Monday, December 04, 2006

"Should science do away with religion?"

Michael Brooks, "In Place of God," The New Scientist November 18-24, 2006, at p. 8.
Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999), p. 3.


I was walking down Broadway, near Lincoln Center -- minding my own business -- when I noticed a headline in a magazine cover: "A Crusade Against God!" Considering that this magazine purports to be a scientific publication (the headline is one of several examples of militant atheism from scientists that I have seen lately), I thought it was high time to address the issue of whether science makes religion obsolete.

I have selected one typical example of the "let's-do-away-with-religion" genre. I will criticize this article. I wish to make it clear before I do so to people who have also seen quite a few of these articles out there, finding themselves and their faiths dismissed as archaic or unenlightened, that they have nothing to worry about.

The vast majority of persons on the planet are religious in some form -- including most of these "crusading" scientists who are adherents of the new religion of "scientism" -- so that this group of zealots is very much in the minority in their self-contradictory opposition to faith. It is true that only about 15% of scientists believe in a "personal" God. When you expand the question to encompass any concept of God, the number rises to approximately 40%, according to an article I read in the New York Times. When scientists are asked whether they are "religious" or "spiritual" -- as distinct from members of any organized religion -- the number rises even higher. This should make it clear why definitions of terms are so important in these discussions.

What many of these (in a literal sense) "rocket scientists" fail to realize is that any time people speak of a "crusade" against religion, they are using the language of religion and not of scientific rationality. To suggest that you are forming a religion whose goal is to eradicate religion is a little inconsistent. Science does not engage in "crusades."

Science seeks to establish its truths about the empirical world through observation and experiment, proof and rational argument; religion suggests meanings through evocative narratives and images, especially symbols and clusters of symbols, concerned with mysteries at the center of human life, like love and death. These forms of discourse, science and religion, do not -- and should not -- compete. Science and religion jointly contribute to human self-understandings. ("Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Philosophy of Science.")

This article focuses on a gathering of scientists at La Jolla, California for a symposium entitled "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival" hosted by the Science Network, a "science promoting" coalition of scientists and media professionals. The scientists gathered to address three questions: "1) Should science do away with religion? 2) What would science put in religion's place? 3) And can we be good without God?"

Notice the assumptions and confusions in these questions. These guys and gals could use a good course in philosophy. What do you mean by "religion"? If you seek to perform the tasks of religion with science, then you have not eliminated religion. You have merely created a new religion out of science by translating all ultimate issues into the language of the laboratory.

The question is not whether science should do away with religion, but whether such a thing is even meaningful or coherent, as an ambition or intellectual project, since religion is fundamental to the human psyche, presumably for good reasons. Nothing important to human flourishing or survival is just "there" for no reason.

Why are we equipped with this religious impulse? That's a good scientific question, as opposed to the values issues involved in deciding whether science should "do away" with religion. Should science do away with the human drive to make art? Should science eliminate human curiosity about non-scientific subjects? Should science do away with the human need to breathe? Should science eliminate the human capacity for love? Can science do any of these things? No. Get a load of this guy:

First up to address the initial question was cosmologist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin. His answer was an unequivocal yes. "The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion," Weinberg told the congregation. (p. 9.)

Right, Steve. Thanks. Where are the free donuts? No one asked this guy to define his terms, apparently. The person writing this article fails to tell us whether there was an agreed-upon definition of religion, God, science or truth at this little academic get-together. Potato chips, anyone?

Also, we are not told how these words are being used in this very article. Reading between the lines, it seems that most of these great intellects were equating religion with the Catholic Church, Christian churches, or political power-structures, or antiquated scientific beliefs about the empirical world -- all of which are distinct from religion or the mystery of God.

Richard Dawkins was driven by his "selfish genes" to do his militant atheist act. Carolyn Porco -- I am about to be highly "male" and, I hope, "politically incorrect" -- of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado (let's be nice she may be a blond with a tan), popped up to contribute this bit of wisdom:

"If anyone has a replacement for God, then scientists do."

Wrong, Carolyn. Scientists are the only people who cannot provide a replacement for God or religion, since science is not -- and should not be -- concerned with "comforting" people or with meanings. Rather, science is about discovering empirical truths in as "objective" and "value free" a manner as possible, subject to ethical constraints. Healing professionals should ponder whether they will be scientists and human beings? Or only one of those two things? Unless you are both, you will not be a very successful or happy person -- nor a very good therapist. This objectivity and value freedom may be impossible for human beings in an absolute sense. "That means it's all relative!" No, settle down fashionistas.

