Donald B. McCormick, Ph.D

Religion - Science

An Update on Science vs. Religion
                       (Donald B. McCormick - January, 2009)

     Four years ago in January 2005, I addressed this assembly on the subject of "Biologic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design/Creationism: Distinctions between Science and Religion". Over a year later in April 2006, I wrote for "The Highlander" newspaper a guest column on "Science vs. religion: Considerations of process and product in the search for truth". It is now my purpose to bring up-to-date the broader elements and principals involved in the continuing arguments that separate unbelievers from believers in diverse religions. If we are sensibly concerned with the ongoing politics that impinge upon our education system, we must stay informed of the arguments and ready to voice our opinions. We would do well to recognize that this year is the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of "On the Origin of Species"

     There are many that do not accept the varying tenets of present religions and rather exuberantly attack the bases claimed by their adherents. Examples of this may be seen in the continuing publication of articles and books on the subject and even in TV spots on "talking-head" programs. In the article on "God vs. Science" in Time magazine this past November, Dan Cray questions whether religion can stand up to the progress of science. He points out "brain imaging illustrates - in color! - the physical seat of the will and the passions, challenging the religious concept of a soul independent of glands and gristle." The field of evolutionary biology generates theories of altruism and even of religion that do not include God. Cosmology speculates that ours may be but one in a cascade of universes, considerably bettering the odds that life could have cropped up without divine intervention. Cray concludes with "the idea that science and religion, far from being complementary responses to the unknown, are at utter odds - or, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written bluntly, 'Religion and science will always clash'."

In his writing, Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed philosopher and financial adviser, stated recently that "There are many kinds of narratives and organizing principles. Science is driven by evidence gathered in experiments, and by the falsification of extant theories and their replacement with newer, asymptotically truer, ones. Other systems - religion, nationalism, paranoid ideation, or art - are based on personal experiences (faith, inspiration, paranoia, etc.)." Further he points out that we cannot design even one experiment to prove that a God (or gods) exists outside the minds of believers. "The world's richness and variety can be fully accounted for using modern scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang. There is no need to introduce God into the equations." Vaknin's conclusion is that "Knowledge and belief are like oil and water. They don't mix. Knowledge doesn't lead to belief and belief does not yield knowledge. Belief can yield conviction or strongly felt opinions. But belief cannot result in knowledge." If one substitutes the Greek-derived word "science", which means knowledge, for "knowledge" and allows that Vaknin is using "belief" as "faith", the overall meaning is clear.
     It seems that an increasing number would accept the summarizing feelings of John McCarthy, the renowned computer scientist who coined the term "artificial intelligence", when he reminds us of the poem "For faith, fantastic faith, once wedded fast; to some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last!" McCarthy points out that the priestly principle of the subordination of scientific fact to dogmatic faith is posed by the Catholic Encyclopedia which states: "When a clearly defined dogma contradicts a scientific assertion, the latter has to be revised." I cannot help but agree with McCarthy when he then states "A more palpable and ridiculous untruth has never been uttered by those who still insist on Biblical literalness. Even today there are those trying to prevent the teaching of Evolution in our schools, not for any scientific reason, but simply because Darwin's theory of Evolution conflicts with their current religious dogma."

     At an earlier stage of this ongoing argument, Darwin, stated: "For myself, I do not believe in any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic." By-the-way, Huxley, who in 1859 coined the term agnostic in his essay on "Agnosticism and Christianity", had this to say: "Henceforward, I might hope to hear no more of the assertion that we (Agnostics) are necessarily Materialists, Idealists, Atheists, Theists, or any other ists, if experience had led me to think that the proved falsity of a statement was any guarantee against its reputation. Those who appreciate the nature of our position will see, at once, that when Ecclesiasticism declares that we ought to believe this, that, and the other, and are very wicked if we don't, it is impossible for us to give any answer but this: We have not the slightest objection to believe anything you like, if you will give us good grounds for belief; but, if you cannot, we must respectfully refuse, even if that refusal should wreck morality and insure our own damnation several times over. We are quite content to leave that decision to the future. The course of the past has impressed us with the conviction that no good comes out of falsehood."

