Thursday, July 15, 2010

Modern Myths of Science and Religion - Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts to critically examine popular misconceptions of the relationship between science and religion.  These misconceptions can rightly be called myths, because they continue to be believed and perpetuated in popular culture, despite being debunked by the latest scholarship.  The myth I will address in this post is what philosopher Roy Clouser has called "The Myth of Religious Neutrality."

There is a widely held belief today that science and religion are fundamentally opposite ways of explaining reality.  As Stephen Hawking recently put it, "[R] based on authority, based on observation and reason."  This view can be summarized in the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy, and it is ubiquitous throughout our culture.[1]  Examples of it can be found in everything, from popular TV shows such as "House," (which I love) to bestselling books like The God Delusion.

A part of this popular view is the idea that religion has historically kept people in the dark - the darkness of superstition and ignorance - while science has progressively liberated society from that darkness.  For instance, people used to think lightning came from Zeus, until we discovered static electricity.  We believed disease was punishment from the gods, until we developed germ theory.  You get the idea.  Thus, most people think science and religion are either in conflict, or don't overlap, or both.  Christopher Hitchens gives a biting articulation of this view, in his book God Is Not Great:
...[Science] offers the promise of near-miraculous advances in healing, in energy, and in peaceful exchange between cultures.  Yet millions of people in all societies still prefer the myths of the cave and the tribe and the blood sacrifice [Religion].  The late Stephen Jay Gould generously wrote that science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisteria."  They most certainly do not overlap, but this does not mean that they are not antagonistic.  Religion has run out of justifications.  Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important.[2]
The take away message from Hitchens and others is that if religion has anything left to say, it is irrelevant in the light of science.  It's important to notice that, within the view I've been describing, there is a tacit assertion that science is entirely objective and free of religious assumptions.  As we will see however, that is not exactly the case.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience."[3]  Lewis's point was that everyone holds certain metaphysical assumptions - beliefs we assume to be true without verification.  And those assumptions influence how we interpret the world.  This is certainly the case with religious believers.  It is equally true of scientists.

In his book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, philosopher Roy Clouser argues that religious belief is necessarily among the assumptions that all people have.  According to Clouser, everyone believes in a self-existing entity - i.e. something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.  For some people, this entity is God.  For others, it is the universe itself, or simply energy.  Either way, we all hold to some assumption about what is 'ultimate' or 'prior' to everything else.  Clouser says this is what we mean by "the Divine."

Some scholars have criticized Clouser's definition of the divine, but it seems to agree with the view held by many philosophers - everyone from Aristotle, to Leibniz and Spinoza - that whatever metaphysical 'substance' is 'ultimate,' or exists 'on its own' is what we mean by "God."  If this is the case, then all scientists have an assumption of what is divine.  Whether they are like Newton and believe the divine entity is a personal God, or they are like Stephen Hawking and believe the divine entity is the embodiment of the laws of nature, their assumptions will likely influence the way they interpret the world (i.e. the theories they formulate to explain reality).

If Clouser's thesis is correct, then religious assumptions have played a major role in scientific theories from the very beginning.  In the next post, I will discuss how religious assumptions heavily influenced the theories of what many scholars say were the first people to think "scientifically" about the world - the ancient Greeks.


1.  I think the "Faith vs. Reason" dichotomy is a false one.  To see why, read my previous post here.

2.  Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2007) page 282.

3.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) page 2.

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