Religion and science, a foggy battlefield

One of the similar responses from very different camps to my National Review piece on evolution was that I was wrong to assert evolutionary biology doesn’t have atheistic implications. This perspective came from both some religious evolution skeptics and from atheists who agree with Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

My own view on this isn’t exactly subtle, but, it’s kind of muddled and has a few moving parts.

First, I am an atheist and have been self-conscious as an atheist since I was eight. Before the age of eight, I didn’t identify as an atheist, but with hindsight, it is clear to me that my views on God were primitive to nonexistent. I may have averred to you that I was a believer in Allah, but compared to the vast majority of people who would say such a thing Allah was not real to me as a person who really operates in this universe. Allah was an abstraction. And one of little deep interest to me.

Therefore,  I can say that my understanding of evolution has no implication for my atheism in its origin because I was an atheist long before I understood evolution. That’s just an empirical fact. It is also an empirical fact that there are a reasonable number of evolutionary biologists who hold various religious viewpoints. To my knowledge, there are no Protestant fundamentalist evolutionary biologists, as that’s a logical contradiction, but there are very diverse viewpoints excluding this.

These people are real, and I can’t deny their existence. Just as my atheism predated my understanding of evolution, their understanding of evolution did not necessarily result in a diminishment of their religion (though perhaps it modified it in some way).

Of course, these people could be logically wrong. And I think that’s what the religious evolution skeptics and fundamentalists of various sorts agree on. There are several issues with this. I think it misunderstands what religion as a phenomenon is: it’s not about a logical set of propositions. Even Aquinas’ effort is not airtight, and many are not convinced by Alvin Plantinga’s modern attempts utilizing modal logic. Religion is vague and amorphous enough as a phenomenon that I think it will always slip away from any formal refutation.

I am not here proposing ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. There are plenty of ways in which religion seems to intrude into domains of science or domains which can be scientifically informed. It’s just that religion is not a clear and distinct entity. And to be frank neither is science. Just as religion is often falsely reduced to a creed, so science is falsely reduced to a method. I do not believe there is an ‘out-of-the-box’ method that determines science. Rather, it is an outlook, sensibility, and culture, which iteratively attempts to explore patterns in the world around us and explain them.

Personally, I do think the scientific sensibility does lean one to a position of being skeptical of religious explanations. But this is more an intuition rather than a deduction. I don’t think science ‘disproves’ religion any more than religion ‘disproves’ science.

In the piece above I wanted to set aside my own personal views, which are tentative and inchoate, and simply observe that many scientists disagree with them in relation to their faith and their practice. The reality is that there are many great evolutionary biologists who are religious, and I have no issue with that. At this point in my life, I’m not too concerned that someone somewhere is wrong. I’d rather just learn things.

Note: I’ve been writing since 2002. I’ve probably held this sort of view since 2004 or so. I have probably written it before, but at this point, I guess I need to rewrite it. Also, I appreciate the “New Atheists” in their consistency, though I disagree with some of their assumptions about human psychology.

14 thoughts on “Religion and science, a foggy battlefield

  1. To me its simple: Scientific understanding of the universe is something that expanded in human history, especially in the last 500 years and in the occidental world.

    Whereever science can explain a natural phenomenon sufficiently, there is no place for religion.

    For some, usually dumb or otherwise psychologically impaired people, even the best explanations and absolute logic wont do it, they will stick to the most primitive views on reality they feel comfortable with.

    However, religion can have its own logic without scientific proof.
    First, there are many different ways of religiousity, second, we dont have the scientific instruments to prove or disprove the existence of a god or afterworld. We can only come up with probabilities, but nothing definitive.

    But we can prove or disprove concrete statements made by scriptures or religious leaders themselves.
    The interesting question is, does one false statement, and all religions have many, make you question the whole teaching and all its dogmas?
    Or do you retreat to the interpretation of it being an allegory, a symbol or a man made historical mistake in a godly work.

    There is no way a sane and intelligent person can take most religious texts literally. They are just outdated and disproven.
    But they can make up their own interpretation based on what science has not explored so far or even based on scientific knowledge.

    The latter is what I deem right. I can tolerate religion as long as it does not directly contradict knowledge, logic and reason.
    But I have a huge problem if it does. Individually people from all established religions can be reasonable in the way described, but collectively the established religions dont do that well.

    Still some do much better than others. Its fascinating that in an advanced state like the USA one of the least logical and practical religious groups of the world does so well.
    Though to be fair, even Evangelicals arent all the same. But I do wonder how they would perform in a radical form on their own and I guess not much better or even worse than radical Sunni Islam. But I’m not sure on that.

