Here’s a short list I quickly concocted giving some religiously-based attacks on science used by accommodationists and others to debase science, dragging it down to the level of faith (readers: feel free to add others):
1. Science is a faith: it depends on “philosophical naturalism” and on on faith that universe is comprehensible (and can be described by mathematics), as well as assumptions that we’re not just “brains in vats” or computer simulations run by aliens
2. Religion isn’t about truth but about ritual, solidarity, etc.
3. Early scientists were religious, so religion had a hand in early science
4. The scientific method and science came from religion
5. Science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist
6 Science fosters scientism (see yesterday’s post)
7. Science gives us no moral grounding
8. Science has been misused
9. Science is not the only route to knowledge
10. Science isn’t a good route to truth because it’s often been wrong
Over at the BBC News “Point of View” site, many of these are evinced by political philosopher and accommodationist nonpareil John Gray in his essay “Can religion tell us more than science?” (his BBC show on the topic, of which essay is a transcript, can be heard here). His points
- Religions aren’t about particular beliefs or truths, so New Atheist attacks on religious verities are misguided. Gray:
We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe. It’s an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism. [JAC: really? I doubt many would call the debate “dull”]. . .
In most religions – polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions – belief has never been particularly important. Practice – ritual, meditation, a way of life – is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.
The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn’t come from religion. It’s an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.
This is where Frazer and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is – a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.
Unfortunately, “practice” is rarely kept private, and that’s the problem. If religious people wanted only to go to church, meditate, do proselytizing-free charity work and so on, that would be fine. But they do have beliefs derived from their faith, and they often try to enforce these on society. That, I think, is the big problem the New Athiests have with religion: not just the false beliefs, but the need to enforce those beliefs on others (that, of course, is also what political belief engenders, but religion produces a more irrational form of belief). If you want to see what some religious beliefs do to society, look to Ireland a few decades ago or parts of the Middle East today.
And even if religion doesn’t depend on belief so much as ritual, it’s still divisive and a cause for xenophobia and horrible crimes. Gray mentions Buddhists and Hindus, but religion played a role in the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka (granted, religion was conflated with ethnicity), and especially in the violence that followed the partition of India in 1947. In the latter episode, millions were slaughtered on the basis of their religion alone.
- Science ain’t so hot either because it’s often wrong. Gray:
Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. . .
. . . But many areas of life aren’t like this. Art and poetry aren’t about establishing facts. Even science isn’t the attempt to frame true beliefs that it’s commonly supposed to be. Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn’t mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it’s that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better.
Yes, science progresses, and earlier ideas are often replaced. But some things aren’t likely to be: a water molecule has two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, birds descended from dinosaurs, life began about 3.5 billion years ago, tuberculosis is caused by a specific bacterium. Place all that knowledge of science against any verities produced by faith—there are none of the latter. It’s simply odious to pretend that there’s something wrong with science because it produces a better and better understanding of the world with time, and is sometimes wrong. Religious “truth claims” are always wrong.
- Religious myths give us truths, and can be more truthful than science.
Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.
Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.
Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.
Note the implicit slur on science in the last sentence, which undoubtedly inspired Gray’s title about religion telling us more than science. In Gray’s view, religion performs the function of art, literature, and fiction: giving us solidarity with fellow humans, validating ourselves, and so on. And that’s fine—I’ve never been one to dismiss the value of the arts in this way. But you don’t need religion to do that, especially those forms or religion based on beliefs that are palpably false. But Gray shouldn’t pretend that what these stories convey are “truths,” especially because, earlier in his piece, he says that religion isn’t in the business of providing truth!
- Humans didn’t evolve as animals that can find truth:
If Darwin’s theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren’t built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.
Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that’s forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can’t overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren’t equipped to see into the nature of things.
Darwin’s theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited.
This is extraordinarily stupid stuff. Begin with his questioning of evolution. Yes, evolution may be wrong, but I highly doubt it. It has had a million chances to be disproven (fossils out of place, and so on), but has passed every one. As I show in WEIT, the major tenets of the modern theory of evolution (which, granted, doesn’t understand everything) makes that theory as close to a scientific truth as we can get.
More important, humans have evolved to be generally reliable detectors of truth—at least those truths that enabled us to survive on the savanna: our eyes tell us what is real, our ears tell us real sounds, and so on. Our brains evolved to enable us to reliably calculate what others might be thinking and to communicate our feelings and desires to others. That’s all it takes for our evolved brains to be coopted into a reliable device for seeking truth in other realms, i.e., science. And if we weren’t evolved to find truth, how come science has found out so many things that work well (e.g., medicines) and can make predictions that are verified? Yes, our brains are limited, but Gray doesn’t realize that his criticism applies with even more force toward religion than toward science: we evolved to detect real things in our environment, and to suppose that those senses can be coopted to detect spiritual “realities”, like the nature of God, is simple nonsense. Religious “verities” depend on subjective factors like revelation.
Gray goes on to make other ludicrous comparisons between science and faith; here’s one:
Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.
Yep, saving the world demands not only the facts about the world and what we’re doing to it, which come, of course, from science, but wise guidance and ethical behavior. You don’t need religion to get the last two, for many of the people engaged in saving the world: conservation biologists, doctors without borders, etc., have no religious belief at all. And there’s no saving the world without science. If Gray looked at our modern world for five seconds, and compared that with the world of 1700, he’s see that the world has indeed been remade by science: we eat better, live longer, are healthier, don’t have to toil so hard for our bread, have computers to help us with nearly everything, and so on. ALLL of that comes from science and none from myth and religion. It is truly science and not “myth” that has remade our world. And only a moron can maintain that that observation can be equated with the “truth” of the resurrection of Jesus.
- Only New Atheists and religious fundamentalists deal with the notion of religious “truths” (the former to dismiss them):
Human beings don’t live by argumentation, and it’s only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.
Well, do Catholics and Anglicans count as “religious fundamentalists”? How about non-extremist Muslims? How about American Protestants, 70% of whom believe in a literal heaven, and 63% in angels. Gray certainly needs to get out more. He finishes his piece this way:
What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.
What he doesn’t realize is that so very often what religious people believe determines not only how they live, but how they try to make the rest of us live. Why else is abortion outlawed in Ireland, women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, and Catholic children are regularly terrorized by thoughts of hell?
I’m not familiar with John Gray, but rarely have I seen a nonbeliever (Gray says that “I don’t belong to any religion”) amass so many stupid arguments against science. Gray seems to enjoy a high reputation in England, but, based on this essay alone, I’m baffled.