Like religion and secular government, religion and science survive best when they’re kept well apart—when there is no incursion of religion into government and science. (The other way around, at least for science, is not bad, for science has always served to show the falsity of many religious claims—claims like creationism, the worldwide Flood, Adam and Eve, and the Exodus.)
Yet the article below, highlighted by the tweet at the bottom, calls for accommodationism: for religious people to profess their faith to other scientists, and even to tell each other about “the role of faith in science” (there is none) and “the health benefits of intermittent fasting” (a sop to Muslims). This kind of well-meaning but intellectually vacuous accommodationism surfaces from time to time, and I have to whack it down.
Click on the screenshot to read the piece from Physics World from April. I couldn’t find a post I’d done on this piece, but if I have, well, perhaps some of you haven’t read it.
The article is a straight out call to mingle faith and science, a movement that I thought had slowed, and so haven’t written about it in a while. The piece first points out the disparity between the religiosity of scientists (not very religious) and the religious general public—not only in America, but in most of the West.
A British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 found that 48% of the UK population identifies as religious and that since 1983 there has been a decline in the proportion of Christians, an increase in the non-religiously affiliated, as well as a rapid rise in the Muslim population, along with other minority religions (up from 2% to 9%). In other words, the beliefs and worldviews of the UK population are becoming more diverse as we move away from a predominantly Christian population to a more mixed one. Yet in this regard – as in other aspects of diversity – the UK scientific community is strikingly out-of-step with society. Indeed, a report from Rice University in 2016 found that just 27% of UK scientists identify as religious compared with 47% of the general population (Socius 10.1177/2378023116664353).
That is, of course, the Templeton-funded work of Elaine Ecklund, who regularly distorts the data to make scientists, irreligious as they are, seem more religious than we think. But why the disparity between the religiosity of the average person and that of the average scientist? It is even larger in the UK and US than Ecklund admits, with the most accomplished scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society) being almost wholly atheistic (only 7% of NAS members believe in a personal God, and a similar figure holds for the RS.
There are several possible reasons for this disparity, which I discuss in my book Faith versus Fact. One is that “scientists are simply more educated than the average American, and religiosity simply declines with education.” That may be partly true, but can’t explain much of the disparity, as professors in science are far less religious than professors in other areas, who presumably have had just as much education. Second, if you’re religious, you’re probably less likely to want to go into science. It is the nonbelievers who may be drawn to enter a discipline that discards the supernatural. Another reason, for which there is some independent evidence, that doing science erodes your religious beliefs over time. I can’t really see any other explanations, but the latter two, which I think both contribute to the disparity, show that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion. This is the case I make in Faith Versus Fact.
One suggestion that isn’t the case is that scientists demonize and/or expel other religious scientists, purging our ranks of believers. But by and large we don’t give a rat’s patootie about the religious beliefs of our colleagues. We may puzzle over them, or even make fun of them, but we don’t penalize scientists who believe in God. Often they are quite accomplished, too, viz., Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Ken Miller, cell biologist and author of widely used biology texts. None of us claim that believing in God prohibits you from doing good science. I claim that there is a clash between science and faith, and this clash explains why, on the whole, Western scientists are so much less religious than the general public from which they’re drawn.
Here’s Wood’s “explanation”, or rather a non-explanation:
So, what is keeping religious people away from science? It is tempting to follow the Enlightenment philosophy that places science and religion in conflict: “as science advances, religion declines”. But that is far too simple. The Rice report compares eight countries, finding that the disparity between scientists and the general population who identify as religious is small in nations such as Turkey and India, while in others such as Taiwan and Hong Kong religious people are even over-represented in science. That picture is very different from the UK and other western countries where the religiously affiliated are strikingly under-represented. The report also finds that most scientists do not believe there is a conflict between science and religion – instead it being more a societal issue than a philosophical one.
He’s wrong. Ecklund’s report showing a smaller disparity (which is still a disparity) in countries like Turkey and India can be explained by the fact that those countries are more religious compared to Western ones (indeed, now both are approaching theocracies), and so the disparity is almost guaranteed to be smaller. As for Taiwan, the disparity in the other direction isn’t great, and I have no explanation for Hong Kong (readers might suggest theories that are theirs). But at any rate the “conflict” is most discussed and visible in Europe and North America, and here the disparity is profound, even more profound that Ecklund pretends since she doesn’t dwell on those UK and US scientists who actually do research and are good at it. Here’s a figure from her 2016 paper using data from all surveyed scientists.
