Thursday, September 21, 2006

Back to the Future?

Some of us thought the faith vs. science controversy got sent to bed 25 years ago.

Back in the day I taught a class on the worldviews of science (naturalism) and various religious faiths at Stanford when I was an undergrad in the ‘free university’ there. We had a great class--various grad students in the hard sciences, a couple of playwrights, some Christian clergy types and a bunch of agnostics. We concluded there was no fundamental incompatibility between science and religious faith, a view that seemed to be pretty standard at that time. The old timey Monkey Trial hostility between religion and science had largely faded away by then.

Oh well, so much for détente :^)

Good article in Newsweek a couple of weeks back on the renewed hostilities between scientists and religious types.

Why is everybody getting so hot under the collar all of the sudden?

Well, it’s no news bulletin to say that fundamentalist religion is pro-actively and purposefully ignorant of science and often hostile to it.

That's no problem when fundies keep a low profile. But when fundamentalisms and fundamentalist tendencies gain great influence around the world, that basic irrationality becomes a big deal.

Why are science and religious faith far more polarized in 2006 than in 1980?

I’d say mostly because of the rising influence and activism of various religious fundamentalisms around the world in the past 25 years, including Islamic fundamentalism and right wing Christian fundamentalism in the US.

Here at home we’ve got a whole lot of people who think church membership gives ‘em a license to sit in judgment on scientific discovery and to believe nonsense. In my mind Creationism is silly, and the influence of fundamentalism’s basic distrust of science has been clear in US government policies since Bush arrived. Fundy votes put those guys in office and good science has never been less welcome in Washington.

As for fundamentalism in the rest of the world and especially the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, well, no need to say much about their obvious take on modern science and reason.

So I’m not surprised that more and more scientists and writers are challenging the idea that religion and science are compatible.

And man, their broadsides are blistering.

Some folks are trying to hold the old détente line including Joan Roughgarden, a Christian and a biologist at Stanford (Evolution and Christian Faith) and Francis Collins, also a Christian and a geneticist (The Language of God), but most of the new stuff is rough and confrontational. Though I welcome the intellectual ferment coming out of all this I'm also sort of sad about it too.

More on the harshest of those attacks and some concluding takes on this whole topic of religious fundamentalism tomorrow....


Anonymous Jon said...

I think that a certain type of Christian has become the biggest block to scientists coming to the faith. As St. Augustine said long ago:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and the orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?"

2:18 AM  
Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Tom, as usual, excellent post.

As a scientist myself, I find the whole divide between science and faith to be absurd. The more I learn about science, the more I am impressed with God, an often vice-versa.

The fact that fundamentalists (and often religious conservatives in general) are "pro-actively, purposefully ignorant of science and often hostile to it" drives me nuts. Few things are worse than listening to someone without any scientific knowledge trying to make a scientific point and thinking they are doing a bang up job at it.

9:00 AM  
Blogger ruth said...

sigh... all too true. Drives me nuts too.

That's a great quote from Augustine, Jon. what text is it from?

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis). I first used it in a paper I wrote in grad school about the combatibility of science and faith and the need for non-scientists to leave scientific debates to those using scientific methods.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

I could have quoted a bit more. This immediately follows what I already said:

"Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

(p.s. - the other point of my paper was that scientists need to realize that their inquiries only answer a very limited set of religious and philosophical questions, and they need to stop thinking that God is as subject to their methods as His creation).

uggh - I'm filling up your comments.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Wow. Great stuff everybody. A lot better than the post :^) But that happens pretty often!

6:29 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

thanks for the extra quotes, jon!

sigh... it's strange how there really is nothing new under the sun. I feel like it's basically the same problem, some 1500 years later.

except maybe the second point of your paper. Maybe science overreaching its authority is more of a modern thing.

wordcat, thanks for getting the discussion going!

7:28 PM  

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