June 15, 2014
The modern literature of science and religion is large, growing, diversely rich, and often challenging. It includes philosophical studies, polemical essays, histories, apologetics, surveys, college textbooks, massive reference books, and even incandescent bestsellers when writers like Richard Dawkins take up their pen to have their say. This is the 3rd in a series of blogs surveying this literature from a Baha’i perspective that sees science and religion as two absolutely necessary components in any kind of successful future global civilization.
Our first blog in the series was the less-than-inspiringly named Books on Science and Religion #1: Introduction, a brief overview of the books we are looking at. Our second in the series, labeled Books on Science and Religion #2: Victor Stenger and Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe looked at the author Victor Stenger and the first of his books (Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe). Stenger lacks the brilliance and flair of Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris – the renowned new Atheists he is sometimes lumped with – but he makes up for that by his plain-spokenness and his persistence. We first give a short Baha’i perspective on Not by Design and then start looking at what he says in God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.
A Baha’i Perspective on Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe
There is much in the Baha’i Faith that is in accord with the concerns about religion that Victor Stenger voices in Not By Design. The Baha’i writings say that religion without reason is superstition in almost exactly the same way as does Stenger, the new Atheists, and many of the other thinkers and writers who find religion lacking the virtues of reason and science. According to the Baha’i writings:
… religion must be in accord with science and reason. If it does not correspond with scientific principles and the processes of reason, it is superstition.
If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition
Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof so that science will sanction religion and religion fortify science. Both are indissolubly welded and joined in reality. If statements and teachings of religion are found to be unreasonable and contrary to science, they are outcomes of superstition and imagination.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to Baha’i criticism of the lack of reason and science in religion of the modern world. But the Baha’i Faith does not reject religion and the religious impulse, nor does it think it reasonable and logical to do so. And this is despite recognizing that much of what currently passes as religion is actually myth and superstition. And it is simple to see why.
Consider, for example, how science-inspired survival-of-the-fittest ideology – social Darwinism – has been put to horrendous use. Tens of millions of people have been sacrificed on its alter after it found its way into communism, scientific racism, nationalism, and fascism. Should we conclude that science should thereby be rejected? Is science to be attacked as evil and dismissed as unfounded? After all, the death toll due to these adventures in science have far exceeded anything due to excessive religious zeal.
Clearly, to reject science on the basis of the excesses committed in the name of science violates both reason and logic. It is widely understood that all things can be used for bad or for good, and in this case, it was misguided use of science by politicians, leaders of thought, organizers of social movements, military campaigns, industrial ventures, or conquest that was the culprit. And just as clearly, to reject religion on the basis that it has been misused for terrorism, for political purposes, for power, or because it had been allowed to degenerate into a source of superstition is to commit the same mistake. The point is neither abstruse nor difficult to understand.
This however is not the conclusion that Stenger reaches. Religion, he believes, is folly and is rejected by science.
Victor Stenger and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion
The book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, published in 2012, is Victor Stenger’s 11th book. It is a continuing engagement with the themes addressed in Not by Design, but updated and focused on the new atheism debates. I take the themes he addresses as those that still have traction in the secular humanist understanding of religion, spirituality, theology, and the like.
One of these themes is sounded in Stenger’s very first paragraph. Religion, he believes, is blind faith as opposed to science (which he takes to is trustable truth). Stenger writes:
Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence. No one disputes that religion is based on faith. … [Science] analyzes observations by applying certain methodological rules and formulates models to describe those observations. It justifies that process by its practical success, not by any logical deduction derived from dubious metaphysical assumptions.
We must distinguish faith from trust. Science has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failure. Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it. (Stenger, Victor. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion, Prometheus, 2012, p. 25.)
This viewpoint has merit, but is not without serious problems. For example, consider how small the number of scientists. Given their small numbers, popular understandings of science are likely more reliant on faith than is the case for religious belief where each and every believer is potentially an active participant. Yet Stenger cogently identifies one of the main concerns of the age – a distrust of religion – and contrasts it with some of the outstanding successes of science. And while his whole approach is highly polemical – science is good and things like the massive impact on the natural environment and the enormously destructive wars that it has enabled are ignored and the extraordinarily positive and continuing contributions to civilization that religion has provided are not acknowledged – the issue he highlights is very real.
