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Debunking Religion: Are Religion and Science Mutually Incompatible?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-06-06 11:59:21
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“Harmonizing religion and science makes you seem like an open-minded and reasonable person, while asserting their incompatibility makes enemies and brands you as “militant.” The reason is clear: religion occupies a privileged place in our society. Attacking it is off-limits, although going after other supernatural or paranormal beliefs like ESP, homeopathy, or political worldviews is not. Accommodationism is not meant to defend science, which can stand on its own, but to show that in some way religion can still make credible claims about the world.”

             Jerry A. Coyne, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible


First there was the popular The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006), followed soon after by an even more popular book, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007), and eight years later, just out, (2015) and already on The New York Times best seller list, we have Jerry A. Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, sure to attract skeptics on religion of many persuasions. It would appear that atheism is rather trendy in the era of instant communication, albeit the vast majority of people remain satisfied with a mere substitution of “spirituality” for religion.  Following the thematic we have dealt with recently on spirituality, let’s explore the crucial intersection of religion and science and why the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Coyne find it non-existent.


Professor of Ecology and Evolution Jerry Coyne teaching the
incompatibility of Science and Religion at the University of Chicago

As is well known, the scientific mind-set in the West which began in the 17th century and quickly metamorphed in Positivism, more often than not, was used as a weapon to undermine not just theism, or intelligent design (the cosmic intelligence or First Cause discovered by the ancient Greeks), or Christianity (which as Thomas Aquinas held, conceives of no enmity between faith and reason), but all forms of religion. Eventually we arrive at Marx in the 19th century who declares any kind of religion “the opium of the people,” or a way to keep people happy and contented while they are being exploited by a ruthless capitalism. In the 20th century atheism itself comes to be seen as a way to social revolution and the path to a better world, the social path to “the workers’ paradise.” Given all that, let’s take a second look at this latest excursus into atheism vis a vis religion which Coyne’s books undoubtedly wishes to be.

Coyne believes that the first line of attack against religion in general is through evolutionary biology which is his field of expertise. This is not surprising given that within academia the war against evolution began as a war against Biblical studies in the 19th century: it was called “Higher Criticism.” The original death knell for biblical authority was misguidedly thought to be Darwin’s On the Origins of Species (1859) followed by the scientific approach to the history in the Bible by Julius Wellhausen who wrote the Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (translated from the German in 1885) where he proved that the first five books of the Bible had been compiled from five different literary strands which later edited and titled Genesis after the Babylonian exile. Both Hobbes and Spinoza dabbled with this trendy movement called Higher Criticism wherein The Bible was dissected in the light of history rather than the other way around.

This approach to Biblical studies provoked the reaction by the fundamentalist Christians who considered  the doctrines that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and therefore without errors and contradictions, as well as that of creationism, under attack. So that became the hot issue to be debated: is the Bible the book that God wrote? All the other intricacies of Biblical literature were simply ignored. This is what Coyne does: he simply focuses on explaining evolutionary biology and cavalierly dismisses theology and the entire academic discourse of religious studies. To define religion he does not consult and dialogue with theologians, but simply consults the Oxford English dictionary and proclaims that religion is  “action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.” In other words, religion for Coyne, as per dictionary definition is mere superstition, as it is for the legions of his followers.

Not once in the book he discusses religion as practice or performance, the way a William James did, just to mention one philosopher of religion. He also makes faith and religion synonymous, which may not be the case all the times. He simply applies the positivistic belief system that makes empirical claims about the existence of a deity and how it interacts with the world. Following Dawkins’ example, those claims, are found to be delusional. And this is the paradox: for the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Coyle any form of religious thought or experience has a dogmatic conception; that is to say, religion too is another form of empirical knowing which when compared to the scientific approach reveals itself as woefully obscure and inadequate.

Nowhere in the book do we get even an indirect mention of theological ideas such as “negative or apophatic theology” (which refuses to make any positive or positivistic assertions about the ineffability of  God), or process theology (which emphasizes generative creativity over passive belief), metaphorical theology (insisting that all theology is metaphorical exploring new metaphorical language to the divine), or speculative theologies (the understanding of the world as immanent wherein a transcendent God is considered an object like any other).  All of these theologies are a response and an attempt at dialogue with science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. But alas, they are nowhere to be found in Coyle’s book. They are simply dismissed as “elaborate and vague storytelling.” To be sure, those theologies are also found contemptible by Christian fundamentalists who are just as dogmatic as Coyle. But that is not surprising either; as far as Coyle is concerned, any theology that doesn’t perceive science and evolutionary biology as the enemy, doesn’t deserve to be taken very seriously.

That’s the whole strategy of the book: the enemy of empiricism is fundamentalist Christianity and the two are irreconcilable, never mind Aquinas. Indeed, Coyle repeatedly asserts that any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to failure from the start. He also shows the customary intolerance toward any kind of poetical metaphorical orientation considered an inadequate way of knowing. Art is ok for sheer aesthetics but it cannot ascertain truth or knowledge of the universe. It is a way of feeling and not a way of knowing. For that one needs science.