     More recent expostulations from those who attempted to argue on the worthiness of scientific or religious views are to be found in the published comments that resulted from the June 2005 meeting at Cambridge in England where the Templeton Foundation sponsored a conversation on "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" As summarized by Horgan for Scientific American, the discussants saw no unbridgeable chasm between science and their faith; however, as the two-week meeting unfolded, conflict kept interrupting this peaceable kingdom. Lecturers and journalists argued over a host of questions. Richard Dawkins, famous for his credentials both as a preeminent evolutionary biologist with books on Ancestors and The Selfish Gene and a skeptical agnostic/atheist who wrote The God Delusion, attacked those who would gratuitously insert God as a driving reason for the intelligence of other animals or "fine-tuning" the universe. On a facetious level, some admitted that they found religion satisfying their spiritual needs though they realized the falsity of the inherent dogma. For instance Paul Lipton, a Cambridge philosopher, spoke of his struggle to be a practicing Jew in spite of his lack of belief in a supernatural God. Lipton confessed with a rueful grin that "I stand in my synagogue and pray to God and have an intense relationship with God, and yet I don't believe in God". He compared his religious experience with that of someone who gets pleasure and meaning from a novel even though he knows it is not literally true. "Are you having your cake and eating it too?" asked a journalism fellow. "I'm certainly trying to," Lipton replied.

     One debate was between Kenneth Miller, a believer and professor of biology at Brown University, and Christopher Hitchens, well known for his book God is Not Great and increasingly seen on religious debate programs on TV. Hitchens takes Miller to task for his beliefs in a God-designed universe. Hitchens asks "Pray tell, is it all designed, or just the apparently harmonious bits? The impending collision between our galaxy and Andromeda (calculated by current astronomers): part of the plan or not? A series of lifeless failed planets in our own solar suburb: good design or random coincidence? As with every other such invocation, the fans of the designer must convict him either of a good deal of waste and fumbling or a great deal of cruelty and indifference, or both."

     A somewhat more polite exchange was between Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard, and Michael Shermer, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and book author. Groopman states that science and religion exist in different realms and in Judaism, God exits outside of time and cannot be bound by space. Shermer rebuts that the problem with Groopman's position is that if God is without form, immeasurable and exists in a dimension that cannot be quantified or depicted by science, how do you know God exists? In further discussion, Groopman allows that it is not possible to prove that God exists. "We cannot be sure, and people of faith do doubt. Such doubt is not restricted to my own tradition. Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian, asserted that the basis of true faith is doubt." Shermer's final challenge is that it serves no useful purpose to believe in an invisible and incomprehensible deity who may or may not answer prayers, may or may not heal our wounds, may or may not care for us, and may or may not even exist. Why not celebrate humanity for what we are, just as we are - as natural beings no more and no less - and abandon the supernatural altogether?

     Finally the "conversation" between Steven Pinker, a Harvard Psychologist, and William Phillips, a physics Nobel Laureate, once again points to the belief that the elegant and complicated nature of the universe causes some, such as Phillips, to believe it must have taken a supreme being, but such belief is not founded in any objective proof. Moreover, religion does not prevent many of the evils of humankind, such as slavery and legalized segregation. As Pinker points out, to have a humane society, one needs a defensible moral and political system, which should consist of secular moral philosophy and liberal democracy. Certainly religion does not deserve credit for the elimination of slavery or the civil-rights movement. "Slavery is sanctioned in the Bible and coexisted with religion for millennia. The defenders of slavery and of legalized segregation were strongly religious people. The rise of abolitionism in the 19th century followed on the heels not of any revelation or religious reorganization but of the Enlightenment. It is true that Martin Luther King effectively used religious imagery in his rhetoric (some borrowed from an Emory Professor) - and one certainly must credit religion with evocative words and images - but the arguments of King's that stirred the country's conscience were not religious commandments but secular Enlightenment ideals of individual rights: living out the true meaning of the creed that "all men are created equal"; ensuring that people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

     In a prescient moment, Darwin stated: "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science." In his book on Aristotle's Children, Richard Rubenstein, professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University, notes that as society modernized, science infringed with some regularity on religion's "turf". Darwin's account of the origin of species, for example, forced many theists to revise their interpretation of the story of creation in Genesis. But faith entrenched in private life, and presenting itself as a satisfier of basic psychic and spiritual needs, has been in a position to infringe just as strongly - perhaps even more so - on the territory claimed by reason.

