There are times when it’s necessary to look through a telescope for the big picture and other times when it’s necessary to look through a microscope for the small picture. Generally, I’m looking through the telescope. That explains why I’m currently reading The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does It Continue?, a collection of essays on the occasion of the centennial celebration of Yale University’s famous Terry Lectures. Featured in the book are two scientists (Kenneth Miller, Lawrence Krauss), a philosopher (Alvin Plantinga), a historian (Ronald Numbers), and a sociologist (Robert Wuthnow). The purpose of the volume, according Harold Attridge, is to explore “the ongoing controversy in the United States about the relationship between science and religion, particularly evolutionary biology and traditional readings of the biblical creation story.”
In his introduction to the book, Keith Thomson provides a concise and cogent answer to why the debate continues:
What matters in the public debate is not what philosophers and historians write but the simplified, and sometimes simply wrong, version that the general populace “knows.” There is a continuing debate, not because of esoteric philosophical discussion in the groves of academe where, as here, mutual respect is required and conciliation is to be sought, but because of the hopes and fears expressed in pulpits and school board meetings across the country. The debate continues not just because science and religion are both immensely powerful, in the sense of having a history of changing the lives of billions. It is because they are perceived to be based on entirely different principles that are relentlessly leading us in different (potentially opposing) cultural directions. It has to do with the ways, and the extent, to which humans have the power to control and shape their own world. And with who gets to exercise those powers. Because power is involved––institutional power and individual empowerment––inevitably so is fear. And fears can be exploited by the unscrupulous.
To demonstrate Thomson’s observation that science and religion are “perceived to be based on entirely different principles that are relentlessly leading us in different (potentially opposing) cultural directions,” consider the following two quotations. From the side of atheist fundamentalism, there is Richard Dawkins:
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence . . . . Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.
From the side of Christian fundamentalism, there is Henry Morris (a leader of the creationist movement):
Evolution’s lie permeates and dominates modern thought in every field. That being the case, it follows inevitably that evolutionary thought is basically responsible for the lethally ominous political developments, and the chaotic moral and social disintegrations that have been accelerating everywhere . . . . When science and the Bible differ, science has obviously misinterpreted its data.