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Is Science Close to Defeating Religion?

On Sunday The Observer published an article by Colin Blakemore entitled ‘Science is Just one Gene away from Defeating Religion’. (See After a necessarily brief overview of the history of tensions between science and religion Blakemore settles on a target, which is a well-known argument recently presented by Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, for the conclusion that religion provides a type of explanation that cannot be provided by science. Science, on this view only answers ‘how questions’, whereas Religion answers ‘why questions’. This distinction is overly simplistic. Science does answer some why questions. It can tell us why we observe solar and lunar eclipses, why the naked mole rat is eusocial and why almost all track and field world records have been set in the late afternoon or early evening. However, it seems unlikely that science will ever be able to provide us with compelling answers to ultimate why questions such as ‘why do we exist?’ and ‘why does the universe exist?’. Blakemore tells us that he is dubious about the legitimacy of these (ultimate) why questions. He suggests that these questions can either be dismissed as nonsensical, or can be recast as how questions that we will be able to answer by appeal to science.

Blakemore’s first suggested reason for being dubious about the legitimacy of ultimate why questions is itself a very dubious line of reasoning. These questions are grammatically well-formed and they seem to make sense to the many people who can conceive of the sort of responses that would qualify as satisfying answers to them. For many religious believers the question that concerns them is not whether their favoured answer is sensible, but whether or not it is actually true. If Blakemore, or any other critic of religion’s ultimate why questions, is to pursue this line of argument in the face of the apparent meaningfulness of such questions then they owe us an account of meaning under which such apparently meaningful questions can be shown to be nonsensical, despite appearances. I do not want to rule out the bare possibility of such an enterprise succeeding, but I would simply note that the last serious attempt to provide a theory of meaning under which many apparently meaningful sentences were judged to be meaningless was due to the Logical Positivists of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Their efforts are now widely regarded as a massive failure and most contemporary accounts of meaning do not attempt to reject common sense intuitions about meaningfulness. Instead they attempt to account for these intuitions.

Blakemore's second suggestion has somewhat more going for it. The cognitive science of religion is a burgeoning field and much work is being done that paints a plausible picture of the human mind as being predisposed for religious belief. For more on this work see Michael Brooks’ recent article in New Scientist: As well as explaining why we may be predisposed to religious belief it seems that work in the cognitive science of religion may be able to explain away at least some religious beliefs. If it turns out, for example, that most belief in Gods is due to an innate disposition to over-attribute agency to the world, then most religious belief is in danger of being debunked when we realise that it results from biased cognition and when we take steps to correct the source of that bias. Potentially, the cognitive science of religion could deprive us of much of our motivation to ask ultimate why questions by showing us that our desire to have answers to such questions is also the product of some or other distorted form of cognition.

The cognitive science of religion may be able to answer how questions that are closely connected to ultimate why questions, questions such as ‘how did we come to have a need to have answers to ultimate why questions’ and ‘how can we rid ourselves of the desire to have such questions answered?’. But while these are interesting and important questions to have answered, these are not actually instances of ultimate why questions being recast as how questions. Rather, they are how questions that are closely related to ultimate why questions. Even when we have good answers to such questions it still makes sense to ask ultimate why questions (although we may no longer be motived to do so). So perhaps Harries is right after all. There may be is a domain of religions questions that science cannot invade. But even though science may not be able to mount an invasion, it may lead to a reduction of interest in having answers to those questions. Religion’s domain may be protected from scientific invasion but it may also become a less popular domain than Harries and others wish it to be.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. As Steve Clarke points out, religion “in general” or “as such” is not threatened by science because it serves a function other than that which science seems to serve. One caveat: What happens when science answers the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? But the real earthly debate among people who concern themselves with their own lives and the life of their society is not between science and religion as such, but between science and particular (their) religions.

    Science does threaten creation myths that are included in religions’ accounts of themselves. It also threatens the concept of sin insofar as science denies free will. These are serious matters to anyone who insists that the whole factual content of the religion’s account of itself must be honored and believed. This, for example means that a believing Christian, Jew or Muslim must worry when that person believes the scientific explanation of things. On the other hand, I can’t see a Buddhist as being too bothered by science and its findings about the world. Are there Buddhist chemists, physicists or biologists?

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