     Rubenstein shows his convictions when he points out: "Reason could transform the earth, if only science and technology were inspired and guided by a new global moralization. Faith would expand and mature, if only the world's religions addressed themselves to long-term trends in society and nature, and helped to create that global morality. And - since the split between faith and reason divides each of us against himself - we could become more loving and useful to each other and more satisfied with ourselves, if only we could integrate these fundamental aspects of our being."

     Importantly, Rubenstein adds "Integrate, not 'fuse'. "For it is the creative tension between faith and reason that we dream of restoring, not some false identity. Just as the shattering of the Aristotelian consensus radically changed both science and religion, so, in the forging of a new, postmodern consensus, they will surely change once again. These changes will be difficult, as they have always been. But a world hungry for wholeness yearns for them."

     I for one share Rubenstein's hopes, but as I am a realist somewhat knowledgeable of the history and character of humankind, it seems likely that we will not achieve the goal of consensus hoped for, at least not in a very long time. Though religious beliefs have been an element in the psychological support of many, the argument used by adherents that it serves as the main reason for staying moral does not hold up to analysis. De Waal, an Emory colleague who studies primate behavior, states that: "Any animal endowed with well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man." The traits that define morality - empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation, and consolation - can be seen in many animals, most particularly in primates. Unfortunately with the human, there is ample record of the bellicose nature of those with divergent views and the massive and continuing deaths due to resultant battles, "cleansings", incarcerations, and other attempts to have only one view. The set intolerance of humans toward those who do not share their particular religion was and is a major cause for conflict often leading to war. This fact is also driving some agnostics into becoming atheists and the latter to anti-theism.

     As concerns the present and likely near-future of the interactions between science and religion, we need to keep in mind that there are different approaches to our processes of seeking knowledge and the truth we hope to acquire. The objective scientist uses an experimental, testable, fact-based approach to study the natural and observable universe. Scholars in many disciplines seek only human-made artifacts and events, e.g. art, music, and philosophies as well as faith-based religions. There is no a priori reason that all should not be a part of the process and product in the search for truth and a satisfying life. This feeling is underscored by the annual Evolution Weekend sponsored by "The Clergy Letter Project" coordinated by Michael Zimmerman at Butler University. We fall short of our potential betterment when we fail to understand science or religion, but we must not confuse the purpose of either and falsely claim one is the other.

     Professor Jesse Preston, a psychologist in the University of Illinois, published her recent study in the J. Experimental Soc. Psychology that once again underscored that God and science is not an easy mix for many. She examined the question because, as she stated, "if science and religion are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each other because they can't possibly both explain everything." To be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space, but Preston argues that "religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It's never going to be settled."
     I believe the thought that applies to most of us was expressed in Little Gidding by the poet T.S. Eliot, who cycled between the Unitarian inculcation of his youth and the Anglican bent of later years:  
                         "We shall not cease from exploration
                          And the end of all our exploring
                          Will be to arrive where we started
                          And know the place for the first time."

A more acerbic view was espoused by Robert Frost who wrote:

          "I turned to speak to God about the world's despair
            But to make bad matters worse, I found God wasn't there."

     Perhaps a more jovial tone can be found in a lunch-time statement by the nonbeliever James Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for elucidating the structure of DNA: "I don't think we're here for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say 'Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose', but I'm anticipating a good lunch."

     In conclusion, however, I can agree with the believing Nobel laureate Phillips who ended his Cambridge Templeton debate with Pinker by saying: "I believe, Stephen, that you and I want the same things. We want people of religious faith and without religious faith to act with genuine concern for the well-being of others. In the end, I think we should all agree with Charles Darwin that in matters of faith, all of us must make our own decisions." To
This I would add my personal hope that Darwin was correct in his belief that time will allow the advance of science and the gradual illumination of our minds and we will reach the point where there is no need to supplant fact with fiction which would occupy only the realm of artistic enjoyment.