religion impeding science?

In a 2007 debate with John Lennox (viewable here), Richard Dawkins vocalises his frustration that religion (in his view) ‘stuntifies’ true scientific understanding:

“The scientific enterprise is an active, seeking… an active seeking out of gaps in our knowledge… [a] seeking out of ignorance, so that we can work to plug that ignorance.  But religion teaches us to be satisfied with not really understanding.  Every time one of these difficult questions comes up, science says, ‘Right, let’s roll up our sleeves and work on it.’  Religion says, ‘Oh, god did it.’  ‘We don’t need to work on it, god did it. It’s as simple of that.’ …Religion stuntifies the impulse to understand, because religion gives a facile, easy, apparent explanation… and it prevents the further work on the problem.

As my post ‘Atheism and explanatory monism‘ points out, this frustration results directly from the assumption that scientific explanations and religious explanations exist on the same (so to speak) explanatory plane/level.  In simple diagrammatic form, this is what this imagined explanatory conflict would look like:

(scientific explanations) ———> conflict! <——— (religious explanations)

How then, do/did esteemed scientists such as Ken Miller, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Guy Consolmagno, Michael Faraday, Newton, Galileo, etc. (and the thousands of other scientists who happen to also be ‘religious’) manage to do both?

They do so because there is absolutely no reason to see any conflict (let alone direct, total, irreconcilable conflict!) between explanations of the scientific kind, and explanations of a religious kind.  John Haught, in his book Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science“, calls this “layered explanation”.  In simple diagrammatic form, this is what this looks like:

<<—(scientific explanations) ——————->>

<<——————– (religious explanations)—>>

So, rather than the religious ‘god did it’ being a ‘science stopper’, we can see that it can instead be more of an “I believe God did this – right, now let’s roll up our sleeves and find out how.”

24 thoughts on “religion impeding science?”

  1. Dale, next Sunday pick a person at random from your congregation and have a conversation with them about what they think their ancestors might have been doing 100,000 years ago. Try to approach it in a scientific way.

  2. I think Dawkins point was that if you are religious, at some point you must simply stop at goddidit. Science isn’t so constrained. For some people this constraint is minor (the goddidit part kicks in well away from mainstream scientific discourse) but for others it is a massive problem (goddidit applies to everything).

  3. Hey, Dale. Do you know of any positive New Zealand Church based activity for Darwin’s 200th birthday – along the idea of the Darwin Sunday sermons in the US? (I realise that the forces of darkness, like Thinking Matters, will probably be having a showing of “Expelled: No Intewlligence Allowed in this Film.”)

  4. I think this works (a person being both religious and a scientist) because people are expert at compartmentalising beliefs and activity. I have heard of a geologist involved in exploration for oil who was also a young earth creationists – that must involve some pretty water-tight compartmentalisation.

    I am sure people can handle this at the individual level quite well because we are not really a rational species – more a rationalising one. And scientists don’t normally have to confront a conflict situation with religion.

    However, there are clearly situations where some (not all) religious groups stubbornly hold on to the ancient explanatory role of religion and refuse to accept that this now belongs to science. This does lead to a conflict situation.

    Clearly when we have religious groups trying to rewrite science educational standards, insert religious mythology into science classes and viciously attack scientists involved in biological, cosmological and neuroscientific research, that is a conflict situation between science and at least some religious groups.

    We have to recognise this and fight against it. Hopefully scientists have allies in this struggle amongst the non-fundamentalist, non-dogmatic religious people.

    I guess the real and immediate issue is not the science-religion conflict but the religion-religion conflict.

  5. Dale, if you did happen to talk to someone from your church and found them unwilling to accept the idea that they had ancestors who were living 100,000 years ago, what do you propose would be holding them back from this clearly scientific observation if not religion?

    I feel that the statement “religion impedes science” is similar to saying “the sun gives you skin cancer”. Sure, you may be able to trot out examples of people who have sunbathed and not got skin cancer but the fact remains that the sun really does cause skin cancer. And when you put forward an argument to try to cover up the fact that religion is a huge stumbling block for the proper education of evolution (especially in the US) there are people who are likely to be reading this who continue in their non-rational religious beliefs who think to themselves “heck yeah Dale, you tell them!”.

