|Distant spiral galaxy NGC4603 [Courtesy NASA]||Spires on west facade of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]|
On the other hand, religion plays a similarly important foundation in the lives of the vast majority of people worldwide. According to a recent study, over 92% of Americans (including, amusingly enough, 21% of self-described atheists and 55% of self-described agnostics) affirm some belief in God. What's more, 39% of Americans (including 37% of atheists and 48% of agnostics -- more than the population at large) say that they experience a "deep sense of wonder about the universe" on at least a weekly basis [Pew2008]. One scientific colleague of the present author, which colleague personally hasn't practiced conventional religion for many years, nonetheless acknowledged that with regards to the magnificence of the universe and the elegance of natural laws, he is a "devoted worshipper."
Religion has indisputably inspired some of the world's greatest art and literature, as is evident from even a casual stroll through any of Europe's great art museums. The Book of Job's remarkable search for meaning in suffering has few peers in world literature [Norwegian2011]. Religious motifs pervade the works of Shakespeare, especially marquee plays such as Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello. Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed over 1000 pieces of sacred music, even today is widely regarded as the greatest composer of history, and his Mass in B-Minor is thought by many to be one of the greatest single works of music in the classical repertoire [Tommasini2011]. Similarly, Victor Hugo's intensely religious Les Miserables is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time, and, in our own time, is the basis for London's longest-running musical theater production [LesMiserables2011b].
Even more importantly, religion has played an enormous role worldwide as a governor of moral conduct through the ages. As historians Will and Ariel Durant explained, "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51]. Thus any movement that opposes modern religion is simply digging a pit for itself.
The "science" camp in this war attack not just religious fundamentalists, but anyone who takes religion seriously, including numerous moderates who argue for a harmonious middle ground. One of these writers, in a single breathtaking sentence, decried religion as "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." (did he leave anything out?) [Hitchens2007, pg. 56]. In a similar vein, a prominent biologist recently asked us to imagine "a world with no religion ... no suicide bombers, no 9/11, ... no persecution of Jews as 'Christ killers,' ... no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money." [Dawkins2006, pg. 23-24].
The "religion" camp in this war is led by religious fundamentalists, who, in keeping with their inflexible belief that the Bible is complete and without error, insist that God created the Earth (or even the entire universe), complete as it now stands, a few thousand years ago. Others in this camp are more accepting of modern scientific findings, but still hold that science is the "enemy," utterly incompatible with religion, and therefore one must choose religion or science, but definitely not both [Truck2010]. Several of these writers criticize by name the same moderate-minded scientists and religious figures criticized by the science camp. These writers also blame scientists for the moral decline of society and accuse scientists of deliberately hiding the "truth." One writer, in a single breathtaking sentence, blamed science for "racism, fascism, Marxism, imperialism, ... Freudianism, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality [and] drug use" (did he leave anything out?) [Morris1997].
So what are we to make of this "war"? Are all scientists militantly atheist? Are all religious believers ignorant of modern science? Is it necessary to "check [your] brains at the church-house door," as one writer claimed? [Provine1988].
Some of their criticisms must be acknowledged: there are indeed some translation errors, internal contradictions and historical difficulties in the Bible; numerous wars have been fought in the name of religion; and many religious figures and writers through the ages have opposed modern science. But the writings of the "new atheist" authors do not provide any new insights on these topics. No one who has studied the history of religion will be impressed by this superficial and polemic material.
Scholars who have analyzed the writings of the "new atheists" have identified serious flaws in their work. For one thing, their "scientific" arguments against God do not have any credibility, since science, by its very definition, cannot say anything one way or the other about the existence or nature of a transcendent being. Another weakness is that the "new atheist" scholars presume that the empirical world studied by modern science comprises all of truth and reality. It may be easy to dismiss religion from this worldview, but it is just as easy to dismiss art, literature, music, philosophy, ethics and many other fields. For that matter, the atheist writers' own scientific materialist worldview would itself have to be questioned, since it cannot be derived from experimental science or mathematical reasoning, and thus must be accepted on faith.
If nothing else, the blustery and one-sided style of the "new atheist" writers is unbecoming of serious scholarship. If any of these atheist writers were to use this sort of polemic rhetoric in a scientific paper, it would be immediately rejected for that reason alone.
