People like Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne continue to play gentlemanly games with words in which they pretend that they are reconciling religion and science. Despite their assurances it is clear that no such reconciliation takes place. If it had, scientists would use religious insights and categories for their usefulness to science, and the religious would help to deepen religious faith by preaching about the wonders of science. It really is only a pretence, no matter how much accommodationists continue to distort the relationship of science and religion, and regardless of the attempt by scholars in the supposed discipline of “Religion and Science” to assimilate science to religion by persistently fictionalising the history of the relationship of religion and science.
Thomas Dixon shows us how this is done. In his little book, Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, he tries to marry religious doctrine to scientific theory using various strategies. One of the most popular is to point out that religious scientists see no conflict between their religious beliefs and their scientific conclusions, seeing each as in some sense complementing the other. Of course, this in itself proves nothing more than that it is possible to compartmentalise our lives. Collins can work on the human genome project during the week, and then on Sunday entertain a completely different set of beliefs, entirely unrelated to what he does in the laboratory. That’s one reason why Elaine Ecklund’s “research” is pointless. Asking scientists about their religious beliefs shows no more than that it is possible to insulate some of your beliefs from others, so that you feel no cognitive dissonance. But people are continuously deceiving themselves about the scope of their beliefs. Roman Catholics, for instance, speak of the sanctity of life, but it is not obvious that the church can hold both this and then, at the same time, largely ignore the fact that children are dying of poverty, malnutrition and preventable disease at a startling rate, without ending up in a contradiction. Nor can they extol the sanctity of life, and then oppose controlling population growth, when excess population in some parts of the world puts so much stress on the environment that, sooner or later, the number of the dying will begin to increase from its already imposingly high number.
Another strategy used by accommodationists is to try to show that religion and science use similar conceptual tools to understand reality. For instance, Dixon suggests that one of the things that science does is to show that the familiar world of our senses is deceptive as to the underlying reality. For example,
both evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics have similarly required people to believe the most implausible things — that we share an ancestor not only with rabbits but also with carrots, for example, or that the smallest components of matter are simultaneously both waves and particles. 
And then he goes on, as though he were pointing out something comparable in religion, to point out that, just as in science our understanding of reality is mediated by a tradition that is mediated by the culture of science, religion is very similar:
In the religious case, what intervenes between the light hitting your retina and your thoughts about the glory of God is the lengthy history of a particular sacred text, and its reading and interpretation within a succession of human communities. [8-9]
The comparison is bogus, for while science is indeed a product of human culture, and is conducted within a human community, with its traditions of asking questions and seeking answers, the stuff of science is the world itself, not the texts of science, and the scientific texts could all be dispensed with by measuring the texts against the results of confirming or disconfirming observations and experiments. Religious texts, on the other hand, while they do accommodate change in understanding, do so only by twisting the texts into hermeneutical pretzels, so that they say what we want them to say. Some scientific critics of religion suggest that fundamentalists are more honest about this than liberals, but this is, I am afraid, a simple prejudice based on the idea that texts have straightforward meanings, and, while we may think that Derrida and the deconstructionists exaggerated the role of interpretation in deconstructing the text as a unitary thing, almost all texts have a penumbra of interpretation which does call the text, simply as unitary text, into question. And this points out another thing that is fairly unique to science: namely, that interpretation does not go all the way down, for at some stage — even if we do not accept the positivist interpretation of scientific language in a Carnapian or early Wittgensteinian way as reducible to simple propositions in a one-one correlation with objects in the world — the language of science issues in checkable instances of states of affairs in the world.
Let’s take as an example the video that Jerry Coyne links in a recent post: Muslim cleric argues that homosexuality is a “well known medical condition” cured only by semen, and that Shi’ites are immune – my first instance of the tide of religious idiocy at the full. I include only a short clip from the bizarre video here:
This disgusting bit of religious trivia shows how religious texts work. They are self-contained, and interpretation is based entirely on the apologetic or other theological needs of the moment. There is no point at which the text reaches out beyond itself to the world, except the world of religious imagination – which, as you can see, is very inventive, however disgusting. And recall that this broadcast came from London!
The next idiocy that seems worthwhile recording is one that Ophelia Benson has discussed in a brief post over at Butterflies and Wheels — “A Whole Trojan Stable“ – about a conference to be held in Calgary. Reported by Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald, the conference, entitled “The Power of Unity: Islam in a MultiCultural Canada”, includes men like Bilal Philips, who holds that homosexuals should face punishment for deviant behaviour, which, according to Islam, is death. Also included on the conference speakers’ roster is
Munir El-Kassem, a dentist from London, Ont., [who] wrote a column back in 2001 that condemned the West as hypocritical and defended the Taliban regime for destroying the sixth-century Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
George Galloway, who is an outspoken supporter of Hamas, will also speak at the conference. According to the chairman for the Muslim Council of Calgary, Abraham Ayache, the purpose of the conference is
to celebrate 50 years of Islam in Calgary and is all about unity and celebrating multiculturalism.
And when it was pointed out that one of their main speakers supported the death penalty for homosexuals, the Calgary Herald was told that George Bush held this view, which of course is a lie. Bush is certainly a conservative when it comes to marriage and the family, but he has never supported the death penalty for homosexuals. The whole conference is obviously an example of religious horror in the highest degree. Canada does not need Muslims like this, and if this is what a celebration of Islam in Canada looks like, then we should be very worried indeed.
For yet more religious horror we hie ourselves over to the New York Times, where we can read about a mad Buddhist community high in Arizona’s mountainous desert. Rescuers were called in to rescue two members of the community who had been expelled — one was dead, the other thirsty and delirious.
The puzzle only deepened when the authorities realized that the couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents, living in rustic conditions, had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days.
I guess one mountain is as good as another, so Arizona will do as well as the Himalayas. But the description of the retreat gives a little glimpse into the mad world of religion:
The retreat — in which adherents communicate only with pen and paper — was designed to allow participants to employ yoga and deep meditation to try to answer some of life’s most profound questions.
I won’t comment further on the whys and wherefores, but surely it is significant that religion leads to dead ends like these. There is nowhere for religious thought to go. It can no longer speak with intelligence about the world around us, or even about the world within. Science has taken over here. So it ends up speaking nonsense based on supposedly sacred texts, or on the nonsense cribbed up in little minds. Meditation may be a great way to relax, but no one has discovered anything this way, and anything that is supposedly discovered in meditation can only be the private experience of the meditator, incommunicable to others, except by way of image and story. Not that image and story are not important. They are. But they need to be grounded by knowledge, and anything that proposes ways of understanding humanity — how we should live, what is valuable, and so on — cannot end up at the dead-end of subjective experience, or the interpretation of texts, or the blind repetition of traditional certainties.
What astonishes me — as I suggested a few days ago — is the fact that, on practically any day of the week, one can find these religious horrors piling up, one after the other, without remission, and yet, at the same time, we can hear scientifically minded religious believers commending religious belief to us, as if the horrors had nothing to do with the religious beliefs talked about in such earnest, yet intellectually inoffensive ways. Is it not obvious to them that what they discuss in the quiet of their studies expresses itself in the horrors that we read about, and that opposition to religion is not directed towards their polite conversations, but rather towards the horrors and the idiocies that attend the beliefs they commend as these beliefs are translated into the hurly-burly of ordinary lives?