The Surrender of Science to Religion

Vic Stenger

Science and religion have frequently been in bitter conflict. One would expect that to be the norm, given their deep philosophical and structural incompatibilities. Yet today, despite their joint presence at the forefront of almost all human activity, science and religion co-exist in a relatively quiet truce. Why is this? I will argue is that this truce is not the consequence of a meeting of minds - an agreement to disagree and keep out of each other's hair. Rather the truce exists largely because science has surrendered to religion on most of the main issues that divide them.

Except for calling out the troops to defend against an occasional noisy foray by religionists, such as the periodic attempts of fundamentalists to undermine the position of evolution as the foundation of modern biology, scientists have been content in recent years to remain confined within a particular sphere of influence. This sphere is not one selected by scientists themselves, but assigned to them by the powers of society who far more often look for their counsel among church leaders than among professors of physics or neurochemistry. Politicians regularly attend prayer breakfasts and lunches - never a scientific seminar.

Americans laugh at the influence of Islam in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where religious police carry whips to strike against the exposed legs of women. But many Americans raise no objection when our own self-appointed Christian religious police try to force their control over the bodies of American women.

In a nation founded in reaction to religious persecution, a succession of recent Presidents have implicitly promoted the most dangerous of notions: that Americans are God's new chosen people, and it is God's will that the American Way of Life be ultimately adopted by the rest of the world - even if we must use our great military power to force it.

Scientists should be horrified with this development. Yet few raise a murmur of dissent. They have found it convenient to ignore the rising tide of irrational thinking, promoted by both traditional religions and secular occultists, that is sweeping our society.

American scientists, along with their colleagues worldwide, have largely chosen not to struggle against the renewed influence of supernatural beliefs on human thought. Some social and political "scientists" have abandoned any pretext of scientific method, and now routinely invent data to satisfy the popular opinions of the day. Truth is no longer determined by the twin tests of observation and replication, but by the singular test of Political Correctness.

What's so special about scientific method anyway, they say (other than the fact that it works)? In this great egalitarian age, one idea and one culture is a good as another. "If it feels right - do it!" "Anything goes." Incredibly, university professors shake their heads in agreement, ignoring the fact that only Western culture invented science and only science put us on the moon. How can one group of people be so smart and so dumb at the same time?

The result has been the abandonment of Western scientific ideals by even scientists themselves. This has led to a decline in the previous public acceptance of science and rational thought that began in the Enlightenment, and reached full flower in the nineteenth century with the widespread acceptance of Darwinism. Now public knowledge of science has retrogressed to an almost medieval level. But we find ourselves in a strange kind of Middle Ages, with everyone surrounded by the fruits of science and hardly anyone having the faintest idea of the thought processes that brought these wonders about.
And this is where the problem lies - in the thought processes. The vast majority of human beings today have been rendered incapable, by their education and culture, of utilizing their innate powers of reason. I claim that this is largely the product of religious thinking.

The ancient dualistic teachings of religion have once again gained center stage with the revival of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, and the rise of New Age spiritualism. Often people argue that religion is mainly concerned with moral precepts, and so can co-exist with science and its concern for the material. But the teachings of religion go far beyond morality to the issue of the basic nature of humankind and the universe. These are the everlasting issues that have famed the conflict between science and religion from the time of the first scientists in ancient Greece, 2,500 years ago.

Rituals and rules of behavior aside, the conflict between science and religion is primarily a conflict about the nature of the universe. The notion that science strictly concerns itself with the "natural" or physical world of matter, while religion deals with the higher realm of the "supernatural," or spiritual is simply untrue. Religion is just as much of this world. But the underlying assumption is that a spiritual world exists that ultimately rules the physical, and so religious authority rules over scientific. So the conflict between science and religion has not been settled, just placed on the back burner by science's own acceptance of the more limited role society, influenced by religion, has assigned to it.