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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Science, religion, weasel words, and the meaning of life

The "Science and Religion" page on the National Center for Science Education's website provides a gateway to many pages of interesting resources on the issue. In introducing the theme, the NCSE, in the person of one Peter M. J. Hess, NCSE Faith Project Director, commences as follows:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Theologians from many traditions hold that science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge. Science asks questions such as "What is it?" "How does it happen?" "By what processes?" In contrast, religion asks questions such as "What is life's meaning?" "What is my purpose?" "Is the world of value?" These are complementary rather than conflicting perspectives.

This section of the website offers resources for exploring religious perspectives on scientific questions and scientific perspectives on topics of interest to various religious groups, as well as resources for anyone interested in engaging with these issues.


Notice that the issue quickly gets extended beyond just evolution and Christianity to more general questions about science and religion.

Notice, too, that the claim that I can "both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice" is attributed to "theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions". The next paragraph attributes to "Theologians from many traditions" the idea that "science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge"; this is the idea that science and religion are so-called "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), although that expression does not appear. The site explicates it by stating that "Science asks questions such as 'What is it?' 'How does it happen?' 'By what processes?' In contrast, religion asks questions such as 'What is life's meaning?' 'What is my purpose?' 'Is the world of value?' These are complementary rather than conflicting perspectives."

It is possible that the entirety of this could be read as being attributed to the "theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions", but the inescapable fact is that the site elaborates on the point in a way that seems to endorse it. As the passage goes on, there are no reminders that it is merely attributing the idea to others. Moreover, the idea is formulated in a way that seems rhetorically attractive, and there is no indication that many scientists, philosophers, and, indeed, theologians reject the idea (and query the distinctions between the two types of questions). Any attempt to argue that the site does not really endorse NOMA, and is merely attributing the idea to various unnamed theologians, etc., would be disingenuous.

Putting this harshly, we have a classic example of pushing a viewpoint, without explicitly endorsing it, by the use of weasel words.

Over the past week, this issue, involving other American science organisations as well as the NCSE, has been debated hotly throughout the blogosphere. It now seems that some people who initially resisted the complaint that the NCSE used weasel words to advocate the total compatibility of science and religion (via the NOMA doctrine) have had second thoughts.

Certainly, Richard Hoppe has, as is apparent from the second of his recent long posts at Panda's Thumb. It's unfortunate that he only realised this only after he'd already fired off an inflammatory post in which attacked the criticisms of the NSCE by Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran, PZ Myers, and myself (complete with some rather nasty comments on the other three; presumably I am not important enough to have merited them, which is perhaps a relief).

Still, Hoppe is to be commended for his willingness to think further and change his mind about the main issue that was in contention.

The NOMA concept is false for at least two reasons:

1. The teachers, texts, and organisations associated with religions have never confined themselves to making "ought" statements or related statements about value, meaning or purpose. Rather, they have put forward factual-sounding statements about the existence of supernatural beings, such as gods, nymphs, demons and ancestral spirits. They have made claims about the dispositions and activities of these beings, and they have described their interactions with humans. In other cases, they have invoked over-arching forces or principles, such as Moira, Karma or the Tao. They have described unseen places, such as Hades, Valhalla, Paradise and Purgatory. They have posited deep components or aspects of the human makeup, such as the soul (associated in the West with the mind), or the Brahminical spiritual self (separate from both mind and body).

Religions have acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems, setting out the place of humanity in the total scheme of things. Any retreat from this is quite recent and quite limited, under pressure from the increasing body of well-corroborated scientific theory about the world and our place in it.

Gould concedes that, at earlier periods "when science did not exist as an explicit enterprise, and when a more unified sense of the nature of things gathered all 'why' questions under the rubric of religion, issues with factual resolutions now placed under the magisterium of science fell under the aegis of an enlarged concept of religion." But this is nonsense. The supposed "enlarged" concept of religion just is religion as we have historically known it. It is Gould who wishes to introduce an artificially narrowed concept of religion - a concept that very few religious believers outside of academic ivory towers are likely to recognise as their own.

2. But more importantly, although religion does attempt to offer answers to questions about moral guidance, purpose, and meaning, the last thing we should be doing is letting it carry out this job without criticism. While religious believers may be convinced that moral claims made by a church, priest or holy book are particularly authoritative, often the opposite is true. In many cases, these claims are unfortunate relics of more ignorant times. Religion can fossilise ancient, irrational and cruel moral viewpoints; we should not be according it any special authority within the "magisterium" of ethical discussion. It is better, in fact, to ignore the dubious claims of religious organisations, leaders, and writings, and to explore these issues through the use of reason - the remit of secular moral philosophy.