Published reviews of the "new atheist" writings are generally rather negative. Some of these criticisms are clearly amateurish and do not really deflect the issues the atheistic writers have addressed. But other negative reviews of these writings have been written by prominent scholars and scientists, and cannot be so easily dismissed. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong, for instance, wrote [Armstrong2009, pg. 303-305]:
Like all religious fundamentalists, the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem never to have heard of the long tradition of allegoric or Talmudic interpretation or indeed of the Higher Criticism. ... This type of reductionism is characteristic of the fundamentalist mentality. ... [One of the atheist writers] is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.
In any event, the writings of the "new atheists" are not published in respected, peer-reviewed journals in the religious studies field, and so cannot be taken seriously by professional scholars. If any of these writers believe they have arguments that would pass peer review, they are invited to submit them to a journal in the field. For further discussion, see Atheists and Peer review.
The "creationist" movement (see Creationism) holds that the Earth and all of its life (or even the entire universe) was created in essentially its present form just a few thousand years ago, in accordance with a literal reading of Genesis, and rejects a broad range of modern scientific thought. Creationism is very popular with the public. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 46% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years," a percentage that is up 6% from a similar study in 2010 [Newport2012; Newport2010]. A 2007 Gallup poll found that 44% believed that evolution, particularly as it relates to human beings, is "probably" or "definitely" false [Newport2007]. In recent years, a movement known as "intelligent design" (see Intelligent design) has gained considerable support and attention. Its practitioners generally accept the old-earth worldview of modern science, but still reject the notion that the creation could have proceeded largely via natural processes. Both groups reject the possibility of harmony between science and religion and argue that there is solid evidence that "proves" their approach. But as Carl Sagan once observed, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" [Sagan1998, pg. 60]. So to what extent have the creationist and intelligent design movements produced evidence to establish their claims?
With regards to traditional creationism, the answer is clear. Modern radiometric dating, which has produced very consistent and reliable dates for the various epochs of the Earth's development, overwhelmingly contradicts the central creationist tenet that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago. Indeed, the young-earth worldview is no more tenable today than is the ancient notion that the sun, planets and stars are only a few miles (or a few thousand miles) above the Earth -- both reckonings are off by factors of millions and billions. And evolution, at this point in time, is much more than a "theory" in the colloquial sense of the word, having been confirmed in hundreds of thousands of exacting studies and having long ago supplanted any competing paradigm in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Indeed, the latest DNA sequence data screams "common descent" -- there is no other reasonable way to interpret these results (see DNA). Research continues, and many new discoveries and adjustments to the current understanding will doubtless be made. But none of this is likely ever to draw into question the central tenets of the field.
Although the intelligent design community is much more accepting of modern science -- several of these writers openly accept old-earth geology and the common descent of biological organisms -- there are difficulties here as well. To begin with, their search for design in nature is not particularly novel -- similar arguments were advanced by Paley in the 19th century. In any event, their claimed examples of "irreducible complexity" and the like are countered by published research showing how these features could and likely did arise by natural processes. In general, attempting to exhibit "design" in nature as evidence for God is problematic in light of the many features of nature (including numerous features of the human body) that are clearly deficient. At the least, "design" must be thought of in a high-level sense, not in specific low-level mechanics as argued by intelligent design writers.
In general, the overwhelming consensus of scientists (even among those who are firm religious believers) who have examined these matters is that the creationist-intelligent design arguments are deeply flawed. They do not remotely rise to the level to pose a significant challenge to modern evolutionary theory. Virtually all of these issues have already been debated at length in the scientific literature, and more recent data confirms these theories more than ever before.
In any event, the leading creationist and intelligent design writers, like the "new atheists," have not published their material in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, so they cannot be taken seriously by leading scientists. If any of these writers believe they have arguments that would pass peer review, they are invited to submit them to a journal in the field. For full details, see Creationism, Intelligent design, Evolution and Peer review.
One fundamental difficulty with both creationism and intelligent design can be seen by considering the following "thought experiment." Suppose a major international society announced that it had received a communication from a super-intelligent Entity, and the authenticity of this communication could not be denied because it included, say, solutions to mathematical problems that are utterly beyond the present level of human knowledge and computer technology. Suppose also that this communication disclosed that this Entity had initiated or created life on Earth. The next day inquisitive humans would then ask questions such as "What time frame was required for this creation?," "What processes and steps were involved?," "Can we replicate these processes and steps in a laboratory?," "Why was the Earth appropriate for life?," "Was life similarly initiated or created elsewhere?," "Who created this Entity?," "Who created the universe?," etc. In other words, virtually all of the fundamental questions of existence that have intrigued scientists and theologians alike for centuries would remain unanswered. In this light, the creationist-intelligent design approach of merely asserting "God did it," and resisting deeper investigation, is tantamount to a "thinking stopper," reveling in ignorance instead of thirsting for knowledge. Surely there is a more productive approach to harmonize science and religion.
The last straw for many observers is the notion, taught by some writers in the creationism-intelligent design camp, that the world may appear to be very old, governed by natural laws and the product of an evolutionary development, but this is only because God created the world to look that way, perhaps as a test of faith. In other words, when we analyze a rock, it may appear to be millions of years old, but it really was created just a few thousand years ago with a set of altered radioactive isotopes. Or when we view a distant galaxy or supernova explosion in a telescope, those photons may look exactly like they came from a galaxy millions of light-years away, but they really didn't because the universe was only created a few thousand years ago, and those photons were created in-flight to the Earth. In short, these writers teach, in effect, that God is a Great Deceiver, which is an absurd and indeed blasphemous notion that goes against the entire tradition of Judeo-Christian religion. For additional details, see Deceiver and Theology and philosophy.
Some of this literature, such as the writings on the philosophy of science by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, has significant merit and relevance to modern science. Popper emphasized the importance of falsifiability in science, which remains an important consideration to this day, effectively distinguishing the scientific enterprise from numerous other forms of scholarship. Kuhn observed that science does not advance in a linear fashion, but more commonly from one "paradigm" to another. Issues such as ensuring that the legitimate scientific contributions of non-Western societies (such as the ancient mathematics of India and China) are certainly important and worth discussing. But other instances of this literature, such as writings that express contempt for the scientific enterprise, or which deny that science can progress towards truth of the natural world, are problematic, to say the least, and not recommended. For full details, see Postmodern.
But even these explanations, which many scientists regard as highly speculative and unsatisfactory, still fall short of answering the fundamental question "Why does the universe harbor intelligent life?" As physicist Paul Davies observes [Davies2007, pg. 231]:
[H]uman minds, at least, are much more than mere observers. We do more than just watch the show that nature stages. Human beings have come to understand the world, at least in part, through the processes of reasoning and science. ... Nothing ... requires that level of involvement, that degree of connection. In order to explain a bio-friendly universe, [this theory] merely requires observers to observe. It is not necessary for observers to understand. Yet humans do. Why?
As intriguing as these ideas are, however, they still leave most religious-minded persons with a certain emptiness. Does the "God of the big bang" truly coincide with the compassionate, weeping God described in Psalms, the Gospel of John, and in other religious works (e.g., the LDS Book of Moses)? Did Johann Sebastian Bach have the "God of the big bang" in mind when he composed the Mass in B Minor and over 1,000 other sacred works? Is this the same being that inspired Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Ghandi and Mother Teresa to surrender their careers and fortunes, and instead devote their lives to the poor and downtrodden? Is this the same being that even now inspires countless millions to lead moral, charitable, purposeful lives? Should one base one's personal sense of values and spirituality on the outcome of some extremely esoteric investigations into the fundamental nature of particles and forces in the universe? Probably not!
The lessons from the creationism-intelligent design controversy are clear: claims that one can "prove" God via arguments based on apparent design or seemingly inexplicable phenomena in the natural world are likely to disappoint in the long run. And invoking a Creator or Designer every time unexplained phenomena arise is a "thinking stopper," burying the grand questions of science and religion in the inaccessible, inscrutable mind of some transcendent Being. For full details, see Big bang theology.
There is one fundamental sense in which science can be seen to be partners with religion: the "idea of progress." Robert Nisbet defines the idea of progress as the notion that mankind has advanced in the past, from barbarism and ignorance, is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future [Nisbet1980, pg. 4-5]. The idea of progress stands in sharp contrast to the widely held view that modern society is in decline, a view that upon closer inspection proves to be highly questionable (see Decline). Closely connected with this concept of linear, progressive history is the Judeo-Christian belief that God governs the world based on a system of rational laws. British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that modern science, as it developed in the West, was based on this faith in rationality [Whitehead1967, pg. 17-19, 27]. Similarly, British-American physicist Paul Davies wonders whether modern science would ever have evolved in the absence of Judeo-Christian theism: "Without minds prepared by the cultural antecedents of Greek philosophy and monotheism (or something similar) -- and in particular the abstract notion of a system of hidden mathematical laws -- science as we know it may never have emerged." [Davies2010, pg. 74-75].
