Eric MacDonald #2

September 26, 2010

Eric MacDonald comments on various blogs, particularly this one
and this one
and therefore gets little exposure beyond the people that take part in discussions there. He speaks more sense in a paragraph or two than a whole year’s worth of Guardian Comment is Free contributors. This is far from his best comment but it’s the one i have at hand. More to follow.

Here he contributes to the science religion compatibility debate. His was comment #22 at this link

“One of the things that bothers me more than anything in the absurd assumption that is being made when people talk about the compatibility of religion and science is the sheer diversity, and, so often, perversity, of religious belief. Religions come in so many different shapes and sizes, that the claim that religion is consistent with science is almost certainly false for most religions and for most religious beliefs. If the claim is being made that practicing a kind of cumulus shaped spirituality, without any clear ontological commitments, is consistent with doing science, then, of course the answer is, yes, there is no problem. You can even do it and take an interest in collecting match boxes. But if the religious belief happens to be that someone, somewhere, has authority to speak in the name of a transcendent being for which there is no evidence, that this transcendent being speaks to and communes with, human beings, that it has made an appearance in various guises in the world, that it causes miracles to happen and bodies to rise, or brings luck and good fortune to the favoured, punishes the wicked (for any given religious definition of what that word means in its various religious iterations) and authorises outrageous immoralities and injustices in its name, then it is not compatible, and it is fatuous to suggest otherwise. Nor is there room for dialogue with this sort of thing. Until people start to recognise that when they speak about religion they are not speaking only about the nice people in the church across the street, who seem so culturally warm and fuzzy, and probably pretty fuzzy-minded too about what their beliefs imply, they are also speaking of pretty distressing forms of belief and the injustices and inhumanities that flow from then. And just repeating some slogan about the compatibility of religion and science does a great disservice, not only to science, but to the victims of so much religion.

For, religion, despite all the warm and fuzzy notions that it seems to connote for so many people, is not warm and fuzzy. It misleads and misdirects. It abuses children, not only by deforming their lives with physical and emotional and sexual abuse, but by much of the religion that is taught, which is of an incredibly destructive sort, very often indelibly so. It ruins lives and imaginations, it binds them to forms of thinking that are the product of ancient cultures, when people banded together on the side of their god against others on the side of theirs, and while it may have given them protection, it also required their submission and all the hatreds that are born of it. This is still being demanded. There is no other way to teach religion. It is a form of authoritarianism, and even those who attempt to convey a more humane, even secular form of religious thought, will be constantly undermined by people who, in faithfulness to tradition, return people to the faith once delivered to the saints, or whatever group happened to be first and therefore the model of faithfulness.

… religion has had its chance, and needs now to be opposed in the name of more effective ways of knowing about and changing the world.
… I have read so much good stuff on Jerry Coyne’s site, here on B&W and on Pharyngula and, etc., that really is dialogue, and [the critics of “New Atheism” are] not paying attention.”

… and this is the follow-up post he made the next day:-

“Aw, shucks, folks! What you get when you take your eye off the ball. I wrote that little bit last night when I was ready to drop dead in my tracks, and so am surprised to see the response. Anyway, whatever helps. Reading does take so much time away from blogging, you know, and I had been trying to understand the catholic idea of natural law, and hadn’t had much success, so turned to see what was new in the ionosphere of the blog world (not the Intersection, I need to add, which is nearer to subterranean), and simply detonated.

Chris Mooney is really such a jerk, but I had been thinking a bit about the terms of the compatibility argument, and it’s so obvious the man knows nothing about religion. But neither, really, do the others. Think Francis Collins, for example, or Ayala. Religion is a very nebulous something (couldn’t think of the word ‘nebulous’ so ‘cumulus’ had to make do) in the discussion, but when you read it out in terms of its varieties, and all its distortions of reality, it seems so idiotic to think of it being compatible with a project that is so tied to evidence and multiple confirmation. The religious keep saying how religion is so complex, that there isn’t really a clear definition of religion, even, let alone a clear understanding of any of its varieties. Each, from their own point of view, is saying how, in order to say anything at all about religion, you have to understand it in depth, and in its specific varieties, but the points of view are so many and various that this would be the task of many lifetimes, supposing there is something there to understand. (I wonder if one should set out to risk so many lifetimes on a task so unpromising?) How on earth can something like that (if ‘that’ refers to anything determinate) be compatible with anything? All you have to do is ask yourself, “Is Christianity compatible with Islam?”, and it seems pretty clear that you can’t then say in a general way, “Religion is compatible with science,” taking (conceptual) compatibility as a transitive relation. The whole thing seems quite mad, even if you could give some content to the idea of religion (in general), which I very much doubt.”

This is, obviously, very relevant to those in the chattering class who upbraid “New Atheists” for not spending more time immersed in the writings of theologians. Life is short and it makes sense to avail oneself of the best knowledge currently available. The cognitive dissonance produced by the hint of a shadow of a suspicion that theology is bunk must be devastating to those who have spent years and decades studying and writing it. Even more credit, then, to such as Eric MacDonald who have the courage to admit what arid lands hermeneutics had led them to.


4 Responses to “Eric MacDonald #2”

  1. Hi Don,

    I agree with quite a bit of what is stated here. Obviously, not all forms of religion are compatible with science. However, since some very good scientists do also believe in God and practice a religion, it seems reasonable to allow that SOME forms of religion (I guess we’d agree that these are the best forms of religion though you reject them all and I do not) are at least NOT INCOMPATIBLE with the honest pursuit of science. The ground was prepared by Montaigne and Bacon.

    Francis Collins may not know much about religion, but he is a Christian as well as a scientist in the fullest sense of the word “scientist” (i.e. not a picker and chooser of the “nice bits”).

    He is just one example of a scientist who advocates “theistic evolution”.

    Now, whether or not you or I think “theistic evolution” is a satisfactory solution, I think we could at least agree that it is not an UNREASONABLE credo and that therefore there is a way in which a scientist may follow a religious faith and a person of religion may embrace the whole of the scientific endeavour.

  2. ukdonjp said

    Hello David,

    Those who assert the incompatibility of science and religion obviously do not claim that religious believers cannot be scientists, one of the common canards advanced by religious apologists. Let’s get that out of the way for starters.

    Francis Collins is targeted because he wrote a well-publicised apology for his Christian faith a couple of years ago.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “unreasonable”, but i certainly regard it as an entirely baseless credo and, as Hitchens has said, “Any proposition advanced without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    This is the crux of the issue – supporting evidence. Science demands it, religion shuffles its feet.

  3. Yes, I’ve read Collins’ book. He refers to “theistic evolution” as BioLogos and it’s probably more useful if I quote what he has to say about it so you can respond.

    “BioLogos doesn’t try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as ‘How did the universe get here?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘What happens to us after we die?’ Unlike Intelligent Design [which FC spends some time rejecting in the book], BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul.”
    p. 204

    Earlier, he writes:

    “This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world. It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world. The theistic evolution perspective cannot, of course, prove that God is real, as no logical argument can fully achieve that. Belief in God will always require a leap of faith. But this synthesis has provided for legions of scientist-believers a satisfying, consistent, enriching perspective that allows both the scientific and spiritual worldviews to coexist happily within us. This perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believer to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshiping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation.”
    p. 201

  4. ukdonjp said

    Where’s the supporting evidence for Collins’ assertions?

    And what on earth is spiritual logic?

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