The book of] Genesis, taken literally, is a recent product of certain religious interpretations of scripture,” Miller says. “In particular, it’s an interpretation that became quite influential in the latter part of the 19th century among Christian fundamentalists in the United States. And the reality is that much of scripture is figurative rather than literal.”
Can Miller tell us exactly which bits of scripture are figurative rather than literal? Yes, Genesis is metaphorical, but what about the miracles of Jesus—or the existence of Jesus himself? And what about the Crucifixion and especially the Resurrection? Are those literal phenomena or figurative? (Some think the person of Jesus has no historical basis, and certainly not all Christians think that even a real Jesus was both the son of God/part of God and came back to life after he was crucified.)
What about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, or the Census of Quirinius , which supposedly drew Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem? These are not metaphors, but simple errors, as neither assertion is true. This is exactly what you’d expect in a book confected and written by humans. All the “evidence for God” adduced by Christians simply comes down to assertions from the Bible, which, as Miller notes, isn’t literally true.
Miller—and I emphasize that he’s both a nice guy and has done good scientific work, as well as writing definitive textbooks—is also a remarkable theologian, as he’s able to winnow the metaphorical from the true, all in a single book written by humans. He also seems to know that science itself has told us what kind of God we have, even though there’s no evidence for a deity:
In Miller’s view, the concept of God as a designer who worked out every intricate detail of every single living thing is too narrow a vision of the Creator.
“The God that is revealed by evolution is not a God who has to literally tinker with every little piece of trivia in every living organism, but rather a God who created a universe in a world where the very physical conditions of matter and energy were sufficient to accomplish his ends,” Miller says. “And to me, that conception of God creating this extraordinary process that nature itself allows to come about is a much grander vision than a God who has to concern himself with every little detail.”
This is a god for which there is no possibility of disconfirmation, because everything that science tells us—stuff like evolution that used to be taken as evidence against God—is now seen as evidence for God. (That’s an idea that John Haught has been pushing for years.) The idea that the more we learn about science, the grander God becomes, winds up as a non-starter of an argument. If we’ve learned everything about the universe, and it all comports with the laws of physics, does that make God the most grand of all? This is an Argument for God from Science!
El-Baz uses the same dodge:
El-Baz says some people fear that science will reduce their religiosity, but the reverse is true for him.
“We understood through God’s guidance that humans evolved from other creatures, and evolution is still going on, and there’s absolutely no conflict between what science and religion are informing us,” he says. “It’s very easy to consider that a creator, or a force of creation — God or whatever faith you have — that it’s a force that put all of these things together, that created all of this.”
It’s interesting that the “design” of organisms was once seen as some of the strongest evidence for the existence of God. Now that we know that this design arises via the naturalistic process of natural selection, well, now it’s even stronger evidence for god. The religionists can’t lose!
The article also quotes Accommodationist #4, intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who says this, among other things:
Jewish tradition also accepts evolution, according to intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who suggests that the rise of the religious Christian right in the United States also influenced more observant Jews to harden their position against evolution.
“Medieval Jewish philosophy basically followed the Muslim paradigm,” says Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. “The Muslim theologians and the Muslim scholars showed Jews how you can integrate a monotheistic tradition together with Greek and Hellenistic science … and showed how scientific knowledge is always a tool that enables you to understand the divinely created world better.”
She too, has bought into The Arguement for God from Science.
The line taken by all three quoted accommodationists thus takes the same form, which I characterize this way:
“We know the universe was divinely created, so the more understanding of that universe brought to us by science, the greater the glory of God, and the better we understand Him.”
Of course, we also know from science that this God kills many innocent people that he could have saved were he either all-loving or all-knowing, and we also know that God loves empty space, which is why the Webb scope show us the huge, fantastic theater that serves as a backdrop for the puny history and aspirations of humans!
The fatal flaw of all of these scientists and historians is this: None of them give us evidence for God in the first place. Everything comes from the Bible and Qur’an, and nothing from extra-scriptural evidence. Combine that unsubstantiated assumption with the argument that scientific understanding must always reinforce the glory of God, and you have an airtight case for accommodationism—there can be no conflict between science and religion.
I suspect that if you read this article, on balance you’ll find that it supports the case that science and religion are compatible. But judge for yourself.