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Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Can Science Bring to Religion?

The discussion surrounding the proper relationship between science and religion continues in the pages of Nature today with a letter by Matthew Cobb, a life scientist at the University of Manchester, and Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. The letter, titled "Atheism could be science's contribution to religion," is their response to an editorial the journal published following the death of Sir John Templeton last month.

In part, that editorial reads:

This publication would turn away from religion in seeking explanations for how the world works, and believes that science is likely to go further in explaining human moral impulses than some religious people will welcome. Thus it shares a degree of suspicion with many in the scientific community at any attempt by religiously driven organizations to fund science. A chief concern is that the influential Templeton Foundation might be seeking to inject religion into the scientific world. And it is easy to understand that concern given the political activism of many American fundamentalists and their efforts to promote ideas such as intelligent design, which posits a divine hand in evolution. The foundation's most vigorous critics accuse it of attempting to lace science with spiritualism.
That claim is somewhat ironic, as Templeton himself seemed to have just the opposite in mind. He believed institutional religion to be antiquated, and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking. The foundation's substantial funding of science and religion departments around the world is directed towards those ends. Theologians have also used foundation money to develop and promote arguments that reconcile some of the apparent contradictions between science and religion. For those many scientists with a faith, promoting the compatibility of science with faith is a prudent and even necessary goal. Strict atheists may deplore such activities, but they can happily ignore them too.
The foundation's scientific agenda addresses 'big questions', which has sometimes resulted in work that many researchers regard as scientifically marginal. One field popular with the foundation is positive psychology, which seeks to gauge the effects of positive thinking on patients, and which critics argue has yielded little. Also heavily supported are cosmological studies into the existence of multiple universes -- a notion frequently criticized for lying at the edge of falsifiability. The concern is that such research has been unduly elevated by the foundation's backing. But whatever one thinks of positive psychology and the like, the foundation's support has not taken anything away from conventional funding. And in the field of cosmology at least, it has arguably yielded some new and interesting ideas.

And here's the letter from Cobb and Coyne:

We were perplexed by your Editorial on the work of the Templeton Foundation ('Templeton's legacy Nature 454, 253-254; 2008). Surely science is about finding material explanations of the world—explanations that can inspire those spooky feelings of awe, wonder and reverence in the hyper-evolved human brain.
Religion, on the other hand, is about humans thinking that awe, wonder and reverence are the clue to understanding a God-built Universe. (The same is true of religion's poor cousin, 'spirituality,' which you slip into your Editorial rather as a creationist uses 'intelligent design.') There is a fundamental conflict here, one that can never be reconciled until all religions cease making claims about the nature of reality.
The scientific study of religion is indeed full of big questions that need to be addressed, such as why belief in religion is negatively correlated with an acceptance of evolution. One could consider psychological studies of why humans are superstitious and believe impossible things, and comparative sociological studies of religion using materialist explanations of the rise and fall of the world's belief systems.
Perhaps the Templeton Foundation is thinking of funding such research. The outcome of such work, we predict, will not bring science and religion (or 'spirituality') any closer to one another. You suggest that science may bring about "advances in theological thinking." In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.


The Rev. John W. Price, B.A. Univ of Texas, M.Div., Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) said...

Cobb and Coyne's response is another unfortunate polemic trying to drive a wedge between science and religion. They fail to note that many denominations such as mainline Presbyterians, most Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians easily accept the theory of evolution.

My father (Ph.D., Geology, Hopkins, '13; Prof of Geological Oceanography, Texas A&M, '49-'55) told me when I was first studying science in the 7th grade, that all a scientist was doing was studying how God created. The only conflict is between religionists who don't understand (or refuse to) what scientists are saying and scientists who don't understand (or refuse to) what religionists are saying.

Geoff bagley said...

Religions are often accused of being authoritarian and not encouraging people to think. Yet Cobb and Coyne sound very authoritarian when they say: "There is a fundamental conflict here, one that can never be reconciled until all religions cease making claims about the nature of reality." What is the source of the their authority and has it been established by scientific processes or is it an assumption they are making because they think that science can explain everything. If they do think the science is the only method of explanation, what scientific procedure established this idea?