May 2, 2013

Science vs. religion vs. facts

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps America's most popular promoter of science, pointed out several years ago that there's no necessary conflict between science and religion. Not if you're being scientific about it. As a matter of a concrete fact, discoverable by investigation of the world around us, there are people who are scientists and religious, and there are likewise many religious people who embrace science. The idea that there's an intractable, inevitable, necessary struggle to the death between the two abstractions, "religion" and "science," is not supported by any evidence that can be discovered by an empirical investigation.

"The notion that if you're a scientist you're an atheist, or if you're religious you're not a scientist," Tyson said, "that's just empirically false."

Historians have made this argument for a long time. The "warfare model," the "conflict thesis" offered to explain the relationship between religion and science, just doesn't work.

Over a decade ago, Colin A. Russell wrote that the narrative frame of opposition dates back to two anti-religious science history books from the Gilded Age, both of which had political reasons rather than historical reasons to use that frame. There were axes to grind. The historiography was problematic. The evidence didn't support the guiding metaphors of opposition, struggle, and conflict. The narrative of an age-old fight, Russell showed, obscured a lot of important details. Missing from all such histories is the recognition of the many cooperative relationships and cases of close alliance between science and religion. Relatively minor squabbles are exalted, according to Russell, and normativized. Besides: the assertion of conflict has come to stand in for any actual historical explanation of the conflicts that did happen. Conflict thesis histories don't say why conflicts happened, but assume that they have to.

The whole thing is "at best an oversimplification and, at worst, a deception," Russell wrote.

At the time, Russell's thesis was pretty familiar to historians. Changes in the study of history in the 1980s and 1990s led to a near complete rejeciton of the story of a triumphant, progressive march of science through history that was so easily accepted in the 1870s, '80s, and '90s. Concern about "Whiggishness," "presentism," and the "retrospective fallacy" changed how things were done. Now historians' totem was "complexity," and a standard test for historians was whether or not they could persuasively, sympathetically present an account of a position or figure or movement with which they personally disagreed. According to David B. Wilson, "This radically different methodology yielded a very different overall conclusion about the historical relationship of science and religion." The simplicity of the story that these two traditions of knowledge and practice had always and everywhere of necessity been opposed, and also has always and everywhere been clearly distinguishable, became very suspect. And that simple story didn't stand up to suspicion very well.

Ronald L. Numbers assessment was more blunt. Way back in 1985 he said the conflict thesis was "historically bankrupt," and persisted only because of "cliché-bound minds."

"Cliché-Bound Minds" might have been a good title for the new documentary that premiered this week to a full house in Toronto. Instead the film, which features Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and a raft of celebrities spouting about the conflict between science and religion, was titled The Unbelievers.

The first four showings of the documentary reportedly sold out, and the audience's response to the premiere was overwhelmingly positive.

The first review posted at Rotten Tomatoes confirms that the film is not exactly nuanced in its depiction of the relationship between science and religion. The audience reviewer reports: "Very good to see that there are people out there fighting for science, reason and intellect. Some great scenes of Muslim protesters being shouted down and heavily outnumbered."

The trailer also shows a woman in a hijab holding one of Krauss' popular books about science and looking very happy and shaking Krauss' hand. While that image could be understood as an example of the many ways people engage religion and science simultaneously, as this woman is both practicing her religion and engaging science without imploding, Krauss talks over the scene, interpreting it as a moment of liberation for the woman, freeing her from her crazy beliefs. He says "If you confront a belief they have and show them immediately that they can see for themselves that it's crazy, then they remember it."

Or perhaps it's just the condescension that sticks out so clearly in their minds.

The most problematic moment of the trailer, though, is when Krauss leans over a podium and says "There's no one whose views are not subject to question." The very obvious exception to this, given the tenor of the trailer and the rest of the promotional material about The Unbelievers, are those who have their own documentary made about them globetrotting from packed hall to packed hall like heroes to perpetuate a myth about a necessary conflict between science and religion.

The filmmakers could have at least given some space to Neil De´Grasse Tyson, a non-religious scientist who has questioned not only this false opposition but the value of Dawkins' rhetorical style, saying, for instance,
Your commentary had a sharpness of teeth .... Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there's got to be an act of persuasion in there as well. Persuasion isn't always, 'here's the facts and either you're an idiot or you're not'. It's, 'here are the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind.' And it's the facts plus the sensitivity, when convolved together, creates an impact. And I worry your methods, and your -- how articulately barbed you can be, ends up simply being ineffective.
This film at least appears to be untroubled by this or any other serious question, though.

