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One true dialogue September 27, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Science.
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For some reason, Nature has published an essay by Kathryn Pritchard entitled “Religion and science can have a true dialogue”:

I work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe… I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

According to the popular narrative on the relationship between science and religion, this event should not have happened. The entire audience was made up of bishops and church leaders. Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common. Yet in this enjoyable, high-energy context, there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses? Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny?

Pritchard apparently has no idea why people talk of science and faith as being in conflict. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with religious people’s ability to enjoy 3D planetarium shows without falling asleep or to converse amiably about physics without burning anyone at the stake. Clues to the real conflict can actually be found right on the Church of England’s own website:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It worships the one true God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It professes the faith that is uniquely revealed in the Bible and set forth in the Catholic Creeds…

The Church makes very specific assertions about the nature of the world we live in: there is one true God, worthy of worship, consisting of three persons, uniquely revealed in the Christian Bible — along with everything that entails. Anglicans are presumably aware that members of other faiths profess different, contradictory creeds, so why are they convinced theirs is true? Another clue:

The Church of England encourages people to use scripture, tradition and reason to come to a considered view on many subjects.

And therein lies the conflict. Religion makes grandiose claims about how the world works, citing uniquely revealed truths, and tells us to accept them “on faith” while relying on scripture and tradition — ahead of reason and evidence — as a basis for belief; while science is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Of course, we all know which method actually progresses reliably towards a better and better understanding of reality. Pritchard talks about “the conviction that science and theology … can illuminate one another to the benefit of all” and promises to “report on the results”, but, as enjoyable as it might be to reconcile interpretations of quantum mechanics with the stories of Christianity (or Scientology, or Harry Potter), I highly doubt the cosmologists are awaiting the outcome with bated breath. The dialogue between religion and science is entirely one-sided — it usually goes something like this:

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Here’s what our magic book says about the universe. We know it’s true, because it says so in the book!

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Sorry, that’s wrong: the evidence says otherwise.

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: How arrogant! Did we mention that our book is a unique revelation by the One True God?

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Be that as it may, we’re going to see how much progress we can make by being skeptical and following the evidence wherever it leads.

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ (a century later): OK, so we figured out a way to reinterpret our magic book, and what it really means is what you said before. So it turns out we were right all along!

Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?

Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Glad we could help. Don’t forget to let us know when you want to do another awesome dialogue! Maybe we could publish it in Nature.

hubble

(via Why Evolution is True)