In the early twentieth century, French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued that human progress was inexorable, virtually mandated by the natural laws of the universe. He further saw the idea of progress as the one theme that could re-unify science and religion: "To incorporate the progress of the world in our picture of the kingdom of God ... would immediately and radically put an end to the internal conflict from which we are suffering." [Teilhard1975, pg. 96]. Similarly, scholar Robert Wright describes a vector of progress, consisting of ever-widening extensions of human cooperation, extending over several millennia, and encompassing both religion and modern science [Wright2001, pg. 17, 332]:
[I]f ... we talk about the objectively observable features of social reality, the direction of history is unmistakable. When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the "great men" who have strutted on the stage of history, you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And, looking ahead, you see where it is pointing. ... Maybe history is ... not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity.
For additional details, see Progress.
The main solution here is simply to recognize that while both science and religion are committed to an eternal quest for truth, never being content to say "We have enough," nonetheless at the present state of human ignorance they are better treated as two distinct worlds, since they address mostly different questions and employ mostly different methods [Gould1999, pg. 4-5]. Recall in the Christian New Testament when Jesus was asked whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus replied, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" [Matt. 22:21]. Similar advice could be offered here: "Render unto science the things which are scientific; and unto religion the things that are religious." In other words, those of religious backgrounds need to grant technical questions of the natural world, such as exactly when and how the Earth was created, to the field of scientific research, and stop insisting that the scriptures are scientific textbooks (they aren't). And those of scientific backgrounds need to grant questions of the ultimate meaning of life and moral conduct to enlightened religion, and stop insisting that science can displace religion, art, music, literature, philosophy and morality (it can't).
Along this line, it is worth recalling a lesson from the great ancient mathematician Euclid, whose work even today is the basis of the course on geometry that many have taken in high school. According to an ancient account, when Pharaoh Ptolemy I of Egypt grew frustrated at the degree of effort required to master geometry, he asked Euclid whether there was some easier path. Euclid is said to have replied, "There is no royal road to geometry." [Durant1975, vol. 2, pg. 501]. Today we see new attempts to find "royal roads" -- quick, easy paths that short-circuit the long, difficult process necessary to master a field. Some criticize and dismiss religion, even though they have never devoted themselves to religious pursuits and have never made any in-depth study of theology or religious history. Others criticize and dismiss prevailing theories of biology, geology or astronomy, even though they lack the specialized expertise required to make such a sweeping judgment. Both groups are equally guilty of stepping beyond their expertise.
Modern science is the most powerful tool known to explore the physical laws and processes that govern the universe. Yet it can say next to nothing about morality, salvation, ethics or the ultimate meaning of life, nor were its methods ever designed to probe such fundamental questions. Similarly, religion through the ages has addressed morality, salvation, the purposes of existence, and is a powerful force for mutual understanding and charity worldwide, but scriptures alone provide no clues as to the mass of the electron or the equations of general relativity, nor were they ever intended to be read in such a technical sense. In general, there is nothing in modern science that is fundamentally anti-religious or in any way negates the many positive aspects of living a moral, charitable, purposeful life; and there is nothing in modern religion that is fundamentally anti-science or should in any way stand in the way of scientific progress.
One final note: Just as it is important for science to stay scientific, focused on studying natural laws, processes and empirical data, so it is important for religious movements to stay focused on religion and not embrace, as its central belief system, some particular scientific theory or worldview. As Holmes Rolston observed, "The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow. ... Religion that has too thoroughly accommodated to any science will soon be obsolete." [Rolston2006, pg. ix].
Some readers may recall the movie "Contact." When Eleanor Arroway (the lead character played by Jodi Foster) saw a spiral galaxy from her spacecraft, she exclaimed, "They should have sent a poet. [It's] so beautiful!" In a similar way, one reads in Psalms, "The heavens declare the glory of God." [Psalms 19:1]. Albert Einstein understood this principle well, even though he personally had difficulties with traditional notions of God. He once wrote [Einstein1930]:
On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. ... Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength.
The astronomer Carl Sagan expressed this same idea in the following terms [Sagan1994, pg. 52]:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.