In some ways it seems almost pointless to argue with Christians and others about the relationship between their beliefs and science, for it is quite clear that science, though it may have arisen in the context of Christian Europe, worked at cross purposes with religion from the very beginning. That the first scientists who made the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century were many of them religious believers is nothing to the purpose when it comes to relating theology and science. Not dismayed by lack of evidence, however, religious believers continue to make absurd claims about the consistency between religious believing and the discoveries of science.
The latest installment in this game of science vs. religion musical chairs — you just have to find a position to adhere to before everyone stops talking — comes to us from Australia (and the link to it comes via the courtesy of Jerry Coyne, who commented on it yesterday). We start with an article by Peter Kirkwood, who, we are told, is a freelance writer and video consultant, and has a Master’s degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. (The latter reminds me that, on the books, I have such a degree too, but a point came when I decided that theology and related “disciplines” is not a source of knowledge, so I clipped up my degree certificate into little pieces and threw them out in the trash, and no longer claim this as amongst my achievements — except, as in this case, to explain its lack of credibility.)
Kirkwood’s article mainly serves the purpose of introducing us to Chris Mulherin, an Anglican priest with some knowledge of the philosophy of science, currently writing a dissertation at the MCD University of Divinity (originally founded as the Melbourne College of Divinity in 1910), which is really an amalgam of various Christian seminaries and theological schools located in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, in Southeastern Australia, which is what happens, generally, when separate schools are no longer viable on their own because of reductions in vocations to ministry (though I do not say, because I do not know, that this is the case here). However, it is notable that, though called a university, it is really an organisation run by and for the churches.
Nevertheless, to get back to the Wunderkind, Chris Mulherin, Australia’s new bearer of the flame for the religion vs. the new atheism debate. Mulherin is embedded in Kirkwood’s article in a video in which Mulherin purports to explain the “marriage” between science and religion, but Kirkwood has a few things to say on his own. He begins by speaking about the Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne this year, and then he says this:
To believe Dawkins, and many of the other speakers at the conference, you’d think there is a deep gulf between science and religion, that the two are intractably at loggerheads and have nothing useful to say to each other.
But this is at odds with what many other theologians, philosophers and scientists tell us. They say science and religion are both quests for truth dealing with different aspects of human experience. This is well summed up in Galileo’s famous statement that ‘the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go’.
That little bon mot of Galileo’s, if actually said and meant in the way suggested, has just about had its day; and it is wrongly used today to support the claim that religion and science are compatible, yet different ways of knowing. However devout Galileo was I have no idea, though it seems, from his attitude towards the pope and various other ecclesiastical hierarchs, that he was more concerned about his own scientific priority in a number of discoveries or inventions than he was with getting to heaven. It was quite clearly at least a smokescreen laid down to protect himself from the prying eyes and dangerous proclivities of the Inquisition; for just as Hume wrote in the shadow of the execution in 1687 for blasphemy of the young student Thomas Aikenhead, so Galileo had the spectacle of Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake for heresy to urge caution in dealing with ecclesiastical authorities.
Kirkwood’s claim, however, that the new atheist belief that science and religion are at loggerheads is belied by “what many other theologians, philosophers and scientists tell us,” is not actually borne out by the evidence, for, while it goes without saying that most theologians are in some sense believers, most top ranking scientists and philosophers are not religious believers, and do not see the relationship between science and religion as one of complementary ways of discerning truth. Indeed, the greatest problem that religious believers have is accommodating different religions, with their very different core beliefs, into a single discipline of which acknowledged truth is the outcome. This is what Philip Kitcher calls the symmetry argument, and it is important to note that, while religion may be studied comparatively, comparative religion is nowhere near showing that different religious traditions are dealing with the same “truths”. Religions make incompatible and opposing claims, and so cannot be thought, without further evidence, as providing truth or knowledge at all. Whether they still have a valid cultural role, or are merely impediments to progress, is another and different question, and not one that either Kirkwood or Mulherin address.
