The Silent Majority : It's OK to be both scientific and religious

Chris Mooney over at The Intersection has a post where he talks about The Silent Majority— the fact that there are a substantial number of people out there who have no trouble reconciling religion and science. The debate is dominated on one side by religious fundamentalists, who deny reality in their efforts to stay faithful to a literal (and, frankly, nonsensical) reading of the Bible. On the other side, that side which is loudest and most strident in the scientific blogosphere, are the militant atheists, the types who think that any form of religious faith whatosever is evidence of stupidity, ignorance, or childishness, and that any form of religious faith is incompatible with good scientific judgement.

However, the truth is, if you talk to the faculty of a science department at just about any college in the country, you'll find that a substantial number of them (probably well less than half, but not a trivial amount) are regular churchgoers. I suspect you'd find that most are agnostic. You'd find that those who are atheists by and large don't have a problem with their religious colleagues. There are people who have religious faith, but aren't fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn't have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they're good and rigorous scientists, but they haven't mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.

There are a lot of people out there either with religious faith, or without faith but willing to admit the intellectual worthiness of those with faith, and who also have no problem with the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for global warming, the face of the billions-of-years-old Unvierse, and all of the rest of the things that modern science has taught us. Chris Mooney is on the atheist side of this; I'm on the theist side of this.

Chris asks why the reasonable sorts who don't feel the need to "hit the rails" and go to one extreme or the other of the debate, aren't heard from more. Probably because of the Rush Limbaugh effect: those who have an extreme position that involves disdain for those who disagree are able to express it ever so much more entertainingly than those who see value in accomodation. Indeed, I made some posts about my own views on science and religion back when I was in scienceblogs.com, and when I did so I would receive many vicious attacks from the commenters there-- those who are to the militant atheist bloggers as "dittoheads" are to Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever you are convinced that you are absolutely right about something-- not pretty sure, not even very confident, but absolutely right-- you should question yourself. If the vast majority of people who've thought deeply about it agree with you, there's a very good chance that you really are right. For example, I am absolutely convinced that I am absolutely right in believing that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, as the vast majority of people who have seriously looked at that evidence would agree. However, when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God, and to whether acceptance of science forces you to the latter conclusion, look around and acquire some humility-- many people have thought a lot about this, and they aren't all coming to agree that science must equal atheism. Perhaps it is compelling to you, and that's fine... but if you think that therefore any thinking reasonable person would come to the same exact beliefs that you have come to, the weight of evidence indicates that you're kidding yourself, just as assuredly as a fundamentalist theist of any stripe is kidding himself about the absolute and universal truth of his faith.

11 responses so far

  • smijer says:

    Very well said. Humility is the order of the day.

  • Montejon says:

    Yes.

  • ponderingfool says:

    There are people who have religious faith, but aren’t fundamentalists and thus that faith doesn’t have to interfere with their science. By the same token, they’re good and rigorous scientists, but they haven’t mistaken the metholdolgy and world-view of science for an all-encompasing perscription for how a rational person must order all of his thoughts.
    ***********************************
    There are fundamentalists in top tier research universities. Rare, but they are there. In a biochemistry course I had to correct a few papers by graduate students on evolution who referred to "evolution as just a theory". Their religious beliefs were affecting their science. First they did not know what a scientific theory was and second they had no clue about evolution.

    There are Mormons who have a distorted view of history in order to conform to their religious beliefs, including neglecting natural science evidence (or the lack thereof). I know of scientists who push New Age ideas and in the process end up distorting not their scientific research but rather basic scientific facts to others. Should either group be called out for that?

    Coyne believes Miller and Collins are doing the same with regards to evolution with their popular books. They are distorting the science on evolution to conform to their theistic beliefs. Should Coyne not call them out for that?

  • scientist says:

    Agreed. I think the 'average' scientist is most likely agnostic. While I understand the usefulness of the 'militant athiest scientists' in disputing the harmful anti-science positions of the creationists, when it comes to the actual scientific community itself, I just find it strident and polarizing.

  • rknop says:

    Well, any of us can counter the anti-science positions of the creationists. I think it far better that it be done in a "creationism is wrong" way than a "creationism is wrong because it's religion and all of religion is stupid" way... the latter is what the militant atheists tend to do.

