Saturday, April 5, 2008

Like with Like: Religion and Science

Discussing a criticism of Richard Dawkins made by Marilynne Robinson, Norm Geras observes as follows:

If religion is to be measured against the scientific consciousness in broad historical terms, then it won't do simply to compare the harms of religion with the virtues and benefits of science. This is a particularly dubious form of comparison for partisans of critical rationality and the weighing of evidence. So, on the one side, the benefits of religion and the good that has been done by religious believers has to be properly acknowledged. It is mere ignorance to deny it and mere prejudice to make little of it. On the other side, the harms that have been perpetrated in the name of scientific knowledge have also to be weighed fully. It's no use pretending that there are none, via some such claim as 'if it was bad, it wasn't real science'. Anybody can purify what they want to defend by narrowing down the object of defence to exclude the things they don't want to have to face.
This criticism misses the fundamental point that science itself (i.e., science as a process, the scientific method) has exposed and brought to light what we now regard as the past flaws of science. It is science itself that demonstrates that Piltdown man was a hoax, that eugenics and phrenology were infected with odious biases, that Darwin's initial speculations about whale evolution were mistaken, that Copernicus had it right and that Ptolemy had it wrong.

By contrast, how do we know the vilest practices of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Ku Klux Klan were wrong about the underlying theology? How do we know who read the Bible 'correctly' in the many pro and con arguments about slavery? How do we know that the most violent excesses of the Taliban were based on a faulty understanding of Allah's will? How do we know that the human sacrifices of the ancient Aztecs were not genuinely in keeping with the desires of Huitzilopochtli? Do we know these things at all? We don't. Faith-based certainty on such matters is groundless -- merely a matter of assertion.

Science has an explicit commitment and an observable track record of correcting its mistakes and citing the abuses to which its findings are put. This track record is imperfect, to be sure; it is and will remain a work-in-progress. Religion offers only the endless contention of unverifiable claims and counter-claims, grounded in nothing better than individuals and institutions that pretend to speak with supernatural authority.

This difference matters.


mikesdak said...

It should also be noted that much of the good done by religion over the years happened because of motivated people at the grassroots level, sometimes in opposition to the official church doctrine of the time. That still happens today, perhaps more frequently.

Dale said...

True, Mike. Very valid point.