Saturday, March 17, 2012

New Scientist and God

New Scientist is my favorite magazine, where science is concerned. They cover lots of cool science, and even have a science fictional streak I admire. But when they venture into questions of God, faith, and religion, they invariably leave me frustrated and disillusioned. The editors approach such questions with such programmatic atheism that any hope for fruitful and open discussion quickly dies. So it was with a certain reluctance that I opened the latest issue: The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion.

Was I greeted by surprising new science? Not really. Did it live up to the promises on the cover? (The idea that launched a thousand civilizations / God's existence put to the test) Not even close.

The bias was pretty upfront, starting with the headline on the opening editorial:

Know your enemy
The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong

They don't mean where secularists are going wrong in their evaluation of religious belief, but where they're going wrong in their efforts to eradicate it. "Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally — which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with." In other words, know your enemy. And in the opening page to the features section: "Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on." By move on, they seem to mean, discard religion for a more enlightened way of thinking.

So we know where they stand.

But what about the articles? They're a mixed bag. The first, by Justin L. Barrett, is a pretty interesting discussion of how babies and young children learn and develop mental models of "agents" that influence things in the world. There seems to be a built-in predilection for attributing events they see to an "agency," or a higher power. The thesis here is well summarized by the closing lines: "[Children] have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief. Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born." Not a bad article.

It's followed by several others, including one that discusses how religions may have helped create social structures that brought us out of the Stone Age. I'm not sure I learned much from it, but it wasn't a bad article, either. The collection hits its low point, however, with "The God Hypothesis," by Victor J. Stenger, which proposes to discuss the existence or nonexistence of God by reference to empirical evidence. No empirical evidence is offered, however.  What we get instead is a warmed-over collection of statements that this or that aspect of theology has been tested and found wanting. A feel-good piece for atheists: no actual information, no details about what studies have been done or how they were designed. Finally, there's a discussion of the position of Alain de Botton that atheists ought to seek out and adopt the "useful bits" of religion, such as ritual gatherings for the purpose of community building. Fine by me, but not exactly news. Haven't the Unitarians been doing this for quite a while now?

Personally, I'm agnostic on the question of whether God's existence can be proven or disproven by science, or by logic. Most people I know who believe in God do so because of personal experience, personal encounters that have little to do with abstract logical constructions. (Or in my own case, the logical questioning had to bring me to the point of saying, "Okay, this is possible." And then the experiential part began.) When you've had that kind of experience, the question of "proof" starts to seem tedious and irrelevant. But that doesn't mean I think science should stop looking. 

I think the real problem with this particular publication is that the editors, who so excel in other areas of science journalism, are blind to their own biases about the relationship between science and religion. They keep writing as though they've got the whole thing covered, yet seem clueless about what the actual religious experience is. If they could let go—just for once—of the notion that religion is their enemy, perhaps they could genuinely explore questions such as the role faith plays (or does not play) in mental health, or healing, or personal development, or community building, or intellectual inquiry. I'd even be happy if they could, without demonizing, examine why some religious movements (such as certain conservative Christian streams in the U.S.) so resolutely obstruct the input of science in public policy. I agree this is happening, and it's bad; I disagree with the assumption that religious belief per se is the problem. They might even spend some time talking to scientists who are also people of faith, and see what we can learn about how some pretty rational people integrate those two modes of thought.

Maybe these questions don't belong primarily in a science magazine, though I don't see why not. But I do wish the editors of New Scientist would recognize that what they're putting in the mag now isn't so much science as dogma pretending at science.

Maybe the true enemy isn't religion, but intellectual prejudice.


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At 4:30 PM, Blogger Jeff Hargett said...

I rarely comment on this type of topic, but I had to say thanks for a nice, rational posting. IMO discrediting faith by using logic is as irrational as attempting to convert an atheist by using faith as evidence. I believe they can coexist and that both are needed--just like we need both fire and water. Again, thanks.

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Jeffrey A. Carver said...

You're welcome. I'm glad you found it helpful.

It's not that faith shouldn't be examined or tested, but neither is it necessarily the same thing as a scientific hypothesis. Blind dismissal of faith is no more rational than blind acceptance.