Sebastian Wood disagrees that there’s a conflict between faith and science, and asserts that harmony is possible:
Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt manifold and complex, I believe that neither society nor scientific pursuits stand to benefit from being out-of-step with each other. Rachel Brazil’s insightful Physics World article “Fighting flat-Earth theory” traces the rise of belief in a flat Earth back to religious convictions. It stands as a warning that we need to build bridges between scientific and religious communities rather than allowing the divide to widen further. In a society that increasingly recognizes the value of diversity, it is worth reflecting on the history of science to see that no single religion or worldview has a monopoly on scientific progress. Even a cursory glance reveals profound contributions to science from individuals representing the full range of religious and non-religious worldviews, both historic and contemporary. Clearly this diversity of thinking is of enormous and proven value to science and technology, and is something to be treasured, nurtured and encouraged.
In contrast to the first sentence, I think that science, religion and society benefit from religion not sticking its nose into science but science examining religious claims. Science doesn’t get polluted with superstition that has never helped us find truth, while religion gets its false truth claims corrected, and society becomes less religious, which I think is a good thing. (I attribute the growing secularization of the West to the increasing hegemony of and public respect for science, and here agree with Steve Pinker in his Better Angels book.) As for getting rid of stuff like creationism by “building bridges between science and religion”, that doesn’t work very well. Francis Collins and Karl Giberson founded BioLogos as a explicit vehicle for convincing evangelical Christians that evolution is both true and harmless to their faith. They failed: instead of evangelicals embracing evolution (the data shows no change in decades), the BioLogos site has become increasingly Christianized, with apparently sentient academics and scientists arguing about how Adam and Eve could really have been the ancestors of us all (a sine qua non of Christianity). While some people’s minds can be changed by telling them scientific truths, the best way to efface religion is simply to emphasize the benefits of science and wait for people over years and generations to realize that, hey, science can find truth and religion can’t.
Wood gives two other reasons why science and religion aren’t in conflict. First, many scientists don’t perceive a conflict between science and religion. That is, besides creationists, American scientists simply don’t see a “war” between the two areas on a day to day basis. But so what? If you define your terms carefully, as I do in Faith versus Fact, you see a very profound conflict between science and religion: conflicts in methology, philosophy, use of “faith”, and how we apprehend “truth”.
Second, Wood claims that religious scientists have made profound contributions to their fields. I agree, but so what? Science itself is practiced as an atheistic discipline, and these contributions, at least in the last two centuries, had nothing to do with religion. In fact, they were made despite religion. (It’s clear that in the 19th century nearly everyone was religious, so it was a no-brainer to say that religious scientists advanced their field.) But now atheistic scientists make far more contributions than religious ones—for two reasons. First, there are so many more atheistic scientists than religious ones. Second, the better a scientist is, the more likely he or she is to be an atheist.
So here’s Wood’s proposal to put science and religion in step, a proposal that seems to me useless and worthless, at least for accomplishing its aims. It wouldn’t hurt, I suppose to have tea with your religious colleagues as a way of social bonding, but best to avoid discussing faith!
At NPL [the National Physical Laboratory in the UK] we have made “inter faith week” a regular fixture in our calendar. This is a national initiative that supports and encourages constructive interactions between people with different beliefs to build relationships and mutual understanding, recognizing common values as well as differences. We also encourage colleagues to share their experiences of how their beliefs affect their work and invite guest speakers to talk about a subject relating science to religion. Over the past three years we have had talks on the relationship between artificial intelligence and religion, the role of faith in science and the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Each year we find that there is an enormous desire to learn about and discuss these topics.
Again, scientists are welcome to discuss these issues on their own time (I enjoyed writing my book, but I didn’t write it to “build relationships and mutual understanding”). But for Ceiling Cat’s sake keep these discussions unofficial. “Interfaith week” in a science institution is a disgrace. It’s like having Bigfoot Week, UFO Week or Djinn Week at the NIH, or Crystal Healing Week at the CDC.
“Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt complex, I believe that neither society nor scientific pursuits stand to benefit from being out-of-step with each other.”
Dr Seb Wood in @PhysicsWorld: https://t.co/uBm4aGu21l
— Dr Jess Wade 👩🏻🔬💉💉 (@jesswade) April 2, 2021