Given that such powerful criticisms can be made of the NOMA doctrine, I do object when I see it presented uncritically by bodies that carry the authority of the NCSE.

I should add that the clear-cut distinction between the two supposed "magisteria" does not exist, in any event. One of these is supposed to be about "is" matters and the other about "ought", and it is often claimed that there is a gulf between these. You can't, so it is said, go from an "is" to and "ought". There is a sharp distinction between factual claims about the world and moral claims about how we should act.

However, David Hume, to whom this view is often attributed, actually said something more subtle (and plausible): you can't go from a neutral statement about the world, standing alone, to an ought statement; when you go from "is" statements to "ought" statements, some explanation must be given as to how this was done. According to Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature, this means that statements about the world must be supplemented by reference to our "desires", a word that he used quite broadly. Hume's view is that we are motivated by our beliefs about the world combined with such psychological aspects of our character as what we want, fear, value, and so on. According to Hume, even moral motivation must ultimately be cashed out in some such terms.

If Hume's picture was approximately correct, as I believe it was, there is endless scope for interaction between "is" claims and "ought" claims, even though we cannot be motivated (morally or otherwise) by reason alone, in the absence of our wants, fears, etc. Moreover, there is endless scope for science to investigate what wants, fears, etc., human beings typically have. Hume speculated about human nature from his armchair, based on his personal experience and extensive reading, but we can do a bit better.

Without necessarily buying into a full-blooded kind of evolutionary psychology, such as offered by Tooby and Cosmides, we can accept that we, as Homo sapiens, have an evolved psychological nature, and that it may impose some limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings. Various fields of science (not just evolutionary psychology) can now study human nature, and the outcomes may have implications for how we should try to constrain our own conduct - as may our increasing knowledge of the world that we live in and its exigencies. As we learn more, this can feed back into our moral understanding. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed, and I see no reason to believe he was wrong about this.

Furthermore, the distinction between two kinds of statements - "What is it?" "How does it happen?" "By what processes?" versus "What is life's meaning?" "What is my purpose?" "Is the world of value?" - is simplistic, even taken at face value. It assumes, without evidence, that life itself has a "meaning" (as if it were something like a literary text), that an individual can have a purpose (as if we were bulldozers or computer programs, designed for a task) or that it makes obvious sense to ask, "Is the world of value?" Even if the last question is well-formed, i.e. that it makes sense to ask about the value of the entirety of things, as opposed to that of specific things, it is mysterious how the kinds of entities and forces described by religions can give the world as a whole any particular value.

I don't want to be narrow and pedantic about this. There are doubtless some people who experience life as "meaningless" or "valueless", so the expressions are not totally ... well ... without meaning. But when someone experiences life in that way, it is a psychological condition in which they cease to value much of what they encounter in life. They can lapse into an unpleasant state of anomie. Everything seems weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. But like other psychological conditions, this state of mind can be studied scientifically.

Meanwhile, we can all - by all means - engage in philosophical discussion about the nature of the good life. I simply find it unlikely that religion will have much to say that is genuinely of assistance. Even if this kind of discussion is a separate "magisterium", it does not follow that religion has any authority there.

Really, about the most that can be said in favour of religion as we've known it is that it helps some - yes, perhaps many - people to experience their lives as "meaningful". It offers them a sense of unity with something beyond themselves, when they might not have much else to fall back on. That so many people are stuck in this situation - where they need to have illusions about the world to provide them with a sense of meaning - may well be a reason not to hope that religion will disappear overnight. I'm not enough of a so-called "New Atheist" to wish for that sudden alteration, with all the disruption it would bring. But when we think about the plight of so many individuals who need religion to provide a sense of connection, meaning, and understanding, we should be motivated to work for a world where we can more easily put religion's false answers behind us.

This still leaves a practical question as to what the NCSE should do with the questionable material on its website. One can rationally wish that it had not been placed there in its current form, while also realising that: (1) it may nonetheless be doing some good; and (2) removing it at this stage may create more problems than it solves. I am very aware of both points, and I have no strongly felt or dogmatically-sustained views as to what should be done. Perhaps, for now, it's sufficient that the NCSE folks step back, realise that they were going down a path that was unnecessarily accommodating to religion, make no further moves down that path, and bear these issues in mind next time there is a major review of the material on their site. Perhaps there are some specific things they could do more immediately, but I wouldn't insist on this even if I were in a position to do so.

