Friday, May 7, 2010

TGD: Chapter Two - Science, Religion and Little Green Men

Today I'm going to finish chapter two of "The God Delusion". Most of the rest of the chapter talks about the idea that theology and science represent two separate areas of study. Dawkins refers to this idea by the acronym NOMA, and that is the title of the next section.

NOMA stands for non-overlapping magisteria. The idea behind NOMA is that religion cannot speak on scientific matters and science cannot speak on religious matters. Dawkins rightly points out that this is a poorly thought out compromise that simply does not work in practice.

If you don't agree, consider this question, "Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?" This is the central truth claim of Christianity. It is a question about our physical universe. It is a question that, in principle at least, science should be able to answer. And Christianity isn't the only religion that makes such claims.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might be surprised that I agree with Dawkins on this point. After all, I don't believe, as Dawkins does, that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. I do believe that we can have a compromise between science and religion, I just don't think that NOMA is the way to go.

The reason I don't like NOMA is, ultimately, because I'm a monotheist and not a deist. If you're a deist, if you believe that God merely created the universe and doesn't interfere in its operation, then NOMA might seem like a good idea. However, as I said earlier, monotheists believe that God is actively in control of the whole universe. If God has control over everything, then every area of study is, in some sense, theological.

So why do I believe science works? Why do I allow scientific truths to influence theological beliefs? Why don't I insist that every scientific principle be related in theological terms?

The simple answer is, because science works. Science provides many useful explanations that help us make sense of the world around us. It provides truths that can be empirically verified.

So, even though science and religion clearly do overlap, religious people should respect science's ability to discover truths about nature. I would argue, as many theologians throughout history have argued, that if our theological opinions contradict observable facts about nature, then it is our theological opinions that are in error.

In the next section Dawkins talks about a study on the affects of prayer on patient health. Long story short, a recent double blind study on the affects of intercessory prayer on patient health and recovery found no connection. I will admit to being disappointed by the results of the study, but I'm not going to stop praying for people. I've seen a lot of good things happen in the course of prayer*.

In the next section, Dawkins suggests that the main reason why scientists espouse NOMA is to convince religious moderates that science isn't a threat to their faith. These religious moderates are valuable allies in the fight to teach evolution in public schools. Dawkins is very critical of this tactic. In his view, science's real enemy isn't creationism; it's religion.

It is unfortunate that Dawkins holds this view. There is a need, now more than ever, for a positive dialogue between scientists and theologians. I'm enjoying reading Dawkins' scathing critique of religion, but I'd prefer to read a book with fewer rhetorical attacks and more constructive criticisms.

The final section of chapter two is about extra-terrestrials, about the difference between super advanced aliens and gods, and about why he thinks the aliens are at least theoretically possible, whereas God is not. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until chapter four to discover why Dawkins thinks God can't possibly exist.

* This touches on the issue of the validity of personal experience vs. scientific fact. I'm not going to ignore this issue. I will address it when it comes up again in chapter three. For now I will just say that this is only a single study, which addressed a specific kind of prayer and looked for a particular affect. From this one study, we can't draw the conclusion that prayer never works.

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