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Review of Science and Religion: Are They Compatible (ed. Paul Kurtz)

Excluding the Introductory portion, which contains two chapters, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible, edited by Paul Kurtz, consists of seven parts and thirty nine chapters. In order to give the reader an idea of the broad coverage of the book, it is useful to note the captions of the various parts:

Part I, “Cosmology and God,” includes eight chapters. The first chapter is contributed by the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg.

Part II, “Intelligent Design: Creationism versus Science,” includes five chapters, and opens with “Creationism versus Evolution” contributed by Kendrick Frazier, the editor of Skeptical Inquirer.

Part III, “Religion and Science in Conflict,” includes seven chapters, and opens with a contribution from Vern L. Bullough, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California-Northridge and the University of Southern California.

Part IV, “Science and Ethics: Two Magisteria,” includes three chapters. The opening chapter, “Non-overlapping Magisteria,” is contributed by the late Stephen J. Gould, recipient of the “In Praise of Reason” award, and who was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University. This part also includes a chapter entitled “You Can’t Have It Both Ways?” by Richard Dawkins.

Part V, “The Scientific Investigation of Paranatural Claims,” six chapters and opens with “Examining Claims of the ‘Paranatural’: Life after Death,” by the editor of the book, Paul Kurtz. Kurtz is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New York at Buffalo and the founding chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry.

Part VI, “Scientific Explanation of Religious Beliefs,” includes five chapters. The opening chapter, “Why Do People Believe or Disbelieve?” is contributed by Paul Kurtz. The last chapter, “Searching for God in the Machine” is contributed by David C. Noelle.

Part VII, “Accommodating Science and Religion,” includes five chapters. It opens with “Science and the Unknowable,” contributed by Martin Gardner, a former columnist with Scientific American and the Skeptical Inquirer. This part, and the text of the book, end with “Afterthought” contributed by Paul Kurtz.

In addition to those mentioned above, several other prominent writers have contributed chapters to this book. In this respect, one can say that the book is “star-studded.” It is not feasible to review every chapter of the book in this brief article. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to discuss a few chapters, arbitrarily selected, to get an idea of the flavor of the book.

Weinberg’s chapter, “A Designer Universe?” is powerfully written, as is typical for him. He writes:

I’d guess that if we were to see the hand of the designer, it would be in the fundamental principles, the final laws of nature, the book of rules that govern all natural phenomena. We don’t know the final laws yet, but as far as we have been able to see, they are utterly impersonal and quite without any special role for life. There is no life force. As Richard Feynman has said, when you look at the universe and understand its laws, “the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

A God who gave us the laws of nature but does not intervene in its affairs on day-to-day basis or ever, is a far cry, at best, from the God of religion. Such a God is largely irrelevant.

Vern L. Bullough, in his chapter “Science and Religion in Historical Perspective,” briefly outlines the history of developments of religious traditions (mainly Christianity) and science. Discussing the confrontation of religion with science, he states:

The point I wish to emphasize is that there is not a conflict between science and religion, but there is often one between religion and science. This is because religion tends to incorporate scientific ideas into its theological explanations. The difficulty … is that scientific assumptions do not remain static, but are changing and being modified, occasionally even drastically.

According to Popper, science is falsifiable. And according to theological belief, religion is not, though it has veritably changed over time from its original precepts (thus falsified in a sense).

To underline the fallacy implicit in it, Bullough asserts:

Still religion does change. All we need to do is read the Jewish scriptures, which the Christians call the Old Testament, to see what doctrines and practices put forth there are no longer believed or even advocated by even the most dedicated believers.

He concludes his chapter by summing up:

It is a war not of religion itself but of a minority of true believers who are interested in imposing their theological views not only on science and scientists but on the world at large. They believe they have the answers and they want the rest of us to accept them. It is a war started by some religious believers not only against science but against secular society itself as well as against other Christians who do not believe as they do. Science does not have all the answers, but religion also leaves many questions unanswered.

In my opinion, the conflict between religion and science is much grimmer and, in the Muslim world, sometimes even dangerous. The Muslim world is in the same rut that Christianity was in several centuries ago. Jane Kramer (The Pope and Islam, The New Yorker, April 2, 2007) quoted Marco Politi as follows: “There’s not just the Greek Logos in Christianity. There’s been violence and irrationality and literalism. O.K., that may be what Islam is in this century. But for centuries, it was us.”

In “Science versus Religion: A Conversation with My Students,” Professor Barry A. Palevitz elucidates the difference between religion and science to his students in an informal discussion. Discussing the message of the Creationists (which he calls ‘most pernicious’), he says:

Science discovers the principles upon which the universe operates, it doesn’t construct them, and it’s not free to ignore them. No body, scientists included, has the ability to legislate how the natural world operates based on religious or political belief. One cannot simply insist that the emperor is wearing a fine set of clothes and expect it to be true, We cannot substitute how we would like the world to be for how it actually is.

Professor Palevitz was shocked by this question from one of his students: “Why scientists are so spirituality-bereft?” Collecting his wits, Palevitz responded:

It is religion that has no place in science; spirituality is not only possible but even advantageous if it enforces love of the natural world and motivation to find out how it works. I consider myself a very spiritual person: I am awed every time I snorkel on a coral reef, humbled by a crisp December night full of stars, forever amazed by a dividing cell, and inspired by human creativity.

This is all right, so far as it goes, but a common difficulty of comprehending “spirituality” is that the majority of people believe it cannot exist apart from God-belief–tied inseparably with God. Spirituality to them is the essence of the mantra of Mansur Al-Hallaj, “Ana-al-Haq”, which means “I am one with the Truth” (God). It may also be construed as “I am the Truth (God)”–which so angered Al-Hallaj’s opponents that they killed him by hanging.

This book covers a vast terrain, including almost every field of human epistemology. In the last chapter, the editor has attempted to sum up and critique the essence of the book, insofar as it is possible to do so in one short chapter. He writes:

Those who defend the existence of the supernatural believe that a transcendent God is also immanent in the universe. If this is the case then his presence may be judged experientially. Skeptical inquirers have investigated the alleged paranatural evidence adduced for the existence of “discarnate souls,” “near-death experiences,” or “communication with the dead”; similarly for the “efficacy of prayer,” the Shroud of Turin, and the other alleged anomalous phenomena–which have been found evidentially lacking.

He also argues that one can be moral without any guidance from religion. He writes:

Yet many people today mistakenly suppose that you cannot be moral without religious foundations. This is a false supposition; for ever since the Renaissance, the secularization of morality and the realization of naturalistic values continue quite independently of religious commandments.

This concisely defines the position of the atheist; it will probably not swerve many believers who have faith-based reasons to adhere to their own traditional faith. The dialogue and debate will undoubtedly continue.

All in all, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible is valuable both for its own sake and as a useful reference.

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