The “New” “War” Between Science and Religion

The Chronicle published a rather pointless essay by Mano Singham, claiming that there is a “new war” between science and religion. This “new war” is different from the old one, the essay claims, in that the old war was over whether to teach evolution or creationism in the classroom. The (allegedly) “new” (alleged) “war” is over whether scientists (qua scientists?) should be accommodationists. To be an accommodationist, in this particular theater of war, is to allow that there are areas of human experience that might exceed the bounds of the natural sciences’ tools and techniques.

That this proposition is so glaringly, obviously true indicates that, in fact, this theater of war is all in Singham’s head. But not only his head, so let me explain.

The discussion has precious little to do with science. The matter of “accommodationism” does not arise in the pursuit of science in itself. It cannot arise, by definition. Science (if there even is such a singular thing…) can describe and possibly make some headway towards understanding our world by adopting–for lack of a better term–methodological naturalism. It undertakes to find out how much can be explained by natural processes/forces/laws. It assumes–how could it not?–that ultimately it will explain “everything” in such terms. It needs “accommodate” itself to nothing except what is.

But it must be remembered that this aim, itself, is a methodological telos. What I mean by this is that understanding at all implies–at least in principle–understanding the whole. This is not to say we understand nothing at all unless we understand the whole. Hardly! It simply means that the pursuit of scientific discovery and understanding will not quit unless we would somehow decide we have understood it all…the whole.

But we will not understand the whole. This is not because we are too stupid or will not live long enough (all that science & technology will probably do us in long before we get the big picture). No, we will not understand the whole because there is, in effect, no place to stand to get a fix on it–methodological naturalism included. There are well-known logical demonstrations of this truth. Because this is so, there will always remain areas of human experience that slip the grasp of scientific appropriation. That’s just the way it is.

Is this insight–plainly undeniable–a threat in any way to “science”? Of course not. The only threats to science are political (some regime tries to put a stop to scientific investigation) or natural (we get hit by an asteroid). And if these are the forces at war with science, then it’s nothing new.

But it is wrong to think that science is engaged in a war–especially with religion (and there is definitely no such singular thing). The goal of war is to defeat your enemy. This is not the goal of science. If there are limitations to the scientific endeavor, that which limits it is not thereby “at war” with it. And those who point out these limitations are not thereby the enemies of science. The limits of “science” are the very conditions of possibility for its undeniable power. By disciplining thought, we have, collectively, generated one of the great marvels of humankind–science. But there is still that which remains undisciplined and which will not (cannot) submit itself to these sorts of disciplinary practices. In fact, a lot of what matters in a rich human life falls under this latter description.

Nothing Singham writes is new or insightful. Nothing in his essay is scientific. The essay has a pathetic understanding of the issues it purports to deal with. As usual with the “new (nope!) atheists,” there is no evidence of understanding religion as anything other than an irrational belief in some Big-Being, another piece of furniture in the universe. Yes, there are people who think God is Big-Being. But I wouldn’t judge science by Soviet “science,” and I wouldn’t judge religion by televangelists.

There are people who do wretched things in the name of “religion.” But there are people who cloak themselves in the mantle of “science” to attempt to validate any old thought they might have; who spend their days figuring out how to kill and maim; who lie, cheat, and steal for recognition and cash. There were atheists who in the name of atheism brought about the deaths of 100 million people in the last century. If one lives by ad hominem, one dies by it, too.

Well, read the essay yourself. Read the endless stream of comments below it. Note the frequency of smugness on both sides of the issue (how many “duh’s,” how many “get real’s”).

My point is modest. Essays like Singham’s will draw comments and ignite passions. No one wants to feel his or her life’s work and deepest commitments are under attack. But most of us will agree, I think, if we take a moment to reflect, that the pursuit of science, the quest to understand our world through the eminently democratic means of the scientific method (if you take the trouble to learn them), needs to be valued and protected as much as possible from extraneous hindrances. But we also need to be aware of this “as much as possible.” Is the pursuit of science something absolute? Are there never moral responsibilities or consequences that need to be taken into account? Science has no “rights” to deny the expression of moral sentiments, nor can it pass in any way on the sources of those moral sentiments (science is “value free,” we are told). If you’ve noticed the IRB office on campus, you know how to answer these questions. And you know science qua science cannot answer them. And so you know, that although the science qua science needs accommodate nothing, we–we citizens, we human beings–need to accommodate all that goes into to our full human experience.

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