Believing Scientists (and Scholars)

Jim Linville has a post up by his big brother, Allen, that is a comment from his recent Carnival of the Godless. His brother takes issue with some of the assertions from an entry from the Primate Diaries by Eric Michael Johnson. Here is the gist of his brother’s concern:

I am not a religious person, not even a slightly spiritual person, unless it involces good beer or single malt scotch. But I will not ridicule or demean someone’s contribution to the knowledge of how some portion of the universe works just because they believe that a supernatural being or beings was/were the cause of the universe.

A respectable position irrespective of one’s ideological leanings. Allen also mentions a few different believing scientists who made significant contributions to our understanding of the world. I want to share some of the comments from Johnson’s article that I find interesting:

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn’t mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don’t probe too deeply into the foundations of a person’s faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases.

He’s referring, I believe, to a species of compartmentalization whereby the believing individual reserves his critical thinking only for topics which do not impinge upon the foundations of his faith. I believe this is not an inaccurate observation, but is not necessarily a universal truth. Jim’s brother responds,

There are hundreds of examples of real, important, long lasting scientific work done by devout people of all religions in geology, astronomy and physics. These sciences, along with biology, are now under attack by a variety of unreasoning, closed minded people. But in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the discoveries were not ignored but fully researched and probed to the fullest allowed by the technology and theories in place at the time.

Somehow they managed to either separate the science from their faith or accept that the new discoveries were a part of the workings of whatever version of God he or she believed in. A person’s religious views generally does not demean any scientific endeavour that person engages in, no more so that the person’s race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Back to Johnson:

But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close . . . well, that’s when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I’m sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They’ll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

Allen’s response:

Perhaps many do, the ones that fit into that category I encounter most often are the ones with very little or any formal science education. Real, practicing scientists I have studied do not suffer permanent lower back pain because of their beliefs. Yes, religious people can be good scientists.

While I have no real problem with evolution, I disagree with Johnson’s earlier comment that a simple appeal to “natural mechanisms” ameliorates all the complexities and unknowns. Assuming that those unknowns operate under the same mechanical principles (and then averring that they do) just because that makes the theory easily manageable is not an entirely scientific conclusion.

On the other hand, I believe there are plenty of believing scientists (and scholars) that have no problem thinking critically about issues that land right in their theological wheelhouse. We had courses on evolution available at BYU (taught by very competent scientists), and the vast majority of the Latter-day Saint student body took no issue with it. They also kept on believing in God and in some manner of divine creation.

To quote Hamlet, “Aye, there’s the rub.” Do we have to abandon one when a perceived conflict arises in the other? Perhaps when one has very strict and comprehensive boundaries. Johnson begins his article referencing his own Lutheran upbringing. He cites some standard religious problems and atheist responses:

I remember vividly Pastor Carl’s frustration when he couldn’t answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.

“We can’t always understand God’s will.”But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God’s will in all of these other areas.

I believe he’s here throwing the baby out with the bathwater, though. The problem may not be with religion, but with Pastor Carl’s confidence in his explanation of it. I tend to be far less sure in my ability to pigeonhole God’s exact nature and will. After all, that seems to be the point of eternal life (John 17:3), not necessarily our temporal existence.

There are plenty of religious folks who believe scientific inquiry can inform our search for God. Not all religious traditions are diametrically opposed to scientific principles that conflict with traditional and fundamental interpretations of the scriptures. Most of those interpretations, after all, predate the modern scientific method. Those traditions, at the same time, usually hold to a limited number foundational articles of faith that may or may not align with current scientific paradigms. The more dependent these axioms are upon tradition, the more likely they are to conflict, in my totally uninformed opinion, with science. These scientists and scholars may be less likely to be convicted adherents to the most conservative and fundamental religious traditions, but may be firm adherents to their theologies.

Other scientists and scholars operate under a brand of compartmentalization slightly different from the type described above. They entirely separate all their religious beliefs from the assumptions that guide all their scholarship or science. Some find this intellectually dishonest, but others will argue that science is far from establishing a comprehensive picture of absolute truth (or even its existence), and so one can hardly be faulted for suspending religious judgment based solely on the scientific paradigm. What is popular this century may be flippantly dismissed next century or overruled by new discoveries, and I’ve heard people say they don’t want their soul sacrificed on the altar of science if the axioms upon which that altar is built are that rickety and transitory. Evolution may not fit properly into this paradigm, but evolution does not threaten all theists. Scholars and scientists who fall into this overgeneralized category may be perfectly happy to critically and objectively engage research and theories that totally conflict with their religious beliefs.

I think there are a number of different believing approaches to practicing science and scholarship, and readers will probably find my categories woefully inadequate. Johnson brings up important points to consider, but I believe he’s responding only to the worldviews to which he’s had exposure, which are limited in number. His exposure is also most likely limited in profundity. As is the case with many atheists who reject their faiths as youths/young adults, I believe Johnson is engaging a religiosity not far removed from the kind he experienced as a high school and college student. His view of science has progressed considerably since then, no doubt, but I have a hard time believing his view of religion has done the same.

There are a number of other roads down which one could take this discussion, but this is the road I’ve chosen. If you have questions, comments, suggestions, or corrections, I’d love to hear them. The biblioblogging topic of the week comes and goes, but this is a topic I believe will be with us in some capacity for quite some time, and I’m interested in others’ thoughts and what avenues I can explore for a richer understanding of how this applies to science and the academy.

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