At this point the question arises: Is dialogue and understanding the goal of Faith Versus Fact or is it to further polarize science and theology so as to sell more books? One can already predict the buzz this book will cause: all sorts of righteous refutations from the evangelicals and the fundamentalists who read the Bible literally, while the atheists and agnostics will rush to buy the book exactly because of all the buzz. It will all prove in the end that the academic study of religion can safely be dismissed as irrelevant to modernity and no bridges of understanding are needed. Nothing new here either: positivism has been asserting the same for three hundred years now. In the process it has declared the humanities and the liberal arts as passé and irrelevant. They too, together with theology are mutually exclusive. The fruits of that mind-set are all around in our times of acute crisis. They are the false myths we have come to assume are facts about the history of Western thought and its relationship to Christianity.

There is in fact a new kind of atheism around nowadays to be distinguished from the classical sort of atheism, prominent among which Nietzsche. His was a different kind of atheism in the sense that it was fully aware of what he was giving up by resorting to atheism. It reveals itself in this passage from the Genealogy of Morals asserting that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.


Friedrich Nietzsche who proclaimed that “God is dead”

Indeed, there are some contemporary atheists who do take a position similar to Nietzsche. The physicist Steven Weinberg in his 1977 book about the earliest origins of the universe (The First Three Minutes), stated in passing that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” When some of his fellow cosmologists objected to such a  choice of words, accusing him of expressing, if only implicitly, some form of theological nostalgia for a non-scientific view of the world, Weinberg admitted that he is indeed nostalgic—“nostalgic for a world in which the heavens declared the glory of God.” Associating himself with the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold, who likened the retreat of religious faith in the face of scientific progress to the ebbing ocean tide and claimed to detect a “note of sadness” in its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” Weinberg confessed to his own sorrow in doubting that scientists will find “in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role.” When it comes to God, what Weinberg believes to be true and what he wishes to be true simply do not coincide.

The new atheist of today, on the other hand, has no such nostalgia or scruples. He is just out to mock and sneer at anything that smacks of religion or spirituality. His debunking at times assumes very puerile characteristics. Moreover, there is something quite illiberal in the new atheists’ intolerance, disrespect, and hostility for the spiritual beliefs of their fellow citizens. But there is something even more troubling, they show no sign of confronting and wrestling with, or at the very least understanding, the most serious philosophical-theological argument of a two thousand year old Christian tradition. They reduce Christianity and religion in general to a caricature and then proclaim how brilliant their analysis is. Moreover, they show an almost complete lack of awareness of all that was gained culturally and morally by the advent of Christianity and seem wholly unconcerned about what would be lost were it to disappear.  They invariably mock any attempt by theologians to show them a more philosophically rigorous account of God than the superficial caricaturizing one they usually engage in. Their usual response, given as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, is that they are not interested in Christianity as a cultural heritage worth preserving but only in answering the question of whether or not it is true.

What this knee-jerk dismissive reaction fails to grasp in the theologians’ arguments is that the statements “godlessness is true” and “godlessness is good” are wholly distinct propositions. And yet the new atheists invariably and conveniently conflate them. The new atheists seem steadfastly opposed even to entertaining the possibility that there might be any trade-offs involved in breaking from a theistic view of the world. Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, as Nietzsche surely did, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without a sustainable reasoned argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no Nietzschean disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Theirs has become a glorious brilliant movement of which to be proud. 

Do they inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists in the Nietzschean tradition? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion? One wonders. Either way, the studied boorishness and insouciance of the new atheists is a pervasive one indeed. There is a movement unfolding among these new atheists which is assuming a hilarious aspect. They are now attempting to change the dictionary word “atheist” to “brilliant.” The implication is obvious: brilliant minds are naturally atheistic and go to soccer games on Sunday, while dumb minds go to Church. One begins to wonder if this sort of dumbed-down facile atheism may not be associated with narcissism and arrogant elitism.  By all means, reject God, castigate Aristotle for conceiving the idea of God and finding his existence reasonable, but please, let’s not pretend that the truth of godlessness necessarily implies its goodness. It doesn’t. 

Focusing now on some historical truths on the subject, it is a fact that Christianity, which was synthesized with the Classical world eventually came to allow and define, almost unintentionally, the modern liberal democratic republics of today. This fact too of course goes against the conventional wisdom of the day that likes to pit the modern republics against so called “medieval obscurantism” (never mind a Thomas Aquinas) appealing to the western ideas that have tried to do away with religion, Radical Rationalism, Nietzscheism, Freudianism, Nazism, Marxism, Stalinism, Communism; not to speak of the proxy, facade war between reason and science on one side, and religion and the humanities on the other; something that has often more to do with politics than science or theology per se. This is the world of the two cultures that still needs a viable bridge as it has been argued at some length elsewhere in Ovi.

Indeed, while science explains nature, religion gives meaning to it, and human life as described by science alone is an inherently valueless thing, despite the popularity of logical positivism and the cavalier entrepreneurs of today reducing man to a consuming automaton and then studying divinity in their golden years to find more axes to grind. Unfortunately, the secularists who vehemently argue that religion needs to be eradicated from civilization have it all wrong. The fact is that Christianity created the western mind, with its unique blend of individualism, philosophy, science, and democracy. The fact is also that the anti-religion and anti-faith secularists of today are currently engaged in a deeply incoherent and, in multiple ways, dangerous experiment. Those are the objective facts, all the facts, not a partial subjective list of them. Those facts ought to be at least mentioned by those who claim to be in search of the truth about religion and faith, but all they have managed to show us in their popular books is an ax to grind against faith, religion and theology. They say they have the facts on their side, but it is also a fact that a partial truth is no truth at all.

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