God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion

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by Victor J. Stenger

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A thorough and hard-hitting critique that is a must read for anyone interested in the interaction between religion and science.

It has become the prevalent view among sociologists, historians, and some theistic scientists that religion and science have never been in serious conflict. Some even claim that Christianity was responsible for the developmentSee more details below


A thorough and hard-hitting critique that is a must read for anyone interested in the interaction between religion and science.

It has become the prevalent view among sociologists, historians, and some theistic scientists that religion and science have never been in serious conflict. Some even claim that Christianity was responsible for the development of science. In a sweeping historical survey that begins with ancient Greek science and proceeds through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to contemporary advances in physics and cosmology, Stenger makes a convincing case that not only is this conclusion false, but Christianity actually held back the progress of science for one thousand years. It is significant, he notes, that the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century occurred only after the revolts against established ecclesiastic authorities in the Renaissance and Reformation opened up new avenues of thought.

The author goes on to detail how religion and science are fundamentally incompatible in several areas: the origin of the universe and its physical parameters, the origin of complexity, holism versus reductionism, the nature of mind and consciousness, and the source of morality. In the end, Stenger is most troubled by the negative influence that organized religion often exerts on politics and society. He points out antiscientific attitudes embedded in popular religion that are being used to suppress scientific results on issues of global importance, such as overpopulation and environmental degradation. When religion fosters disrespect for science, it threatens the generations of humanity that will follow ours.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for the New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis:

"I learned an enormous amount from this splendid book."
-Richard Dawkins, author of the New York Times best-seller The God Delusion

"Marshalling converging arguments from physics, astronomy, biology, and philosophy, Stenger has delivered a masterful blow in defense of reason. God: The Failed Hypothesis is a potent, readable, and well-timed assault upon religious delusion. It should be widely read."
-Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

"Extremely tough and impressive...a great book...a huge addition to the arsenal of argument."
-Christopher Hitchens, author of the New York Times bestseller God Is Not Great

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GOD and the Folly of Faith

The Incompatibility of Science and Religion
By Victor J. Stenger

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Victor J. Stenger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-599-6

Chapter One


A reasonable way to interpret the long history of the conflict between scientific and religious models is to see these institutions as competing for the same ground, rather than operating in different domains.

—Gili S. Drori et al.

The notion that science and religion have been long at war with each other is widespread but, as we will see, is somewhat of an oversimplification. The warfare model is largely the consequence of two influential nineteenth-century books: A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by English-born American chemist John William Draper (died 1882), and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by the cofounder and first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White.

Draper had reacted angrily to proclamations from Rome asserting papal infallibility and claiming that revealed doctrine took precedence over the human sciences. He wrote that since coming to power in the fourth century, the Catholic Church had displayed "a bitter and mortal animosity" toward science and had its hands "steeped in blood."

White's attack on religion was much broader, not limited to the Catholic Church, but like Draper's, it was motivated at least partially by ideology. At secular Cornell, White wished to create "an asylum for Science—where truth shall be sought for truth's sake, not stretched or cut exactly to fit Revealed Religion." His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty. Nevertheless, White's efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.

The second volume of White's tome documents the long history of meddling by religion in medicine: the legends of supernatural intervention in causing and curing disease, including miracles and satanic influences; the resistance against dissection and other anatomical studies; opposition to surgery, inoculation, sanitation, and the use of anesthetics; and demonic possession. While we still have faith healers and faith healing cults, these are not part of my concern in this book, which is the current intellectual battleground of theology and science.

Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own, have severely criticized the accuracy of Draper's and White's accounts, saying they oversimplified what was a far more complex relationship. Historian John Hedley Brooke asserts that Draper's and White's arguments are "deeply flawed." He objects to their assumption of a dichotomy between nature and supernature, which he says oversimplifies the theologies of the past. He writes, "If a supernatural power was envisaged as working through, as distinct from interfering with, nature, the antithesis would partially collapse." Or, he says, another way to put it is, "an explanation in terms of secondary causes need not exclude reference to primary causes."

In fact, a dichotomy does exist between nature and supernature. Later I will elaborate on the distinction between primary and secondary causes, but Brooke's mistake here is to assume, without some kind of evidence or rationale, that the mere fact that primary causes are theoretically possible means that they actually have a substantial likelihood of existing. Time and again we will run into this line of reasoning by religious apologists. Just because science cannot prove Zeus does not exist, we can't conclude he does.

The strongest indictment of Draper and White that I have seen is in The Great Courses lectures by chemist and historian Lawrence M. Principe, whose strong proreligion bias comes out no matter how hard he tries to hide it and to appear even-handed. According to Principe, Draper's book is "one long, vitriolic, anti-Catholic diatribe." As for White, Principe says he "did not share the rabidity of Draper and did not sell as well," but he also uses "fallacious arguments and suspect or bogus sources."

