August 16, 2005

Should all scientists try to accommodate religion?

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally "shafars". (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design (ID).

Some well-known religious scientists are biologists Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Francisco Ayala. Since they are also opponents of ID, they are frequently brought forward to counter ID arguments since they can simultaneously debunk ID advocate charges that supporters of evolution are necessarily atheists.

Scientists who are also philosophical naturalists have generally not been prominent in the ID debate, or have had their atheistic/agnostic views downplayed. This may be because of the political-religious climate in the US that has led to a strategy of not alienating those religious people who also oppose ID. As Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, says: "Because it is taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy."

Harris argues that this is not a good strategy. "While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out." As I said in the previous post, an awareness that this is what is happening is sinking in. He goes on:

The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not "rule out," but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe -- that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone."

Harris' views have received enthusiastic support from Richard Dawkins, a prominent neo-Darwinian and atheist who has long criticized what he sees as the attempts by the late Stephen Jay Gould and others to accommodate religious sensibilities and downplay the irrationality of religious beliefs for fear of causing offense and creating an anti-science backlash. He thinks that tiptoeing around religious beliefs simply strengthens the hand of those who wish to undermine science.

As I said earlier, in pursuing scientific questions scientists do not care about the religious views of scientists. But when confronting the challenge of ID and its young Earth adherents, should scientists who are philosophical naturalists stay out of the picture and leave it to only the religious methodological naturalists to combat ID, since the ID people love to portray all scientists as atheists? Or should philosophical naturalists not feel hesitant to also challenge ID, but from an atheistic position, and thus risk confusing the picture?

More on this in the next posting.

If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says "Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they'd go nuts."

Taibbi's piece concludes:

After a month of watching [Sanders] and other members, I get the strong impression that even the idealists in Congress have learned to accept the body on its own terms. Congress isn't the steady assembly line of consensus policy ideas it's sold as, but a kind of permanent emergency in which a majority of members work day and night to burgle the national treasure and burn the Constitution. A largely castrated minority tries, Alamo-style, to slow them down -- but in the end spends most of its time beating calculated retreats and making loose plans to fight another day.
Taken all together, the whole thing is an ingenious system for inhibiting progress and the popular will. The deck is stacked just enough to make sure that nothing ever changes. But just enough is left to chance to make sure that hope never completely dies out. And who knows, maybe it evolved that way for a reason.

And that's the current state of democracy in the US.


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It seems to me that both philosophical naturalists and religious methodological naturalists should combat ID. But I think the argument should be along scientific grounds (e.g. naturalism) such that we keep our own belief structures out of the debate (they're immaterial to the scientific issues at stake). To do otherwise would be to give ID proponents exactly what they want, a head-to-head confrontation between science and people's loyalties to religion. Sam Harris' viewpoint would, I fear, drive people to have to choose one side: either science or religion. I think that's an unnecessary and pointless fight for the scientific community.


Posted by Jeremy on August 16, 2005 12:04 PM

I agree that the discussion should be on scientific grounds and having arguments between religious and non-religious scientists is pointless, since neither side really cares about the others' beliefs.

The question is whether outspoken atheists like Harris and Dawkins should stay out of the ID debate because of sensitivity that their presence will enable ID advocates to argue that scienceatheism.

If atheism becomes more commonly accepted, then people will respond correctly "so what?" when they are told that some scientific opponent of ID happens to be an atheist.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 17, 2005 08:31 AM

The belief that science and relegion co-exist in harmony is a myth. A very useful myth as well.

I believe that religion fills the vacuum of lack of knowledge, with, more or less arbitrary, but useful beliefs. Useful, because the human mind finds it difficult to accomodate this vacuum and religion eases the stress that lack of knowledge creates.

When, after a scientific revolution, part of this vacuum is filled by science, religion fights to hold its ground. Science always wins this battle eventually. Still the fight is worth religion's efforts, because this way it buys time which it uses to gradually adjust its positions to the new scientific findings, so people can continue believing in it, as though it has always been faultless.

Scientists do well to keep working on their discoveries without paying attention to how they affect religion. They do well to fight ignorance only and leave religion alone to do the best it can to adjust to new knowledge.

The belief that science and relegion co-exist in harmony is a myth. A myth, however, that may well be serving the interests of both religion and science very well.

Posted by Christos Georgiadis on September 5, 2005 09:59 AM