Monday, February 18, 2013

Conflict?! Ha! What Conflict! (Shut Up! I Said There's No Conflict!)

Once again, the Huffington Post has dug up a prominent scientist to laughingly poo-poo the notion of a conflict between science and religion. Max Tegmark, in this case, an astrophysicist at MIT. Dixit Tegmark:

"So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don't think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don't think so either"

Kudos, Professor Tegmark, a lot of people agree with you. However, the soundness of a proposition is not a matter of popular vote. If you had always settled questions about physics by popular vote, your career as a legitimate physicist never would've gotten very far. (Although who knows how far you might have gone as a Christian clergyman and apologist.) If you'd asked the same question 500 years ago, the agreement would have been unanimous or nearly so. At least publicly. But then, you might have gotten killed just for posing such a question publicly, depending on how you phrased it and how clear it was that you were not going to accept any answer except "No, there is no conflict." The fact that such questions could be fatal could conceivably have meant that people's private opinions about them were much different than their public statements. We may never know how great such differences between public and private were. And never mind 500 years ago, 321 years ago Puritans killed some witches in Salem. And I think it was about 263 years ago that Hume was denied a chair in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh because of his positions on religion. (And Hume never publicly admitted to being an atheist.) And the Spanish Inquisition wasn't shut down until 177 years ago. And never mind all of that -- go to Texas or Mississippi or Pakistan today and talk to some scientists there -- off the record, for their sake -- and ask them what they think of the relationship between religion and science right now.

I have a feeling that Tegmark either doesn't want to hear any of that, or that he would laugh in an infuriating way and tell me that I have a twisted and inaccurate conception of history, somehow. But wait a minute, is Tegmark's assertion about organizations representing most Americans and most scientists even correct to begin with? It's not impressively presented. He continues:

"For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion 'live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists.'"

Presumably some person affiliated with the Association said that. Which person? Where, when? What reason have we to believe that this statement reflects some sort of popular vote conducted within the Association, or its leadership, or sumpin? If Tegmark knows, he doesn't seem to care. And that's the only example he gives of scientists seeing a conflict-free relationship between religion and science. And as far as the the religious organizations representing "most Americans" are concerned, he provides more unsourced quotes. For a physicist? Not so much with the details!

But he continues, and this is why his article is in the Huffington Post, because this is the Huffington Post party line:

"This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn't between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science."

All is well! Pay no attention to those fanatical atheists trying to tell you that science and religion are in conflict! (How can you tell which ones are fanatical? They're the ones saying that there is such a conflict!) There is no typhus in Moscow! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

For a conflict which doesn't exist, and which furthermore only a small fringe group of wild-eyed fanatics believe exist, some people spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy insisting that it doesn't exist. For a handful of people at the Huffington Post, and some of their favorite contributors, and the Templeton Foundation, for example, it seems to be their full-time job.

PS, February 19: ThinkCreeps, an HP reader, informs me that Tegmark ran a grants program for Templeton for several years. So strictly speaking it was perhaps not that Tegmark reminded me of Templeton so much as that Templeton has closely resembled Tegmark for a while. Thanks for the tip, ThinkCreeps!

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