clay_shirky's picture
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP); Author, Cognitive Surplus
Religion and Science

I was a science geek with a religious upbringing, an Episcopalian upbringing, to be precise, which is pretty weak tea as far as pious fervor goes. Raised in this tradition I learned, without ever being explicitly taught, that religion and science were compatible. My people had no truck with Young Earth Creationism or anti-evolutionary cant, thank you very much, and if some people's views clashed with scientific discovery, well, that was their fault for being so fundamentalist.

Since we couldn't rely on the literal truth of the Bible, we needed a fallback position to guide our views on religion and science. That position was what I'll call the Doctrine of Joint Belief: "Noted Scientist X has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Therefore, religion and science are compatible." (Substitute deity to taste.) You can still see this argument today, where the beliefs of Francis Collins or Freeman Dyson, both accomplished scientists, are held up as evidence of such compatibility.

Belief in compatibility is different from belief in God. Even after I stopped believing, I thought religious dogma, though incorrect, was not directly incompatible with science (a view sketched out by Stephen Gould as "non-overlapping magisteria".)  I've now changed my mind, for the obvious reason: I was wrong. The idea that religious scientists prove that religion and science are compatible is ridiculous, and I'm embarrassed that I ever believed it. Having believed for so long, however, I understand its attraction, and its fatal weaknesses.

The Doctrine of Joint Belief isn't evidence of harmony between two systems of thought. It simply offers permission to ignore the clash between them. Skeptics aren't convinced by the doctrine, unsurprisingly, because it offers no testable proposition. What issurprising is that its supposed adherents don't believe it either. If joint beliefs were compatible beliefs, there could be no such thing as heresy. Christianity would be compatible not just with science, but with astrology (roughly as many Americans believe in astrology as evolution), with racism (because of the number of churches who use the "Curse of Ham" to justify racial segregation), and on through the list of every pair of beliefs held by practicing Christians.

To get around this, one could declare that, for some arbitrary reason, the co-existence of beliefs is relevant only to questions of religion and science, but not to astrology or anything else. Such a stricture doesn't strengthen the argument, however, because an appeal to the particular religious beliefs of scientists means having to explain why the majority of them are atheists. (See the 1998 Larson and Witham study for the numbers.) Picking out the minority who aren't atheists and holding only them up as exemplars, is simply special pleading (not to mention lousy statistics.)

The works that changed my mind about compatibility were Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, and Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, which lay out the ways religious belief is a special kind of thought, incompatible with the kind of skepticism that makes science work. In Boyer and Atran's views, religious thought doesn't simply happen to be false -- being false is the point, the thing that makes belief both memorable and effective. Psychologically, we overcommit to the ascription of agency, even when dealing with random events (confirmation can be had in any casino.) Belief in God rides in on that mental eagerness, in the same way optical illusions ride in on our tendency to overinterpret ambiguous visual cues. Sociologically, the adherence to what Atran diplomatically calls 'counter-factual beliefs' serves both to create and advertise in-group commitment among adherents. Anybody can believe in things that are true, but it takes a lot of coordinated effort to get people to believe in virgin birth or resurrection of the dead.

We are early in one of the periodic paroxysms of conflict between faith and evidence. I suspect this conflict will restructure society, as after Galileo, rather than leading to a quick truce, as after Scopes, not least because the global tribe of atheists now have a medium in which they can discover one another and refine and communicate their message.

One of the key battles is to insist on the incompatibility of beliefs based on evidence and beliefs that ignore evidence. Saying that the mental lives of a Francis Collins or a Freeman Dyson prove that religion and science are compatible is like saying that the sex lives of Bill Clinton or Ted Haggard prove that marriage and adultery are compatible. The people we need to watch out for in this part of the debate aren't the fundamentalists, they're the moderates, the ones who think that if religious belief is made metaphorical enough,  incompatibility with science can be waved away. It can't be, and we need to say so, especially to the people like me, before I changed my mind.