Q: Why are accommodationist historians of science like Reza Aslan?
A: The historians say the Galileo episode had nothing to do with Catholicism, while Aslan says that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
And this is by way of introducing a new Five Books piece in which a religionist recommends books on science and religion. As you may recall, Five Books is a website in which an expert in a field recommends five books (in an interview format) for the public on his or her area of expertise. Most of them are pretty good, although there are a few klunkers. (The latest post, not a klunker, is Massimo Pigliucci recommending books on Stoicism.) The interviewer, who does a Q&A with the expert, is key, and I’ve been lucky enough to have done two “Five Books” interviews with the estimable Sophie Roell, one on my first trade book and one on the second.
Sophie’s now done another interview on science and religion, but this time with an accommodationist: Andrew Briggs, an accomplished professor of nanomaterials at Oxford who is also a Christian (he studied theology for three years after he got his Ph.D). And I have to say that I didn’t know of any of the three scholarly books he recommended on religion and science (the other two are works of fiction), but those three came out recently. I’ll let you look at the books themselves; none, of course, are like Faith Versus Fact or Herman Philipse’s wonderful God in the Age of Science?, for Briggs’s thesis is that science and religion and fully compatible—indeed, they are almost the same thing.
Here are a few tactics he takes to support that bizarre thesis. Brigg’s words are indented.
Assume God exists without offering any support. Although the title of Briggs’s interview is “The Nature of Reality,” he gives precious little evidence that his Christian God is part of that reality.
Claim that religion has been a very powerful impetus for the advance of science.
What we found as we studied more and more cases is that where you’ve got a culture or a community or even just an individual who cares a lot about the biggest questions you could ask—questions about meaning and purpose and value and our relationship with God and the nature of reality—time and again that has been conducive to advances in what we would now think of as science.
Maybe (Newton comes to mind), but this doesn’t happen much any more. I know of no scientist who has regarded their studies as a way to understand the mind of God. The vast majority of good scientists, in both the UK and US, are atheists. And, of course, there’s the whole history of religion opposing science, with creationism the most prominent example (Briggs doesn’t mention that). Further, scientific investigations from religionists rarely derive from questions about meaning, purpose, value, and the scientist’s relationship to God. They come from mere curiosity.
Avoid the question of why so many scientists are atheists, claiming that they’re really “spiritual”. This, of course, is something we’ve just discussed, and one of the dangers of using the term “spirituality”. When you do, goddies like Briggs claim us as one of their own. Here’s an exchange between Sophie (who knows the data) and Briggs:
Sophie: Aren’t most scientists atheist? The data on American scientists seems to show that.
Briggs: The scene in America is very different from the scene in Britain. There’s a very different history. In Britain we’ve got a very rich heritage of distinguished scientists who are people of strong Christian faith, and indeed of very distinguished churchmen, with a strong interest in science. One can give example after example of that. Therefore—and this is a theme running through the next two books—this enfolding of science as a religious activity and as a very strong and natural religious activity, is something that we bring out in our book, The Penultimate Curiosity, and it’s certainly something that Andrew [Steane] describes here.
That’s bullshit, of course: maybe there’s a past heritage of religious scientists, but it doesn’t exist any longer in the UK. In one study, 84% of Fellows of the (UK) Royal Society were on the “doubtful” side of the question of whether God exists while only 11% leaned toward God. Those are the facts, and so Briggs has to accommodate them. He does it by herding us all into the Spiritual Corral:
That’s not to say that all my colleagues are Christians or believe in God. Of course not — though the best surveys that have been done seem to indicate that a majority of elite scientists would describe themselves as spiritual persons. In science, there is a genuine pleasure from getting an experiment to work or developing a new technology, or solving a theoretical problem. That can be experienced by people whether or not they have a relationship with God. But I think what Andrew would say, and what I would say, is that that pleasure is hugely enriched when it’s in the context of a relationship with the Creator, whose work you’re studying.
Any data supporting that last sentence, Professor Briggs?
Assert a similarity between religion and science because “science” is a recent phenomenon.
In the 1600s, those territories didn’t exist with those designations. Of course the bits of land, the hills, the mountains existed, the topography existed, but not with those labels. What he is showing, in an immensely scholarly way, is that these labels of science and religion—although nowadays we think we know what they mean—are rather recent and no more applicable to most of intellectual and cultural history than the labels of Israel and Egypt would have been to those territories in 1600. And therefore a lot of misunderstandings arise because people are applying incorrect categories.