    Think back to when you were a YEC. Do you remember continuing in your erroneous beliefs at the same time as feeling justified in your beliefs by a Christian who believed in evolution but was at least arguing for the same religion as you? I know I did.

    Many Christians choose religious preconceptions over scientific evidence and I don’t think this kind of post really helps to cure them of that.

    (BTW, how did that sermon go in the end? Did you deal with SN1987a? How was the feedback?)

  6. Ian,

    I think Dawkins point was that if you are religious, at some point you must simply stop at goddidit.

    In context of that debate, he was talking about scientific explanations replacing religious ones. Thus assuming that they are (always!) in direct, total and irreconcilable conflict.
    But yes, at the religious level of explanation, yes, you may ‘stop’ at God (though I’d want to qualify that big-time with the assertion that we’re never ‘finished’ when it comes to thinking about God either!), but (again) this would only affect science if these explanations were seen to be of the same kind as scientific ones.

    For some people this constraint is minor (the goddidit part kicks in well away from mainstream scientific discourse) but for others it is a massive problem (goddidit applies to everything).

    It’s not a matter of how far ‘away from’ science the religious explanations are, it’s about them being on a different level altogether.

    Ken,

    Hey, Dale. Do you know of any positive New Zealand Church based activity for Darwin’s 200th birthday – along the idea of the Darwin Sunday sermons in the US?

    A couple of minutes googling, I found this website which seems to leading the ‘evolution weekend 2009’ movement. At/near the very bottom, there is an encouraging list of churches from NZ; which I’m not [edit!] now making effort to add Northcote Baptist to! :)

    Ken and Damian (summing up various issues),
    Scientific knowledge/explanations must be challenged/sharpened on science’s own terms, and with science’s methodology (this rules out pseudo-challenges by proponents of pseudo-science – read: creationism and misguided ID-ism); likewise, Theological/philosophical knowledge/explanations/beliefs/ideas/etc. must be challenged/sharpened in philosophical/theological terms, and with methods appropriate to philosophy(logic/reason) and theology(reason/tradition/experience/scripture) – (this rules out a Dawkinsesque (mis)use of science to debunk religion.

    When a religious believer puts forward pseudo-science (a scientifically falsifiable claim (i.e. the earth/universe is less than 6000yrs old, etc.), the critique of that is a scientific matter and should be dealt with in scientific terms; BUT any critique of religion/philosophy (from within OR without) is a religious/philosophical matter and should be dealt with in religious/philosophical terms.

    BTW, how did that sermon go in the end? Did you deal with SN1987a? How was the feedback?

    Great! I’m an AWESOME speaker – thanks for asking me to comment on my own sermon! :D hahaha! Nah, I felt it went good. Thanks again for those images. I had VERY good feedback: a relatively good number of people approached me with excited questions/comments afterward. (one of the young girls read ‘The Language of God’ by Francis Collins in 1 week and said she loved it. Also, a more elderly/’mature’ lady –who I might have suspected to not enjoy parts of it!?– was RAVING. Hugs even. I did see some ‘contemplative/critical’ facial expressions during delivery, though! :)

  7. Dale, I’m not quite sure you addressed my point about religion actually impeding science. Go take a look at the comments of Stuart tonight on Ken’s blog and tell me that he’d make the same errors if he weren’t religious.

  8. The more religion begins to impede science, the more it ceases to be religion.
    When a ‘religious’ person denies evolution (a scientific theory), they are not taking a ‘religious’ position, but a scientific one (and a scientifically mistaken one in my view).
    As for Stuart’s ‘religious’ comments, I was pleased to see his ‘religious’ open-ness to evolutionary theory seen in these words:

    Now as a Christian I’m actually surprisingly open to accept the thesis of evolution. There is a long and large tradition that notes the biblical interpretation of the creation account need not be taken literally. I’ve just been given no reason for doing so up till now.

