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Science and Religion : Are They Compatible?Book review

by Paul Kurtz, Barry Karr and Ranjit Sandhu (Editors)
Prometheus Books 2003

This book is a collection of articles which have been previously published, many in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Like any such anthology the quality is variable, although there are no essays which are actually bad. My main complaint is that the relevance of the articles varies too much. Anthologies of this type usually lack the coherence of a set of papers published out of single conference or symposium, but it seems particularly noticeable here. There seems to have been a temptation to include anything which had anything to do with both science and religion, and this blurs the message and the question being asked. The question being asked in the title is a theological and philosophical one, and papers about the anthropic principle (that the universe is made to fit us), the efficacy of prayer, the existence of souls, the provenance of the Shroud of Turin, near-death experiences and communicating with the dead are side issues. They are interesting issues, certainly, but they don't really speak to the question of the compatibility of science and religion.

There are three ways of looking at the relationship between science and religion. The first of these could be called the "Conflicting Worlds" view, and this states that there is a competition going on between science and religion out of which one winner will emerge. This is the position of the creationists and any other fundamentalists who say that there is only one truth, it is contained in scripture or inspired decree, and there can be no argument against it. Under this view the question of compatibility between science and religion is meaningless as compatibility is impossible. I should point out that this position is not just held by the religious side, but is also the position of those who would say that all skeptics must necessarily also be atheists (in the strong sense of the word, which implies a belief that there is no god at all). A paper by Richard Dawkins in this collection, "You Can't Have It Both Ways: Irreconcilable Differences?" puts him firmly in this camp. To Dawkins, the idea or religion is so silly that any concession is betrayal.

The second position could be called the "Same Worlds" view, which holds that science and religion are just different ways of talking about the same thing. This position is usually only held by religious believers, with one outstanding example being the paper "Fideo et Ratio" written by Pope Paul II in 1998. It is a struggle for anyone to maintain this position and it is no coincidence that it can really only be ably defended by someone with both the Pope's obvious intellectual capabilities and his motivation to explain to himself how someone so smart ended up in the job he has. It is the position adopted by the creationists when they talk about Intelligent Design, but it is used as a disguise there rather than a philosophical argument.

The third position is one of "Separate Worlds", where science and religion talk about completely different things and there is only a problem when one side trespasses into the other's turf, such as when scientists try to measure the weight of the soul or creationists want myths taught as science. This collection includes one of the most well-known expositions of this position in Stephen Jay Gould's "Nonoverlapping Magisteria", where Gould argues that there are matters which are the proper concern of science and others which are legitimately addressed by religion. Science talks about things that are measurable and observable. Religion talks about the supernatural and can offer guidance on morals and ethics (guidance which nobody has to follow unless they want to). This does not imply, as some religious people would insist, that without religion there is no ethics. I don't know whether we have a gene for altruism or the golden rule, but many people seem able to get by without a church dictating rules of behaviour.

I think that this current book would have been better if it had addressed these three worlds, and the papers had been categorised accordingly. Having said that, I still think that this book would be a useful addition to the library of any skeptic. As to whether this book answers the question "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible", I have a sneaking feeling that the editors thought they they knew the answer before they started work on the book. In fact, knowing the editors, I would be surprised if they had not. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. We all have biases, but as long as these are admitted then nobody has reason to complain. No single book is ever going to definitively answer the question asked in the title, but each one adds a little more to our understanding of the problem.

I would like to finish with a comment about the relationship between religion and skepticism in general. Whenever the topic comes up people are expected to have a firm position, with the usual orthodoxy being that skepticism equates to atheism. One of the problems is terminology and the meanings of words, and unfortunately the two most common words used in the discussion have meanings and loadings which have changed over time. The word "agnostic" used to mean "don't know" (the true skeptical position) but now seems to mean "I'm waiting to find out". The word "atheist" really applies to people who don't believe in a particular personal god, but now seems to mean a belief in the total non-existence of any god. To me, these labels now apply to the "same worlds" and "conflicting worlds" models respectively, with agnostics accepting that anything might be true and atheists saying that religion is impossible. I follow the "separate worlds" philosophy, but in my own life religion plays no part. I would like to coin a new word for this, so perhaps I should describe myself as an "apatheist". I just don't care whether there is a god or not, because it makes no difference to me either way. That doesn't mean I don't want to keep discussing it and reading books about it, of course. It is still a very important matter calling for the attention of skeptics, but the intellectual exercise of enquiry shouldn't require labelling of the participants.

The Skeptic

This review appeared in the March 2004 edition of
The Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics

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