The real question that this documentary raises, though, is why there's such a market for the conflict thesis. Why does it persist in its obfuscations and false oppositions so long after it was demonstrated to be historically bankrupt as a theory and demonstrably empirically false? It's an entirely contingent historical fact that Dawkins and Krauss and others would be so warmly hailed as they preach this message. It's not necessarily the case that it makes sense to score their speaking tour to rock anthems in a documentary that gets a standing ovation in Toronto. It would be good to have a good historical account to explain the accident of time and place that is The Unbelievers.


  1. I'm sure The Unbelievers is rubbish, but I'm clearly one of the cliche-bound minds when it comes to the conflict issue. Copernicus's precautionary claim that his thesis was only a ridiculous jeu-d'esprit, Galileo's recantation - these tend to suggest an intrinsic conflict between free thinking and orthodoxy. Arguably that conflict already existed for Socrates and for Plato, who vastly remodelled "religion", compared to the superstitious (their word) practices of their contemporaries. I suppose I think that while many people embrace a personal religious creed that isn't intrinsically in conflict with science, you couldn't sustain a system of temples and priests on such feebly reasonable stuff alone; the system requires "clear blue water", or there'd be no reason for anyone to pay for it to exist, and the best way to achieve that distinctness of definition is a profoundly irrational creed. I speak from ignorance, as ever...

  2. Both Copernicus and Galileo are examples of anecdotes that have been stretched and inflated into morality tales. Such incidents tell us *something,* but nearly as much as they're meant to.

    It we treated Newton's religiousness the same way we treat Galileo's conflict with authority, we'd be telling stories about how scientists are always occultist and would-be alchemists.

    Time and place are critical to history. Abstractions ought to be done with due caution.

    Regarding your last point, how many religious people have to be OK with science before one can sustain an institution?

  3. I wonder if part of the reason these guys appear to have gained traction is because the idea that 'religion is, firstly, a belief' forces religious folks to play by the atheists' rules. It seems like Dawkins doesn't really want to address the question of whether religion is beautiful, but rather the question of whether God exists in the same way that H2O exists.

    To paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, theists and atheists aren't even having the same debate. Atheists are debating the existence of God, and theists are debating the order of things.

  4. That's a very interesting thesis I'll have to think about.

    Can you direct me to the relevant MacIntyre?

  5. It's a frame that suits both parties because it fits well with the dominant narrative of each. People bullish on science seem to love the story of humanity gradually shaking off its superstitious shackles and becoming better and better with each generation. People bullish on religion seem to love the idea that everything was perfect in the idealized past. So neither side is super willing to challenge the science v. religion framing.

    But the narrative of gradual human enlightenment is not, fundamentally, a scientific one. The is-ought gap applies here just as much as it does anywhere. The notion that science is in some fundamental way _better_ than superstition cannot be supported by science alone.

    Michael: As far as people with a personal religious creed that is not in conflict with science, I wonder whether you would define Christianity as such a creed or not, insofar as the fundamental truths about Christianity are things which Christians admit are not scientific nor even rationally explainable (e.g., the incarnation, the resurrection, the miracles). The Church does not claim that these are things we don't (yet) understand, in much the way we don't yet understand spooky action at a distance. Rather it claims that these are things which we know are fundamentally impossible but which nevertheless happened anyway.

    I would argue that such claims are at once within and without scientific materialism, since it is scientific understanding which enables us to say that something is fundamentally impossible. One must believe in science in order to identify something as a miracle, so to speak.

  6. Gauche: I was trying to distinguish personal creeds from any institutional religion. But you are right to note it, my speculation is, I am sure, a distant memory of Paul. And surely in Paul we see, as you suggest, a "scientific" awareness of what's at stake in the conception of miracle. Post-Aristotle, I guess. In Paul's vision of Christianity this adherence to "foolishness" was not only a commitment to the irrational but to the socially despised, to the gallows of the cross and to the untouchables that Jesus hung out with; which is all very appealing to me.

    Dan: you rightly challenge whether the economics of religious systems really demand this commitment to the irrational. No doubt a bunch of well-off pious scientists could fund a small deistic temple; in the undogmatic Anglicanism of middle-class villages this vision is almost realized, and yes, under the guise of Christianity. But my speculation is that religions with mass appeal are sustained because they fundamentally offer something other than what makes sense; a cause to defend, identifiable authority, a litmus test of who's in and who's out, an escape from grief into limitless potentiality, and other socially desirable things. Anyway, this is all a very partial (very Western) idea of mine, so I'll shut up now.

  7. I don't fundamentally disagree with that.

  8. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Ho-hum - yet another restatement of an old canard.

