Science and Religion, Methodology, and Humanism

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Science and Religion, Methodology, and Humanism
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
18
Issue: 
2
Year: 
1998
Date: 
March–April
Page(s): 
15–17
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
[In May 1998 Dr Eugenie C Scott, NCSE'S Executive Director, was awarded the American Humanist Association's 1998 "Isaac Asimov Science Award". What follows is excerpted from her acceptance speech. Ed.]

In late 1995, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) issued a statement to its members and the public concerning the importance of evolution to biology teaching. Part of the statement defined evolution:
The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.
Shortly after this statement appeared, I began to see letters to the editor from around the country decrying the "atheism" of the NABT. Anti-evolutionists like Phillip Johnson included broadsides against NABT in their writings. As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as "unsupervised" and "impersonal" implied to many Americans that "God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning." Reflecting these public concerns, two distinguished theologians, Cornell's Huston Smith and Notre Dame's Alvin Plantinga, wrote a polite letter to NABT's board of directors, asking it to delete the two words "unsupervised" and "impersonal". They specifically noted that the use of the two words
has two unfortunate and unintended consequences. It gives aid and comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a legitimate target. And because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers Americans' respect for scientists and their place in our culture.
When the NABT's board convened at its annual meeting in Minneapolis in October 1997, members' initial reaction was that creationists were trying to get them to change the statement, and they weren't about to knuckle under to that sort of pressure. They voted at the end of a 9-hour meeting, after only a brief discussion, not to change the statement.

Why is this story relevant to my receiving this award? You may be surprised to hear that after I arrived at the NABT meeting, I encouraged the board to do as the theologians asked and drop "unsupervised" and "impersonal". I'm pleased to say that the board did discuss the issue at greater length and ultimately altered the statement by dropping the two words.

People who know what I do for a living, and who know I am a nontheist, are sometimes surprised to hear this. In fact, a group of about 100 scientists signed a letter decrying the NABT's decision to drop the two words and accusing its board (and Eugenie Scott) of capitulating to political pressure from "fundamentalists." Well, lest you think I have gone "soft on creationism" and thrown the integrity of science to the wolves, let me explain a few things. I'd hate for you to think that you have given this wonderful Asimov award to a closet creationist! I lobbied the NABT board of directors to make the change because of both my respect for science and my respect for the philosophy of humanism that draws so strongly upon it. To explain requires me to reflect a bit upon both religion and science.

First, religion. Some define religion as "world view" or a person's (or a people's) "perspective", but this is too broad to be useful. Anthropologists define religion as a set of rules and attitudes regarding interaction with certain supernatural beings. Not all supernatural beings — elves, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus are the subjects of folk beliefs, rather than religion. Religion concerns omnipotent entities — gods, A God, the Ancestors — powerful forces that can be (or have to be) supplicated, worshiped, or in some other way, interacted with. Religion does not always determine the rules for how people should behave towards one another (morals and ethics) but religion always has rules for what to do about superior beings. In Judaism and Christianity, there is one deity, which is certainly omnipotent.

Now, what about science? My job requires coping with science illiteracy in the American public. There is widespread ignorance both of the facts and concepts of science, as well as illiteracy in the very nature of science itself — of science as a way of knowing. Often, time is short: TV and radio especially require me to reduce science down to one or two "Big Ideas".

I think I'd be satisfied if Americans would get into two habits. First, ask, "Is there another explanation?" Uncle Fred found water in the back pasture using a forked stick, so there must be forces unknown to science at work. Is there another explanation? Copper bracelets cure arthritis because my neighbor's arthritis got better when she wore one. Is there another explanation? To be a truly critical thinker, one must be especially careful to ask this question when the explanation seems reasonable. Mr X got fired from his teaching job because he teaches evolution. Is there another explanation?

Maybe Uncle Fred found water (assuming he did it more frequently than chance) because after living for 60 years in that kind of country, he has amassed some subconscious knowledge of places where water is likely to be found. Maybe my neighbor's arthritis got better because of a placebo effect. Maybe Mr X got fired because he is a lousy teacher.

After we get people into the habit of asking, "Is there another explanation?" we next need to get them to ask, "How do I tell which explanation is better?" Deciding which explanation is better requires testing the explanations against the natural world — and therein lies the essence of science. I'd love for the average American to understand the rest of what we associate with the philosophy of science — falsification, parsimony, repeatability, open-ended-ness — but the public needs to grasp the basics first. What is most important is "testing" and "natural world."

The essence of scientific testing is the ability to hold some conditions constant.To test whether putting fertilizer on my petunias will make them grow bigger flowers, I have to hold constant such things as amount of water, sunlight, weeds, and so on — to control for these factors. Testing means holding some things constant and varying others.

