God and Science

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The Templeton Foundation placed a paid advertisement in today's New York Times, asking various academics the question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?". The answers are found on the Templeton web site.

To my mind, this question seems rather absurd. Science and religion address different questions altogether. Science observes the observable, whereas religion investigates the meaning, depth, and mystery that that lies behind that which is observable. One of the more interesting answers to the Templeton inquiry come from Mary Midgley, who notes that "scientism"--which I think she describes as the notion that science alone offers a monopoly on meaning--is an unjustified claim. She argues that this "scientism" is a world view, just as various religions are also world views:

Of course, those other views differ hugely among themselves. Some center on Godhead; some, such as Buddhism and Taoism, don't use that idea at all. But what they all do is to set human life in a context.
And it is this context that science has no right to claim authority over. This context is is precisely what religion addresses. "Scientism" I would argue, is what happens when science intrudes on the legitimate domain of religion; a pseudo-science like creationism is what happens when a religion intrudes on the legitimate domain of science.

Kenneth Miller, another responder to the Templeton query, points out that a lot of hard line atheism is based on a limited conception of God--a point I have raised in this blog. Miller writes:
As an outspoken defender of evolution, I am often challenged by those who assume that if science can demonstrate the natural origins of our species, which it surely has, then God should be abandoned. But the Deity they reject so easily is not the one I know.
As Marcus Borg says, "Tell me the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either."

This subject dovetails with some of the discussions that have been taking place in James McGrath's blog. James has been trying to convey the point that many militant atheists attack religion based on a limited or narrow conception of what "God" means, whereas in fact the term has a broad spectrum of meanings across religions and within religious traditions. The sort of push back that results from pointing this out is itself interesting. Despite the fact that large numbers of theologians, clergy, and church members have a concept of God that does not conform to some atheists' conception of the term, somehow it is an atheist's limited conception about God that is the right one, and all those religious people are wrong! Chutzpah knows no bounds when it comes to protecting one's paradigms from uncomfortable anomalies.

Ultimately, I have no problem with atheism. I can even understand the basis for being an atheist. I have many doubts of my own about what deeper meaning one can ascribe for the universe beyond that which we can observe. I think that, just as there are many ways of addressing the Mystery--which is to say, there are many religions in the world--it is also possible to respond to the Mystery by simply not addressing it or not assuming that there is any deeper purpose or meaning to our lives. Ultimately, these are personal choices, but these decisions do not depend on what science tells us.

7 comments:

Frank said...

Thanks for writing this. You've said similar things before, but this post really hit me.

Connor said...

"Despite the fact that large numbers of theologians, clergy, and church members have a concept of God that does not conform to some atheists' conception of the term, somehow it is an atheist's limited conception about God that is the right one, and all those religious people are wrong!"

I sympathize with these folks. Lets face it, these large numbers you speak of are utterly dwarfed by large numbers of religious people who claim the God that is attacked and people who would not see the type of separation of science and religion as discussed above. It is an uphill battle.

Anyways, the debate over the existence of God is just plain boring.

Chris said...

An interesting post, mystic. Thanks.

SocietyVs said...

I was thinking about this same idea over the weekend - on Sunday I watched a debate between Rabbi David Wolpe and Sam Harris.

It struck me, Harris does not care about the religious side whereas the religious side does care about science. It was odd to me to think someone could be like that - no concern for the questions faith raises and the place it can play in a healthy lifestyle.

I am also in the crowd that says religion is not answering scientific questions - but philosophical and theological - which in and of themselves are not sciences.

I lost some respect for Harris after seeing the conversation with Rabbi Wolpe - Harris seems rather ignorant in some regards and sometimes sits under the lights of arrogance. There was something uneasy about seeing that in someone - as much as he is smart about pulling religio-fanaticism into the spotlight - he also puts moderates (his dumb term) in there with them...he acts if the dice always will roll a 7 with religion.

Mystical Seeker said...

The debate over the existence of God is just plain boring.

I agree, and I am not interested in debating that question, because I think it is unresolvable, but I am interested in discussing what we mean when we do talk about God. And I think that a lot of atheists seem to have a hard time understanding that not everyone's idea of God conforms to their own. This has become abundantly clear in the discussions in James McGrath's blogl

Mystical Seeker said...

Societyvs,

From what I'm seen of Harris, I'm not surprised by your observations.

Cynthia said...

I'm also with Connor in that yes, it's boring. And pointless. Does any of this arguing help feed the hungry, serve justice to the poor, bring peace to the world?

Thanks for this post.