Religion vs. Reason

Sam Harris thinks that Francis Collins is a bad choice for the head of the National Institutes of Health. Why? Because Francis Collins claims to be a Christian. You can read his article here and decide for yourself the merits of his argument.

I would only point out the epistemological quandary his argument creates. He contends that Collins cannot be trusted in a scientific position because he believes that there is a God in the universe, when there is not. The equal and opposite argument could be made. Harris cannot be trusted to speak intelligently on matters of science because he excludes from the universe a God that is really there.

There are all kinds of serious implications of Harris’ line of reasoning.

But what struck me in the article was his claim that modern science possesses esoteric knowledge that mere mortals – especially mere Christian mortals – cannot be expected to understand. He says:

“…very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark in a book published by that bastion of religious ideology (dripping irony intentional), Princeton University Press, notes that the vast majority of practitioners in the hard sciences, both living and dead, are religious. Extraordinary, isn’t it, how so many are able to overcome their natural biases and do good science and believe in God at the same time.

Harris’ contention hides an arrogance of ‘expertise’ which makes debate nearly impossible. How easily an argument is squashed when someone transcends ‘you don’t understand’ and plays the trump card ‘you CAN’T understand’.

He is not alone. In the thread I referenced here regarding the book Physics for Future Presidents, by Berkley professor Richard Muller, a colleague of the author makes this observation:

“Although I generally agree with Prof. Muller, and I have enjoyed the parts of his book that I have read, I would take him with a grain of salt. He is by no means the most authoritative research on climate change available, even on the Berkeley campus. Like Al Gore, he has now become a popularizer, and that task has inherent risks, as Muller himself is aware.”

The merits or demerits of the book aside, the implication is that any attempt to popularize, that is, to explain these difficult matters to the masses, will be deficient. Sort of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to public knowledge. The more we try to bring this knowledge close to people, the less clear it becomes. What we of the masses must do, I suppose, then, is to trust the experts, the experts who support and do not question whatever happens to be the current party line. “Trust me. I have a PhD. You need to reduce your carbon footprint. Just trust me.”

This all reminds me of a discussion I once had with an older woman about abortion. The argument was successfully ended when she said that I could not possibly understand because I am a man and, at the time, young. Different argument, same tactic. Argument over. Not settled; just over.

Sam Harris is rightfully troubled with some arguments for God’s existence, and some natural and observable phenomena which seems to cast doubt upon God’s reported goodness or power. These questions are troubling and need to be discussed.

A Christian explanation needs to be pondered. We might be tempted to suggest that he cannot understand the Christian explanation because he is an atheist.

He should take offense if we do so. Rather, we need to see that he will not understand. His is a moral, not an intellectual, problem.

2 thoughts on “Religion vs. Reason

  1. MagistraCarminum

    I almost posted about this yesterday…excellent points, Randy! I once argued abortion with my own dear mother, and she ended the debate by saying that I could prove to her that abortion was murder, but she found that murder justifiable. I was left simply speechless after that.

  2. Randy Greenwald

    You deserve a reward for reading all 800+ words! Short posts ordinarily get read; long posts get 'glanced at'!

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