  9. Ho-hum - yet another restatement of an old canard.

    Bored troll appears to be bored; is definitely boring.

    If you have an argument to make, or something to add to the discussion, make it. If you think the conversation is tired or old or cliched, there's a giant world out there full of interesting things that are not this conversation, and I urge you to avail yourself of them for your own sake, rather than putting your energy into something that you obviously find tired and boring. Good day, sir.

  10. So, to summarize your article, there's no conflict between science and faith because Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a few other dudes say so? Because otherwise, you're just complaining about being picked on by atheists.

    Next time you want to explain why there's no conflict between science and religion, you might want to, you know, explain why there's no conflict between science and religion. Saying that someone else said "that's rubbish" is not an explanation.

  11. The arguments that "Tyson and a few other dudes" make are pretty clearly stated.

  12. Daniel - first I want to let you know that I stopped by your office at the HCA to say farewell on the Monday before we all left Heidelberg, but alas neither you nor Jan were there. So, keep in touch, and I hope to see you down the road sometime, somewhere.

    While I agree that there is 'no necessary conflict' between science and religion, the reality is that many on both sides claim otherwise and behave accordingly. For every Tyson and Collins, there are hundreds if not thousands who see this as an either/or decision. As long as Christians focus on Genesis 1 rather than Matthew 25, there will indeed be conflict.

  13. Hey Doug, sorry I missed you!

    Conflict and opposition *are* very real in real people's lives. That's important to note. And can be interesting and worthwhile to study.

  14. Anonymous10:00 PM

    Science and religion come into conflict when religion tries to make claims about the natural world (i.e. the age of the earth or the origin of humanity). Religious explainations do not match the evidence and therefore scientific analysis undercuts religious claims. Religion advocates should stick to matters of faith.

  15. Anonymous4:41 AM

    It seems obvious when you start to question the science vs. religion narrative that it breaks down almost instantly. Take the famous case of Galileo. Who was funding Galileo and all the other scientists at the time? It wasn't a bunch of atheists. Science was a fundamentally religious arena. Who was Galileo arguing with? Other scientists who supported the Aristotelian model of the universe (where as you increase your distance from the Earth things become more ordered, pure, and unchanging). This was the scientific consensus of the time. (Technically science was still called Natural Philosophy.) Galileo got in trouble because he made observations that destroyed the view of the scientific community. Then when this community complained and the Pope asked him to give some accommodations Galileo became belligerent. His quarrel wasn't with the church until he made it about the church. Same with science and religion today.

    1. Anonymous6:07 AM

      You are correct in your understanding of the Galileo affair. The church's position (geocentrism) was the prevailing scientific (or natural philosophy) view of the day. It was Galileo who was advocating a model that went against what science "knew" to be true. It was a disagreement among natural philosophers more than it was a conflict between science and religion.

  16. Just two points:

    First. Science and religion do not come into long as religion retreats into the "gaps" science has not YET fully understood. Religion regarded the discovery of the human pulmonary circulation or the heliocentric system as "heretic". I guess that's a pretty harsh contradiction between science and religion. And NO, you can't solve that by saying that Galileo was only arguing with the prevailing aristotelian conception. Aristotle had been conveniently "adapted" to the christian dogma in the XIII century, and the clash between revealed dogma and the scientific method is what we are talking about.

    Second. The fact that there are religious scientists and vice-versa don't make religion and science compatible. One can easily hold two clashing ideas, only by thinking that the ultimate discovery that make them compatible is not yet known, and not being too dogmatic. Furthermore, no serious scientist takes the Bible into the laboratory. There's a necessary separation between science and religion that many churches still don't accept.

  17. Dion,

    I certainly would not want to argue that religion and science *never* come into conflict, nor do the historians I cite make that argument. The point is rather than taking instances of conflict and turning them into a metanarrative with which to understand the whole history of science and religion obscures more than it clarifies.

    It's true that people can hold conflicting ideas. (I do it all the time). My concern, though, is how "science" and "religion" are talked about as abstractions, disconnected from actual beliefs in practices. It is of course possible to dismiss all those who practice both religion and science without experiencing internal warfare as irrational or as not duly rigorous in their thinking, but the grounds for that dismissal seem very tenuous to me.

    The necessary separation (as opposed to necessary conflict) is something that happened mid-19th c. I don't disagree with it, but it is something that emerged in history. Science existed before that separation, though of course it looked very different than it does now. Religion likewise has changed.

    That said, if Dawkins and Krauss were to star in a documentary about how the Bible has no place in the lab, I don't see myself writing a critique of that.