Into the Breach of Science and Religion

By Adam Frank | March 23, 2008 10:55 am

Adam Frank“Science is not a philosophy; it’s an attitude.”

So why, if I am trying to work out a new approach to science and human spiritual endeavor, would I spend 600 words in my last post jumping up and down about Texas, their school board, and creationists? That was the question some people had for me, so I think it’s worth reflecting for a minute on what’s at stake in all this.

I have argued that the traditional debate in science and religion takes three forms: the Sullen (creationism/Intelligent Design), the Silly (New Age quantum enthusiasm), and the Snarky (out-of-hand dismissal of all sentiment associated with spirituality/religion). These three options define the edges of the debate. But because each one takes an absolutist position on issues that are really pretty fuzzy, it affords them a soapbox from which to yell loudly and with great vehemence. In the midst of the yelling, it can and will be difficult to trace out the outlines of a more nuanced position that speaks to the broad concerns of human being.

What we seek is a stance that honors the integrity of scientific practice, but allows the full measure of our humanity and human response to the world (both interior and exterior). Tracing out those positions becomes particularly critical as we come to face harsh choices about a future which will, inevitably, demand that choices be made involving science, technology, and values.

I spent an entire chapter in my book exploring the traditional debate and why it had exhausted itself. That does not mean, however, that its potential to cause real problems has gone away. Of the three traditional positions, it is the Sullen who, through well-funded and well-defined political activity, are most intent on forcing their views on others.

This is why, from time to time, we are all going to have to turn around and deal with the urgencies forced on us by the traditional debate. As an astrophysicist, I am particularly sensitive to the state of the American scientific enterprise. It is impossible not to see what is happening in Texas as a fundamental threat to the health and vibrancy of this great national treasure. That means it’s imperative for all who can speak out to do so when the need arises.

Later this week, I will do a post on Intelligent Design and its problems. For now, it is enough to reaffirm the imperative to search for a language that can describe science and its context in a human world that includes a sense of what is sacred. At the same time, we can also acknowledge that effort does not exclude a confrontation with intolerance. At times, it will be demanded of us all.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion

Comments (49)

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  1. Charles Schmidt

    Yes, that gives them a soapbox to put forth a view but it also gives them some control over things and issues. When we elect someone to office we give them the power to manage some laws, spending and other things but they are elected. However, if someone decides that they want to start a religion they can and from that church or what ever they wish to call it they can direct the actions of the members through the beliefs of the members and the rhetoric from the pulpit. The larger the membership the more influence they have over what happens in the world outside of the church and the more these churches band together for a cause or on an issue the more control over what happens.

    From what I have seen in history a belief system is about control of the people not for the welfare of them. How many leaders became gods when they ascended the throne that was for more control over those under them. If one looks around at the control that religion has over many people and what they believe they are doing in the name of some god we can see that issue in Texas is just one more issue in the name of god. Once more the actions are directed at taking away liberty and free thought to have more control over people.

  2. I think the core term you bring up is “belief system”, while I think there is a place for traditions as a guide for peoples efforts, when the beliefs become an entire intellectual system that is when they become things in themselves. People become more focused on the system then their own experience.

  3. Charles Schmidt

    But Adam that belief system is molded from the pulpit and being part of that group is important to many so being ostracized from that group is motivation to go along with the point of view or opinion of that group. Look at prop 8 in California and the support from the LDS church and it’s members as an example. The real purpose was control of others because they did not agree with the issue and had the members do as the church asked. Then the Pope saying that condoms were not the answer to controlling AIDS the issues go on and they are not necessarily good for the members but to control them and others as well.

  4. And that is why I have not been interested in looking at the institutional part of the religion/science debate. As William James emphasized its what people apprehend in their solitude that matters (for me at least) because that one finds the most interesting places to discuss science and religion.

