My vote for the worst idea of 2009 — at least in the “faith wars” — is that science and religion provide complementary (and equally valid) “ways of knowing.” It’s an idea that’s been bruited about by not just the faithful, but by atheist accommodationists like those running the National Center for Science Education.
This idea is terrible because a. it’s nonsensical, b. its proponents never examine it critically, because if they did they’d see that c. it’s wrong. It’s a mantra, a buzz-phrase. And it reared its ugly head once more when I came to the end of Francis Collins’s The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
The main point of this book is that faith and science are not inimical but mutually supportive. And faith, says Collins, gives us truths just as valid as those gleaned from science. Here’s a brief excerpt from his last chapter:
WHAT KIND OF FAITH?
Most of the world’s great faiths share many truths, and probably they would not have survived had that not been so. Yet there are also interesting and important differences, and each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth . .
Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their own tools, as nicely represented in a parable told by the astronomer Arthur Eddington. He described a man who set about to study deep-sea fish using a net that had a mesh size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, the man concluded that there are no deep-sea fish that are smaller than three inches in length! If we are using the scientific net to catch our particular version of the truth, we should not be surprised that it does not catch the evidence of spirit.
Note the sneaky transition in the first passage from the “truths” of religion and a “particular path to the truth.”
It’s not clear which “truths” are shared by many faiths — Collins might point to the Golden Rule, but of course that’s a not a truth but a moral imperative — but what Collins conveniently overlooks in his book is the simple fact that many “truths” aren’t shared by the world’s great faiths. Jesus either was or was not the son of God. Mohamed either was or was not a divine prophet. Either the Hindus are right, and there are many gods, or they’re wrong, and there’s either one or none. It’s either ok to stone adulterers, or it’s not.
Collins has settled on Christianity as being true (his evidence is that the Gospels’ “style and content suggests [sic] strongly that they are intended to be the record of eyewitnesses”) but doesn’t talk about the faithful, like Jews and Muslims, who don’t accept his “truth.”
You don’t have to be a genius to see, then, that religious truth is not at all equivalent to scientific truth — people agree about the latter but not the former. Not only do all faiths conflict on their bedrock dogma, but there’s no way to settle the dispute. Finally, science comes with built-in methods for settling its arguments; faith does not.
I would love to ask Collins, and other religious scientists, the following question: How would you know if you were wrong about the religious truths you apprehend? That’s the question they always avoid, for trying to answer it would make them look ridiculous. They deserve not admiration but derision.