    So – in Stuart’s own words – his objection to evolution is not because he feels that his ‘religion’ forbids it (and yes, I’m well aware that some do – which is a religious problem), but because he doesn’t (yet) scientifically agree with the the theory (or at least what he knows of the theory at the moment – until he [hopefully] follows up the links you helpfully [and patiently] provided).
    My guess is that Stuart has been taught an ID-ist caricature of evolutionary theory – resulting in his ‘pseudo-scientific’ (though I think honest) objection to evolution.
    In summary – it is not Stuart’s ‘religion’ that causes him to make those errors, it is his (pseudo)scientific views. Read his entire first paragraph where he critiques (or tries to) the notion of favourable mutations – look for even one use of ‘religion’ to impede or argue against evolution or science.
    ((And again, I’m well aware that some ‘religious’ people do actually have ‘religious’ problems with evolution, but actually impedes religion far more than it impedes science!))

  9. Dale, I don’t believe for a minute that Stuart is “open to accept the thesis of evolution” as he says. It’s just a butt-covering tactic that should be obvious to see kind of like the person who says “I’m not a racist but…”. He is closed to the idea because 1) he belongs to a religion that has a holy book that says that God made Adam and Eve all in one hit and that they brought sin – and, consequently, death (direct conflict here with our scientific understanding of the world) – into the world and 2) he spends all of his time looking for others who believe the same premise and practice pseudoscience. But be under no illusion; the pseudoscience comes from their religiosity. Hence, religions impedes science. Not all the time, just as not all the time does the sun cause skin cancer but the statements “the sun causes skin cancer” and “religion impedes science” are both true.

    It’s fairly simple; take away the religion factor and is science less impeded in US classrooms and on Thinking Matters? Yes.

  10. Thanks for the list, Dale. I might use it.

    Re the edge discussion – here is another contribution (The future of science teetering on the Edge). The discussion is quite sharp. Sam Harris makes a very entertaining satirical submission.

    Dale – have a search on Thinking Matters site for Stuart’s articles on evolution. He quite clearly uses religious arguments.

    Of course in this context, and with these sort of people, the “scientific” arguments they present are purely opportunist. Grabbing at anything sounding scientific to support their preconceived position. In the process they outright distort and lie about the science. Stuart in one of his articles, for instance, claims that there is no fossil evidence for evolution! One has to be blind to make that sort of assertion.

    Stuart and his apologist network also actively promotes “Expelled” -a clear indication of anti-scientific motivation and willingness to be dishonest.

  11. Damian,
    You’ve directly challenged Stuart’s honesty – just so you know :)

    he spends all of his time looking for others who believe the same premise and practice pseudoscience. But be under no illusion; the pseudoscience comes from their religiosity.

    It is a religious problem first, then a scientific problem. The ID-ists’ mis-apply their religion, (needlessly) creating the pseudo-science – which is a scientific problem.
    And I don’t think ‘science’ itself is being hindered – only the proper understanding OF science by the ID-ists (and those they indoctrinate/influence – which is what makes this an important issue for Christians)

  12. Just got your comment, Ken,
    Thanks for the link, I’m too busy at the moment to follow multiple conversations, but will try to check it out later.
    I freely admit the ‘religious’ motivation for the pseudo science. This religious motivation stems from a religious interpretive issue – making it primarily and immediately a religious issue. And yes, it’s (secondary) effect on various people’s (mis)conceptions of science is important.

  13. Dale, I’m more than happy to call out dishonesty when I see it.

    Back to the sun => skin cancer analogy; what you are doing (as a sun worshiper) is responding to the statement “the sun causes skin cancer” with an argument that it’s actually the mutations in the skin cells that cause the cancer. Similarly, (as a fellow Christian) you are responding to the statement “religion impedes science” with an argument that it’s actually pseudoscience or a misunderstanding that impedes science. In both of these examples the root cause is the sun and religion and it’s the affiliation with the former that leads to the denial that it causes harm further down the track. No one is denying that it’s pseudoscience or that skin cells mutate but it remains true that the sun causes skin cancer and that religion impedes science.

  14. Damian,
    It is the inappropriate use of the sun (laying out in it all day, with little clothing or SPF-laden lotion :) , etc.) that causes skin cancer.
    The sun, in and of itself, does a heck of a lot more than cause cancer (and need not do so at all).
    In the same way, ‘religion’, in and of itself, does a heck of a lot more than motivate pseudo-science (and need not do so at all).

    The statement ‘religion impedes science’ is far too vague and sweeping to say the very least.