Nonetheless, constructive criticism is valuable, even when it applies to such cherished organisations as the NCSE. I only ask that it be received in the spirit in which it's intended, and that there be a bit less shooting of messengers next time it happens.

24 comments:

underverse said...

1. The teachers, texts, and organisations associated with religions have never confined themselves to making "ought" statements or related statements about value, meaning or purpose.Russell, I'm not sure why you overstate what might otherwise be a good case in this way. Are you really prepared to defend that "never"?

Rather, they have put forward factual-sounding statements about the existence of supernatural beings, such as gods, nymphs, demons and ancestral spirits.Emphasis on "factual-sounding." Fiction, too, is factual-sounding. That doesn't prove that all religion is intended as fiction, of course, but it sets a rather more difficult standard on how we are meant to interpret religious lore, since most art and literature comes without disclaimers.

n other cases, they have invoked over-arching forces or principles, such as Moira, Karma or the Tao.

This I flatly dispute, in the sense you appear to mean it. There is nothing unscientific or antiscientific about either the Tao or karma. Neither is considered a "force" akin to electromagnetism. They are descriptions of relationships, not external "things" that would be either inside or outside the ability of science to examine.

They have posited deep components or aspects of the human makeup, such as ...the Brahminical spiritual self (separate from both mind and body).This is a misunderstanding of the term. The concept of Brahman/Atman is not intended to posit additional "entities" unseen by scientific instruments. It is meant to recontextualize what we mean by "self" and to question the apparent disunity of the given world. This is a metaphysical proposition, not a scientific one.

The (seeming) fact that you *personally* cannot reconcile certain "religious" doctrines or narratives with the reliable observations of the sciences is not in itself evidence that NOMA is impossible. The much more difficult task would be for you to demonstrate how a Taoist, Buddhist, or Unitarian Universalist embrace of the scientific worldview is invalid. On what grounds would you do so?

Anonymous said...

Atheism inescapably leads to nihilism.

Whithout a God, existence is but a meaningless (if fortunate) accident.

Without a soul, consciousness and the Self are merely an illusions incapable of free will or volition necessary to create meaning.

Furthermore, all actions in an inherently meaningless universe, no matter how devoted or passionate, are themselves meaningless gestures in a cold indifferent universe.

DEEN said...

Underverse: I wanted to add this anyway, but it just so happens that it also answers your question.

Every religion has to make at least one "is" statement, which is that there is some specific source of the authority with which they can make their "ought" statements. For instance, they might claim that there is a God who wrote an inerrant book, or who speaks directly to their priests.

Without this basis, religions have no more authority to make moral claims than you and me.

Anonymous said...

Atheism leads to nihilism? What world are you living in? I know plenty of atheists who are living meaningful lives and are trying to change the world for the better.

Steve Zara said...

Your posts have been valuable resources. They have been clear summaries of the issues. But we are left with the problem: so what now? If those who have tried to push NOMA have failed (as they clearly have), what is the way forward? I have not yet heard of any clear strategy. I have my own ideas (emphasising that religious scientists exist, so there need be no psychological conflict between faith and science), but that feels a bit too much like dishonest pandering.

Anonymous said...

That's beautifully clear. Ignore all criticisms.

Blake Stacey said...

Even if atheism led inevitably to nihilism, that would not make its central contention factually wrong. The poet might never be happy without his beloved, but all the wishing in the world might not make that love requited.

How interesting to get an argument from adverse consequences in response to a post discussing the distinction between is and ought.

DEEN said...

@Steve Zara: I agree that suggesting that no conflict need exist between religion and science is somewhat dishonest. After all, the people who you'd most need to say that to, like young earth creationists, are actually right in the middle of such a conflict right now. They probably won't even believe you if you said there was no need for a conflict.

I'd say, at least make sure you can believe what you say yourself. It's not really in your control anyway if other people accept it. At least then they can't say you were being deceptive.

As for alternative strategies, I think we'll just have to deal with the fact that there is never going to be a fool-proof strategy that will instantly make people change their minds on their deeply held beliefs. I think we'll just have to wait until secularization progresses to the point where more people will be more receptive to the ideas of science.

