Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Contemporary Debate

Only earlier this year did I begin to suspect 'the conflict between religion and science' no longer captured student's attention like it captured mine while I was in my in my first years of grad school. This came as a little bit of a surprise to me, which I wrote about here: 'They Knew Not Dawkins'. The long story short, it seemed people got tired of hearing the same arguments over and over again, and so moved on. As I prepared to teach a class on Religion and the Natural Sciences this fall, I was confronted by the possibility there was no longer a popular discussion on which to riff.

First, some background to these comments. The contemporary debate around religion and/or science questions goes back at least to the 19th century. Andrew Dickson White's The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) debated John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875). The terms the authors used in the titles are familiar enough, but the forms of their arguments may seem slightly skewed. Draper's book presents a version of the classic 'religion versus' science thesis: science began among the Ancient Greeks, was sidetracked by medieval Christianity, and was rediscovered in the early modern period. But his book was anti-Catholic, and not necessarily anti-religious, insofar as Protestant forms of the Christian faith come out looking fairly good. White's book presented a more sophisticated version of the narrative: Christendom, or the community of Western European (at later American) Christianity, evolved out of a theological 'worldview' into a scientific 'worldview', and into a new and improved version of scientific Christianity. Of course, neither of these are quite the contemporary terms of the debate. The default assumption was not yet that religion and science are in conflict.

The contemporary debate shares a whole lot more with the thesis put forward in Bertrand Russell's Science and Religion (1935), namely, science progresses as it turns away from religion, and especially as it turns away from Christianity. But the form the debate taken in the past decade or so is driven especially by the events of 9/11. The destructive actions of a small radicalized group of Muslims convinced a group known as the New Atheists that religion in toto had to go. The group included the following (if you will forgive me a little rhetorical flourish) Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse: the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, along with a few others. Their best-selling books were written in a moment of apparent existential crisis, with all the urgency and bravado that entailed. Whether or not Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) or Hitchens' god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) counted as respectable contributions to 'scholarship', as some have asked, is a moot question. They succeeded in shaping the nature of the contemporary debate. Daniel Dennett's memorable description in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) of religion likening it to a parasite feeding on people's brain's, stealing their ability to think clearly, ultimately compelling them to engage in all manner of self-destructive activities. How else do you understand a suicide bombing?

The New Atheists made the study of the religion and science exciting. They saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as evidence fundamentalist religion was on the rise everywhere, and took aim, not only at Islam, but American Evangelicalism. The stakes were high: either rational peace and harmony or certain apocalyptic self-destruction. Science--or the attitude of tolerance its methods engendered among its practitioners--would save of us all from the bigoted ideas of believers. So the study of religion and science was not just some dry as dust investigation of  the historical minutia, but was about the ties that bind communities together--which is to say, it was also social and political. A course on Religion and the Natural Sciences practically sold itself.

The thought that this highly charged intellectual environment had somehow dissipated in the intervening years dawned on me, much to my dismay. But I hadn't been paying close enough attention. In fact, Dawkins called the Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan out on Twitter for believing a winged horse had carried Muhammad into heaven to meet Adam, Moses, and Jesus, saying it was on par with belief in fairies. Dawkins and Hasan had met early on Al-Jeezera's Head to Head: 'Is Religion Good or Evil?'. The public forum only allowed a very superficial comparison of ideas. Their conversation, however,  could just as easily have been named 'Is This a Scientific Claim or Not?
(Questions like these we will have to take up in the course of the semester: In what sense are 'religious' claims testable in a scientific study? Are they all testable? Are only some testable? If so, how do we distinguish between ones that are and others that aren't? And if they are testable, what do the conclusions of scientific testing tell us about religion?)

On Twitter Dawkins has continued to prosecute religious ignorance and promote the virtues of the scientific method. Following the row with Hasan, he has also received a good deal more attention from reporters. That means ye olde questions of religion and/or science are back in the public eye, at least for the time being.

Now is as good a time as any in the last decade to be teaching and/or taking a class on religion and the natural sciences.