A timely collection: ‘thirty-nine articles’ on science and religion

Susan Haack

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Edited by Paul Kurtz with Barry Karr and Ranjit Sandhu. Prometheus Books, New York, 2003. 368 pp. Paperback, $20.

Many of the thirty-nine papers collected here were presented at the conference on Science and Religion organized by the Center for Inquiry in 2001; most were previously published in SKEPTICAL INQUIRER or Free Inquiry. Except for a piece by Taner Edis on science and Islam in contemporary Turkey, they focus on science and Christianity; but they cover a whole range of topics, from cosmology to evolution, from the trial of Galileo to near-death experiences, from the epistemology of science to the ethical dimensions of religion, and from evolutionary explanations of religious belief to pleas for acknowledgment of the Unknowable, or for reverence for the earth.

Shortly before I received the book, the Wall Street Journal’s science writer, Sharon Begley, reporting on a conference cosponsored by the Dalai Lama and MIT, commented approvingly that “science and faith are making nice almost everywhere.” The week the book arrived, Newsweek ran a cover story on “God and Health: Is Religion Good Medicine? Why Science Is Starting to Believe,” illustrated by a photograph of a woman in a hospital gown with her hands together in prayer; around the same time, a colleague in the sciences hoped we could get an interdisciplinary group together–we might snag some Templeton money. And shortly after I began writing this review, Newsweek’s cover story was on “Women of the Bible: How Their Stories Speak to Us Today.” So this collection is timely, and welcome. Inevitably, though, it includes mixed and weaker pieces as well as the incisive and sparkling; inevitably, also, I can comment on only some of the papers included (no slight is intended to those I couldn’t squeeze in).

Observing dryly that there’s no point debating with religious believers who claim that the Big Bang theory of a 10-billion-year-old universe “confirms” the Biblical account of creation a few thousand years ago, Sir Hermann Bondi focuses instead on “the contrast in method and outlook between science and religion.” In just four refreshingly direct pages, he argues that science best advances when unimpeded by barriers of nationality, race, or ideology, and, though fallible and imperfect, is genuinely universal; whereas the many and various competing religions are “parochial in the extreme.” Equally enjoyable is Steven Weinberg’s “A Designer Universe?”, painstakingly explaining why the supposed evidence of cosmological “fine-tuning” to make the universe hospitable to human life is misleading–and commenting wryly on the free-will response to the problem of evil: “It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer?”

In an excerpt from his Rocks of Ages, writing warmly of Pope John Paul’s 1996 “Message on Evolution,” Stephen Jay Gould promotes his thesis of the supposedly “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion, the factual and the ethical. Nicely juxtaposed is Richard Dawkins’s brief but telling critique: for all this “obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink,” it is just false that religion has special expertise to offer in the domain of morals; and religions make many factual as well as ethical claims. Less successful is the juxtaposition of a piece by William Dembski defending Intelligent Design theory–“the latest spiffed-up manifestation” of creationism, in Kendrick Frazier’s words–with a reply by Massimo Pigliucci. Dembski spends only a page or so on his criterion of “specified improbability” for detecting design, devoting the remaining seven to criticism of the “materialistic bias” of skepticism and celebration of the rising popularity of ID. Pigliucci struggles with the arguments that Dembski had offered in his book but merely alludes to here; surprisingly, however, he concedes that there is design in nature, only nor intelligent design. But to describe the evolution of the tiger’s teeth or the kangaroo’s pouch, even metaphorically, as “design,” obscures the essential point: there is no need to posit any purposive agent initiating or guiding the process. Since, as Webster’s dictionary tells us, design must by definition be purposive, “intelligent design” is a pleonasm; what ID really posits is divine, infallible design. (So Pigliucci is of course right to stress the “sub-optimality” of biological mechanisms.)