In the meantime, I'd say focus on education. Show them the evidence. But don't just teach the facts of science, but teach how science works. Teach them to tell the difference between pseudo-science and real science. Teach critical thinking and logic, and teach how to recognize logical fallacies (which is fun anyway). Make science cool again, and stop the "science is hard" culture. Do the same for math. Get the girls involved. Encourage curiosity.

With all this, I think you'll hardly need to address religion at all. I admit to being a little bit optimistic here, but then again, I live in a country that is a little further along the path to secularization than the US, so I know it is not impossible.

It's not going to be easy, and it won't come quick. And we'll probably have to accept the fact that there will always be people you can't reach. Some people just don't want to be reached.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, once again someone says that ya gotta have God to have ethics.

You can be good without God; but, you have to think.

Look at the nature and needs of human life and you can define virtues for an individual and for an individual's relations to others.
BTW, if you do this, you'll find that reason is a virtue. I know why I accept these virtues and there's no heaven or hell in my thinking and there's no "it's good because some god(s)--or some goddamn prophet--says it's good" type of thinking at all.

Somebody making commands and dishing out rewards and punishments is ok for animal trainers but not for people. As I recall, Panda trainers use rewards and don't use punishment. (I enjoy Giant Panda bears). A Panda trainer would be a more loving source of ethics than Christianity's pathetically vain tyrant of the universe. And, "turn the other cheek type ethics" is woo woo bullshit anyway--it would indeed take an all powerful (and brutal) critter to make me ever do this.

So, ethics can be practical, secular, fact based, and deeply non-nihilistic. But, to get this benevolent view, one has to reject religion.

Russell Blackford said...

Claims about human psychology and the existence of gods, etc., are "is" claims.

NewEnglandBob said...

Russell, very well put. Thanks. The first Anonymous poster is an idiot and a coward.

MelM said...

Two solutions:

On the U.C. site about understanding science that Coyne mentioned recently, besides the theology page, there was a simple statement somwplace that just said something like: "...science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations". This, by itself, would certainly be better than long essays about NOMA and how to read the Bible (as is done on the NCSE site), Wow, an essay on how to read the Bible on a science site!

However, not all sites are going to accept the simple solution above; part of their mission is to provide compatibility between science and religion. (Are they trying to save science or save religion?) So, for all of the sites we're upset about, their real mission might include promoting something like NOMA--maybe it's more than a ploy. In this case, there's no chance for a change. Anyway, the best solution is to create secular "Understanding Science" or "Understanding Evolution" or "Why Evolution Is True" sites and make them better that the accommodationist sites.

RBH said...

There are two separable issues in the accommodationist/hardass conflict. One is the parochial issue, mostly but not exclusively important in the U.S., concerning how science will be taught in the public schools. That is at bottom a purely political issue. In the U.S. public education is largely controlled at the local district and state levels. Local boards of education are elected, as are many state boards, and while there is considerable variability, members of those boards tend to be responsive to the voters in their districts. In creationism/evolution matters they sometimes overtly act to inject creationism into the science curriculum, as in Dover, PA.

More often, though, they are strategically passive, effectively ignoring it when individual teachers inject religion into their teaching, as in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, my district. There for years the board and administration tolerated teachers skating past the church-state boundary, and thereby enabled several teachers in the middle school to operate what amounted to a private Christian school embedded in the public school. Search Panda's Thumb on "Freshwater" for more than you want to read about that.

In dealing with that parochial issue we -- the advocates of honest science education -- need all the allies we can get. Purely in virtue of the numbers in the U.S., most of those allies will have to be theists of one sort or another. So I can say in good conscience, as I did in a post tonight on Panda's Thumb, that a conservative Christian theoretical physicist who nevertheless supports honest science education is a helluva lot better to have on a school board than the conservative Christian creationist dentist who currently heads the Texas State Board of Education.

Pointing to religious believers and organizations like those identified by NCSE on its site is a very helpful counter to the frequent fundamentalist charge that accepting evolution is tantamount to atheism. While it may be true that learning more evolution and science and general erodes religious belief (though I think the data are fuzzy on whether that is a causal relationship), it is still the case that there are good scientists who believe in a personal god. They constitute an existence proof of the claim that doing science does not inevitably lead one to atheism.

In my experience (and yes, I have a fair amount of it), the resistance to evolution among the religious in my rural part of the U.S. is based mainly on fear. Several years ago I wrote a post on that, and it still holds. The main motivation for the people I know on the 'other' side is fear of loss of salvation. And in particular, it's fear for the loss of their children's salvation.