  5. Charles Schmidt

    But it is the institutional part of religion/science that brings ID before science as an issue. The idea being that we cannot have our youth thing that evolution is possible without god or they may turn away from the church (and take their money with them) it is not just the belief in religion but the institution of it that brings these issues forward to squash knowledge so their belief system will flourish at the expense of science. It is not the belief in god that is the problem it is the belief in god as we say you believe and that is institutional part.

  6. Matt Tarditti

    Charles: There is a very big distinction between an organized religion and the generic term “belief system”. Your examples of control and influence are exclusively derived from the actions of the Christian right and the Catholic church, both of which are so highly “organized” that they are in disarray.
    A belief system, however, is much broader. Any group of theories constitutes a belief system implicitly because the term “belief” implies a lack of knowledge. Belief does not imply a god (big G or little g); it does not even imply a dependence on the super-natural. One could argue that the theory of gravity, though well supported, is still part of the general belief system of “scientific theory”.
    “From what I have seen in history a belief system is about control of the people not for the welfare of them.” No sir….belief systems are about trying to explain that which cannot be comprehensibly explained. There is the key: comprehension.
    Two scenarios: 1) The universe is full of dark matter and dark energy, both of which cannot be directly detected. 2) Jesus walked on water. If Bob is a layman, with no knowledge of the advanced math necessary to “comprehensibly” explain the theory of dark matter, then how are the two scenarios different to Bob? They both rely on Bob’s “belief” that the story teller (physicist or priest) is telling him the truth.
    Bobs constiute the VAST majority of the human population, relying on the preists of science to guide their way.

  7. Charles Schmidt

    Matt, the vast majority have the church tell them what the truth is and it is not science but religion that holds the key to truth for them. Yes, some are more willing to see that science is supplying some real answers but many are just the opposite saying that it takes away from god and cannot or should not be trusted.

  8. Matt Tarditti

    Charles, how is the church’s argument different from your own? You stand at the opposite corner, yelling “God is taking away from science and cannot and should not be trusted.”
    Just because someone you trust tells you “the truth” does not make it any more true.

  9. Charles Schmidt

    I did not say god is taking away from science but many of those in the church that speak from their pulpit are, do you not remember what Pat Robertson said went the school board was voted out after the loss in court by ID. Nor is it only science that is rallied against anything may put doubt or is disagreed with becomes the enemy. Take birth control, abortion, the gay community and many others that rub them the wrong way. When they attempt to take away what others feel as their right or freedom be it in school or in life they seek to control and we have more than enough from the government by those we elected, we do not need it from the pulpit of religion be it in person or on TV. If you trust them that is your freedom, if not that too is your freedom.

  10. Steve F.

    Hi Adam:

    Clearly, creationism and the version of ID that is being promoted now (the miraculous intervention variety) is just plain wrong. Lets agree to that.

    Onto the traditional debates about science and religion. Traditional means for longer than, say, the last five years, I hope.

    In western society, the traditional debates about science and religion go back at least to Hobbes (further if you want to hit the Greeks) and his mechanistic vision of how things work. This, with his vision of state power freed from church (read Catholic) control, really had legs. Basically, we are talking about ideas of certainty correlated with scientific knowledge, empiricism and rationality as opposed to religious “enthusiasm”.

    This thread is still very much alive today. Deism, Voltaire, and the Enlightenment are all major components. If we really want to understand the “sullen,” we will have to understand this first. I suppose we could throw in Kant, Marx, even Darwin as players in the scenario.

    Since the French revolution, positivism in all of its different colors has been a major player as well, including Comtean positivism, end of the 19th century positivism – very influential on Einstein – and logical positivism (including Popper) in Austria, England and the US. Logical positivism contradicted itself – it held that all valid knowledge was basically empirical, a principal that definitely was not empirical – but its tenets still hold sway on campus today.

    Kuhn – and his paradigms – undermined the absolute certainty that science was uber alles forty years ago, and religion started to inch back towards respectability with a lot of help from Barbour, Newsweek, and others. So, conventionally, folks talk about a very different set of traditional debates about science and religion in intellectual realms than you do.

