The "everyone knows" argument


Sean Carroll joins the list of scientists who write about the relationship between science and religion in ways that suggest that they understand little or nothing about the latter. Specifically, he has recently argued in a Discover magazine blog that science and religion are incompatible. The reason, he claims, is that

Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
So there you go. Carroll goes on to assert that "we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc." Religion always makes claims about the physical world, right? How does Carroll know this to be the case? Has he studied theology enough in depth to actually know that his generalization about religion is true? I think we can summarize his explanation for how he knows this generalization to be true by, essentially, the "everyone knows" argument. Everyone knows, Carroll argues, that this is what religion is.

In fact, many religions frequently do make assertions about the physical world, but I think Carroll goes wrong on two scores. First, he asserts that religion is the domain of people who "believe in a supernatural being called 'God' who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world." Aside from the fact that his references to Divine omnipotence don't jibe with the existence of non-theistic religions, and aside from the fact that his assertions about divine omnipotence don't jibe with process theology or other theologies that he has probably never heard of, the basic problem is his assertion is that religions always make claims about the physical world. Secondly, even among those religions which do make such claims, Carroll makes the mistake of assuming that the claims themselves are the essential core of what makes a religion "religious".

Carroll, like many others who make similar assertions, uses the "everyone knows" argument as essentially an excuse, since it serves to justify his own lack of knowledge of a subject that he pontificates about--by arguing that such knowledge is unnecessary. I do give Carroll credit, because he does not come across as overtly hostile towards religious people, at least not in the same way that PZ Myers does. Myers defends his own ignorance of religion with his so-called "Courtier's Reply" argument. According to Myers, atheists are like the child in the story of the Emperor's new clothes who calls religious people on their supposedly untrue and fantastical claims; and thus those who suggest that such atheist objections are not grounded in a knowledge of the variety of theologies that exist are merely like the courtiers in that story who claimed that elaborate knowledge of clothes was necessary to appreciate that the Emperor really was wearing clothes. Myers's "Courtier's Reply" argument is rather strange, coming from an academic, since I seriously doubt that he as a biologist appreciates it when people who are ignorant of biology pontificate on the subject (and as a strong proponent of evolution, he in fact encounters such ignorance all the time from creationists.) The real problem with Myers' "Courtier's Reply" argument is that he presupposes that "God" is analogous with clothing, and that since "everyone knows" what clothes are, everyone also "knows" what the meanings of religion and God are as well. After all, all nouns and concepts in the English language work according to the "everyone knows" principle, right?

The reality is that I am in agreement with Sean Carroll on the point that any time that a religion makes extraordinary claims about the physical world it is stepping into territory that rightfully belongs to science. If he had said that science is incompatible with irrational, unreasonable religion, I would have been in agreement with him. There is indeed a lot of religion out there that, unfortunately, embraces irrationality. But in insisting that religion isn't religion if it doesn't make such claims, he does a great disservice to the many people in the world who are engaged in a religious faith, in religious traditions, and religious communities, who don't accept such claims and who don't make those claims themselves. Religion is much more about things like meaning, metaphor, purpose, story, and how we fit into the greater universe that we inhabit. Those claims about the physical world that do crop up, I would argue, are secondary to the definition of religion because they serve the deeper purpose of religious faith.

There seem to be two sets of people who simply refuse to understand the depth and varieties of religious faith and how faith can be grounded in reason--religious fundamentalists, and certain anti-religion atheists in the scientific community. Maybe that's because the latter are essentially fundamentalists in their own way.


Sherry said...

I think you have made a telling argument here. I fully agree. Moreover, science doesn't say "no" to supernatural occurances. By definition it doesn't address them, since they aren't by definition susceptible to the scientific method. It's simply ludicrous to suggest that there is not compatibility between science and religion, unless of course, our view of religion is exceedingly narrow. Sounds like another guy whose only exposure to religion is fundamentalist explanations.

PrickliestPear said...

I love his sentence, which appears just before the passage you quoted: "It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look." (emphasis in original)

I think it's funny when people speak confidently about things they no little about.

"A little learning is a dangerous thing."

Mystical Seeker said...


"Sounds like another guy whose only exposure to religion is fundamentalist explanations."

Yes, he does. There seem to be a lot of people who fall into that category, and maybe the next big question is how can this popular misconception about religion be corrected?


"I think it's funny when people speak confidently about things they know little about."

I do too, but what's also funny is that some people seem to think that they don't NEED to know anything about the subject because the subject is self-evident.