Human knowledge of truth may be limited or partial, concerned with human purposes, even as the total truth to be known is an abstract potentiality or concept existing independently of human wishes or capacities, which is why we need philosophy, science, and religion. Keep epistemology separate from ontology or metaphysics. Ms. Porco tells us that: "Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful as it gets."

Why is it meaningful? Your experience of awe or meaning is "subjective," Carolyn. It is not revealed by any experiment. It is simply known to you immediately, phenomenologically, shaping and coloring your encounter with the cosmos, as a scientist. It is a religious experience, except that you cannot use the word "religious" because you are assuming that "religious" is a word reserved only for what happens in a church on Sunday.

One of the most religious moments in my life happened in a hospital room as my daughter was born, then when I held her in my arms. Another occurred when I attended my grandmother's funeral. A third took place when my hand touched a woman's face; a fourth when I brushed away a tear from another woman's eyes. None of these moments involved rituals or organizations. All were deeply religious epiphanies. The meaning of these moments is not reducible to results of a scientific experiment.

Notice the leap from "is" to "ought" being made by Ms. Porco in her comments, which is fine by me, provided that she recognizes the profound philosophical implications of such a move, which she doesn't:

The big challenge according to Porco, will be dealing with awareness of our own mortality. The God-concept brings a sense of immortality [not necessarily!] something science can't offer. Instead, she suggested highlighting the fact that our atoms came from stardust and would return to the cosmos -- as mass or energy -- after we die. "We should teach people to find comfort in that thought."

That thought has to do with immortality. Furthermore, it is a restatement of basic Buddhist beiefs. By "teaching" people "to find comfort in that thought," Ms. Porco has stepped out of her role as a scientist ("is") and become a religious guru ("ought"), attempting what she admits scientists cannot do: to provide meaning for human experiences of tragedy and mystery. What she says next is an unconscious linguistic shifting to the poetry of religion as distinct from science:

We can find comfort in knowing that everyone who has ever lived on the Earth will some day adorn the heavens.

This illustrates not the replacement of religion, but the reinforcing of religious insights by the latest scientific findings, which are compatible with the MEANINGS of ancient religious parables and myths. Objections to the idea of God by several speakers centered on the misuse of the concept of divinity to account for what science has not discovered. This is irrelevant to the function of the God or "Deus principle," which is to help us explain the meaning of what science has already discovered and may yet discover. Finally, a voice of sanity at this gathering:

Joan Roughgarden, a professor of geophysics and biology at Stanford University, California, described some of the statements being made as an exaggerated and highly rose-colored picture of the capabilities of science" while presenting a caricature of people of faith. Attempts by militant atheists to represent science as a substitute for religion would be a huge mistake, she said, and might even set back science's cause. "They are entitled as atheists to generate more activism within the atheist community," she told New Scientist. "But scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots who can't tell the difference between a [communion] wafer and a piece of meat. " People of faith are being antagonized, and this is a lose-lose proposition."

As someone whose writing is subjected to every kind of computer attack on a daily basis, whose publication efforts are frustrated by people who (often) have no clue of what I am discussing and no knowledge of the sources that I am quoting, I can relate to this observation. The level of philosophical and theological sophistication among brilliant scientists and middle-brow lawyers is sometimes child-like. Yet these people feel qualified to "teach" the rest of us -- especially someone like me (who is ethnically suspect), who is also to be insulted and informed on matters that I sometimes know far better than they do -- especially about ultimate issues. Why? Racism? Arrogance? Ignorance? Stupidity? I think it is all of the above.

It is deemed unproblematic for these "scientists" to ponder whether they should eliminate religion. Religion -- which is a life or death matter for billions of people throughout the world -- will be eliminated by these few American scientists in California (where else?), who have decided that "we" must move beyond such nonsense. What were they smoking at this gathering?

I am sure that none of these great minds turned to one of the waiters or janitors at this establishment, possibly an illegal immigrant from Mexico or some other country, and asked: "Why are you wearing that religious symbol?" They might have heard a story from that humble worker of human suffering and pain -- humiliation at the hands of comfortable scientists, perhaps -- poverty and hunger, shared and made meaningful or bearable by the love and compassion depicted, let us say, in the image of a man in mortal agony upon a cross expressing love for his tormentors. Stephen Jay Gould writes:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the EQUALLY IMPORTANT, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values -- subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate [and which, I think, overlap with factuality,] but [which science] can never resolve.

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