Now we get down to the nitty-gritty of science and religion, and why I lobbied to take the words "impersonal" and "unsupervised" Out of the NABT statement. Consider: If to test something scientifically requires the ability to hold constant certain effects, this means that omnipotent powers cannot be used as part of scientific explanations. Logically, if there are omnipotent powers in the universe, it is impossible to hold their effects constant, to "control" them in the scientific sense. An omnipotent power could interfere, or not interfere or interfere but make it look like it's not interfering — that's omnipotence for you!

So science must be limited to using just natural forces in its explanations.This is sometimes referred to as the principle of methodological materialism in science: we explain the natural world using only matter, energy, and their interactions (materialism). Scientists use only methodological materialism because it is logical, but primarily because it works. We don't need to use supernatural forces to explain nature, and we get farther in our understanding of nature by relying on natural causes.

Because creationists explain natural phenomena by saying "God performed a miracle," we tell them that they are not doing science. This is easy to understand. The flip side, though, is that if science is limited by methodological materialism because of our inability to control an omnipotent power's interference in nature, both "God did it" and "God didn't do it" fail as scientific statements.

Properly understood, the principle of methodological materialism requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act. I could say, speaking from the perspective of my personal philosophy, that matter and energy and their interactions (materialism) are not only sufficient to understand the natural world (methodological materialism) but in fact, I believe there is nothing beyond matter and energy. This is the philosophy of materialism, which I, and probably most humanists, hold to. I intentionally added "I believe" when I spoke of my personal philosophy, which is entirely proper. "I believe," however, is not a phrase that belongs in science.

We philosophical materialists may all be methodological materialists, but the converse isn't true. Gregor Mendel was a methodological materialist who didn't accept the philosophy of materialism. I think we make a grave error when we confuse philosophical views derived from science — even those we support — with science itself.

Let me give you an example. There exists a group of critics of science about whom Barbara Ehrenreich has written eloquently; they call themselves deconstructionists, or postmodernists, and they can be found in unfortunately large numbers in the humanities and social sciences departments of most universities and colleges. They claim that science is largely responsible for the current destruction of the environment, for social policies based on racism and sexism, for genocide, the Holocaust, for iatrogenic illness. They argue that the very Enlightenment principles that Humanists embrace should be knocked off their pedestals and replaced with more subjective, personal, and allegedly "more humane" ways of making decisions.

Most of us Humanists (being rational, Enlightenment types) would argue vigorously against this position. With Barbara Ehrenreich, we would point out that, yes, indeed, science has been used to promote ideas like genocide that we would consider evil, but that postmodernists are confusing ideologies and ideas drawn from science with science itself. Science has, for example, been used both to promote and to rebut sexism and racism, but the philosophical view one draws from science should not be used to raise up or cast down science itself.

The same principle applies to philosophical materialism, the view at the foundation of our Humanism; we may derive this view from science, but an ideology drawn from science is not the same as science itself. Science is an equal opportunity methodology.

Therefore, I agreed with the two theologians who asked NABT to take the words "impersonal" and "unsupervised" from its statement on evolution. NABT was making a philosophical statement outside of what science can tell us. Plantinga and Smith wrote:
[I]t is extremely hard to see how an empirical science, such as biology, could address such a theological question as whether a process like evolution is or isn't directed by God.... How could an empirical inquiry possibly show that God was not guiding and directing evolution?
And they were right. If we are to say to postmodernist attackers of science that they should not confuse science with positions or philosophies derived from science, then we must be consistent and not equate science with materialist philosophy.

I argue for the separation of methodological from philosophical materialism for logical reasons, and for reasons based on the philosophy of science. It is also possible to argue from a strategic standpoint. Living as we do in a society in which only a small percentage of our fellow citizens are nontheists, we who support the teaching of evolution in the public schools should avoid the creationist's position of forcing a choice between God and Darwin. Creationists are perfectly happy if only 10% of the population (the percentage of nontheists) accepts evolution. I am not. I want people to understand and accept the science of evolution; whether or not someone builds from this science a philosophical system that parallels mine is logically and strategically independent. An ideology drawn from science is not the same as science itself.

Ironically, I find myself being praised and encouraged in my position by conservative Christians and taking flak from some fellow nontheists, including some scientists. I must say, though, that over the last several months I have presented lectures at several universities and two meetings of professional scientists in which I have argued that a clear distinction must be drawn between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home. Once this view is explained, I have found far more support than disagreement among my university colleagues. Even someone who may disagree with my logic or understanding of philosophy of science often understands the strategic reasons for separating methodological from philosophical materialism — if we want more Americans to understand evolution.

Science and Humanism are too important for us not to think very clearly about what they have in common and where they are distinct. The most difficult questions for us to think about critically are the ones where one answer better suits our ends, even if another one is truer. As Humanists, we might want to claim the power of science as our own, but we cannot honestly do so. Humanists should be modeling clear thinking, not muddling it — and I think we are up to the task.

Again, I am highly honored to receive this Isaac Asimov Award in Science, and I sincerely thank you for making me its first recipient.