Science and Religion: A Not So Sympathetic View of Religion

Science and Religion portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).

In response to Alhazen’s views covered in my last post, Professor Darrell Arnold penned this thoughtful reply.

You make various points in your post, underlining the value of a religious, or perhaps we should say spiritual, mindset. Your main point seems to be that scientific and religious explanation, or religious life, inhabit different domains and fulfill different needs. And you argue, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I agree with you that religion in some cases serves functions that you allude to. Some people are deeply committed to religion because they see it serving fundamental needs that science doesn’t serve. These are needs for a personal sense of connection with something greater than themselves or for connection to a caring community.

However, religion all too often it doesn’t seem to serve those purposes at all. For Jason, for example, and clearly for many others, religion has largely been oppressive, undermining free-thinking and even empathy. Jason may wish to speak for himself. But his experience of religion doesn’t appear to be like the one you talk about. His experience is that his religion supported racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and more. Further, it didn’t support intellectual development or curiosity. Rather, it claimed a dogmatic solution to every problem. Jason’s experience with religion is similar to that of many others. Now having this experience, are you suggesting that Jason or others like him should nonetheless continue to look within religion for some reserves of truth because those are uniquely provided by religion?

I do not doubt that some — with strong religious impulses — feel a need to continue on some kind of religious quest, and possibly to rely on religion to address some of life’s questions that evade science. Various people seem to me to do this with a spirit of honesty. But I guess I don’t think religion is necessary for these purposes — as the source of connection or meaning, or for building community, or certainly for ethical action.

I do think one of the issues with secularism is that it often does not do a very effective job of helping to meet some of the needs that religion does meet for some — of providing a sense of purpose, or a sense of belonging within the world, or a sense of community. This failure means that some secularists retreat from their communities and only are concerned about taking care of themselves. This doesn’t seem to have afflicted Jason. But in any case, I don’t agree that religion is the only way to address those failures. And in fact, many forms of religious life don’t solve but exacerbate the very problems mentioned. Think of the high incidence of suicide among transgender and homosexual religious youth.

Looking at the demographics of global population growth, I don’t expect the eclipse of religion anytime soon. So I hope that religions more seriously take up the needs that you mention than they now do and that they play a less adversarial role with science. If there are two domains, religion, too, needs to respect the one of science.

Unfortunately, a look at demographics doesn’t lead me to think that religion will generally develop in these ways. Rather, it will develop much more in alignment with the way that opponents of religion see it working. It will all too often continue to offer simplistic dogmatic answers to questions scientific and non-scientific. It will all too often continue to defend bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia in the name of God and truth. It will offer insular communities. For that, I’ve little hope that the world will become increasingly secular, with populations of people with mindsets apparently similar to Jason’s, such as we find in Scandinavia. That’s a pity because it is, on the whole, those nations that have the most social forms of political and economic development and that have taken up climate change and environmental concerns seriously.

I’m with William James that religion meets a unique need for some, one not met by science. These tolerant forms of non-dogmatic religion will surely play a role for many in our immediate future as well. But many of the most humane people I have known have found no need for the kind of experience of the transcendent that James talks about. And they’ve no need for the kind of malformed community that religions all too often form.

For some of those, forms of community are lacking. Secularists need to do more to facilitate such forms of community and to emphasize possibilities for collective action in organizations like the Sierra Club or other such groups. The world we also be a better place if more people did what John does and tried to write clearly and approachably about questions of meaning from a secular perspective, so that those who find that religion does not resonate with them have some non-religious insights to draw on — the way apparently Jason has — in ways that give them a greater sense of a meaningful life. One of the most regrettable realities is that when people are going through individual crises, it is often fundamentalist religions that are first available to offer them (thoughtless) answers and entry into (malformed) communities.

To get back to your baby/bathwater analogy — if an analogy of that sort is appropriate, I’m not sure how much of religion is in the bathwater. Maybe meaning and value beyond instrumentalist reason are. But this, it seems, can be found in various ways.

7 thoughts on “Science and Religion: A Not So Sympathetic View of Religion

  1. Agreed, with all of this article. But we talk to deaf ears on this– as thousands of years of religion has built up oppression (to us), or safeguards (to the religious). So I sidestep these issues by telling them that I would tolerate/accept their faiths if they were to accept even a most far-out (to them) religion such as Satanism.
    Satanism is merely a sort of nature worship. And the devotees are more sincere than many
    orthodox practitioners (or lapsed thereof).

  2. One more comment to cover a heavier base.

    In the previous article, Mr. Heks references Einstein. Einstein also said that science is blind without religion; religion is lame without science. Yet such is not as valid these many decades after Einstein’s famous opinion. If the biosphere is in fact being destroyed, what good is religion–which does offer succor to many– if the very substrate is being wiped out? It becomes how many angels can dance on top of a toxic waste dump.

    Religion has undeniably offered escapism throughout the ages, IMO entirely necessary. But unlike in the past, religion no longer suffices. Alcohol, drugs, the Arts, and most of all religion, have been needed to escape the carnivorous realities of the mundane world. The meat world.

