Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2003-2004

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible, edited by Paul Kurtz et al.

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Is yet another book on science and religion really necessary? Well, perhaps it is, if a recent issue of The Spectator is any indicator. On 25 October 2003, the magazine’s cover sported a giant bust of Charles Darwin under assault by an axe-wielding Jesus freak. Advertisements for the magazine in the national press urged, “Once only religious nuts questioned Darwinism. All that has changed.” But a careful reading of Mary Wakefield’s accompanying article betrays that advertisement as sensationalist and misleading.

Her three flatmates (one a Christian fundamentalist), she tells us, doubt or deny the Darwinian explanation for the variety of life on earth (do they truly understand it?). But she does not neglect to mention that the American Catholic neo-creationist and advocate of “Intelligent Design” (ID), Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) has been comprehensively answered by a fellow Catholic, the Darwinian biochemist, Kenneth L. Miller (author of Finding Darwin’s God, 2000).

Nor does she neglect to mention that the American creationist lawyer and polemicist, Phillip E. Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial, 1991), massively subvented by the Christian Right, has been effectively rebutted by Richard Dawkins, among others. (The huge slush funds now available to religiously motivated critics of genuine science is certainly very worrying.)

So can “Intelligent Design” really hope or expect, as supporters maintain, to establish itself as a more sophisticated, less naïve version of biblical or Koranic creationism? Mary Wakefield apparently thinks not: “If we accept a lack of scientific evidence as proof of a creator’s existence, then surely we must regard every subsequent relevant scientific discovery ... as an argument against the existence of God.” That sounds reasonable enough; but Wakefield rather spoils her case by suggesting that “Dawkins and the ID lobby should be persuaded to” reconcile their differences.

A new collection of essays, co-edited by Paul Kurtz, provides strong arguments against the possibility or desirability of any such attempted reconciliation. It contains 39 articles (surely no coincidence?), most of which were either presented as papers to the eponymous conference organised by the secular humanist Center for Inquiry at Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2001, or have appeared in either of its related journals, Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer.

They are grouped under seven headings, dealing respectively with cosmology, creationism, ethics, the “paranormal” and the origins and epistemic status of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index. The majority of contributors, including Sir Hermann Bondi, Richard Dawkins, Arthur C. Clarke, Daniel C. Dennett, Antony Flew, Steven Pinker, Vern Bullough and Kurtz himself, take the view that supernatural religion is an egregious impediment to a true understanding of the natural world. Others, notably Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynmann and James Lovelock, regard science and religion as different, but equally valid, sources of knowledge.

One contributor, William A. Dembski, a conservative Christian apologist and the joker in the pack, provides little more than a creationist rant. Although he is courteously, but firmly, put down here by Massimo Pigliucci, there is much more that could have been said to highlight Dembski’s breathtaking dishonesty. Twenty-two times in his eight-page diatribe he tendentiously describes mainstream science as “materialistic” or “mechanistic”. This obscures the important fact that modern biology (unlike seventeenth-century physics) is far more accurately designated as “organic” rather than “mechanistic”, and “naturalistic” rather than “materialistic”.

Furthermore, Dembski’s raging against the science community’s sceptical reaction to Hendrik Schön’s questionable research data makes no sense in the absence of fuller contextual information. And Dembski repeatedly resorts to sneers, sarcasm and non sequiturs when, as so often, sound arguments are wanting. A firm advocate of “Intelligent Design”, Dembski believes that an external creative intelligence is necessary to explain the “irreducible complexity” he finds in the natural world.

But to return to those much-despised words “mechanism” and “material”, which he seems unable to utter without a sneer, can he even begin to explain how his imagined supernatural “creative intelligence” could intervene in natural processes without some form of mechanism; or how the allegedly immaterial could ever interact with matter? These dilemmas of Dualism, starkly posed by Descartes in the seventeenth century, remain as intractable as ever, and it is the height of folly to imagine that they can be magicked away by invoking “Intelligent Design”.

The authors of other papers in this useful collection (the best of which is Dawkins’s answer to Gould) provide ample grounds for dismissing a fashionable modern impertinence, which is, in substance, simply old-fashioned creationism rehashed à la mode.

It remains a sad fact, however, that even the comparatively enlightened Church of England still cannot tolerate a frank avowal that science and religion do not mix. Just ten years ago it sacked a highly intelligent and conscientious priest, Anthony Freeman, who bravely dared to speak the truth. “The supernatural”, he said “... has no place in our understanding of the real world.” (God in Us, SCM Press, 1993, p. 10.) And to that I say, Amen!

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Created : Sunday, 2004-02-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :