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Monday, June 07, 2010

The Academic Discipline of Science & Religion Studies

Joshua Rosenau thinks that science and religion are different ways of knowing. This means that, at some level, they can't conflict. I'm a skeptic and a scientist. I want some evidence before accepting that religion offers a valid way of knowing the truth. Please give me an example of some kind of "knowing" that religion offers. Be prepared to explain why millions of atheists can get along just fine without this way of knowing. It certainly seems as though the religious way of "knowing" is completely dispensable.

While you're at it, please explain why different religions arrive at different conclusions. If religion is a valid way of knowing, then why don't all religions arrive at the same conclusions about, say, the divinity of Jesus, or the morality of abortion, or how the universe originated? If only some religions have a lock on valid ways of knowing about truth, then which ones are correct?

Josh's latest foray into this minefield is over the composition of the Science & Faith panel at the World Science Festival [A fair point]. He says, ...
In the field of science/religion studies, there's a consensus statement that's been widely circulated and agreed to, and it states: "in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels… natural theology may be a legitimate enterprise in its own right, but we resist the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science - just as we oppose efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism)." The New Atheists reject this consensus, as they are entitled to do. But they reject it without going through the academic literature of the relevant field, preferring pop-culture books to academic engagement.
There's so much wrong with that statement that it's hard to know where to begin. Let me just mention two problems before moving on to a third one.
  1. Atheists don't believe in supernatural beings. They have not been convinced by any of the arguments offered up by religious scholars or passionate friends and relatives. This does not mean they "elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism)." Speaking as one of those atheists, if anyone wants to argue for another valid way of knowing (other than science) then I'm more than happy to pay attention. Just don't ask me to make the assumption that supernatural beings exist. You have to convince me of that first.

  2. There are perfectly valid, rational, objections to accommodationism. Josh insults all of us by saying that we don't read the academic literature. That's just not true and I expect an apology.
Finally, let's look at the so-called "consensus" view that Josh quotes. He provides a link to its source—it's the International Society for Science & Religion's Statement on the Concept of 'Intelligent Design'.

Who is this group and why should their statement be considered the consensus view in studying the possible conflicts between science and religion? Looking at their website, I find this statement about their purpose.
Our central aim is the facilitation of dialogue between the two academic disciplines of science and religion, one of the most important current areas of debate in terms of understanding the nature of humanity. This includes both the enhancement of the profile of the science-religion interface in the public eye, as well as the safeguarding of the quality and rigour of the debate in the more formal, academic arena.
Interesting. I wonder how many members are atheists and how many think that science and religion are in conflict? After all, one of the hallmarks of a true academic discipline is that it welcomes all points of view.

What do they have to say about membership?
While maintaining rigorous qualifications for membership (membership is through nomination by existing members only) the Society has now grown to over 140 members, including many of the leading scholars in the science and religion field. Indeed the last two presidents, George Ellis, a theoretical cosmologist and Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, and John Polkinghorne, are both recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities - the world's best-known religion prize, awarded each year to a living person to encourage and honour those who advance spiritual matters.

Membership of the society is truly universal: the society incorporates, and welcomes, representatives from a variety of faith traditions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam in addition to Christianity. Membership is also widely distributed geographically, with representatives from countries as diverse as South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as from Europe and America.
Now I get it. It's a group of accommodationists. No wonder Josh thinks this is the consensus view in the field. No wonder he accuses atheists of being ignorant because they disagree with the "consensus" view of the International Society for Science & Religion.

Is this what passes for an true academic discipline in the eyes of accommodationists? No wonder we have trouble communicating.


  1. Larry: "Atheists don't believe in supernatural beings."

    Right. Atheists believe in gazillions of little miracles...miracles like chemicals and physical laws and billions of nucleotides and various molecules that just zap themselves into existence. That doesn't even count the miraculous generation of life from non-life and the miraculous generation of the life-friendly universe from nothing. Larry, why do you kid yourself that you don't believe in the miraculous or the supernatural? How does something space and time and matter and energy mindlessly zap itself into existence? Maybe this is why you atheists number only about 8 percent of the population. You people have no room to criticize anyone.

  2. Just out of curiosity, how would one go about engaging academic discussion on science and religion? Is there a journal for it? Or is it more like the humanities, where writing books is accepted scholarship? Because if the latter is acceptable, then could it be possible for "The God Delusion" to be an academic discourse by simply binding it ugly grey, leavening with yellowed pages, and have it rotting in the stacks of some library?

    Also, I'm surprised that there is an academic discipline on science AND religion.

  3. My bad, it appears there are technically journals about religion and science. Who knew?

  4. @Anon

    Actually, we don't actually have any miracles. The more you learn, the less something is of a miracle, and the more comprehensible (and thus, enjoyable), it becomes. Personally, I'd hate miracles - they're spooky. Keep in mind that to a child, -everything- is a miracle, incl Santa's Christmas presents! Magic is a cheap drug to wonder; understanding, while demanding, is much more intense and long-lasting! =D

  5. Psi Wavefunction, Anonymous is just frustrated because his god is always invisible and silent, so nobody will just lie down and take Anonymous's word for everything. You can imagine the frustration. But, sorry, there has to be some sort of evidence other than Anonymous's say-so, or Anonymous's God winning by default just because Anonymous can't understand something. It just doesn't work that way.

