Can We Talk? America’s Troubled Science and Religion Conversation

Writing in The Atlantic in 1925, the great Harvard philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said, “When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.”1

Whitehead goes on to argue in the essay that science and religion, and their relationship, is more complex than most people assume. In particular he chastises those that seem unable to grasp that religion and science are both dynamic and evolutionary systems of thought. I wish Whitehead’s wisdom was as respected today as it was when he wrote these comments. I even wonder if The Atlantic would publish such commentary today.

Those of us who work at the interface of science and religion appreciate Whitehead’s concern, but we are worried. In encouraging dialogue between science and religion, we – perhaps delusionally – like to think of ourselves as peacemakers, or ambassadors. Someone even awarded me a “Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars” recognition for “reminding evangelicals that science is not the enemy.”2 The reality, however, is that we seem more like soldiers lost between two armies and being shot at by both sides, than ambassadors carrying messages of peace back and forth.

As one soldier in this sometimes-lonely army that embraces Christianity, I think the world is best understood as the creation of a transcendent God. For this belief, many of the atheists call me a looney. The God I believe in is perceived dimly, of course, behind the almost opaque curtains of our experience, but I think the world contains pointers and hints that suggest places we might look and ways we might understand that God is real.

I also believe, of course, in the extraordinary power of science to illuminate the world with astonishing clarity and conviction. And I think science describes nature much better than, say, the Bible. This belief, of course, leads many of the fundamentalists to call me a dangerous heretic, invoking Jesus’s warning “today there are shepherds in the church who are also “wolves” – they have infiltrated the church with their destructive teaching.”3

What are we to make of this, in light of Whitehead’s concern that, in some sense, our future depends on how this conversation goes? I want to look at some of the key questions and express my concern that we are not addressing them in a helpful way.

Do science and religion necessarily connect?

Science and religion are often described-perhaps wishfully- as independent “ways of knowing,” with no points of overlap or even contact. Another great Harvard thinker, Stephen Jay Gould-also concerned about the relationship between science and religion-created the term “non-overlapping magisteria” to describe and even picture this relationship. By making religion exclusively about “values” and science exclusively about “facts,” Gould hoped to bring the sort of peace that comes when the combatants retreat into their separate corners.

I am sure that Gould and Whitehead would have had heated disagreements, had they served at Harvard together. Gould’s simple schematic for understanding science and religion was similar to that of Bertrand Russell, Whitehead’s co-author of the famous three-volume work on the foundations of mathematics, Principia Mathematica. Whitehead would probably have made the same comment about Gould as he did about Russell: “Bertie says I am muddle-headed but I say Bertie is simple-minded.”4

I have one foot in each of Gould’s supposedly “non-overlapping” magisteria, and it seems to me there are countless points of contact and even overlap where important conversations need to occur. Is not the existence of a God a question of fact as well as value? Do not claims that the universe is finetuned for life have an empirical dimension? And, of course, various claims about the life of Jesus, or Paul, or the manuscripts on which the book of Mark is based, certainly must be treated as at least partially factual investigations. Empiricism is hardly irrelevant to religion as normally understood.

Who speaks for religion? Who defines science?

It is hard, of course, to envision a simple way to juxtapose “empirical science” with “revealed religion,” to get this conversation started. And this is made even harder because of how science and religion are often defined in the culture wars today. When Ken Ham – the creationist who built the Creation Museum in Kentucky – and his fellow biblical literalists talk disparagingly about science, I can barely recognize it. I have the same problem with the descriptions of science that come out of the Intelligent Design movement.

But I had the same problem with Dawkins’s send-up of religion in The God Delusion. His strange insistence that only the most primitive form of fundamentalism is authentically Christian left me wondering whether he really believes what he wrote.

The enthusiastic blogger and new atheist Jerry Coyne, who shares Dawkins’ belief that only fundamentalists are truly legitimate believers, speaks of “theologians with a deistic bent” who inappropriately presume to “speak for all the faithful.”5 Coyne and Dawkins would have us believe that the “faithful”-the fundamentalists-are the more authentically religious and the theologians-who happen to be well-educated in religion-are an aberration.

This is a strange caricature. Why are believers with a modest, even casual, acquaintance with the complexities of their religious tradition the only legitimate spokespersons for that tradition? Is it not strange for elite and well-informed scientists like Dawkins and Coyne to dismiss the insights of elite and well-informed religious believers?

If we put this shoe on the other foot, we would find that great mass they call the “faithful” has its analog with the great mass of people who “believe” in science but are not professionals. Most Americans-and the rest of the world, for that matter- are attached to both their iPhones and a belief that medical science is their best hope when they are sick. We can say, quite reasonably, that they “believe” in science. They are “science believers.”