Common descent, with its rejection of a literal Adam and Eve, strikes at the very core of fundamentalist Christian belief. If there was no Adam and Eve then there was no Fall. If there was no Fall, then the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is meaningless. And for them that is almost literally unthinkable. Hence for their children to learn evolution is in their view putting their children's salvation in jeopardy, and there is very little a fundamentalist Christian believer won't do to stave that off. That's what we're up against, that fear, and that's when believing scientists come in real handy.

The second main issue is the role of religion in public life in general, and the desire of many of us to live in a rational society in which decisions are made taking into account the best science on any particular public policy question. I'll leave that for another time, except to say that it's a goal I share with the hardest assed of the new atheists.

John Pieret said...

Gould concedes that, at earlier periods "when science did not exist as an explicit enterprise, and when a more unified sense of the nature of things gathered all 'why' questions under the rubric of religion, issues with factual resolutions now placed under the magisterium of science fell under the aegis of an enlarged concept of religion." But this is nonsense. The supposed "enlarged" concept of religion just is religion as we have historically known it. It is Gould who wishes to introduce an artificially narrowed concept of religion - a concept that very few religious believers outside of academic ivory towers are likely to recognise as their own.

I think there is a confusion about Gould's claim (probably engendered by him) and it was not as far from your position as it may seem. In this essay , he makes a clearer distinction, I think:

No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man's land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult
.

First of all, Gould is not saying that various religions don't claim authority over empiric fact (the essay deals, in part, with creation "science"), only that, rightly seen (as Gould perceived it), such religions were going outside their area of "authority." Also, I think Gould was considering only Western intellectual society, where, especially since the Enlightenment, religion had lost its previous "authority" to pronounce on empiric matters (along with most of its power to enforce its views, in any event).

Various fields of science (not just evolutionary psychology) can now study human nature, and the outcomes may have implications for how we should try to constrain our own conduct - as may our increasing knowledge of the world that we live in and its exigencies. As we learn more, this can feed back into our moral understanding.

Of course facts will influence the outcome of our ethical considerations. DNA evidence showing that someone convicted of rape was not the perpetrator will usually result in that person's release and exoneration. But the scientific fact does not deliver the judgment that innocent persons should not be incarcerated -- that's an ethical decision that cannot be derived from nature. Knowing why people do certain acts and how much control they have over those actions may effect how we categorize their action (say as not criminal because of insanity) but it cannot tell us how to define the line between mental illness that exonerates a person and that which does not. Gould recognizes this interplay as well.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM said...

Oh, I missed a good and necessary debate it seems.

That also makes my comments a bit ill informed, so with apologies:

"the accommodationist/hardass conflict"

Heh, I had to laugh at that! This comes right after reading Russell's description of how Gould's attempt of accommodation means to restrict the concept of religion (observably outside its current characteristics).

That said, I think "hardass" is a dubious although correct description of someone who merely observes that minimally "...science deals only with natural phenomena and explanations" as MelM puts it. Or admits that NOMA is a philosophical idea among others that are consistent with science.

I wish everyone was that meekly hardass!

"While it may be true that learning more evolution and science and general erodes religious belief (though I think the data are fuzzy on whether that is a causal relationship),"

Hmm. I think razib used PEW statistics to find that science made people move mostly from initially religion to agnosticism or initially agnosticism to strong atheism over on Moran's Sandwalk. If so, I think causality is established from correlation, if we have time as the parameter varied.

However, I can't find the comment now.

RBH said...

I'd love to see Razib's analysis. There are anecdotes, of course, but the plural of "anecdote" isn't "data."

underverse said...

Every religion has to make at least one "is" statement, which is that there is some specific source of the authority with which they can make their "ought" statements. For instance, they might claim that there is a God who wrote an inerrant book, or who speaks directly to their priests.

Without this basis, religions have no more authority to make moral claims than you and me.
DEEN,

I never wrote that religions have any more authority to make moral claims. The question is do they have less?

The flip-side of this question is, on what "authority" do naturalists make moral claims? Not factual, but moral. To say there is no difference is to succumb to Social Darwinism. To say that one's moral claims are "rationally" derived is to invoke a regress.

It's not as bright a line as it might seem.

Steve Zara said...

DEEN-

After considerable thought and discussion with others, I am now pretty sure that an honest and possibly useful approach is to point to the fact that there are very many religious scientists who at least say that they fully accept science and evolution. I have had had some interesting discussions about whether or not this is putting some kind of marketing spin on the situation, and I have come to the conclusion it isn't. I'm going to blog about this in detail in the next day or so.

