Sorry Richard Dawkins, science and religion ARE compatible
Caricatures and exaggerations are major bugaboos of any belief system. As an ardent libertarian, I am dogged by false characterization “every man for himself” on a regular basis, as well as the willfully incorrect “trickle-down economics.” Conservatives get portrayed as irrational Bible thumpers, and all religion is portrayed as fundamentalist, despite the fact that most is far more nuanced than that.
But misrepresentation cuts both ways, and none are completely immune from it. People of faith tend to view the defenders of science as arrogant, intolerant, God-hating know-it-alls, who angrily shout down anyone with an opposing viewpoint. There is some justification for this belief, given that several high-profile atheists like Richard Dawkins — as well as the late Christopher Hitchens — tend to take this approach to rhetoric. But as in most cases, the vocal minority do not necessarily represent the whole, as a new survey entitled “Religion Among Scientists in International Context” shows.
Scientism amounts almost to a worship of science, as well as of the experts who transmit knowledge to the common people. Any questioning of this knowledge is deemed an unforgivable heresy.
In addition to the fairly obvious finding that many scientists see no conflict between their faith and the scientific method, the study is notable in that dozens of respondents mentioned Richard Dawkins unprompted, with complaints about the way he misrepresents their field. Of those issuing the complaints, more than half were non-believers, indicating that this issue is not limited to those in the religious community.
The kind of science Dawkins espouses is sometimes known as “scientism.” It is essentially the belief that the scientific method is the only reliable way to obtain knowledge or truth and that all conceivable questions can ultimately be answered by science — or not at all. Scientism amounts almost to a worship of science, as well as of the experts who transmit knowledge to the common people. Any questioning of this knowledge is deemed an unforgivable heresy.
We most commonly see scientism on display when it comes to political issues like climate change. Whereas many scientific studies are cautious in their conclusions, the media and those politically invested in climate change as an issue seize zealously upon any findings that support their agenda, proclaiming “settled science” and ruthlessly mocking those who dare to dissent.
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Scientism also causes trouble in economics, where slavish devotion to data analysis frequently trumps sound theory, resulting in dangerous conclusions, and the suggestion that human behavior cannot be boiled down to an equation results in derision among all but the Austrians.
For these reasons, I have long been critical of scientism because it represents a profound threat to human freedom and dignity. When so-called experts think they have all the answers, ethics and humility tend to fly out the window. There is no more chilling example of science grown out of control than the American eugenics movement, in which tens of thousands of innocent people were forcibly sterilized in an effort to improve the race “scientifically.”
After the Second World War, eugenics became a dirty word, but the instinct behind that abhorrent movement lives on. Bureaucrats at the Department of Education have proposed all sorts of frightening practices in the name of “improving” our children, including invasive monitoring of eye movements and facial expressions to diagnose so-called disorders in the classroom.
The tendency of people like Dawkins to dismiss anything that isn’t data-driven can, in its extreme version, lead to dehumanizing horrors, and such attitudes should always be rejected, but it would be a mistake to extend this characterization to all scientists or, indeed, to science itself. Science is a wonderful tool that has contributed hugely to human welfare over the centuries.
While it is proper to reject the worship of science for its own sake, it is a foolish overreaction to adopt an anti-science attitude as a response. The true scientific mind is filled with wonder and humility, searching for answers while at the same time never forgetting how much we don’t know. Such an attitude is wholly compatible with religion, where awe at the creator is married with enthusiasm for learning about the creation.
The strong reaction against Dawkins by members of the scientific community — and the prevalence of religion among scientists — proves that any perceived incompatibility is nothing more than a fiction perpetrated by a certain few, loudmouth cranks.
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.