Trifid Nebula NGC6514 [Courtesy NASA] Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Is there a "royal road" to science and religion?

David H. Bailey
05 Oct 2014 (c) 2014

Introduction

In his studies of the dialogue between science and religion, the present author is often struck by the fact that persons sympathetic to one side often attack the other side with only the scantest credentials, expertise and knowledge of the issue. They typically seek a quick, easy answer that hopefully will confirm their present preconceived worldview, and exhibit considerable unwillingness to make the effort to thoroughly study both sides of the issue.

For example, some persons, typically of strong religious backgrounds, have contacted the present author confident that it has been "proven," from mathematical, paleontological or geological considerations, that it is fundamentally impossible for information-rich structures such as biomolecules or proteins to form, or that the various species or phyla were separately created, or that the earth is only about 6000 years old and the methods used by scientists to date geologic layers are "unreliable." These people typically do not possess any significant academic credentials or professional experience in the scientific field in question. What they know about the topic in question is often limited to one or two first-year college courses, augmented with a book or two written by some creationist (certainly not by a respected professional scientist). Any gentle cautions, such as pointing out that their arguments have been raised and dealt with long ago, and that 99% of the scientists with in-depth knowledge on the issue (including many with religious faith) have come to a very different conclusion, are brushed aside as coming from the "atheistic" scientific establishment.

Other persons, typically of scientific or secular backgrounds, assert that science and philosophy have "proven" that there is no God, and that anyone who still entertains such beliefs in the 21st century, even in a high-level, open-ended sense, are deluded, irrational and a threat to civilized society. Yet, as before, such persons typically have never seriously studied theology, religious history or modern religious thought in any depth, nor, for the most part, have they never seriously participated in religious devotion or fellowship. What they know about religion is often limited to a book or two written by an atheist scholar (certainly not by a respected modern theologian or religious philosopher). Any gentle cautions, such as pointing out that there are thousands of highly accomplished scientists who fully accept evolution and other theories, and yet who still see value in modern religion, are brushed aside as part of the same superstitious mindset.

Euclid and the "royal road"

Such instances bring to mind a historical anecdote from the great Greek mathematician Euclid. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, and even today is the basis of the course on geometry that many have taken in high school. Euclid was ranked #14 on the list of the 100 most influential persons in history by scholar Michael Hart [Hart2000]. According to an ancient account, when Pharaoh Ptolemy I of Egypt grew frustrated at the degree of effort required to master geometry, he asked his tutor 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 many new attempts to find "royal roads" -- quick, "easy" paths to short-circuit the long, difficult process that is necessary to master a field.

Commentary by scholars and public figures

Sadly, the situation is not often not much better even among professional scholars and public figures. Reasonably well educated persons, who almost certainly have seen in their own field the difficulties of attempting to venture and critique outside one's field of expertise, nonetheless are firmly convinced that scientists are utterly mistaken on one or more widely accepted scientific theories. One would think that if one were to publicly comment on a scientific topic such as evolution, that one first would carefully research what leading scientists have said on the subject, and read in detail at least one or two books written by real scientists on the topic, just to make sure that one is reasonably well informed on the issue. Yet there are numerous examples where this step evidently has not been taken.

For example, in 2005 the Dover, Pennsylvania school board passed a resolution requiring that a statement be read to students declaring, in part, "Gaps in the Theory [of evolution] exist for which there is no evidence." [Lebo2008, pg. 62] (a conclusion that would certainly come as a surprise to those familiar with the hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed studies covering every aspect of modern evolutionary theory). Also in 2005, U.S. presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann declared, "Where do we say that a cell became a blade of grass, which became a starfish, which became a cat, which became a donkey, which became a human being? There's a real lack of evidence from change from actual species to a different type of species." [Zimmerman2011] (the first sentence is wrong -- scientists do not say this; in the second sentence, there is actually lots of evidence -- see Fossils and Speciation). In 2010, Christine O'Donnell, an unsuccessful Senate candidate from Delaware, declared that evolution was a "myth," that radiocarbon dating is used to date specimens that scientists claim are "millions of years old" (it is not -- see Radiocarbon dating), and that there is "just as much, if not more, evidence" supporting the proposition that God created the earth in six 24-hour days" [Amira2010] (a conclusion that only the most extreme young-earth creationists would agree with). For additional discussion, see Creationism.

Oddly enough, similar disdain and dismissals of the technical details of modern scientific research are often seen in the writings of leading scholars in the postmodern science studies field. Unlike their predecessors such as Kuhn and Popper, most of these present-day scholars in this field do not have significant scientific training and/or credentials, nor do they participate with scientific research teams in performing peer-reviewed scientific research. Their approach is exemplified by a comment made by Andrew Ross, editor of a prominent science studies journal, in the introduction to one of his published works: "This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them." [Ross1991]. For additional discussion, see Postmodern.

And in a similar vein, many professional scientists and scholars criticize religion without ever really bothering to study in detail the full scope of modern religious thought. One would think that if one were to publicly comment on religion, that one first would read a selection of the great writers of the Judeo-Christian tradition and be reasonably familiar with their thinking: the rabbinical scholars of Judaism, the medieval scholastics of Catholicism, and at least some writings representing contemporary Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, LDS and perhaps even some of the Eastern traditions as well. One would also think that one would also seriously read some works of world history to better understand the role religion has played through the ages, and to understand the nationalistic and social contexts of episodes such as religions wars. Instead, many of these writers ignore much of this literature, targeting their criticisms instead at an imaginary fundamentalist strawman.

For example, biologist Richard Dawkins, whom the present author greatly admires for his lucid writings on the topic of evolution, recently criticized religion in his book The God Delusion. The consensus of several scholars who have commented on this work (even including some who are not particularly religious), is that the eminent biologist has exceeded his realm of expertise in writing this book. For example, H. Allen Orr, a professor of biology at the University of Rochester and a leading scholar on science and religion, writes the following [Orr2007]:

The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins's failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. ... You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).

For additional discussion, see Dawkins and Atheists.

Conclusions

For both camps, a measure of humility is in order -- a humble recognition that one does not possess the whole of human knowledge, and even might be mistaken on some points, and that the patient work of thousands of other scholars with differing viewpoints must be granted reasonable consideration before making a final decision on some matter, or otherwise one risks being viewed as uninformed and foolish in public discourse. Why be such an easy target for criticism?

It is important to recognize that both modern science and modern religion have their limits and boundaries. Science and mathematics cannot "prove" that God exists, but neither can it "prove" that there is no transcendent being overseeing creation. Science has proven to be a powerful tool to probe the workings of the universe, but it can say nothing about the ultimate purpose of the universe, nor can it provide any fundamental direction for morality, ethics or the meaning of life. Similarly, religious prophets since the beginning of civilization have probed the grand questions of existence, but the Bible and other scriptures of the world's great religions provide no clues as to the mass of the electron or the equations of general relativity. 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.

The central objective of the material on this website is to collect authoritative information from the best scholars of sides of the aisle (science and religion), and let readers decide for themselves whether there is a need for "war" between science and religion. Numerous articles can be found in the three major directories: Evolution, Physics, Philosophy and Theology.

References

[See Bibliography].