  15. Dale – why the concern about Stuart’s arguments being described as dishonest? I agree that they are – to me it’s just a statement of fact and I think everyone is prone to using dishonest arguments when we are trying to argue from a preconceived position. We are a rationalising animal after all.

    This is a criticism of a person’s argument – not a malignment of the person themselves.

    Now, if someone gets called a “fool” or a “moron” (words Bnonn has used on me to avoid a discussion) that surely is malignement of a person and a very questionable form of debate.

  16. Hi Ken,

    …why the concern about Stuart’s arguments being described as dishonest?

    The level of my concern was quite minimal. There’s a heck of a lot more tragic things going on in the world than one person challenging the veracity of another person’s comment! :)

    This is a criticism of a person’s argument – not a malignment of the person themselves.

    Yet to be picky (can’t resist!), Damian was not criticising Stuart’s argument, but rather was suggesting that Stuart (the person) was not being truthful/honest when he said that as a Christian he was open to evolution. Now, I’m sure you and/or Damian may also want to criticise Stuart’s arguments as well, but this case was (if we want to be technical) aimed at the person.

    Now, if someone gets called a “fool” or a “moron” (words Bnonn has used on me to avoid a discussion) that surely is malignement of a person and a very questionable form of debate.

    I agree. And it’d be nice to see certain individuals reigned in a bit when they do precisely that kind of needless and cheap name-calling – as has just recently been permitted on your blog here (‘dolt’) and here (‘wierdo’) – (among other examples, no doubt, by the same commenter and 1-2 others).

    ((And please don’t assume that I agree with everything said by the one being called names. Just citing relevant examples…))

  17. “just recently been permitted on your blog”

    Perhaps I need to present my policy on such matters to you. Where people resort to offensive comments they only discredit their own argument – and who am I to interfere. And yes, Bnonn has often used these and other abusive words on Open Parachute without censorship. At the same time he has interfered in discussion with Stuart on Thinking Matters to remove some of my comments. In the process he only shows his unwillingness to participate in rational discussion and discredits his own position (and probably reveals some sort of dictatorial personality problem).

    I have actually politely indicated to Bnonn how silly abusive language is but I won’t resort to one-sided censorship (although I did close off a few discussions where trolling/troll feeding had got out of hand).

    I think the absolute minimum of interference with comments is the best policy – and I shouldn’t be blamed for “permitting” it.

  18. Ken,

    Where people resort to offensive comments they only discredit their own argument – and who am I to interfere.

    You’re the moderator of the blog :) I think it’s a VERY practical comment policy to weed-out the needless (and frankly immature – whether by Bnonn or anyone) name-calling. You’ve adjusted your comment policy before, and it’s your prerogative and choice to allow it or not allow it.

    I think the absolute minimum of interference with comments is the best policy – and I shouldn’t be blamed for “permitting” it.

    All I was simply doing was pointing out that the specific kind of commenting behaviour you and I both dislike (see your comment #19) is (currently) being allowed there – and with not even the slightest warning.
    I didn’t delete Damian’s comment about Stuart, I just pointed out (and merely in passing) the implications of his comment (which, again, is not a ‘big deal’ in the great scheme of things) :) . I only say this as one blog-owner to another blog-owner, but my advice (take it or leave it, it’s only advice) would be to (from time to time and when appropriate) give a small warning (to both theist and non-theist) that name-calling is not appreciated, etc. It helps keep conversations civil and less like an elementary school playground.

  19. “Who am I to interfere” means that I am not going to get in the way of someone who is actively discrediting themselves. Not that I am being irresponsible.

    I actually think commenters are adults and one should hold back “ticking off” for just the most serious transgressions – especially as most readers can also see them for what they are worth. Maybe that’s my personality – but it works for me.

    My main and really only concerns have been when discussion deteriorates via trolling/troll feeding. That turns people off far more than the occasional abusive term. The occasional nutter can be tolerated – and they do provide some amusement.

    Apart form your “small warnings” have you ever had the need to censor comments or close off discussions?

  20. Ken,
    Certainly, you’re obviously free to moderate your blog how you wish.
    As for me, I don’t think I get anywhere near the same amount of traffic or comments that you get, so I’ve had very few comments that I’ve ever had to moderate. :) (yes, that was a compliment) :)

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