  6. Anonymous writes:

    Right. Atheists believe in gazillions of little miracles...miracles like chemicals and physical laws and billions of nucleotides and various molecules that just zap themselves into existence.

    It's wonderful to see all these miraculous things, and even more wonderful to experience the joy of beginning to understand how they came about. Folks who say "Looking for natural explanations is forbidden, it occurred by magic!" ruin our fun and are generally a drag.

  7. I am not the "Anonymous" who commented first (must get an ID!)
    I wish to ask that "Anonymous": you seem to regard everything that occurs as miraculous. If so, doesn't that deprive the word "miraculous" of any meaning? If not, can you point to something in the world which is not miraculous?


    they are incapable of telling the difference between SCIENTIFIC *FACT* AND RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL *TRUTH*... FATAL ERROR!

    they also preach a *VALUE FREE SCIENCE* called *POSITIVISM* that ignores the inequalities of wealth and power in capitalist civilization...

    for a sample taste of PZ Myers' GARBAGE...




    what happens when you LOSE Pascal's Wager...



    the blood and bodies of the atheist movement...

    you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!

    this has more TRUTH then what Dawkins, Randi, Harris, Myers, and Shermer
    combined have said in their entire lives...!v=5R2wE8Sduhs&playnext_from=TL&videos=hht1U_19anc&feature=rec-LGOUT-exp_fresh%2Bdiv-1r-3-HM

    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION...

    they LOST THE WAR......

    you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer... you have become an object in the
    material world, as you WISHED...

    we're gonna smash that TV...

    They had become ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE AND OF GOD...
    you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

    degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) - ATHEISTS!

    do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

    how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is


    THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!



  9. "Joshua Rosenau thinks that science and religion are different ways of knowing."

    I don't think he does. I think he merely sees them as not incompatible philosophically. That's a point so obvious as to be axiomatic. Science is a method of examining the world and a body of knowledge. It is not a philosophy. It does not and cannot conflict with religion per se even though it negates any number of religious claims (such as a 6,000 year-old earth).

    There are perfectly valid, rational, objections to accommodationism.

    Bullshit. It's unsupportable nonsense designed to short-circuit discussion of religious questions by demonizing the opposition and declaring that certain topics are off-limits as unworthy of "real" scientists. If science is in necessary conflict with religion, it's also in necessary conflict with ethics, moral concerns, human rights, politics and much of life's most interesting questions in that they all rest upon undemonstrated (and often unevidenced) assumptions.

  10. I think I'm becoming inured to the sophomoric level of "debate" in the halls of academe.

    Joshua Rosenau thinks that science and religion are different ways of knowing.[...]

    There is only one way of knowing, either a statement is true or false, and that fact applies equally to physics and metaphysics.

    While you're at it, please explain why different religions arrive at different conclusions.

    Because different religions begin with different assumptions. Atheism, for example, begins with the assumption that ultimate reality is the time/space continuum and all effects are the result of prior time/space causes. Buddhism begins with the assumption that unconscious mind is the source of ultimate reality and that the time/space continuum is illusion.

    Between the two is a spectrum of different belief systems with more or less evidential support. Whatever degree of support any one of them may exhibit the fact remains that none may be asserted with absolute certainty. Each is a "leap of faith" - atheism as much as any other theism.

    Perhaps you should study a little philosphy and theology before you pontificate on matter which you comprehendeth not.

  11. So Dave.

    How about you taking your own a advice and crack a book sometime eh?

    Atheism is not a religion, it is the lack of faith in gods.

    Your blatherings about time/space continuum and causes is not part of being an atheist, indeed it is not an assumption necessary for being an atheist.

    Nice try though, thank you for playing

  12. Why hello Soren

    What could be the cause if it is not included within the space/time continuum? God? The little green fairies at the CRU? There is a limited number of options.

    I did crack a book once... now I read them, it's more informative.

  13. While you're at it, please explain why different religions arrive at different conclusions.

    Because different religions begin with different assumptions.

    Ahhh, Euclid's geometry! It all makes so much sense now. Thanks for splainin!

  14. I'd like for someone to present that any complex thing in the universe arose by chance. You've got gazzilions of things to choose from....starting with all atoms.


  15. starting with all atoms.

    4p -> He4 + 2e+ + 2ve'

    There you go.

  16. Anonymous writes:

    I'd like for someone to present that any complex thing in the universe arose by chance.

    Look at a map of the USA. See the path of the Mississippi? So complex you couldn't write an equation to define it. And it arose by chance when glaciers melted, unless you prefer to believe it was Babe the Blue Ox pulling Paul Bunyan's plow.

  17. Larry, by "going through" I do not mean "reading" I mean "publishing." There are academic venues where New Atheists could publish their arguments and engage with the standard peer review process. But instead they choose a different path. Which means that their ideas are not represented in the academic discourse in the field.

  18. Dave says:

    "There is only one way of knowing, either a statement is true or false, and that fact applies equally to physics and metaphysics."

    The above comment demonstrates the ignorance of its author.

    First, ways of knowing are typically viewed as part of epistemology. Whether a statement is true or false is more a question of ontology. In other words, they aren't the same thing.

    Second, not all statements can be classified as either true or false; this is an inappropriate black-or-white view. Mathematics has supplied us with ample examples of this fact, including the Continuum Hypothesis. Logicians, too, have provided us with examples of such statements, including "this statement is false". Some statements are undecidable.