There has been a lot of talk over the past century that the scientific method is fundamentally different to the Religious method, whatever that may be exactly.
I have devoted some time to consider this as a viable opinion. And my opinions are mixed as you will be able to say from the following three posts (a series, if you may).
If you want a brief synopsis, here it is: I believe that the scientific method is at odds with what Christendom valued for the past 2 millennia with the rare exceptions (Aquinas, Galileo, Kepler, etc.). Nonetheless, I think that many of the objections raised to Religion misrepresent belief and its essential component to society and knowledge as we know it. Hence, I think that saying that Science and Religion are at odds would be a stretch. There is a big difference between the scientific method and science. I’ll explain why and how I think that in this post.
That being said, I still think that Religion is not a tenable solution to David Hume’s Problem of Induction (more on that later).
In this blog post I will discuss one of the main conclusions of Michael Shermer’s paper Science and Pseudoscience: The Difference in Practice and the Difference It Makes, namely that science and religion are in competition with one another. In conjunction, I will expand on the relationship between Science and religion, how common scientific literacy is, whether belief is correlated with the lack of scientific knowledge, if science and religion are at odds, and whether religious academics can justify their beliefs. We will also discuss the categories that Shermer uses to demarcate science from pseudoscience and then apply the demarcation question to two specific court cases that Shermer mentions in his paper, but to much less of an extent.
Throughout these blog posts, I will be using the term evolution or natural selection both referring to macroevolution as understood by the scientific community to be the large-scale random mechanism that through adopting traits and characteristics introduces new cellular structures, organisms, and species. Correspondingly, whenever the word religion is used it is addressing evangelical fundamentalist Christianity considering that the predominant monotheistic belief in the United States — the country in question — is evangelical Christianity. Liberal, Roman-Catholic, and Eastern-Orthodox Christianity are exemptions not discussed in this essay.
Background on Shermer
First, it is important to mention why Shermer is an appropriate appeal to authority when discussing science and pseudoscience. As we will see throughout this essay, one of the main reasons pseudoscience is still prevalent in today’s society is that it relies heavily on the preferential treatment of evidence and listening to an inappropriate authority. Shermer is primarily a writer and holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University and as such is able to reliably comment on scientific theories. He is not a scientist, nonetheless, he has through his writing proven himself to understand the scientific theories and thus has been accepted by the Scientific community and is often included in panels alongside tenured science professors. He boasts a prolific writing career with numerous New York Times bestsellers. Some of his books include
- The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
- How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and
- Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye.
The Popularity of Science:
Shermer starts his essay by presenting a Harris Interactive poll that seems to indicate that scientific literacy is at odds with monotheistic belief. In the poll, 2303 individuals were asked to indicate for which pseudoscientific claim they believe in. The options included anything from religion to less held beliefs such as Bigfoot sightings, ufology, and reincarnation.
The poll shows that just over 80% of the people answering held fundamentalist Christian beliefs such as believing in Jesus, God, the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell, and the Virgin Birth. Beliefs in other superstitious claims were less common but still present ranging from 40–20%. These included Ufology, BigFoot, Creationism, witches, and reincarnation.
This is not the first poll that can testify to the American aptitude for unfounded belief. Another statistic suggests that the United States is second to last of the top thirty developed countries that reject Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Hood 56).
All that lay-people have when thinking about the intricacies of existence is intuition and unfortunately, these tend to dampen the objective perspective that is necessary for conducting science (Hood 57–8).
Intuition is at odds with what evolutionary biology requires people to believe, namely that we not only share an ancestor with chimpanzees but with carrots as well. Shermer sees the prevalence of fundamentalist belief as the result of the absence of scientific knowledge. The Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, John C. Lennox, would argue that Shermer erroneously attributes correlation with causation when relating the lack of scientific literacy to the prevalence of evangelistic belief.
In his book God and Stephen Hawking, he argues that science can not answer why “something exists rather than nothing” (39). Lennox believes that God is the answer to that question; the explanation for the immaterial resulting in the material. Science simply attempts at explaining the observable not the unobservable. In the words of Lennox, “[T]heories and laws do not bring matter/energy into existence” (43).
In his essay, Shermer does not provide much time nor effort to properly represent the Christian side of the argument which we will look at in more detail here. Shermer simply assumes that the Harris Interactive poll is indicative towards concluding that scientific literacy and Christian belief are at odds.
It is less clear that scientific literacy and religious belief are contrary to one another and more clear that the scientific method is at odds with what makes up the foundation of religious beliefs. Be that as it may, intuition and critical thinking seem to be at counter ends of the spectrum of knowledge. Granted, science relies heavily on empiricism and rejects all hypotheses that lack credibility.
Religion is dependent on the lack of evidence — belief is celebrated, not the lack of it.
Science and Religion, by definition, thus have been seen as opposites. It is important to see the differences between the scientific method, religious belief, and belief in claims based on insufficient evidence. Theists believe that their faith is not blind but guided by an objective understanding of physics, biology, and mathematics.
The proposal that science and belief are fundamentally at odds has been promoted in the public eye from a wide range of secular thinkers most recently by the “Four Horsemen”. The group is comprised of:
- the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris,
- the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett,
- the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins,
- and lastly the now deceased journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Religious thinkers have publicly voiced their disagreements with the Four Horsemen and other proponents of “scientism” for the past decade. Scientism, the claim that science can explain the origin of the Universe, human values, and objective moral laws has received its fair share of criticism.
We will discuss the criticism and some responses in the next two posts. Links are here:
Science & Religion: Are They Really At Odds? (Pt.2)
This is the second of three parts to my take on whether Science & Religion are truly at odds. I recommend reading them…
Before you go…
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,