This is particularly noticeable in the video that accompanies Kirkwood’s article, so let’s go through it, noting how confused Mulherin is as we go. We start at the beginning:
Like all lasting marriages, says Mulherin, Christianity and science have had to work at their relationship. This is nonsense on a number of levels. First, there is no marriage between science and Christianity. Indeed, science has no interest at all, qua science, in religion. But the problem is more serious than that. For, second, even to begin to show that science and religion are complementary ways to truth, Mulherin must show that the religion he has chosen, because he is, after all, a Christian, is the true religion, and that all other religions are false. He cannot begin dealing with the relationship of science and religion until he has done this. But third, simply saying, as he does, that religion deals with one kind of truth whilst science deals with another kind of truth, is not to show a relationship between science and religion at all, but to isolate religion from science in such a way that science cannot have anything definitive to say about religion. Quite clearly, Christianity and science are not working together in the pursuit of truth. In saying this, however, Mulherin assumes that science has no interest in the scientific study of religion. This, of course, is false, for science has a great deal to say about religion, and, indeed, the scientific study of religion is vital to dealing with the completely intransigent nature of religious belief, and its effects on political and social reality. So, so much for the marriage of science and Christianity.
This is made even clearer by what Mulherin says next. Remember, he is saying that science and religion are involved in a close relationship, like a marriage, working together in the pursuit of truth. But now he is going to tell us that there is no real relationship here at all:
Now, this is strange. Science only has to do with the mechanics of things. It does not answer the why questions, which is where religion shines. But I ask you to recall that religion answers the why questions in one way, science in another. According to Dawkins, as we saw in a recent post here on choiceindying.com,
[t]he universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
Now, not to put to fine a point on it, believing that the universe has towards us no relationship of care, no purpose or design, no evil or good, but simply blind, pitiless indifference, is surely a very different world, and answers why questions in a very different way than a world thought to be lovingly created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator. That Mulherin cannot see this is a measure of how deeply he is invested in religious myth, for, though indeed philosophers since the Greeks have tried to prove by logical means that there must be a god who created the earth, none of these attempts can be considered sufficient to underwrite any of the particular religious beliefs of different religions. There comes a moment when the believer must make the great leap of faith from supposed logical possibilities to conviction that the world is — and here it has to be added — despite all the evidence – the creation of an all-powerful loving god who made us and gave us minds to be able to understand the world. And for the Christian this is the God who sent Jesus to be our Saviour. But there is no reason to make this leap, for, at the same time, it is evident, given the long history of the world in which most people had no scientific understanding of the world at all, that it is the evolutionary process that has, in the end, given rise to minds that can – with great difficulty, it might be added – come to know more about the deep structure of reality. But it is clear that the worlds of science and religion are poles apart and are not engaged, as Mulherin suggests, in the common pursuit of truth, because the “big picture” that Mulherin discusses is not part of the scientific world picture at all, but a completely independent and arbitrary way of regarding the universe as we know it. That it is arbitrary is evident simply from the fact that there are many different religions, all of which have a different take on what is to be included in this bigger picture.
Nevertheless, let’s soldier on, and see whether, in the fulness of time, Mulherin may yet snatch something from the fire. Here is his description of a Christian who is also a scientist doing scientific work:
Now, this raises a problem for Mulherin, and he does not notice. For, if science and religion are compatible, then religious belief should contribute something to the work of the scientist who also, as it happens, is a Christian (and here, again, we note the oddness of thinking just in terms of one religion and its orthodox beliefs). For if God does not “mess with the experiments,” this also means that God does not mess with the world either. For if God did mess with the world, then we would be faced with the same problem of an inability to understand. How often, for instance, could there be actual miracles, that is events that went clean contrary to the laws of nature, before we would be forced to say that the world is simply unintelligible? At what point would intelligibility break down? And if scientists leave their religious beliefs at the church door, then in what sense are science and those beliefs compatible? What kind of compatibility is this? And is it any different from the fact that a scientist who is also someone who loves someone does not bring his love explicitly into play in doing his scientific experiments? Mulherin suggests that presumably the scientist who is also a Christian does science because it seems worthwhile in terms of (and he just puts this in general terms) their world view. But which world view? The scientific one, or the Christian one? And if the Christian one, then how does he cash his scientific experiments in in terms of that world view? All we are given is a kind of promissory note here, when, in the context, we need much more.