Stenger’s analysis, as we pointed out, is that it is religion that is the problem. Although now aware that there are many who are religious who embrace science full-heartedly, he still insists that the two forces are irreconcilable:
No doubt the great theologians of the past had few problems with science, seeing it as another way to learn more about the majesty of the Creator. Similarly, liberal theologians today fully accept the discoveries of science. Nevertheless, we will see that the theologies of all ages still promote a worldview that is antithetical to that of science. The differences between science and religion are not merely matters of different points of view that might be harmonized with some effort. They are forever irreconcilable.
Nevertheless, a common misunderstanding needs to be corrected. The conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason. … Reason and logic must be supplemented by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science, that source is solely observation. … Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed. (Stenger, Victor. ibid p. 28-29.)
This, of course, is textbook scientism and considered quite naive by most philosophers. We will talk more about that later.
The reason that science and religion are irreconcilable, Stenger believes, are twofold. One reason is different views about the nature of the universe:
… differences arising from the differing viewpoints and methodology of science and religion include the origin of the universe and its physical parameters, the origin of complexity, the concepts of holism versus reductionism, the nature of mind and consciousness, and the source of morality.
But the folly of faith is even deeper than its history of factual error and misrepresentation. (Stenger, Victor. ibid p. 28-29.)
We shall look at some of what Stenger considers “factual error and misrepresentations” later, finding that they are mainly metaphysical interpretations that differ from Stenger’s. As he believes that he doing “science [as] observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed,” he doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that he is imposing his own metaphysical assumptions in interpreting scientific theories. Everyone – not just every good scientist – should work constantly to avoid doing such a thing.
The other reason he holds that science and religion are irreconcilable is that he believes religion to be inherently dogmatic:
Suppose a new religion was invented and it taught dogmatically that all that existed were material atoms that interacted exactly as described by physics, that Darwin was right and all life arose from the same primitive matter, and that the universe was not created but was part of an infinite and eternal multiverse. In other words, the new religion was based totally on the best scientific models of today. This religion would nonetheless be incompatible with science. The new religionists would still “believe” in an unchanging dogma while scientists would be open to change tomorrow, next week, or whenever new evidence is found. (Stenger, Victor. ibid p. 29.)
And yet his characterizations of the best scientific models of the day are not those that would be widely endorsed by the modern scientific community.
If we fast forward to the end of the book, we find that he concludes with a plea for the elimination of “magical thinking” and “the eradication of foolish faith”:
Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. … today we all are inundated with information, especially on the Internet. However, much of that information is untrustworthy, and it takes a trained thinker to filter out the good from the bad. Magical thinking and blind faith are the worst mental systems we can apply under these circumstances. They allow the most outrageous lies to be accepted as facts.
… I have an urgent plea to scientists and all thinking people. We need to focus our attention on one goal, which will not be reached in the lifetime of the youngest among us, but which has to be achieved someday if humanity is to survive: the eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet. (Stenger, ibid, p. 322.)
Surely he is right about the need for the elimination of “magical thinking” and “foolish faith”. But, if we take his commitment to atheism and secular humanism seriously – if it is more than window dressing – then we have to assume his cure for the problem is to eliminate religion. And this, as history shows, is often done through threats and by violence. What we see today is that religionists of a certain type and persuasion – or sometimes all people who are religious – are castigated as the ‘other’ and labeled as inferior due to such things as their contentiousness about Darwinian evolutionary doctrines or their belief in God. And while we have abandoned labeling women and people from other cultures as inferior, recognizing it as manifold injustice, we somehow are willing to label those adhering to religious perspectives in this way.
Stenger does just this in his characterization of the religious as mere “dupes”:
From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today, with religious groups being manipulated to work against believers’ own best interests in health and economic well-being in order to cast doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed worldviews of science and religion. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth.
We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense. (Stenger, ibid, p. 322.)
We can’t ignore the dogmatic and – and lets face it, the hopelessly unscientific – worldview of religious superstitions opposed to science, and we agree that we should heartily endorse Stenger’s hope that religion relinquish “its commitment to nonsense.’ Perhaps the hope he expresses indicates that, despite himself, he recognizes that religion and science aren’t irredeemably irreconcilable after all.
In the next blog, we will pursue some of the details of Stenger’s description of the conflicts between scientific and religious world views.
This is the 3rd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.