In the WSJ — of all places — we find physicist Lawrence Krauss attacking the compatibility of science and faith.
Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an “atheist absolutist,” a “reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions.”
This editorial stemmed from Krauss’s participation in the World Science Festival, where he was on a panel with two religious scientists, Kenneth Miller and Guy Consolmagno. (I turned down an offer to join this panel because the Festival was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. I still don’t regret it.) When challenged about the so-called “truths” of their faiths, both Miler and Consolmagno — who works for the Vatican — apparently maintained that the virgin birth of Jesus was only a metaphor:
When I confronted my two Catholic colleagues on the panel with the apparent miracle of the virgin birth and asked how they could reconcile this with basic biology, I was ultimately told that perhaps this biblical claim merely meant to emphasize what an important event the birth was. Neither came to the explicit defense of what is undeniably one of the central tenets of Catholic theology.
Well, so much for the “truth” of that claim! I look forward to their assertion that the Resurrection was also a metaphor. (By the way, how do they know that the virgin birth was only a metphor but that Jesus was really, actually, the son of God?)
And Krauss’s finale:
Science is only truly consistent with an atheistic worldview with regards to the claimed miracles of the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Moreover, the true believers in each of these faiths are atheists regarding the specific sacred tenets of all other faiths. Christianity rejects the proposition that the Quran contains the infallible words of the creator of the universe. Muslims and Jews reject the divinity of Jesus.
So while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that these issues are not purely academic. The current crisis in Iran has laid bare the striking inconsistency between a world built on reason and a world built on religious dogma.
Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.
You said it! Krauss’s piece, by the way, begins with a great quote from the evolutionary geneticist J. B. S. Haldane:
My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
– J.B.S. Haldane
It’s encouraging that a mainline newpaper — especially a conservative one — will publish a piece like this. Dare we hope that the “new atheism” is having an effect?