Old-time religionists revive time-old divisions

Oracles of Science

May 11, 2007

The issue of the compatibility of religion with science may be as old as science. In the West, the earliest scientists, the Presocratics, substituted impersonal cosmic forces for Homeric gods - Jeven though the elusive fragments of Thales, the first Presocratic, can be interpreted as reconciling science with religion.

Although Thales is mentioned in this work, and in a self-serving way, Oracles of Science is about six present-day scientists: the life scientists Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Edward O. Wilson, and the physical scientists Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and Steven Weinberg.

The six are chosen not just because of their fame but because of their public stand on religion. All six reject religion either as worthless or as irrelevant to fathoming the cosmos. Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas are professional physicists of firm religious convictions. Artigas is also a Roman Catholic priest. The pair write to castigate their subjects for daring to judge religion scientifically. Science, the two contend, should confine itself to the physical world and, more, to what is knowable scientifically about that world. Weinberg, the author of the bestseller The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe , cannot rule out creation by God because science cannot go back to ultimate origins. Moreover, science cannot rule out the existence of immateriality, which is supposedly but one step away from God.

To Giberson and Artigas, science must do more than concede that ethics falls outside its bailiwick, as the irenic Gould of Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life maintains. Science must grant religion a place - the trendier term would be "space" - to make claims about the cosmos.

But the authors never tell us what religion adds to the scientific picture. Their book is wholly (one might say "holy") negative. Although they never challenge the scientific credentials of their subjects, they do challenge their subjects' philosophical credentials. The six are dismissed as crude materialists, guilty not of science but of "scientism".

Giberson and Artigas never try to forge a link between science and religion. They never ask whether religious beliefs depend on scientific ones. Creationism, which is shorthand for "creation science," is as much their nemesis as atheism. God forbid that anyone should try to synthesise religion with science, as the Templeton Foundation thinks it can pay to get done. For Giberson and Artigas, religion and science, like East and West for Kipling, must go their separate ways.

We have here simply the traditional separation of natural science from metaphysics. What is disappointing is that the authors do no more. They build a fence to keep others off their property, but they undertake no construction of their own. At the same time, Giberson and Artigas evince scant interest in religion as a living enterprise, as more than a set of beliefs.

In 1889, the great Scottish Semiticist William Robertson Smith pioneered the shift of focus in the study of religion from beliefs to practices. That shift has become conventional. In its most extreme form, religion has been taken altogether non-cognitively, as amounting to other, not merely more, than belief. Yet even as belief, religion can be a continuation of science rather than a break with it. To cite but one example from outside the West, the famous anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard showed that witchcraft for the Azande people serves to supplement their science by attributing to magic unfortunate events that science can only write off as bad luck.

Giberson and Artigas present lucid summaries of the scientific accomplishments of their subjects, and their criticisms of the amateurish philosophising of the six may well be warranted. But in going no further, they are unadventurous.

Robert A. Segal is professor of religious studies, Aberdeen University.

Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion

Author - Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 3
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 9780195310726

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