    Now the very meat world is at risk, and fundamentalism (admittedly the anchor of religiosity) only makes sense eschatologically. For if one is devoted, or insane, enough, it does not matter if our substrate is destroyed. To the Truly Devoted/Insane, our lives are supposedly in the Hereafter. What is reality to the religionist is an enormous (to say the least) gamble to the rest of us.

  3. Good point, Allen. The belief that the preset and clearly real is somehow less real than the imagined future of some theoretically existing soul is widespread and completely bizarre. We have a concrete reality, continually undermined by those looking for the universal beyond the particular. It’s sick and disturbing — and dangerous.

  4. A digressive comment: while the social utility of religion remains a debatable issue, I can at least offer the observation that the conflict between science and religion is just the external manifestation of the overlap between two distinct mental modules: the social reasoning module and the linguistic module. The first attempts to explain everything in social terms. Events are driven by powerful but invisible people who will do good things for you if you propitiate them. Sacrifice some virgins, pour a little wine into the sand, maybe burn a calf, and the gods will appreciate your sacrifice and reward you with nice weather, a pay raise, or whatever else you desire.

    Science is much younger; it traces its heritage back to logic, then rationalism, which sprang from the accountability of the written word, which in turn arose from the sequential processing that the linguistic module specializes in, although we get a lot of the natural history module thrown in for good measure.

    The conflict between science and religion exists inside our minds, too.

  5. “We have a concrete reality, continually undermined by those looking for the universal beyond the particular. It’s sick and disturbing — and dangerous”

    By attempting to save their dynasties and empires, they thereby lose them. Though we emphatically disagree with them, they do have it covered. If humans did not exist, the biosphere could still be destroyed by an asteroid or something else. (Just say, a galactic collision, etc.)

    Thus their eschatology can be comforting all-round to them::
    personal and filial death can be meliorated by revealed truth in general. As you of course know. And by End Times prophecies in the bargain, specifically. The world ending can be comforting to the dying, as they wont be missing out. The great equalizer is death.

    However self-fulfilling revealed truth prophecies can be, they are prophecies nonetheless. Perhaps all prophecies are self-fulfilling save for such as extinction by volcano, asteroid, and so forth. For such unavoidable extinction, revealed truth is itself unavoidable, as psychic insurance; a surety even for devotees who do not subscribe to any sort of afterlife.

    If the biosphere is destroyed, what does the Believer have to lose by believing? They’ve got it all covered, as Believers have had thousands of years to think it over. Ancients would experience earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes– and many would think the world was ending. Afterwards, surviving ancients dwelled long n’ hard on it.

  6. Chris: I think you’re onto something. Reason plays a couple roles. We tend to focus on its use for problem solving and explanation of phenomena. This, science does better than any other means available to us. But reason also serves us in creating and strengthening social bonds and in coordinating social activity.

    Religion Is one of the institutions that serves the latter function. Durkheim noted sociality is the heart of religion. It generates a common understanding of core features of the world but also, through ritual — song, shared events — helps solidify a common identity. We have benefited enormously throughout history by belonging to social groups. Religious or mythological — in any case, symbolic — interpretations of the world and their collective rituals have served these purposes.

    Durkheim, who was agnostic, thought political or other narratives might replace religious ones. But I suppose we need something beyond scientific explanation for the task.

    A problem is that religious interpretation is also often explanatory. And historically religion was also a tool for science-like explanations. So when the religions use books written thousands of years ago as their reference and rely on tradition in trying to try to interpret those texts, they conflate varying kinds of explanation and functions of their reasoning. Many people this still see religious narratives as competing with scientific ones in explaining phenomena of the world. So we see biblical literalists threatened by the teaching of evolution. They don’t read their texts metaphorically.

    In all of this, the need for belonging to a group, which religion I believe is more fundamentally addressing, continues to play an extremely important role. Those in a community of literalists have their group identities defined not only by their common rituals but also by their common beliefs. And I think their prioritizing of that communal identity is based in the evolutionary advantage of being a member of a group, which may even outstrip having the best explanations of phenomena. I think our sense of the importance of such social belonging is hard (or deeply) wired. So somebody who has formed an identity with a literalist oriented religious group will often go through the most complicated rationalizations to justify the beliefs at the root of that identity. They will reject much better explanations of things than the ones they have if those explanations are seen to threaten their group identity.

    Science hasn’t been primarily in the business of trying to form community or forge common identity and collective action. Its focus has been to explain reality. Such science-like explanations in religions, by contrast, play a role in the larger task of creating communal identity and coordinating social action.

    The need for such community that religious narratives and practices address is real and great. An issue with secularists who have left religion behind is that they have not adequately addressed this need. Among secular attempts to address this on a large scale, various forms of Marxism are the best known. But the social costs of many of these attempts were dear.

    Secular worldviews need to take the question of forging social bonds and coordinating social action more seriously. Scientism doesn’t appear to meet these needs.

  7. Again: after perhaps almost six thousand years of religious records, true Believers have it all covered. If we were to tell them how the destruction of the biosphere would make our lives worthless, their rejoinder can be that our lives as they are worthless anyway.
    There is no gainsaying them.
    Separation of church and state is our only recourse.

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