    Characterizing creationism as a the major problem strikes me as being partisan, not an attempt to understand or resolve things. I tend to think of it as a ploy, a bit like saying that terrorism is a threat. Yes, it is a problem in the US, but lets not be parochial. Aren’t we talking science, not politics?

    More importantly, if we are going to do anything meaningful as opposed to merely reiterating well-established positions, we have to ask why creationism continues as a problem? What are the underlying mechanisms that have locked it into place as a problem? Isn’t this the scientific approach? Without trying to understand these issues, clearly we are simply waiving the same old battle flags.

    So I would appreciate it if you would talk to these much more important issues. How does awe – a minor but important part of the puzzle – fit in? There are a number of important other issues, too. We don’t need to be reminded again and again how dumb ID and the creationism is unless you just want to review the literature. Its preaching to the choir.

    Steve F.

  11. Steve these are all really good points you make about the entwined history of the debate. I would argue that creationism (now in its Intelligent Design mode) remains a problem exactly because it does form so much of what most people hear when they hear the words “Science and Religion”. The reason I have not been focused on unpacking its history (you are right to say that to understand it you must understand its origins and relation to cultural evolution) is that, as a scientist, I have to ask what parts of this phenomena of religion are general and touch on anything related to science. That is why I wanted to focus on experience in my readings. I will, in general, try and stay away from the usual poles of the debate because as you say its mainly reiterating well established positions. At times however this pole can have a real and detrimental impact and that is why I did the piece on the Texas school board mess. It is not something I want to belabor.

  12. Adam wrote: “What we seek is a stance that honors the integrity of scientific practice, but allows the full measure of our humanity and human response to the world…”

    In which part of “our” do you include the Christian Reconstructionists and Theocratic Dominionists who are overtly and covertly supporting intelligent design creationism? If you want the “full measure” of opinions and responses, will you give equal value to both serious science and also to the geocentrists and YECs and “cdesign proponentsists” (lookitup)?

    The deniers of evolution are a vocal minority with a hidden agenda, much like those who deny that the Holocaust or the moon landings actually happened. Their hidden agenda – to destroy all of science as we know it – is examined in Dr. Barbara Forrest’s paper, “Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals,” available at – please read this before finalizing your opinion honoring the integrity of the intelligent design creationists.

    Have you read the report by Texas Citizens for Science at These people really care about what happens to Texas and Texas school children – their children. You should respect their response to the darkening world they can see coming.

  13. Bahata

    All this debate is in a sense like the tower of Babel. It’s experience that counts, both in objective modern science (which has become predominantly materialistic) and subjective spirituality (a term I prefer to religion), which can lead to consensus despite the subjective nature of spiritual experience, as the human being is basically the same, and for that matter, there is essential unity in ALL living beings. Going one step further, one can even assert that there’s actually continuity between the material & spiritual domains, not dichotomy. Galileo Galilei, and especially his children faced these very dilemmas over three centuries back.

  14. @Paul I think you need to read what I have written more carefully. Try the post last wednesday if you think somehow I am sympathetic to Intelligent Design

  15. Bahata, well said. I think “science” has long stood by some basic assumptions that are still a problem. I mentioned before the philosophical divide in Greece that chose a mechanical universe over a living one which also created the notion of a God outside of nature that created it. I’m not saying that this did not give us some valuable insights and perhaps tools but as we see science seems to be heading full circle back to discovering that it is a living universe, a living earth that we live with, not a geo-machine. I am not anti-science at all, I love it, but I think in this culture it labors under a college “educated” bias that contributes to a lack of understanding. What you say about subjective reality as opposed to “religion” is also my view, organized religion being generally political rather than spiritual. But I still prefer my dictionary’s definition of religion, “ones relationship with the powers and principles of the universe.” Science should simply honor this relationship with its living source ….I think it would eventually solve some of the problems we are struggling with. Why is the mechanistic view of the universe any more valid than that of a living one?

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