In a really nice essay on his blog “Metamagician and the Hellfire Club”, Australian writer Russell Blackford discusses the issue of the compatibility between science and faith and how that has become the official position of bodies like The National Academy of Sciences (a tip of the hat to PZ at Pharyngula for calling this to our attention). Blackford’s essay is a sarcastic take on an earlier post by Matt Nisbet (a professor of communication at American University who writes the blog “Framing Science”); Nisbet went after Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists for needlessly placing science and religion in opposition.
Blackford puts Nisbet in a full nelson:
. . . Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.
Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That’s obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?
You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that – silly us – we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we’d say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we’d be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included “a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible.” Yay!
This is how to settle a philosophical debate! . . .
So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don’t worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, “that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda”. Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.
Another post critical of Nisbet’s stance can be found at the blog Entertaining Research.
Religious scientists and liberal theologians can tout the compatibility of faith and science until they’re blue in the faith [typo: I meant "blue in the face" but I'll leave the Freudian slip], but in so doing they are seeing a world that they would like to inhabit, not the world they do inhabit. As I said in my New Republic essay on compatibility,
a true harmony between science and religion requireseither doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.. . . The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.
Faith, as it is practiced by many, many people, is simply incompatible with science. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell them to put their beliefs in line with science.