Courtesy of Tom Clark via Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True site ... there is a great (well, startling) quote from Eugenie Scott:
Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.
I'm only going to comment on this briefly for the moment, but will doubtless have more to say in later posts. Note, though, the way Scott is able to entertain the possibility that, in addition to the "natural world", there is an additional "trascendent world" that "most people" believe in, a world populated by spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and ancestors. While science tells us about the natural world, religion tells us about this transcendent world, since it is religion's "provenance".
I doubt that Eugenie Scott actually believes that this transcendent world, or these spooky beings, even exist. She gives us no reason to believe that, beyond the fact that "most people" believe it. But of course, at various times, and in various places, most people have believed all sorts of things that are now known to be false - that the Earth is flat or perhaps some kind of inverted saucer shape, that it is the centre of the cosmos, that thrown objects travel in paths nothing like what we now know, that the world is only a few thousand years old, and so on. The fact that "most people" believe something is not, in itself, evidence. For a start, we might want to ask how "most people" have come to believe that this world of unseen spooky beings exists - have they, for example, observed it in some intersubjectively reliable/verifiable way, or obtained records of reliable observations made in the past? Do any propositions about spooky beings have any explanatory power? Is there any way to test them (so that we don't believe propositions that I might just arbitrarily make up, such as the proposition that I am followed around by an invisible hippopotamus with four heads)?
Or is it the case that most people believe these things without evidence because they were socialised, as children, into believing in them ... perhaps by adults who were also socialised into believing them without evidence, who were socialised by other such adults, and so on? If the chain of socialisation comes to an end somewhere in the depths of the past, is it in anything that would convince a rigorous historian, or does it seem to end with the kind of messy legend creation that is so familiar, in recent times, with cargo cults, Rastafarianism, and many other clearly man-made sets of stories about the "transcendent"?
There is no good reason for scientists or advocates of science to suggest that a so-called "transcendent world" exists, that there are spooky beings such as gods, spirits, and the rest, or that religion in general, or any particular religion, can give us reliable information about anything of the kind. Stories of such things may well be charming, they may have cultural and aesthetic value, they may be worth preserving and studying. I don't say that such stories are entirely without value. On the contrary, I love myth, legend, and folklore as much as anyone. Ask my friends about it if you don't believe me. But that's not the same as suggesting that any of these stories are actually true.
The "transcendent world" and the various spooky beings probably do not exist. Even if spooky beings of some kind did exist, it is most unlikely that any religion to date provides any reliable information about them. So why, exactly, do we see so many intelligent people who know all this bending over backwards to pretend that religion may have some kind of epistemic authority in informing us about gods and spooks? What, exactly, is going on here? What on earth are they thinking when they do go through this charade of deference?
Why hand religion, uncontested, a whole realm of authority to pronounce upon things that (almost certainly) don't exist? There is only one world, in the sense under discussion here. Why piously pretend otherwise?