  • ponderingfool says:

    Well, any of us can counter the anti-science positions of the creationists. I think it far better that it be done in a “creationism is wrong” way than a “creationism is wrong because it’s religion and all of religion is stupid” way… the latter is what the militant atheists tend to do.
    *******
    Aren't you then conforming people to certain religious views though? Lets be honest when we talk about religion and science being compatible we are talking in the abstract. Science is not compatible with all religions and faiths. Certain ones yes.

    In the US, a good number of the general populace doesn't think evolution applies to human origins. They believe in some form of special creation for human origins. The scientific evidence argues that humans evolved like every other species on the planet. Nothing special. Coyne argues Miller and Collins in their popular books promote a variant of special creation for human origins that is not scientifically supported at this time.

    It should also be pointed out the Coyne and Myers, with regards to the National Academy of Sciences, believe the organization should not be promoting either side (neither atheism nor accomodationism). Science organizations should focus on science and its promotion. That is how they teach their classes.

  • rknop says:

    Sure, there are lots of religious views that are not compatible with science. That's true of lots of non-religious views as well. However, what I'm taking issue with is people who say that all religion, or religion itself, is not compatible with science.

    Re: the NAS and NCSE, if you want to promote science publicly, you have to know your audience. In the USA today, if you promote science without addressing evolution and religion, you're ignoring a gigantic elephant in the room. The creationists are attacking science. I really, really, really do not want to leave the answering of them to people who will attack all of religion.

  • ponderingfool says:

    Sure, there are lots of religious views that are not compatible with science. That’s true of lots of non-religious views as well. However, what I’m taking issue with is people who say that all religion, or religion itself, is not compatible with science.
    *******
    Mostly those I have read critique theistic religion that make predictions as to how the universe works and ascribing the supernatural.

    The NAS should promote science. Evolution happens. Those are not beliefs. Those are facts of the world just like gravity. You don't have to say whether that fact is consistent with atheism. You don't have say it is compatible with religion. NAS should be silent on both matters as should teachers in the classroom.

    To say religion is compatible with science is disingenuous. It is not true for the religious faiths practiced by many Americans. Promoting the compatibility of religion and science is promoting certain religious faiths above others. Should teachers in schools really be doing that?

  • Patness says:

    I've written on this subject in the past on several occasions, and I find my position on the matter shifting, somewhat.

    The bottom line is this: anything a person claims they do because of their religion, we rephrase in human terms, too.

    Among the many things human beings do is compartmentalize. The question, between religion and science is which compartment has more space. There, I think, science should really get the bigger locker.

  • Science Copperfield says:

    Science and religion cannot be reconciled because they are not two sides of the same coin. In fact, science and religion aren't even in the same currency from the same country. If we were an inter-stellar species such as those portrayed in popular science fiction, I'd stretch this analogy further to say that science and religion aren't the same currency from the same planet!

    Science is about what is testable, provable, verifiable, probable and repeatable through independent and credible peer review. It deals with the physical, and the natural...NOT the metaphysical or supernatural! Each side does a serious dis-service to their respective arguments by trying to find a common ground or reconciliatory point between the two disciplines.

    I believe in God. There are events which have happened in my life, repeatedly and consistently which have convinced me that there is a God that has planned for my existence, and cares about me. But said claim cannot be scientifically proven, nor disproven. Until I see scientific evidence which brings my own intensely personal and intimate experiences from the supernatural to the natural, it serves me well to err on the side of faith.

    How, having said that, Do I believe that we have death and evil in the world because a talking snake, told a naked woman to each from a magic tree? Emphatically, NO!! However, I do believe that a naked woman can convince a naked man to do just about anything she tells him to 🙂

    To conclude my point...my "faith" is intensely intimate and personal, but not secret and I'm happy to share it. However, I'm also sane enough to recognize that it is not scientific, and view it like this... I know that a rainbow is the result of refracted like through water vapor in the atmosphere. It doesn't make it any less spectacular a thing to behold after a storm.

  • Science Copperfield says:

    Small grammar and spelling corrections...

    Where I said:
    "...told a naked woman to each from a magic tree?
    Replace the word "each" for the word "eat"

    Where I said:
    "...I know that a rainbow is the result of refracted like through water vapor ...
    Replace the word "like" for the word "light"

    That's what I get for being a rapid typist 🙂