At this point we reach the point where Mulherin is completely muddled. He wants to say that religion provides knowledge about the world, but he apparently has no idea what kind of knowledge this is. Consider this:
Now, as I say, this is just plain muddle. The point that Dawkins was making in the quote above, and in so much else that he writes about science, is precisely that science does ground our why questions? Why do we exist? Because of a sequence of physical events producing the elements necessary for the type of life that developed on earth, plus the further sequence of evolutionary events which brought our species as well as many other species into being. That answer provides a further basis for answering other why questions, for if we are, as it seems, the product of an algorithmic natural process, then we do not have meaning in the sense of a telos (or end) spelled out beforehand, but meaning is something we must ourselves provide. So the very mechanisms by which we came to be indicates the direction in which we must look in order to provide meaning for our lives. Presupposing meaning based on ancient myths is not an answer to the question as to what meaning our lives can have in the 21st century, because we have much more knowledge to go on than the mythmakers of the past had, and so the parameters for the creation of life meaning are now very different. The attempt to force a different kind of meaning onto the recalcitrant facts discovered by science is simply to give up the contemporary search for meaning altogether, in preference for meaning based on a very different view of the world. For Mulherin simply cannot separate science and religion in the way that he does into mechanism and world view, for science itself provides the essentials for a contemporary world view in such a way as to make religious world views irrelevant to the world as science has come to present it to us.
I won’t carry this much further. Mulherin thinks the “incompatibility thesis” has been thoroughly debunked, but I think he is wrong in this. Certainly, in the video embedded in Kirkwood’s article we have been given no reason to think this true. Quite the contrary, Mulherin, though he does not notice it, has in face made the incompatibility quite clear, while not noticing that science does provide the basis for a new world view which is incompatible with most religious belief. He asks the question: “Why is the message of the new atheists currently so popular?” He thinks it lies in a confluence of a number of vested interests:
But this simply has to be wrong. The reason for the popularity of the new atheism is that religion is increasingly showing itself unable to cope with the modern world. Practically everywhere you look nowadays we see religion retrenching rapidly, trying to stave off the corrosive effects of science. And Mulherin has not given us a single reason to think otherwise. Indeed, he has demonstrated, in the course of the video, that religion and science are incompatible.
By denying that science provides a basis for a world view, he has simply misunderstood the impact of science, and the meaning of science. For science is not only about mechanism, as Mulherin supposes. Just as the idea of creation gave earlier peoples a grasp of their place in the world, so science provides a new appreciation of our place in the order of things. Carl Sagan used to account for the new world view by emphasising two things: (i) the microscopic role that human life plays in the vast immensity of the universe; and (ii) the fact that, insignificant on the cosmic scale as we are, human intelligence has at last reached the point where it has gained an insight into the very nature of things. And what we learn when we put those two points together is the fact that we are, as it were, orphans in a cosmic storm, but we are intelligent orphans, and must put our intelligence to work in producing a world view which is consistent with what we have come to know about ourselves and our place in the universe.
What Mulherin does so effectively is to point out how important it is that, as those who are heirs to the great scientific enterprise that has been underway for the last four hundred years or so, we need a world view which is consistent with the knowledge that we have gained, which includes a scientific understanding of how religions themselves have played their part in the human experience, but are now largely orphaned by history, even though they continue to claim that they alone can provide meaning for us in a world otherwise devoid of meaning. But this just shows that religion does not understand, and cannot encompass, the enormous changes that have taken place since the seventeenth century scientific revolution. Nor, to be truthful, has the new atheism yet succeeded in providing such a world view. Our task has been largely negative, a matter of showing that religion does not and cannot provide the answers to our most insistent questions about human meaning. What will provide that more comprehensive understanding of our place in the universe is still a task yet to be completed. But we have made a beginning. Attempts like Mulherin’s to drag us back to mythical world views is simply a wasted effort. Jesus was not a god, after all, and he did not die for our sins. We need a better story than that. There must be better songs to sing.