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Anyone not living under a rock will be aware of the current clash between science and religion as manifest in several books that have been reviewed recently here on Metapsychology. Are the two compatible? Does science make religion obsolete? Do we have two non-overlapping magisteria as Stephen Jay Gould has argued? Is the claim "God exists" subject to scientific investigation?
Taner Edis is associate professor of physics at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO. His books include An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus Books, 2007), The Ghost in the Universe: God in the Light of Modern Science (2002) and Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (2004).
In this review, I will look at the paperback issue of Edis's book Science and Nonbelief. In it he wants to provide an account of the complicated relationship between science and religion by analyzing the ways in which science supports religious nonbelief. The overarching theme is the struggle between a natural view and a supernatural view which introduces entities in addition to those we find in nature. To do so Edis considers several modern scientific theories that are relentlessly naturalistic and that attempt to show us how the world works. First of all, for Edis, there is no Scientific Method and no Scientific or Religious Truth -- there are methods and there are truths. As a teacher, Edis has learned to be sensitive to the sensibilities of his religious students in order to teach them science. Instead of insulting his students he tries to teach them science and let them sort out the metaphysics for themselves. That style of the sensitive sceptic comes through in his books, and that makes them quite readable without being condescending. A reviewer in Catholic Library World praises the book as intelligent and well-balanced, writing, "The author refuses to take the easy way out of saying that science and religion are dealing with different realms: one being limited to facts, the other focusing on meaning....Overall, this is an excellent book for the layman and professional alike. Anyone interested in the subject would find this to be one of the few contemporary books that approach these controversial issues with more light than heat."
The book provides a history and an analysis of "science-minded nonbelief" from the early Greeks to the present. Mark Twain warned us long ago that, "When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself." Edis's book will certainly help anyone who is seriously interested in examining evidence for a naturalistic worldview.
He begins with a chronology of events from 585 BCE (Thales) to 1996 CE (Randi) in which he reminds us of the high points in discovery over that span of time. Then he provides argument and discussion in relation to seven topics where the clash between belief and nonbelief are especially critical.
1. Science, Philosophy and Religion
2. An Accidental World
3. Darwinian Creativity
4. Minds and Souls
Dualism and metaphysics
5. The Fringes of Science
6. Explaining Religion
Virus? Opiate? Truth?
7. Morality and Politics
A set of primary sources, a detailed bibliography, and an index round out this useful work which is written in a fresh and readable prose. Throughout Edis argues that a God "untouchable by science becomes a cosmic Santa Claus." (31) The book is a clear, balanced survey of the interactions between science and religious doubt and includes a detailed discussion of issues raised by physics, biology, neuroscience, pseudoscience, and philosophy. What I find valuable, and unusual, about Edis is that although he is a non-believer his treatment of religion is even-handed. Although he makes his own position clear, he does not hesitate to point out shortcomings that frequently exist in the more aggressive statements of the "New Atheists." This restraint makes his criticisms of religion all the more effective. Because he is prepared to point out where nonbelievers are guilty of overstating the power of science, his demonstration of why science offers a real and serious challenge to religion is more compelling.
Although religions claim supernatural entities are necessary for the existence of the universe and for human life on this planet, science is able to provide us with a coherent explanation of our universe by invoking chance and necessity. Modern physics has come a long way in being able to explain the nature of things without invoking a creator God. In place of a top down creation it looks as if a purely natural process over billions of years would be able to produce a universe which can support life and intelligence. The most powerful argument for the existence of God -- the design argument -- can be discarded once we have a natural process which begins with the simple and evolves by chance and necessity. Science is eliminating gaps where gods have been required with facts and theories that provide explanations which are purely natural. Science and Nonbelief chronicles, in a balanced and accessible way, the long history of the battle between adherents of religious doctrines and the nonbelievers who adhere to the naturalism of modern science.
Edis provides a nontechnical introduction to many of the key questions that concern science and religion today:
What place does evolution hold in the arguments of nonbelievers?
What does modern physics tell us about the place of humanity in the natural world?
How do modern neurosciences challenge traditional beliefs about mind and matter?
What can scientific research about religion tell us about the nature of belief?
How do sceptics react to claims at the fringes of science, such as UFOs and psychics?
Given the success of science and its power as a way of knowing why has it failed to displace religion? Edis makes the important point that we have brains which have evolved in ways that make it difficult to do science – especially modern physics. Science is hard. Religion is easy.
As Edis says, "Quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive; physicists have never been able to come up with a comfortable picture of how it works." [Taner Edis, Is Anybody Out There?]
In the chapter on explaining religion, Edis inventories several recent attempts to provide explanatory theories for religion's tenacious hold on humankind. Chapter 6 opens with the Humean questions "Why are there so many religions?" and why are their beliefs incompatible? Given that there is such diversity in belief then many people must be mistaken -- they cannot all be correct in their beliefs (although they could all be wrong). Edis looks at rational choice theory as a way of explaining religious choices, particularly in the USA where there is a smorgasbord of religious options. Religious demand is determined by the needs or perceived needs and wants of consumers, and is marketed and purchased just as soap powder. He also considers memetics as a potential explanation for religion's spread, but is cautious in accepting memes as anything but an interesting idea requiring additional investigation.
Mark Twain's observation above can be seen applicable not only to individuals but also to our species. Peter de Vries, the funniest writer on religion ever, has his hyper-liberal Reverend Mackerel (in his book The Mackerel Plaza) preach: "It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.