Goodtimez! Over at HuffPo (in the “Science” section, for crying out loud!), there’s a “point-counterpoint” argument with the awkward title of “Science, religion incompatible? Hot-button debate features Dr. Kenneth Miller, Dr. Michael Shermer.” And you get to vote on whether they’re compatible both before and after you read their pieces.
Here’s my take:
- Michael did a creditable job, but I take issue with his assertion that there is no such thing as the “supernatural” or “paranormal”: he says that these “just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes.” Well, that presumes from the outset that there is no God or “paranormal” phenomena that don’t obey the laws of physics. I agree that there’s no evidence for that, but it is logically possible that there are such phenomena, and that science can investigate them. That’s what studies of intercessory prayer are about. If we found that, say, the prayers of Jews but not Catholics healed people, would that phenomenon then become a “natural and normal cause”? “Natural,” to me, means “obeying the laws of nature as we understand them”, and prayer that works doesn’t do that; indeed, it can’t unless it’s some kind of ruse.
- Michael properly emphasizes the shrinking role of God as simply an name for ignorance, a filler for what we don’t understand, and notes the many problems whose solutions were once imputed to God and are now explained by science. And his conclusion is excellent:
Until then, I believe that it is time to step out of our religious traditions and embrace science as the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works, and to work together to create a social and political world that embraces moral principles and yet allows for natural human diversity to flourish. Religion cannot get us there because it has no systematic methods of explanation of the natural world, and no means of conflict resolution on moral issues when members of competing sects hold absolute beliefs that are mutually exclusive. Flawed as they may be, science and the secular Enlightenment values expressed in Western democracies are our best hope for survival.
- Religion gave birth to science, and many early scientists were religious:
Modern science developed in the context of western religious thought, was nurtured in universities first established for religious reasons, and owes some of its greatest discoveries and advances to scientists who themselves were deeply religious. From Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who pioneered the scientific method, to George Lemaître, the 20th century Belgian priest who first developed a mathematical foundation for the “Big Bang,” people of faith have played a key role in advancing scientific understanding.
- Much of science denial has nothing to do with religion. Here Miller mentions climate-change denialism (not realizing that much of it stems from religion), the tobacco companies’ attempt to unlink smoking and cancer, and even the fact that an “atheist” regime, Stalin’s, promulgated an incorrect view of genetics. He then says that one could argue that socialism and free-market capitalism are incompatible with science?
- Sure, religion did bad stuff, but so did science. Miller says:
Science is a revolutionary activity. It alters our view of nature, and often puts forward profoundly unsettling truths that threaten the status quo. As a result, time and time again, those who feel threatened by the scientific enterprise have tried to restrict, reject, or block the work of science. Sometimes, they have good reason to fear the fruits of science, unrestrained. To be sure, it was religious fervor that led Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake for his scientific “heresies” in 1600. But we should also remember more recently that it was science, not religion, that gave us eugenics, the atomic bomb, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
- Science and faith are compatible because there are religious scientists and because many of the faithful embrace science. Miller:
To a theist, God is nothing less than the source of the profound rationality of nature. Naturally, a non-believer seeks another reason for that rationality. Yet despite these differences, both can embrace the systematic study of nature in the project we call science. That is the ultimate source of compatibility between science and religion.
And that is another bogus argument. Not just because of the untestable and unscientific argument that the “rationality of nature” comes from God (where’s the evidence for that?), but because embracing science and religion simultaneously shows not that they’re compatible, but that humans can hold two conflicting worldviews in their head at the same time. The ultimate source of incompatibility between science and faith is that they use different methods to ascertain “truths,” and only one of them, science, is able to increase knowledge (used in the sense of “verified true belief”) about the universe.
Miller also says this:
But on a personal level — and I will state this plainly — it seems to me that any faith that might require the rejection of scientific reason is not a faith worth having.
But his faith does! It requires (see previous post) that one believe in virgin births, immaterial souls, bodily resurrections, and the literal transformation of crackers and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Catholicism, with its assertions about the equivalence of a fertilized egg with an adult and its acceptance of certain non-negotiable miracles, absolutely requires the rejection of scientific reason. Miller rejects it every time he says the Nicene creed, or takes communion.
- Scientists think that science and faith are compatible. Here Miller cites some findings of Elaine Ecklund:
What do working scientists actually think of the relationship between science and religion? A 2009 study by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Jerry Z. Park concluded that “in contrast to public opinion and scholarly publications most scientists do not perceive there to be a conflict between religion and science.”
In fact, [Ecklund's] latest results show that 85% of scientists find science and religion to be in conflict, either occasionally, depending on the context (70%), or always in conflict (15%).
As of this morning, these are the voting results, given in a screenshot from the site (click to enlarge). Most people found science and faith incompatible both before and after the debate (57% before, 60% after), while the figures also went up by 3% for those who found them compatible (33% before vs. 36% after). Both increases were both at the expense of those who were undecided (10% before, 5% after; notice that the figure don’t add to 100% in the “afters”). Given this, why does HuffPo pronounce that Ken Miller “changed the most minds”?