They’re arguing about distinctions—in some cases they’re alleging warfare—between things they’re wrongly categorising. In fact, if you want to push it a bit further you could say that both those bits of land were part of a single Empire and much of the discussion about things that we would now think of as religious and things we would now think of as scientific, were part of a single territory.
. . . So what Peter Harrison is saying is that first of all, if you’re trying to understand these alleged conflicts between science and religion, most of what you need to do is not so much look at the details but to realize you’re just applying inappropriate categories.
Do I really need to “unpack” this? Do I need to show that science and religion are now different things with different methodologies, although both claim to tell us truths about the cosmos? Moreover, one of them gives us progressively better understanding of the world while the other produces “understanding” that hasn’t changed in over a millennium.
Claim that science and religion are compatible because we had religious scientists, like Newton, and these some of them claimed to do science to understand God’s Mind and Plan.
[Newton] saw his scientific pursuit as very strongly religiously motivated. Like most of us, Isaac Newton was a complex person, only more so. But he wrote more about religion than he ever wrote about science. It’s for his science that we now remember him because it was brilliant. But it’s true of him and it’s true of some of the greats that we know about, like Robert Boyle. Every school child learns Boyle’s law of gases. It’s true of Robert Grosseteste who is not so well known. He was probably the first to serve as chancellor at Oxford University, before becoming Bishop of Lincoln. He saw all his life’s work as motivated by his faith in God and made some very important advances, some of them specific—such as in optics, why a rainbow is coloured—and some of them about methodology. He was the first to formulate the idea of a control experiment, which is now standard in many branches of science.
Yeah, Newton’s religion wasn’t so brilliant, and Ceiling Cat knows how much more advanced we’d be now if Newton had been an atheist and not wasted all that time on Arianism!
I’ll add just two more points, because writing about this stuff gives me a tummy ache:
Claim that L’affaire Galileo wasn’t about religion. I consider this palpably false claim the touchstone of both an accommodationist and either a religionist or a faitheist (like Ron Numbers) who can’t bear to think that religion’s had any inimical effect on science.
Another example would be the Galileo case. Over time the story has become distorted and exaggerated. Galileo was another a complex character. He was quite capable of being tactless and he got into trouble as much for his tactlessness as for his science. Although he was put on trial, he was never sent to jail. The issue was more about whether or not Galileo was allowed to teach these things. Within 12 years, here in Oxford, John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, published a book on cosmology and the title page had Copernicus and Galileo as his two heroes, with Kepler peeping over Galileo’s shoulder. So within 12 years a strong churchman and scholar who formed an experimental club here in Oxford has written a book advocating the Copernican model.
Yep, it was all about Galileo’s tactlessnes. Move along folks, nothing to see here about religion! Man, Briggs’s ability to evade the truth would have given him a brilliant career as a politician!
Finally, when all else fails, go after Dawkins.
Sophie: What are your thoughts about Richard Dawkins’ arguments — which deny any role for religion in science? What would you want him to make of your book? [The Penultimate Curiosity by Roger Wagner and Briggs]
Briggs: We didn’t actually think much about Richard Dawkins when we were writing the book. I suppose we would want him to come away very much better informed and knowing that there is another story, which is different from one that is popularly put about, and which has the distinction of being true.
What? TRUE? Is Briggs saying that the existence of God, or Christianity, is TRUE? (I’ve left out the parts where he denigrates Dawkins’s science writing, praising The Selfish Gene—but implying it wasn’t Dawkins’s work—and then stating that Dawkins’s other popular books were much weaker. This is the slimy way a “British gentleman” attacks somebody.) Briggs then raises the Eagleton Accusation:
If you’re going to engage in an argument with people that you disagree with—which is a healthy activity, at least at Oxford—you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments and not the weakest of their arguments and still more not with a caricature of them. Of course you can find silly Christians — you can find silly believers in any faith, and I’m sad to say you can find adherents of any religion who do bad things. You’ve only got to read the newspapers to see that. But that’s not the way to engage with the best of what they’re saying. I think most people think that he’s utterly failed to engage with the best of the theology that is espoused by Christians whose minds are scientific.
Well, Professor Briggs, I spent two years and then some reading “the best and strongest arguments” for God and Christianity, and I have to say that Richard was right: it’s still a crock. The “best arguments for theology” accusation is just a way to suck a scientist into an infinite regress: “What, you’ve read Aquinas but not Duns Scotus? You’re IGNORANT!”
I can’t go on; my stomach hurts. It always upsets me when a scientist of the caliber of Briggs buys so wholly into medieval superstition. I just don’t get it.