DEEN said...

Underverse, I've never said you agreed that religions have more authority on moral matters than others, I couldn't tell your position on this from your post. However, you did appear to defend NOMA, and seemed to say that religions can limit themselves to "ought" claims.

However, religions themselves usually do claim special authority on morality, values or the meaning of life. NOMA even seems to agree, by assigning that particular magisterium to religion. But the problem is, establishing that religion actually has such authority is always an "is" statement.

Does religion have less moral authority? Less than what? Less than science? You seem to be defending NOMA, and NOMA quite clearly states that science doesn't claim any such authority.

Or do you mean less than philosophy in general? I think that doesn't matter much. If you concede that religion doesn't have more authority than regular philosophy, then that begs the question why religion deserves its own magisterium at all.

Personally, I have little trouble with believing there is no ultimate moral authority at all. We use our sense of empathy to decide how we want to treat people, based on how we want to be treated ourselves. We can talk to people, to see if we were right. Other than that, we'll need to understand the consequences of our actions and our choices on other people's lives. And only here does the science comes in.

Is this perfect? No. Will we get it wrong? Probably quite often. Maybe it's not an awfully bright line, but it's not terribly bleak either. At least we know how to improve it: more communication, and better understanding of consequences.

DEEN said...

Steve Zara, I think to the question "must I choose between religion and science?", I agree that it is a perfectly valid first response to point out the existence of religious scientists. I have even used it myself on occasion. However, I've also always immediately pointed out that certain particular religious beliefs (a young earth, Noah's flood, etc) are directly contradicted by the scientific evidence. I feel that without this addition I would be dishonest, by denying that a very real conflict does in fact exist.

Steve Zara said...

DEEN-

I am not sure I agree, as the point I was trying to emphasise was not that religious beliefs aren't contradicted by science, but that there are scientists who seem to be able to be both Christians and accept science and evolution.

What I am suggestion is that we simply don't mention the issue of factual conflict, but assert the apparent psychological compatibility. As a parody of NOMA, I call this NOBA: "Non Overlapping Brain Activity". Many people manage to have both religious faith and an understanding of science in their heads.

I don't think it is dishonest to point out that such people exist, and to simply not comment about factual and philosophical compatibility between faith and science. That is not supporting NOMA.

DEEN said...

Steve Zara, it also depends on how much screen space you want to spend on it. But it mostly depends on whether you want to be neutral (to the extend that's even possible on a topic like religion), or whether you want to give your own, personal and honest opinion. Or whether you'd rather avoid the issue (so that you can talk about the science, for instance, which is a perfectly valid position), or would rather have a deeper discussion about it.

I don't think it is dishonest to point out that such people exist, and to simply not comment about factual and philosophical compatibility between faith and science.The mere existence of religious scientists only shows that "atheist" is not the required outcome of accepting science, which might suffice for a superficial answer. It might even lessen some fears some people have.

On the other hand, the question can also be seen as a philosophical question, not just a practical one: can I combine science and religion in an intellectually honest way? The mere existence of religious scientists doesn't show whether this is true or not. We all know people can have wrong and contradictory beliefs. Wouldn't a philosophical answer be a more honest answer here than a psychologically appealing one? But like I said, this assumes you actually wanted to have a philosophical discussion. And you'll need a lot more screen space.

Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if this isn't one of the reasons why the debate about this is going so poorly: people aren't even discussing the same question.

J. J. Ramsey said...

DEEN: "On the other hand, the question can also be seen as a philosophical question, not just a practical one: can I combine science and religion in an intellectually honest way?"

Isn't that tantamount to asking whether a certain religion is true, or at least whether a certain religion is likely true if all the facts are taken into account?

I'm not sure if we want the NCSE or NAS to be adjudicating those two questions.

DEEN said...

J.J. Ramsey:
I'm not sure if we want the NCSE or NAS to be adjudicating those two questions.I completely agree. Like I said, I think it's totally appropriate to dodge the deeper question if you'd rather talk about the science than about the philosophy (especially if you admit it is a bit of a dodge, or that you simply refuse to go deeper into it). I think that would be the appropriate thing to do for the NCSE. Which is why I agree with Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and now Russell Blackford that it was a bad idea for the NCSE to start their "religion" section if they want to maintain their religious neutrality.

As an individual, however, you don't have the obligation to stay neutral. In that case it might be more appropriate or honest to not dodge the question. Depending, of course, on whether you actually want to discuss philosophy and not just science.