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Surprising Science

Science vs Faith: Believe It or Not?

How can scientists be religious? How has religion evolved, according to science? In a special series this week, Big Think rounds up a learned cast of thought leaders—from a computer scientist who was injured by the Unabomber to an anthropologist who insists that universities teach “male studies”—to highlight some particularly vexing issues at the intersection of religion and science. While some of the experts in the series admit to having no faith beyond their belief in the scientific peer review process, others whom you might expect to fall in the devoutly atheistic camp provide a fairly convincing argument for the survival and importance of religion in our increasingly technological world.

According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, scientists never need faith, at least “not in the sense of faith as meaning belief in something for which there is no evidence.” The self-described atheist says his “faith” is based upon his confidence in the scientific method. He may not be a physicist, he admits, but he has faith that there are physicists who can test, verify, and criticize the views of other physicists. James Randi, the “magician and curmudgeon by trade” who’s made a career out of debunking the paranormal, pseudo-scientific, and the supernatural, agrees with Dawkins’ skepticism of religion. “I am an atheist, tried and true,” Randi says in his Big Think interview. After being tossed out of Sunday school as young boy, Randi dedicated his life to proving that science rules when it comes to the great unknown.

However, scientist-atheists may be on a crusade of their own, says David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University. Gelernter doesn’t name names, but presumably he fears that biologists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers “play on people’s weaknesses and ignorance” while extolling hard facts over religious conviction. Even though Gelernter is a computer scientist, he reminds us that technology will eventually threaten human dignity and integrity, making the “wisdom” and “moral seriousness” found in religion even more important to future generations. Without the moral absolutes so readily supplied by religion, Gelernter says technology’s increasing intrusion into human life via cloning and genetic engineering may present a “tremendously dangerous moral conflict of interest” to mankind.

Gelernter isn’t our only expert to suggest that morality needs to be grounded by God’s will. Author and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein admits that moral truths remain quite mysterious when you consider the way our moral compass seems somewhat fixed, despite the way history challenges our perceptions of what is right and wrong.

Perhaps as Robert Wright, author of “The Evolution of God” suggests, a reconciliation between science and religion is possible if we allow for a looser interpretation of what constitutes a religion. “There is a conflict between science and a lot of specific religious beliefs,” he says, “but if the question is, is science compatible with religion in the most basic and generic sense of the term ‘religion?’ I think it is.”

Still, for historian of religion Karen Armstrong, there’s “no question” of whether faith can be reconciled with science because “they have different jobs to do.” According to Armstrong, before the modern period all cultures understood the difference between what the Greeks called logos and mythos. Logos represented logic and reason while mythos defined the narratives associated with the rituals and ethical practices that helped to address imponderable questions, like mortality and cruelty. “Science can diagnose a cancer and can even find a cure for it,” Armstrong explains, “But a scientist will be the first to say, it can’t help you to deal with the stress and disappointment and terror that comes with a diagnosis.”

None of our guests, however, seemed to reconcile religion and science more succinctly than Rutgers anthropologist Lionel Tiger, who went so far as to suggest that religion is a matter of science. Tiger’s colleague Michael McGuire and he wrote a book called “God’s Brain,” in which they demonstrate that religion is really made by the brain—nothing more than a neurochemical secretion inside of our heads.


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