Selling Out Science



By Sam Harris

The following op-ed is from Volume 26, Issue 1 of Free Inquiry

With the miasma of “Intelligent Design” slowly poisoning our intellectual discourse, it is amazing to consider that a significant percentage of scientists—40 percent!—still believe that reason and faith are compatible. Science, we are often told, “cannot prove that God does not exist”; religion and science “address different questions”; there are two “magisteria” given for human contemplation, and, as luck would have it, they do not overlap. The United States is now the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, and yet nearly half of its citizens—45 percent—and some considerable number of its leaders will probably ignore the current debate over “Intelligent Design”—because they are old-school creationists who believe that our species was made out of dirt in the year 4004 b.c.e. by the hand of an almighty god.

There is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum. Surely it is time that scientists and other intellectuals stopped disguising this fact. Indeed, the incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Either one has good reasons for what one strongly believes, or one does not. People of all creeds naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning and evidence wherever they can. When rational inquiry supports the creed, it is always championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided. It is only when the evidence for a religious doctrine is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, that its adherents invoke “faith.” Otherwise, they simply cite the reasons for their beliefs (“The New Testament confirms Old Testament prophecy,” “I saw the face of Jesus in a window,” “We prayed, and our daughter’s cancer went into remission”). Such reasons are generally inadequate, but they are better than no reasons at all. Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail. In a world that has been shattered—utterly—by mutually incompatible religious beliefs . . . in a nation that is growing increasingly beholden to Iron Age conceptions of God, the end of history, the return of Jesus, and the immortality of the soul . . . this lazy partitioning of our discourse into matters of reason and matters of faith is now unconscionable.

It would be one thing if the appeasers of religious irrationality today were all cranks, but many are not. No less a scientist than Francis Collins (the director of the Human Genome Project for the United States) is now happily encamped on the wrong side in the culture war. While Collins knows better than to endorse Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory, his authority as a scientist comes swaddled in piety:

“I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. . . . If God, who is all powerful and who is not limited by space and time, chose to use the mechanism of evolution to create you and me, who are we to say that wasn’t an absolutely elegant plan? . . . Science’s tools will never prove or disprove God’s existence.”

Collins’s scientific reputation is immaculate. And yet his reconciliation of reason and faith would be stunning for its stupidity even if Noah’s Ark had been discovered on the slopes of Mount Ararat, intact and bursting with fossils. Collins describes himself as a devout Christian who is “intensely conflicted” over stem-cell research. I have argued elsewhere that there are no ethical or intellectual reasons to be “intensely conflicted” over stem-cell research; there are only theological reasons, and they are bad ones. Anyone who feels that the interests of a three-day-old blastocyst just might trump those of a child with full-body burns has had his ethical intuitions blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma replaces genuine ethical reasoning and genuine compassion. Sophisms of the sort offered by Collins in defense of the biblical God, while they should not persuade even a child, now confound an entire nation.
Collins, however, is not alone in his conviction that reason and faith can happily coexist. Consider this, from the National Academy of Sciences:

“At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. Religious and scientific ways of knowing have played, and will continue to play, significant roles in human history. . . . Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”

As an expression of the raw terror of the taxpaying mob, perhaps such pandering is excusable. The truth, however, is that religion and science do not represent different “ways of knowing.” Nor do they ask “different questions.” Like science, every religion makes claims about the way the world is. Faith consists in accepting these claims on insufficient evidence. If Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory, Christianity will stand revealed as a science, and every scientist in his right mind will bow down before the savior of the world in awe. If there is a God who created the cosmos so that at the end of an eon he can punish homosexuals and other miscreants with fire, then this is a fact like any other fact. If true, it would be a truth well worth knowing. If there were good reasons to believe in such a God, belief in him would be perfectly reasonable—and would, perforce, be part of the magisterium of scientific rationality. As every religious dogmatist knows, there is only one magisterium. Religion and science are in perfect agreement on this core point of epistemology: there is nothing more sacred than the facts.

The appropriate response of scientists to the deplorable ascendancy of religion in the United States is to criticize it, not conform to it. Yes, there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe. But this does not make egregiously unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about its structure and contents any more respectable. There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways. But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animates all real science. What we need is a science that incorporates first-person experience (emotions, ethical intuitions, contemplative insights, etc.) into the charmed circle of rigorous theory and experiment. What we need—desperately—is a public discourse that systematically encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. What we do not need are more scientists who are willing to demonstrate that even well-educated people can swallow the false certainties and abject consolations of religion without gagging.

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