Several papers take on specific factual claims of Christianity: Joe Nickell, for example, reports that in medieval Europe there were at least forty-three “true shrouds,” and that carbon-dating and other tests indicate that the shroud of Turin is a fourteenth-century fake. Irwin and Jack Tessman point out that in Randolph Byrd’s study supposedly showing that patients in a cardiac care unit received statistically significant benefits from intercessory prayers made without their knowledge, the outcome-assessment stage was not blinded. This is useful stuff; but I wished they’d also asked what kind of arbitrary, malicious God would allow many to fall victim to disease, and then spare some, but not all, of those for whom strangers offered prayers, and fewer, but not none, of the rest.

Quoting Ambrose Bierce’s definition of prayer as a request “that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy,” Steven Pinker asks: “[W]hat kind of mind would do something as useless ms inventing ghosts and bribing them for good weather?” It’s a good question, and there’s much in his lively paper to relish; but his answer–we are equipped with “cognitive modules,” of object, person, animal, artifact, etc., from which we construct gods by adding or deleting features–is disappointing. Perhaps the concept of “module” has more explanatory power than Pinker indicates here; bur as it stands, this sounds like–well, a spiffed-up variant of the old idea that, as David Hume put it, we arrive at the idea of God by “augmenting” our ordinary ideas of power, goodness, etc. (In the course of his useful discussion of possible scientific explanations of subjective religious experience, David Noelle mentions that some brain neurophysiologists dub the localizable parts of the temporal lobe conjectured to be responsible for people’s religious responses “the God module.” But while this suggests that “module” may be more than just a conveniently flexible buzz-word, it seems to make Pinker’s explanation not more satisfying, but less.)

Daniel Dennett also has a good question: Why does truth matter? And a pretty good answer, too: In order to survive and reproduce, creatures of every kind need to get the world right enough; mad for us humans, with our ability to understand that appearances may be misleading and beliefs false, the goal of truth goes without saying–furthermore, contrary to the postmodernists, in every culture. Dennett’s observation that “the warfare at the cutting edge of science draws attention away from the huge uncontested background,” and his sketch of the way the sciences have gradually developed intellectual and physical tools for discovering truths about the world, are just right. But I wished he hadn’t spent two ambivalent pages first distancing himself from his “good friend Dick Rorty” (who, I might add, has said in print that to call a statement true is just to give it “a rhetorical pat on the back,” and that “the only thing exemplary about science is that it is a model of human solidarity”), and then explaining that in conversation Rorty says he is just urging a “vegetarian” understanding of truth. To my much, those pages would have been much better spent exploring the continuities between inquiry in the sciences and the everyday empirical inquiries out of which the multifarious methods of the sciences have evolved, and thus clarifying the difference between a plausible naturalism that sees experience and reasoning as our only means of finding out how the world is, and an implausible scientism that sees the sciences as the only source of truth.

Paul Kurtz is absolutely tireless, contributing an “Overview” at the beginning and “Afterthoughts” at the end of the volume as well as papers on scientific studies of the paranatural and on evolutionary explanations of religious belief. But I wished he had explicitly distinguished the quasi-logical question, whether science and religion are incompatible, from the historico-sociological question, whether they are in conflict. (Incidentally, none of the several contributors who refer to Andrew Dickson White–presumably including Vern Bullough, who refers to “Andrew Dickinson White”–seems to have noticed that, in the final pages of his two-volume History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom, after meticulously tracing centuries of conflict between science and religion, White had insisted that there is no real incompatibility.) Again, I feared that when Kurtz writes that naturalism wants “to extend science to all areas of human interest,” he was eliding naturalism into scientism; and that when he writes that science is compatible with religion conceived minimally as an expression of human hopes and dreams, like White and Gould he risked stripping religion of its core content. And I wished he had given more time to the topic of his final paragraph, the concluding words of the volume: the non-religious concerns, activities, and projects that can make a human life meaningful.

One more thing: in a book covering so many topics from so many angles, I would really have appreciated an index.

Susan Haack (Coral Gables, Florida) is Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, erofessor of philosophy, and professor of law at the University of Miami. Her books include Philosophy of Logics, Evidence and Inquiry, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, and Defending Science–Within Reason, her latest, excerpted elsewhere in this issue.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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