Author: Jerry Coyne
I guess it was too much for me to hope that my 2013 Slate essay, “No faith in science,” would once and for all dispel the claim that science is just like religion in depending on faith. My point was simple: what “faith” means in science is “confidence based on experience,” while the same term in religion means “belief without enough evidence to convince most rational people.” It’s the same word, but with two different meanings. Yet religious people mix up those meanings regularly—and, I expect, deliberately. I wish they’d read my goddam essay.
So someone’s done it again: Matt Emerson, a Catholic whose blog says, “I teach theology and direct the advancement office at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA.” He’s also written the book Why Faith? A Journey of Discovery, to be published by Paulist Press this May; it apparently aims to help people maintain and understand faith.
At any rate, Emerson published a short essay in the March 3 Wall Street Journal—”At its heart, science is faith-based too“—that, as usual, conflates the meaning of “faith” as applied to science (but we scientists avoid that word!) versus as applied to religion. Rather than go into detail, I’d recommend you read my Slate piece, and Emerson should have, too! Here’s a bit of his conflation:
The scientists who made the gravitational-wave discovery, [Italian physicist Carl Rovelli] wrote, were pursuing a “dream based on faith in reason: that the logical deductions of Einstein and his mathematics would be reliable.”
Mr. Rovelli was not referring to religious faith. And scientists generally deem even faith scrubbed of theological meaning to be something unrelated to their endeavors. Yet the relationship between faith and science is far closer than many assume….
Wrong. Scientists don’t have “faith in reason.” As I noted in Slate:
What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!
Here’s an old canard from Emerson and physicist/accommodationist Paul Davies:
Arizona State University physicist Paul Davies has noted that the work of science depends upon beliefs—that the hidden architecture of the universe, all the constants and laws of nature that sustain the scientific enterprise, will hold. As he wrote in his book “The Mind ofGod: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World”: “Just because the sun has risen every day of your life, there is no guarantee that it will therefore rise tomorrow. The belief that it will—that there are indeed dependable regularities of nature—is an act of faith, but one which is indispensable to the progress of science.”
Well, we can’t be 100% certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I dealt with this in Slate as well:
You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out.
I’d bet $100,000 that the sun will rise tomorrow (i.e., day will break, for it might be cloudy!), but I wouldn’t bet $5 that Jesus was resurrected bodily. The dependable regularities of nature are, unlike the tenets of theology, not acts of faith, but observations that we accept as holding widely, because they always have. This is simply confidence based on experience!
Why do people like Emerson mix up these uses of faith? It’s obvious: accommodationism—and also a mushbrained attempt to do down science by saying, “See, you’re just like us!” (Implication: “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”):
Recognizing the existence of this kind of faith is an important step in bridging the artificial divide between science and religion, a divide that is taken for granted in schools, the media and in the culture. People often assume that science is the realm of certainty and verifiability, while religion is the place of reasonless belief. But the work of Messrs. Davies and Rovelli and others, including Pope John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” demonstrates that religion and science sit within a similar intellectual framework.
ORLY? How, exactly, do the “findings” of religion resemble those of science? After all, Emerson may believe that Jesus was not only part of God, but also God’s son, was crucified and resurrected, and that we’ll find salvation through accepting that. But if you’re a Muslim, you could be killed for professing such blasphemy, and Jews, of course, don’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. There are millions of conflicting “truths” in religion, but although there are some disputes in science, there’s general agreement that, say, DNA is a double helix, the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and that a benzene molecule has six carbon atoms. Theology can offer us NO truths so well established.
But Emerson claims it can, and his claim is laughable:
But just as faith is indispensable to science, so is reason essential to religion. Many find themselves relating to God in a way analogous to the scientists searching for gravitational waves. These seekers of religious truth are persuaded by preliminary evidence and compelled by the testimony of those who have previously studied the matter; they are striving for a personal encounter with the realities so often talked about, yet so mysterious.
In such a context, it isn’t blind belief that fuels the search, any more than scientists blindly pursued the implications of Einstein’s theory. Rather, it’s a belief informed by credible reasons, nurtured by patient trust, open to revision. When I profess my belief in God, for example, I rely upon not only the help of the Holy Spirit. I also rely upon the Einsteins of theology, thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, whose use of reason to express and synthesize theological truths remains one of the great achievements in Western civilization. Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” is a LIGO for the Christian faith.
Open to revision? Only if science disproves religion’s claims, and even in that case 40% of Americans still reject evolution in favor of the fairy tales of Genesis. And what, exactly, are the “theological truths” of Aquinas and his coreligionists? Can we please just have a list of five or six? Please?
And here’s the kicker—and Emerson’s conclusion:
To be sure, religion and science are different. But many religious believers, like scientists, continue to search for confirmation, continue to fine-tune their lives and expand their knowledge to experience a reality that is elusive, but which, when met, changes life forever. And if the combination of faith and reason can deliver the sound of two black holes colliding over a billion light years away, confirming a theory first expressed in 1915—what is so unthinkable about the possibility that this same combination could yield the insight that God became man?
There’s a difference between searching for confirmation and searching for truth; religion does the former, science the latter. If Emerson can give us evidence—and not just from the Bible—that “God became man”, then I might take his truth claims seriously. Absent that, we need accept his verities no more than we accept those of Scientology, Mormonism, or, for that matter, Beowulf.
It’s a travesty that the Wall Street Journal publishes tripe like this. Are they that desperate for copy? I doubt that they’d even entertain a piece like the one you just read here.