21 March 2009


The Polarization of Science and Faith?

I wondered about the wisdom of posting two articles linked to creationism in a very short time, but decided to go ahead because it is somewhat relevant to a recent talk at the Secular Hall. Following the visit made by Professor Michael Reiss, a conversation sparked by that event and a debate about religion (but not creationism) between Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens on YouTube, a thought entered my head that just wouldn’t go away. Why is it that the “evilutionist” scientists who actively and vociferously speak out against the nonsense of creationism and ID are almost universally atheists? The Christian biologists, like Dr. Kenneth Miller, who actually take a stand, seem to number in single figures.

To a non-believer, the Holy Books are just books; books written by primitive human beings. In general, they seem to have been written by not-very-nice human beings judging by the atrocities and bigotry they appear to have revelled in. They are books which are historically and scientifically inaccurate (demonstrably wrong in many instances) and they are certainly morally reprehensible with just a few notable exceptions – most of which pre-date the scripture if one looks into the history of other cultures.

It is very clear to everyone except those who do it, that most theists cherry-pick their Holy books. In some cases, this is because they haven’t actually read the book they declare is the word of God and which guides and supports them as they negotiate the rollercoaster of life. In others, they have read it but simply declare most of it to be allegorical. Maybe this is the problem.

Professor Reiss and others declare that they accept evolution. They accept that we evolved from early self-replicating molecules and that all living things are related. They do not believe that Adam and Eve were created as depicted in Genesis. Why not? Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, was born of a virgin and died on the cross to rise three days later and be physically transported into the sky. Why?

Both stories are in the Bible. They are both claimed as the word of God – because the Bible says it is the word of God. So is this why Christian evolutionary scientists do not oppose creationists, leaving it, largely, to their atheist colleagues? Is it because they know that they are wishy-washy in their beliefs and that they would find it hard to defend this against someone who really, really believes?

But they have an additional problem that comes at them from the science “side”. In order to defend science, one has to accept that there is no evidence for magic in this world of ours. No unicorns, no Tooth Fairy, no Santa Claus, no miracles.

So, faced with the prospect of standing up for science but admitting a belief in magic (Jesus’s miracles, virgin births, people raised from the dead, etc.) because an ancient book says it happened, and arguing against the belief in magic – from the same book - involving complex organisms being "poofed" into existence, talking snakes, global floods and a pair of naked mole rats somehow finding their way to Noah’s big boat, perhaps it is just too daunting for these educated people? Is the cognitive dissonance too great? Do they know they are caught between a rock and a hard place? Best to keep quiet perhaps?

They are doing…. and the silence is deafening.

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This new website on "Understanding Science" maintains that "people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion". Which is a true statement, but a bit mealy mouthed, especially as they state elsewhere that "Scientific ideas are judged not by their popularity, but on the basis of the evidence supporting or contradicting them."


Their definition of what is meant by "supernatural" is: "Not of the natural world." In their definition of "natural" they say: "Ghosts, for example, are supernatural entities without a basis in the physical universe." So how are we supposed to see them?
The popular way of slipping out of the space between the rock and the hard place is to claim that science and religion exist in (Steven Jay Gould's phrase) non-overlapping magisteriums. I haven't tried to get to the bottom of this idea but it seems on first glance to let religion off the hook far too easily. Holding this view allows you to do the Michael Reiss thing, doesn't it - to claim to be a thoroughgoing scientist and yet still believe in all the guff in a holy book that contradicts science. Cognitive dissonance is a polite way of saying schizophrenia, isn't it?
The Chief Rabbi was on Thought for the Day a day or two ago. He appeared to state, as a fact, that Lion and Lamb were aboard Noah's Ark in peaceful coexistence! He's an intelligent man, and not as far as I know a disfunctional split personality. Perhaps its a case of "consistency being for small minds" (Emerson)?
Yes, I half-heard that too and was a bit baffled as only a week or so earlier I'd heard some other religious scholar saying that it was now generally accepted by Jews and Christians that the Noah's ark story was just a myth. They really are having big problems coming to terms with the Bible as word of god.

I don't think there is a dichotomy between science and faith, as you say, the idea of NOMA is widespread. However, evolution (and several scientific theories) are incompatible with the literal reading of The Bible, which includes the most talked about of these, creationism.

It seems that scientists of the NOMA persuasion are reluctant to debate with "true believers". I wonder if that is because it makes their own cherry-picking of the "inerrant word of God" more obvious and that makes them feel uncomfortable?

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