Let's take a look at one example that casts doubt on Principe's impartiality. He claims, without reference, that White said, "Earth's sphericity was officially opposed by the Church." I have looked through White's book, however, and find no claim regarding an official Church doctrine on the shape of Earth. White refers to certain figures in the early Church, such as Lactantius (died ca. 320) and John Chrysostom (died 407), who mainly distrusted science of any sort. But in contrast to such figures, White notes, "Clement of Alexandria [died ca. 215] and Origen [died 254] had even supported [sphericity]" and "Ambrose [died ca. 340] and Augustine [died 430] had tolerated it." Furthermore, White adds, "Eminent authorities in later ages, like Albert the Great [died 1280], St. Thomas Aquinas [died 1274], Dante [died 1321], and Vincent of Beauvais [died ca. 1200], felt obliged to accept the doctrine of the earth's sphericity." On this point at least, Principe was attacking White for an error that White did not make.

In short, some historians have not been particularly careful or accurate in their criticisms of Draper and White.

Most discussions on the history of the interaction between science and religion focus on Europe, and, indeed, my main concern will be science and Christianity. However, it must be remembered that while Western Europe languished in the Dark Ages, science flourished for over seven hundred years during the golden age of the Islamic empire. In a recent wonderful book, The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, the distinguished Anglo-Iraqi physicist Jim Al-Khalili chronicles the contributions to human knowledge made by the great scholars of that period, about which I will have more to say. Certainly there was little or no conflict between science and Islam during that period, when the international language of science was Arabic, the language of the Qur'an.

Nevertheless, while history cannot be neglected because of its effect on the present, the incompatibility between science and religion that we see today arises primarily from current conflicts, not from ancient history. So let me focus here on those.

In his 1999 book, Rocks of Ages, the late renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). He argued that the two knowledge systems deal with different aspects of life. Science, Gould wrote, is concerned with describing the "outer" world of our senses, while religion deals with the "inner" world of morality and meaning. NOMA recalls the position enunciated by Galileo when he ran into trouble with the Church for teaching that Earth goes around the sun. Galileo is often quoted as saying, "The Holy Spirit's intention is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go," although it is generally assumed that he was in turn quoting Cardinal Cesare Baronius (died 1607).

Many scientists—believers and nonbelievers—have adopted the NOMA position. "Believing" scientists, that is, those who believe in God, compartmentalize their thinking by not incorporating into their religious thinking the "doubt everything" position they were trained to take in their professions.

A prime example is geneticist Francis Collins, who administered the Human Genome Project and at this writing directs the National Institutes of Health. His 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, was a bestseller. As we will see in more detail later, his so-called evidence is not, as you might have thought from the title, based on his deep knowledge of DNA. Rather, it follows from his own inner feeling that the world is a moral place and only God could have made it that way. Nowhere in this book does Collins come close to applying to this notion the critical skills exhibited in his outstanding scientific career.

Unlike Descartes, Newton, Kepler, and many of the great founders of the post-Islamic scientific revolution (Galileo is a prominent exception), modern-day believing scientists such as Collins do not incorporate God into their science. This even includes those scientists who happen to also be members of holy orders, such as the Belgian Catholic priest Georges-Henri Lemaître, who proposed the big bang in 1927 but, as we will see in chapter 7, urged Pope Pius XII not to claim it as infallible proof that God exists.

Most nonbelieving scientists want to just do their research and stay out of any fights over religion. That makes the NOMA approach appealing because it allows these scientists to not worry much about what religion is or how it affects our social and political world. In my view, though, these scientists are shirking their responsibility by conceding the realms of morality and public policy to the irrationality and brutality of faith.

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Sam Harris observes, "The scientific community is predominantly secular and liberal—and the concessions that scientists have made to religious dogmatism have been breathtaking." He tells of attending a conference in the fall of 2006 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, called "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival." The other attendees included some of the leading figures in science. Harris remarks: "While at Salk I witnessed scientists giving voice to some of the most dishonest religious apologies I have ever heard. It is one thing to be told that the pope is a peerless champion of reason, that his opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is both morally principled and completely uncontaminated by religious dogmatism; it is quite another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits in the President's Council on Bioethics."

We will see later how the US National Academy of Sciences, along with several scientific societies and proscience organizations such as the National Center for Science Education, have compromised their principles in order to stay on good terms with religion. Even the prestigious science magazine Nature has adopted Gould's NOMA, editorializing that problems arise between science and religion only when they "stray onto each other's territories and stir up trouble."