  2. At the time I began reading GNXP I had adopted a basically fundamentalist take on Protestantism as the only logical approach to it, and didn’t see much contradiction between that and evolutionary biology. It was really evolutionary psychology & Bayesian probability theory that made me reassess how confident I could be in my beliefs.

  3. I agree with Jerry Coyne that science and religion are incompatible. I didnt read your first piece ( but I know the arguments) but in this followup I see the faint glimmer of a rebuttal to your critics. Can you elaborate more on how the fluidity of religion makes it compatible with science? That sounds a bit like NOMA.
    It seems to me that the incompatibility between science and religion doesn’t come merely from the fact that religion makes testable truth claims. It comes from where they get their truth. Science ratchets forward by rigorous rational testing of models. Religion is a series of Bronze Age myths that have been evolving for millennia and are bolstered and perpetuated by a series of authority figures, both living and dead

  4. @TTGB: What kind of fundamentalist Protestantism you had in mind when you thought it was compatible with evolutionary biology?

  5. @Obs
    “Whereever science can explain a natural phenomenon sufficiently, there is no place for religion.”

    This is where you fundamentally misunderstand how the religious utilize religion, and it permeates all your other arguments.

    For the vast majority, religion is a method used personally interact with the divine and hold a relationship with the spiritual. This “relationship” between god(s) and man constitutes 99% of what the world’s religious texts are about.
    For a smaller number, religion’s purpose is a group cultural connection. But very few indeed use it as some sort of natural history or physics textbook as you suggest.

    Religion is most important as an psychological support, and aside from a few groups like creationists, the majority are content to leave the “mysteries” of the physical realm to scientists.

  6. Razib, didn’t you explain before that adopting Mormon faith is a good strategy for anyone carrying genetic risk for alcoholism and fearing its effects on children? Most rational people in this country use religion exactly in this way, as a tool to badger the kids into avoidance of dangerous behaviors. This requires fostering beliefs in miracles and divine vengeance, hellfire etc. And accepting science should make a parent a nonbeliever in stuff like that. Ergo, for a science person, this use of religion requires a huge dose of hypocrisy. Perhaps it isn’t such a practical idea, then.

  7. you should talked to a smart mormon. it’s pretty interesting the mental gymnastics they do. i have a friend who is an excellent stat geneticist who is mormon.

    ultimately a bunch of non-religious people talking about how it’s impossible faith & science is boring.

  8. @Jason: I don’t really disagree with what you said, but you might have somewhat misunderstood what I meant.

    The purpose of religion is to fill gaps and give support, to individuals and groups of people, in a world which is not always easy to understand and for which individuals need guidance.

    Whether a religion fulfils that purpose depends on how much of a help in survival and reproductive fitness it is. A religion which preaches low or no fertility is per definition, unless that’s really a more successful strategy in comparison to others, a failure, to give an example.

    Ideology and religion are closely related and influence each other, but religion involves a belief in what can’t proven and offers something transcendental.

    Religion is stronger where the fog of ignorance covers a phenomenon. So thunderbolts were a religious phenomenon for people which had no other explanation for it. This is understandable, as even if you know that a thunder is no supernatural phenomenon, you might still shudder in the face of it and it gives you (at least me) a feeling of something bigger and more powerful than what creeps on earth.

    But to explain such natural phenomenons with personal gods is a primitive form of religion, yet it was fairly widespread. Such “simple gods” are not suitable for a more highly cultured, imperial environment any more. So it was first taken less seriously, then ridiculed and finally left behind.

    And step by step, the knowledge created made supernatural and religious explanations obsolete. Now you tell me that:
    “Religion is most important as an psychological support, and aside from a few groups like creationists, the majority are content to leave the “mysteries” of the physical realm to scientists.”

    The more reasonable religious people retreated from a lot of fields which became demystified by science and logic, but that doesn’t mean religious ideas don’t determine what should be said or even thought in a lot of ways. It just retreated in the occidental world, step by step.

    It is no coincidence that, the more religious communities are, the less scientific knowledge and explanations they allow, they are ready to accept. And the more extreme religious movements worldwide are truly anti-scientific and ignorant in a lot of ways.

    People which don’t accept biological evolution? It is ridiculous, but not the worst, you can deny the shape of Earth and propagate a “flat Earth” in a Western state, in the 21st century!

    Now there is always the question: Are these sane people with normal intellectual capacities?

    And in which group of people are such ideas more widespread, religious ones or atheists?

