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.