However, Gould's proposal and these views from the top tiers of science do not describe the actual roles science and religion play in society. Traditional religions are based on the belief in divinely inspired scriptures and other revelations, and they do try to tell us what "is" based on those beliefs. In doing so, they have proved to be almost universally incorrect.

Now, clever theologians will say that I am using science as my standard of what is correct and incorrect. Of course scriptures could be correct, but then we have to believe (as many fundamentalists do) that God is pulling the wool over our eyes, planting phony evidence that carbon-dated fossils, geological formations, and galaxies are older than the six thousand years since Creation implied in the Bible. The scientific descriptions of the world we observe with our senses and instruments aren't necessarily correct just because they are science; they simply work better than those found in scriptures. And if religion doesn't work in the sphere of nature, why should we expect it to work in the moral or other spheres?

Nothing prevents science from concerning itself with issues of morality and purpose. If these questions involve observable phenomena, such as human behavior, they can be analyzed with the rational methods of science. In his 2011 book, The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science has an important role to play in analyzing moral questions and that it can be used to help develop objective moral truths. That doesn't mean it has the final answers, but science should be allowed to participate in the dialogue. Science is more than making measurements and models; it is about applying empirical reasoning to every aspect of life.

Many historians, scientists, and philosophers claim that, while a tension exists between science and religion, an essential harmony between the two can be maintained. Ian Barbour promoted this view in his 1997 book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. Barbour has both a PhD in physics and a Bachelor of Divinity degree. In 1999 he won the lucrative Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which is given annually to someone who has advanced the reconciliation of science and religion. Barbour's work will be referred to often in the present book.

Also, in a recent book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, philosopher Michael Ruse argues: "The basic, most important claims of the Christian religion lie beyond the scope of science. They do not and could not conflict with science for they live in realms where science does not go." But, once again, the fact that science cannot reject all conceivable worlds cannot be used to argue for their existence. Furthermore, many fundamentalist Christian claims do not lie beyond the scope of science, they conflict with it: the virgin birth, miracles, prophecies, revelations, the resurrection, are just a few of these.

The John Templeton Foundation is behind much of the current effort to reconcile science and faith. Financier John Templeton's legacy provides $70 million a year in grants to support research on "subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will." The foundation also provided support for another scholar, William Grassie, who has argued for the essential harmony of science and religion. I will also refer frequently to his 2010 book, The New Sciences of Religion.

Barbour, Grassie, and others have interpreted historical events as evidence for, though not in complete harmony with, a positive relationship between science and religion where each has contributed constructively to the other. They have argued, for example, that Puritanism in England contributed significantly to the scientific revolution with its revolution against authority. So, they say, did Calvinist theology, in which people serve God not by shutting themselves away in a monastery or convent but by doing useful work. This is called the Protestant ethic.

Science flourished in England after the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was chartered by King Charles II in 1660, the year he was restored to the throne. The society was formed from a group of royalists called the Oxford Circle, the members of which holed up in Oxford during the English Civil War. Spending their time dissecting human and animal cadavers, they established many anatomical facts, most notably that the brain is the primary organ of thought and that the heart is a pump that operates under the control of signals from the brain. The group, led by physician Thomas Willis (died 1675), included the great architect Christopher Wren (died 1723), the great chemist Robert Boyle (died 1691), and the great physicist Robert Hooke (died 1703). Willis was pretty great himself.

The Puritans believed that God was revealed in the study of nature, and they gave strong encouragement to scientific work. However, most English scientists, such as those in the Oxford Circle, were actually Anglicans who saw in natural laws an analogy with the rule of law in society. Furthermore, everyone began to realize how technology was a source of control over nature with the resulting enhancement of economic and political power.

There can be no dispute that the scientific revolution occurred in an atmosphere in which religious and scientific ideas were deeply intertwined. But religion still held the upper hand. In a lengthy essay titled "Puritanism, Separatism, and Science," historian Charles Webster concludes, "No direction or energy toward science was undertaken without the assurance of Christian conscience, and no conceptual move was risked without confidence in its consistency with the Protestant idea of providence."

It is difficult to extract precise causes of the scientific revolution from the complex history of seventeenth-century Europe except to say that it happened there and no place else. China had made significant advances in technology but failed to develop science. And while science and learning flourished for a time in the Islamic world, there, too, a culture of scientific development failed to endure.

Barbour argues that the decline in science in the Islamic world was the result of the tight control of higher education by religious authorities. Although Barbour doesn't admit it, the same can be said of Christendom until the Reformation. Similarly, government authorities controlled education in China. From this perspective, it was the new openness in Europe that made science possible.


Excerpted from GOD and the Folly of Faith by Victor J. Stenger Copyright © 2012 by Victor J. Stenger. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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