    Don’t get me wrong, there are many ways of religious and ideological beliefs and distortions, not just those of the established churches, and some individual ways are much more disturbing than traditional religious cultures. However, you extrapolate from Western, enlightened, moderate people with a very modest level of religiosity.
    But that’s not the norm, but rather the exception. You just need to hit the point of religious belief to infuriate a drastic reaction and cause a situation in which rational arguments won’t save you.
    Most people don’t recognise the things “given” in their cultural sphere as being not self-evident. So they might be easily convinced about the ignorance of others, but hardly by their own cultural environments imperfection.

    In an environment which is shaped in a deeply Christian way, even if the strictly religious part became weak, the non-religious will defend a lot of Christian ideas and values, whether they recognise it as such or not. And a lot of modern Christians have no big issue with non-believers which accept the basics of their worldview.

    But, to give an example, question monogamy and speak positively about polygamy in a specific social environment. What reactions will you get, regardless of the quality your arguments have? I’m not saying what is right for the marriage pattern, that’s a complicated question and wasn’t my real argument. What I’m trying to say is, that a specific way of looking at things being banned, maybe even legally, because of, fundamentally, a religious sentiment. And the same can be said about many things, especially science and the interpretation of scientific results. Religion creates associated ideologies which in turn shape society and limit logical and scientific efforts. Because science being not just the production of knowledge, but it is and always was a battlefield for the future path of society. It had to be, because if something is truly accepted as knowledge by all reasonable people, how can you act against it? So you have to prevent knowledge you don’t like from being accepted, or, even worse, from being created to begin with.

    Religion and religious guidance needs to adapt to the reality we have to live in. It needs to be adapted if being based on false assumptions. But that’s the biggest strength and weakness of religions based on elaborated scriptures: They are hard to change.

  9. “In the hadith it is said that there are 7 groups who will receive shelter on the Day of Judgment, namely one of them, the man whose heart is always adrift with the mosque. So it is my hope that in the end it will get the shade, ”

    This article shows that we must keep the five daily prayers, especially in congregation. Besides excellence in world science, religion and moral sciences must also be maintained

  10. Statistically, the least religious group of intellectuals isn’t geneticists, it’s psychologists. They have enough understanding of the human mind that the idea of immaterial consciousness after death isn’t plausible to them, and enough understanding of human psychological needs to understand how religion works.

    After you make those connections, whether or not some sort of God exists starts to seem irrelevant. We’ll never meet him, if he exists. And whatever God is, if anything, he probably isn’t a manifestation of our unfulfilled desires.

  11. @Obs
    “But, to give an example, question monogamy and speak positively about polygamy in a specific social environment. What reactions will you get, regardless of the quality your arguments have? I’m not saying what is right for the marriage pattern, that’s a complicated question and wasn’t my real argument. What I’m trying to say is, that a specific way of looking at things being banned, maybe even legally, because of, fundamentally, a religious sentiment.”

    Indeed. I have always wondered what fundamentally separates homosexuality from consensual polyamory, polygamy, etc. Western societies accept only the former and not the latter though they all seem to satisfy the basic ethical requirement of consent and only that (because they are all philosophically very different from traditional monogamous heterosexuality which in addition to the basic requirement of consent also imposes upon itself and satisfies many higher requirements like moderation, non-hedonistic duty towards larger society, etc. which leads to the propagation of the species and probably leads to many other benefits). But maybe Western intellectuals have the answer about how consensual polyamory, polygamy and stuff like that are different from both monogamous heterosexuality and homosexuality and not ethically justifiable at all. I, for one, can only see one good direct and higher-level benefit to society of acceptance of homosexuality beyond the bare minimum requirement of consent: it helps alleviate the misery of many innocent straight women, somewhat, by reducing the number of males with homosexual orientation from their pool of potential mates. I cannot see any such benefits for consensual polygamy, polyamory, etc. and is that one of the reasons (in addition to the one you say involving religious conditioning) why Western intellectuals don’t promote them normally as they do homosexuality? Otherwise, they both seem to be very similar as they both only satisfy the requirement of consent and nothing else, philosophically speaking.

  12. @Rama: Atheists find hadith and other religious scriptures unconvincing. That’s part of why we’re atheists. People who don’t believe in God also don’t believe in prophets, hadith, angels, the Day of Judgement, the Sharia, etc. Honestly, I’d think you were trolling except that a few dozen other people have attempted to talk me out of my atheism by quoting scripture.

    People use what they know.

    If you want to have a meaningful conversation with unbelievers, you’ll need to develop an understanding of how we think and why we think it. Believers who seriously attempt to do so usually become unbelievers themselves, in my experience.

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