Monday, September 17, 2012

The Science/Religion Impasse

At a conference designed to improve teaching of science in higher education recently I found myself surrounded by physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, and mathmeticians.  There was only one other geographer I know of, very few social scientists at all, yet I found the main lessons of the week very stimulating:  The sciences will benefit from 1. greater community involvement, 2. a more interdisciplinary approach, and 3. an inversion of curriculum such that a vexing problem is introduced first, and then the various disciplines are mined for solutions.  These changes, I came to believe, would revolutionize education not only in the STEM disciplines but in others too.  More than once I argued that “interdisciplinary” should cross over to the social sciences as well.

There was, in the audience one theologian.  I was curious that he was listed as a presenter in several sessions so I made it a point to attend  the one he'd called “I Thought I Could Learn Something…” which promised to directly address the  science/religion conflict.  I not only wanted to hear the speaker’s position but also the audience's response.

It is difficult to pin down the percentage of scientists who believe in God because of definitional considerations: what about agnostics? Which concept of God?  What makes a “scientist?” would you count Deists?  Philosophical Buddhists?  Unitarians?  Ethical Humanists?  Pastifarians?  the culturally religious?  Any way it’s done, the percent believing is relatively small among scientists.  I’ve seen it estimated at 40%, 33%, 15%, and (among members of the National Academy of Sciences) as low as 6 or 7%.  In contrast, when 2011 Gallup asked all Americans “Do you believe in a God or Universal Spirit?” 91% said yes.  When asked if they were " atheist' agnostic, or don’t identify with a religion” the polls indicated that some groups – Liberal Democrats, 18-29 year olds, students, men – are 5-10 points lower.  But let’s say that about 25% of scientists are firm believers in a higher power… and 85% of everyone else.  This is in the U.S.  

The dispute between science and religion comes down to the difference between faith-based belief vs evidence-based belief; that is, the (in)advisability of believing something for which there is no empirical evidence.  Religious truths may be strongly felt, revealed in dreams or inspiration, they may be taken on authority, and they may be very consistent, internally.   Science ties belief to evidence, period.  When it comes to religious matters, for example, scientists may attempt to measure the efficacy of prayer, the existence of miracles, and various scientific claims extracted from scripture.  And there it is – faith vs reason.

Among the religious, faith is often a source of pride.  It may be a perverse feedback loop but the more someone can accept by sheer force of will, the stronger they may feel it is true.  Even from a psychological perspective there are benefits to faith, to be sure.  It may provide ready answers to life’s most difficult questions.  It binds community and fosters culture.  It also can give confidence -- false confidence, I would say, but confidence nonetheless.  It can make one feel connected to a higher power – where or not there is one – and it can make one feel indestructible, invulnerable, and eternal.  These, I remember, are great comforts.

A good friend and fervent believer recently discussed with me the meaning of faith.  She rejected the notion that it is belief without evidence.  Faith doesn't deny evidence, she said.  It's the "substance of things hoped for ...  if you can physically see it no faith is necessary."  So perhaps faith, I mused, doesn't shy from evidence but just fills the gaps in knowledge with hope.  I proposed that while she and I can agree that the existence of God can't be disproven, without evidence her faith fills in that missing information with hope, while the same persistent lack of evidence makes me more and more doubtful.  I was pleased that we agreed on this.  "Yes, and I can pray that God will remove any doubt," she added, to which I replied that in doing so she must hope that the same God exists.  There it is, and we're still friends. 

Stephen Jay Gould, a highly regarded scientist and leading evolutionist, famously claimed that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” – they don’t clash because they are in different realms.   But this is not possible, if the God in question is interventionist; that is, if it’s a God that matters.  If God ever responds to prayer, ever punishes wrongdoing or rewards fidelity, if He can cause miracles or even subtly influence events … that would be a supernatural force.  And science does not allow for forces that are ultimately unexplainable.
Religious believers I have known often disparage the “New Atheists,” who they perceive as aggressive and confrontational.  Pat Condell and Christopher Hitchens come to mind as especially acidic.  But as Dan Barker, author of Godless, pointed out in a recent lecture I attended, aggresion is often in the eye of the beholder; he who takes offense often believes the other person was offensive.   I suspect atheism is simply where homosexuality was 30 years ago, and thanks to Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Barker, Ray, Wright, Pinker and others a thoughtful, articulate conversation has been broached.  Another closet door has opened.

Back at my science conference and not surprisingly, the first request made of the speaker (and not by me) was for comment on faith-based vs. evidence-based reasoning.  The response was jarring.  “Faith,” we were told, doesn’t actually mean belief without evidence, it is a term invented in the 13th or 14th century for “the duty of fulfilling one’s trust.”  Clearly, this definition of faith would render the question itself irrelevant.  What’s more, our speaker had no word for “belief without evidence” -- he could not (or would not) even be able to talk about it.  I wish I had offered one: "hope."

But instead, it was actually a frustrating hour; from my perspective no one could get traction, and I had been hoping To engage in real discussion.   A few kind and supportive remarks were made, the pointed ones were deflected, and after 45 minutes or so he got a little huffy as if the crowd had turned rude -- which we hadn’t.
Yet I admit I was quietly offended when he drew a bell curve on the board and labeled the right tail “religious fundamentalists,” the middle was not labeled (apparently it was the normal people),  agnostics were toward the left end at the little tip were atheists which he said constituted 2% of the population.  Atheists, he seemed to imply, are fanatics and can be safely dismissed.
But here we are with a definitional mismatch again.  If atheism means someone who is certain there is no God, then yes it’s probably a small number, 2% is possible, and I consider them extreme.  This is a common definition, as it turns out.  I poked a few dictionaries and (along with “ungodliness, wickedess,” and “ immorality”) I’ve found atheism defined as "the doctrine that there is no deity.” Another calls atheism “rejection of belief in God or Gods” and a third said “a lack of belief in the existence of God or Gods.”   I, and most of the atheist writers I’ve mentioned, use the last definition.  Atheism is a belief like not collecting stamps is a hobby.  There is no creed, no binding principles ... nothing is required of atheists.  Someone will counter that “not believing in God” is required of an atheist but then “not believing 2+2=658” is required of mathematicians.  So would 2+2=403 ad infinitum.  The concept simply doesn’t have to be on the table. 

Atheism is the default view.  Our brains may be predisposed to cut corners understanding causality; we may be susceptible to supernatural explanations.  But we are not born with religious beliefs. 

What’s more, agnosticism is not moderate atheism, as the speaker seemed to suggest.  It's not like Methodist to Pentecostal.  Agnosticism means believing it is not possible to really know.  Anyone with a shred of doubt – the whole inner portion of the curve, probably  – is agnostic.  I’ve looked into it.  Atheists (of the not-collecting-stamps kind) make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population not counting the very young.  They don’t belong on his diagram at all, just like non-stamp collectors wouldn't belong on a chart showing different hobbies.

In retrospect, the biggest problem we all had at the session was neither theological nor scientific, it was semantic.  We simply used the same words for different things.   Scientists use language precisely – they have to.  But everyone else is more casual and the problem is particularly bad, I think, with religion because scripture so often calls out for reinterpretation. 
My first blog explored the meanings of the word God.  The same could be done for atheit, agnostic, and faith.  An odd thought to end it: a fundamental Christian might agree with Richard Dawkins that people are born atheist -- but they would mean of the “wicked, immoral, sinful” sort, not the “not-a-stamp-collector” kind. 
If we could just nail down a few good words, we might actually be able to learn something.