But imagine what “science” would look like if it were defined by these particular “believers”? The physics would be Aristotelian, with heavy masses falling faster than light ones; astrology and aliens would accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind or travel through time. And yet all of these “science believers” would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Few Christians ever take even one actual course in theology, in contrast to their experience in the public schools where they take multiple science classes every year. Science as understood, lived and practiced by real people is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

But doesn’t science constantly overturn religious beliefs?

We must also look closely at the oft-repeated claim that science constantly trumps religion. This is true, of course, but there is far more to the story. Science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But-and this is a large part of what Whitehead was pointing out – empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein’s dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that classical physics was clearly in error. It was, rather, an appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not widely understood. But imagine the folly of an argument that all of science had been discredited by this. Or that the only true “science believers” were those that refused to give up their belief in Newton’s theories. Imagine an anti-science pundit insisting that the only authentic belief about the universe was that of Aristotle, who taught that the stars were all attached to a sphere just beyond the orbit of Saturn. After all, this belief endured for two millennia and had a much longer tenure than any of the ideas that succeeded it.

Both science and religion must be allowed to advance beyond their earlier understandings. Why is the abandonment of the Aristotelian worldview by modern science any different than modern theology’s near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament? Few theologians still believe that God sent the Israelites on genocidal missions to kill all the males and married women in a neighboring tribe, and bring back the virgin girls for their own enjoyment. This, of course, is the divine caricature so eloquently skewered by Dawkins in The God Delusion. How is it that “science” is allowed to toss its historical baggage-phlogiston, humors, ether, celestial spheres-overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continued to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed? Many conservative Christians have been able to find new ways to read the Bible that retain its authority while moving past problematic interpretations.

Are we making progress?

Those of us working in this middle ground, where science and religion actually converse, have not been particularly successful in securing a peaceful overlap for the magisteria, at least not for most people if the polls are to be believed. Almost half the people in the country still think the age of the earth is 10,000 years and that humans were created at the same time as the dinosaurs. Our efforts at accommodating science and religion-finding a middle ground where science and religion co-exist-have earned us the label accommodationist, which is used with the same sort of sneering condescension as “flat-earther.” Occupants of any kind of middle ground in the culture war between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists are never viewed as “mediators” but always as traitors.

Not long ago the popular, articulate, and bombastic science blogger PZ Myers and I had a few online exchanges that began when PZ assaulted my book, Saving Darwin, for suggesting that believing in evolution did not make one an atheist. While acknowledging that I was not as far gone as people like Ken Ham, Myers suggested I was even more dangerous because I provided a specious intellectual “cover” for the creationists. “I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter” he wrote, “and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth.”6

Myer’s fellow atheist blogger Jerry Coyne, who wrote the excellent Why Evolution is True and teaches at the University of Chicago, expressed similar dismissive sentiments. I had suggested that a worldview that included God was “richer and more complex,” to which Coyne responded, “What Giberson means by a “richer and more complex view” is “after I die I’ll be able to meet my dead relatives in the sky.” Coyne acknowledged that I was less crazy than Ken Ham, but still on the wrong side.7

On the other end of the spectrum, leading Southern Baptist Dr. Al Mohler expressed some appreciation that my exchanges with Coyne included a “few well-placed intellectual punches on Coyne’s absolute naturalism,” but his overall assessment was that I was a disaster; he wondered if “the parents who send their offspring to E astern Nazarene College [where I was teaching at the time] have any understanding of what is taught there – and with such boldness and audacity.”8

We need to think about how America’s conversation on origins should proceed. We need to wake up to the reality that current strategies have been an abysmal failure and ask some tough questions about why that is. Widespread fear that evolution is destroying cherished belief in God stalks America’s main streets. As a consequence, anti-evolution has assumed the proportions of a military-industrial complex but the battle is a proxy war, aimed not at evolution, but at the view that material reality is all that exists. I wonder what would happen if, in the name of pluralism and diplomacy, we could all agree that it was OK for people to believe that evolution was a part of God’s plan.

Public discourse on science, on religion, on science and religion, and on almost every other topic is, alas, dominated by people with extreme and highly polarizing views. Consumers of mainstream media are exposed constantly to extreme views with the unfortunate result that our cultural consensus is that science and religion are incompatible. The nuanced voices in the middle are shouted down by the loud voices from the ends of the spectrum.