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Rich said...

Perhaps they perceive that religion is their enemy because time and again religion has demonstrated that it is their enemy. Religious belief per se may not be the problem, but it is surely a helpful precondition. A majority of Americans say that, if science disagrees with their religious convictions, they will pick their religion over science. This may not be the way Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller sees things, but it's the world we live in.

At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Doesn't appear you understand the scientific method. I've read Stenger's book. His short piece summarizes some basic points he makes in the book.

One is that the burden rests on those who want to prove God exists. Positive evidence is the way of science, almost always. Usually it isn't possible to prove that something doesn't exist, like God.

As Stenger correctly says, no religion has ever presented demonstrable convincing evidence for a God, or gods. Yet religions claim that God has effects on the physical universe. GIve up that claim, and you're left with an invisible, powerless God.

Keep that claim, and religion is subject to the scientific method. So far, no evidence of God. That's why I don't believe in God. I'm into reality, not fantasy.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Jeffrey A. Carver said...

Rich first. As soon as you identify the other as the "enemy," you've hardened positions on both sides, and burned any bridges that could lead to mutual understanding. I don't think this is the way most scientists want to communicate with the world, but it's the position NS laid down in this issue.

In most cases, it's not faith vs science; it's religio-political power structures with vested interests vs science that causes conflict.

But as I said above, I think it would be really useful to explore the question of why so many folk of religious persuasion become obstructionists when science is, for example, brought into public policy. It's a real problem. And not one that will be solved by calling their beliefs "the enemy."

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Jeffrey A. Carver said...

Brian next. I don't know what Stenger says in his book because I haven't read it. But there was no meaningful science conveyed in his article. Just a "Nyah-nyah, you haven't proven anything" refrain. It's a shame that he didn't put any informative detail into the article. But if the mag is going to claim "new science," they really ought to present some science. They didn't.

You say that the burden of proof rests with those who want to prove God exists. That is true to the extent that people *are* trying to prove, by science, that God exists. But most people aren't. If you experience God in your daily life, you don't feel the need. As you suggest, absence of scientific proof is not proof of absence. If you want to try to claim, by science, that God does *not* exist, then that burden is on you.

Actually, millions of people have presented evidence, from their own lives, of God's existence. (I say evidence, not proof.) Most of it is anecdotal and highly personal, and by definition not replicable as science looks for replicability. Maybe that's why most people don't look for scientific proof of God's existence. To expect that is perhaps as silly as trying to claim that the biblical story of creation is literally true.

Faith (not "religion"--I hate the word "religion," but have been stymied by lack of a better word) is about the stories in people's lives. Personal stories, and stories accumulated over time. Some stories are literally true; some aren't; some are true as metaphor. These stories might or might not be amenable to scientific examination. If you understand the scientific method, you know that science is changeable and subject to correction as new information comes in. Science is a valuable tool for understanding how the world works, but it's not even remotely close to having all the answers. If you claim that *only* through the lens of science can we find truth, then you're cutting off other valuable paths to understanding.

In my opinion, the most important thing is to keep the conversations going. And identifying the other as an "enemy" is not a great way to keep the conversation going.

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Snake 2 said...

<3 you, Pappy.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Mouse said...

Cheer cheer!

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Jeffrey A. Carver said...

My good friend Jonathan Goodell (a pastor in the UCC church) answered me privately. I'm posting it here with his permission:

"I really liked your response, Jeff. I think it is written well and keeps the concerns and prejudices of this community in mind. I just finished a wonderful book called A JOYFUL THEOLOGY, creation, commitment and an awesome God by Sara Maitland. She looks squarely at the movement of science in all areas and draws some very freeing conclusions from evoluntionary science and some of the developments in physics in the last century. I learned more science by reading the book and was surprised at her conclusions, conclusions I really enjoyed and appreciated.

Anyway, hats off for standing up for what you believe."

Me again. I just went and read the Nook sample of the book he mentioned above, and I like the intro (which is all you get). I think I'll add it to my "to read" list.


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