Sunday, January 23, 2011

science and religion again

Andrew Dickson White - early proponent of the conflict thesis

The Draper-White thesis, as it has come to be known, was enormously influential. For the past century it has been the predominant view of the relationship of science and religion among scientists and laymen alike. It wedded a triumphalist view of science with a patronizing view of religion. Popular misconceptions doubtless underlay the widespread presumption that religion was opposed to science. Grounded in faith, religion seemed bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Gary Ferngren, 'Introduction', Science & religion: a historical introduction

Being dirt poor, I can't afford to buy the latest texts, assuming there are any, on the topics that most interest me, such as the science/religion conundrum [conflict, compatibility, incompatibility, complementarity, complexity], and I still have difficulty reading long screeds online, so it was with some interest that I uncovered a text at my local library, Science & religion: a historical introduction, which was published not so very long ago, in 2002 [actually, all but one of the essays was written before 2000]. I realized, of course, that the book wouldn't take into account the resurgence of interest in this subject due to the publication of such 'new atheist' works as Breaking the spell and The god delusion, but I was hoping for some really stimulating discussion about these two 'ways of knowing'. I have to say that after reading the intro and the first essay, I've been sorely disappointed.
My expectations were too high perhaps. These are essays by historians of science and religion, not by scientists or philosophers. They're really looking at the way the relationship has played out in the public arena, rather than the central philosophical and theological issues involved. Still, I detect an irritating bias. I'll probably write a few posts as I read my way through the essays.
The quotation at the top of the post gives an indication of the approach, which I suspect will persist throughout the book. Triumphalist and patronising - where have I heard that before? More importantly, terms such as 'popular misconceptions' litter this introduction and the following essay. The conflict thesis persists due to 'popular misconceptions' or it persists 'in the popular mind', condescendingly referred to in contrast to the sophisticated mind. There is no attempt to present these popular misconceptions for our examination, there's just a lot of telling and no showing. More to the point, the conflict thesis is presented as warfare between personalities, and so it's easy for the historian to show that, in fact, there isn't just warfare, there's tension, there's accommodation, there's mutual ignorance, there's collaboration, there's a whole variety of positionings which amount to a complexity thesis which more accurately reflects the relationship.
All of this, though, seems utterly irrelevant to the issue. At no point in the introduction or the first essay [by Colin Russell - and he's much more biased in his approach than Ferngren] do the writers address the basis of the conflict between religion and science. They make no acknowledgement whatever that, personalities aside, the aims of science in general clash with the aims of religion as explanations of how things are. The community benefits of religion, the sense of group or tribal identity generated by these beliefs are well understood by most non-believers, but what gripes us is that the beliefs that the religious share are very unlikely to be true, and they clash head-on with scientific theory and scientific evidence. The closest that either of these two writers come to even considering this fundamental issue is in the last sentence quoted above -  Grounded in faith, religion seemed [and forget about the past tense] bound to suffer when confronted by science, which was, of course, based on fact.
Too right, but then this possible starting point is abandoned, and particular struggles or accommodations are focused on again. No attempt is made to examine what faith is, and of course no notice is made of the fact that faith is used precisely to justify belief in stuff that isn't backed up by any evidence - that there's an afterlife, for example, or that a dissident preacher who may or may not have lived 2000 years ago was the offspring of the supernatural creator of the world/universe/multiverse. Along with many people, I just don't accept that science and the rules of evidence have nothing to do with these claims. Most believers don't believe in this separation either - they're often intensely concerned with finding proof, of the power of prayer, of the existence of life after death, of miracles and so forth.
Anyway, what I've read so far has only underlined for me the considerable limitations of taking a purely historical approach to this subject, with little thought for the philosophical. As to Colin Russell's infuriating first essay, I'll deal with that next time.

By the way, here's a much more informative, and plausible, account of the conflicts between science and religion, especially in the US.

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