In The Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God & Religion, the late Mariano Artigas and I noted that the majority of the most visible public faces of science are hostile to religion – much more so than in the scientific community as a whole. Millions of people encounter science-on public television, on NPR and Jon Stewart, in bookstores and op-eds, on animated primetime shows like the Simpsons and South Park, on the cover of magazines like Wired and Skeptic, and even in children’s books, through the eyes of these largely anti-religious figures. Not surprisingly, many conclude that science is incompatible with religion. These “New Atheists” include Dawkins, Coyne, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, Myers, Steven Weinberg, and so on. Between their stature as public intellectuals and their effective communication styles, their anti-religious voices are well-heard proclaiming that science has triumphed over religion, which should now pass into history.

Unfortunately, and most ironically, many of the most public religious voices exacerbate the perception that science and religion are incompatible. As I write these words, highly public battles are brewing in both New Hampshire and Indiana as fundamentalist politicians promote legislation undermining the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In Kentucky, controversy swirls about a proposal to build a theme park based on Noah’s Ark and intended to promote a literalist reading of Genesis. A few weeks ago, Eric Hovind of Creation Today, in a post that was widely lampooned, wrote that dinosaurs were really dragons and they existed as recently as the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, when religion makes it into the media, it is often in conjunction with a story that involves the rejection of scientific ideas. And, all too often, religion ends up looking silly.

The new atheists and the biblical literalists share restrictive worldviews that eschew mystery and even ambiguity. Their ideas are based on a small set of vigorously defended assumptions embraced as absolute truth. For the atheist, the absolute truth is the ability of science to determine all that can be known, a position often referred to as scientism. For the religious fundamentalist (Christian), a literal reading of an inerrant Bible is the final referee of truth.

This tension feeds back on itself in unhealthy ways. Fundamentalist leaders like Al Mohler and Ken Ham mine the writings of the New Atheists for antireligious quotes and confident assertions that science rules out belief in God. These quotes are then used to convince fellow Christians that they must not accept scientific ideas like evolution or Big Bang cosmology because these ideas are antithetical to their faith. How do we know this? Because the secular champions of these very ideas say so. In the same way, the writings of religious fundamentalists can be mined by anti-religious polemicists for quotes to show that many mainstream scientific ideas must be rejected if one wishes to be a Christian. This, of course, pulls people who take science seriously away from faith.

A dangerous socio-cultural trajectory has emerged: Well-educated Christians-who are far more likely to be accepting of science-worship in communities that often reject science. This exerts a subtle pressure on them to abandon their faith communities. A recent Barna survey listed as a major reason why young people are leaving the church: “Churches come across as antagonistic to science.” The result is a “brain drain,” in which educated Christians abandon the church, leaving behind an intellectually impoverished community even less accepting of science. The very departure of scientifically informed Christians reinforces the message that science and religion are incompatible.

Unfortunately, powerful forces prevent this important conversation from even occurring. People on middle ground invariably seem to be on the “other” team. Today, by analogy, as the Republicans are battling to choose their nominee for president, “moderate” Republicans are vilified for being too much like Democrats while any moderation on the part of the president is seen as capitulation to the right wing. It seems like everyone in the country has decided that there is only “us” and “them,” so that “not us” equals “them.” Regardless of the topic, the magisteria must never be allowed to overlap.

Whatever we might think about people in the middle, we must acknowledge the value of making connections between disparate points of view. We must not remain locked in a zero sum game where victory on one side automatically prescribes defeat on the other.

In a 1917 paper, Sigmund Freud coined the phrase “narcissism of small differences” to describe our tendency to react so strongly – with aggression, vitriol, even hatred – to those that resemble us the most. Family squabbles between people who love each other, for example, are far more vicious than quarrels between casual acquaintances.

In Freud’s view, those with whom we have nothing in common cannot truly threaten us, for they are wholly “other.” They can be rejected in toto. But those who share many but not all of our views do threaten us, precisely because they suggest that some of our beliefs might need correction. By these lights, Coyne and Mohler cannot be threatened by each other because they have nothing in common; they occupy magisteria with no overlap.

But they can both be threatened by accommodationists on the middle ground, who share some, but not all, of their beliefs.

 

[1] http: //www.theatlantic.com/ magazine/archive/1969/12/ religion-andscience/4220/

[2] http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/science/5508/top_ten_peacemakers_in_the_science-religion_wars/

[3] http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2011/10/04/beware-of-wolves/

[4] http://www3.sympatico.ca/rlubbock/ANWhtml

[5] http: //www.edge.org/3rd_culture/coyne09/coyne09 index.html

[6] http: //scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/07/theology_is_a_deceitful_strate.php

[7] http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/karl-gibersondefends-accommodationism/

[8] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/religionand-science/4220/

 

Karl Giberson directs a science and religion writing workshop at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He is the author or co-author of 9 books on science and religion.  

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