Monday, May 22, 2006

Religion and Science

Currently I am reading Nicholas Wade's book on the origin and evolution of humans, Before the Dawn- a wonderful book focusing on new insights gleaned from genetic research. What I like about this book is that he does not shy way from sensitive subjects such as the role of warfare in human evolution, the reality of racial differences, or the origin of religion.

About religion Wade develops several arguments, first is the role of religion as a force for social cohesion and this is a fairly standard idea. But then he introduces what to me was a new wrinkle on this argument, building on arguments by late anthropologist Roy Rappaport. Wade argues that the development of language allowed the elaboration of reciprical altruism in human societies. With this elaboration came greater opportunities for 'freeloaders' to cheat the system by deception. There must be "...some context in which statements were reliably and indubitably true."

Wade argues that scared truths which are unverifiable and unfalsifiable along with the communal rituals of religion provide committed individuals with defense "against the lie" and he provides good examples of this aspect of religion operating even today, for instance among Orthodox Jews in the diamond district seal even large contracts with a handshake. So the defense against the the lie allows enhanced trust between members of the community. Presumably repeated participation in the rituals of religion provides a measure of verification that the trust is warranted, making freeloaders easier to detect.

Turning to science, which is too recent a development for Wade to consider, scientists are interested in true statements and having some defense against the lie just as in religion. The difference between science and religion is in the nature of the defense against the lie. In religion that defense is sacred word and ritual (I would submit that this even true in Zen which attempts to get beyond words and rituals. In science the defense is empirical verification. That after all is why scientific results are communicated through a very formal process involving communication not only of conclusions but also the evidence and how that evidence was arrived at. There are freeloaders in science but just as repeated participation in the word and ritual of religion catches many freeloaders, independent verification in science reduces the amount of freeloading in science.

Science and religion are not the same, and this is true even though scientists may at times make metaphysical statements. The difference is best encapsulated with a statement I saw yesterday on a church announcement board on MY way to church:

"Does the clay question the potter?" The implication of the statement seems to be that we should not question God, and that we should be accepting of what gifts we have from God. I have no quibble with that as a religious statement. But of course with the various manufactured controversies in the public mind here in Kansas about evolution, the question takes on an added dimension, whether intended or not. This is because as made abundantly clear by Wade, we are not clay(thought we may have come from clay) and we do question the potter. When other scientists make statements we insist on some sort of empirical verification. So scientists too are concerned about uncovering the freeloader but we rely on experimental evidence and empiricism to be the decider, not adherence to sacred truth and ritual.

So here perhaps the conflict between science and religion cut to its core: a conflict between ways of uncovering the lie. If as Wade argues, the religious impulse is innate and shaped by the evolutionary process, then this may explain the intractability of the the conflict. Scientists often expect that reason and critical thinking will prevail when dealing with Creationism in it's various manifestations, including intelligent design. And yet, it has been my experience that reason and critical do not work when talking with Creationists at least not in the short run. We end up sliding past each other because we are not arguing on the same levels. The Creationist is arguing from an innate emotive level in defense of "sacred truth" and the scientist is arguing what may also be an innate emotive level only this time transferred to a defense of reason and empiricism.


Rappaport, Roy A(1971) Ritual, Sanctity, and Cybernetics,
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 73(1) , pp. 59-76 (abstract)

Wade, Nicholas(2006) Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. Penguin Press NY. 312 pp

Other links:

Talk of the Nation, April 28, 2006 · Reporter Nicholas Wade talks about how DNA analysis is rewriting our recent -- and ancient -- history, including a better understanding the evolution of humans. His new book is Before the Dawn: Recovering The Lost History of Our Ancestors.

Science and Spirit (Review of Wade's book).

PLOS Genetics. Turning the Tables: An interview with Nicholas Wade.

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