Scientific approach

This is primarily a repost of a guest column I wrote for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, The Diamondback. It was published back in April following Richard Dawkins’ visit to the campus as a guest of the UMD Society of Inquiry.

Here’s a little background: Justin Snow, an opinion editor for The Diamondback, started the discussion with a piece called “Evolution: Slouching Toward the Truth,” which summarized Dawkins’ lecture and expressed dismay over the popularity of religiously-motivated Creationism in America. The column included the following paragraph:

Since Galileo’s 17th century persecution by the Catholic Church for rightfully arguing the sun did not revolve around the Earth, religion and science have been in a near constant struggle. And for too long our nature to compromise — to agree to disagree — has led to a sickening conciliatory nature between religious mysticism and scientific fact. But on the subject of truth there can be no compromise.

…which motivated another student – Michael Wellen – to send off a letter to the editor, taking offense at Justin’s column and arguing that not only can science and religion coexist, but that science is actually dependent upon religion and faith.

My response:

Indeed, the real human story is magical — a sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and echoed by Justin Snow in his April 14 column, “Evolution: Slouching toward the truth.” But what is it that makes it so magical? I would argue that it is not the story itself that is so magnificent, but rather the fact that the story is true.

This, in my view, is the fundamental and unbridgeable divide between science and religion. Science delivers the truth — always provisional, never absolute, but nevertheless the closest we can possibly hope for. We are able to make assertions with a healthy degree of confidence in science because scientific hypotheses are constantly checked against reality “out there” and believed only in proportion to their ability to describe and predict new discoveries.

While science embraces skepticism as its central tenet, religion embraces faith. Faith is the antithesis of the skeptical approach of science. As an element of clear thought, it is blatantly antagonistic to the check against reality which scientific ideas must be subjected to. As a result, it is not clear how faith could possibly lead to what any honest person could, in their right mind, label “knowledge.” Without that capability, where is theology left in relation to the veritable factory of understanding that is modern science? What could theologians possibly hope to offer up in a dialogue with science? It seems to me that what religious apologists really hope to gain from such a dialogue is credibility welfare — a resource which traditional religion is hemorrhaging in the enlightened world. Dialogue can, does, has and will continue to occur, but it will not be constructive.

Religion and science needn’t conflict on the facts. Ironically, this owes itself entirely to the fact that they are in a head-on collision when it comes to their respective approaches to understanding the universe. The reason they needn’t conflict on the facts is theology has proven time and again that it can adjust to rationalize any possible observation (biological evolution springs to mind). Theology is so flexible in this manner because unlike science, faith is not constrained by evidence, a sentiment well-expressed by the author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” For many religious believers, it is a virtue that their belief should precede evidence. In science, such an attitude is a terrible vice.

In his letter to the editor yesterday, Michael Wellen stated, “There is nothing in science that can prove evolution is not merely God’s tool for shaping the world.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more telling illustration of the difference between how a scientist should approach a question like this and how the religious mind does the same. Wellen apparently feels justified in believing evolution is God’s tool for shaping the world, so long as there is nothing in science that can prove him wrong. The scientific approach reads quite differently: “There is nothing in science that suggests that evolution is God’s tool for shaping the world.”


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Filed under Accommodationism, Christianity, Evolution, Religion, Science

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