Mar 7, 2012

Religion and science at peace in their natural habitat

As America's most famous scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson must feel a pretty strong pull to pronounce on the conflict between science and religion. He's shared a stage with and collaborated with Richard Dawkins*, recommended projects to Sam Harris, and is a professional spokesperson for "science." He sees intelligent design** as an attempt to end inquiry with the invocation of a deity. He's not, himself, from what I can tell, a person of faith. He has said, anyway, he doesn't find divine benevolence plausible, given all the ways the universe "is trying to kill us" and there's "no sign of any benevolent anything anywhere."

And yet.

Kind of brilliantly, he rejects the so-called conflict. He denies it exists. And, more brilliantly, he does this by refusing to reify "science" and "religion." That is, refusing to take these as things that exist in their own right, rather than as activities that humans do.

So, e.g., he says there's no inherent conflict between science and religion, and says it's simply empirical that there's no conflict, because there are many people for whom that conflict does not exist. I.e., science and religion, as things done by humans, are not always experienced as a conflict.

The majority of religious people in America accept science, he says: thus, religion that is understood as their religion, a thing they do and live and work out, is not in conflict with science. Because it's not for them. And 40 percent of scientists in America pray to a personal God**, so the science that is the science 40 percent of scientists do, is not in inherent conflict with religion that's their religion.

"To paint this," Tyson says, "as a built in conflict -- there many be a conflict, but many people co-exist."

The other option, if one doesn't go this route, is to treat science as something real apart from human activity, as separate from scientists, and out there, somewhere, on it's own. The same with religion. So one would have to argue that the two are "really" in conflict, though those who practice and do the activities that go by these names don't realize the extent to which the conflict exists, because it exists without them. Before them. Independent of human activity.

This is exactly what happens, too, as arguments that there is, must be a conflict, seem to always find themselves, very weirdly, arguing about the true forms of religion, the true forms of science. They end up insisting people ignore what they see (co-existence, spheres of knowledge, harmonization) and accept instead the reified forms fighting like Greek gods in the sky.

Tyson says simply: I can't say if they "should" be in conflict, but, empirically, as a scientist doing what a scientist does, I observe they are not.

*Tyson also, though, the first time he met Dawkins, publicly rebuked him for being a bad teacher.

**He probably doesn't oppose it as much as some would like, though. While arguing intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, he says, "I'm not going to say you
don't teach this, because it's real. It happened. I don't want people to sweep it under the rug."

***Conversations about religion and science should, according to Tyson, should be focused on those who do both: "They should be the subject of everybody's investigation, not the public."