Science v. Atheism: the Dalai Lama gambit

Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney are getting a lot of mileage out of their new book, Unscientific America. This week they pop up in Newsweek to argue that we should welcome the likely appointment of Francis Collins as head of NIH because in a time of polarization, he's a unifying figure, one that embraces both religion (Christianity in this case) and science.

On first glance, their logic seems sounds. We know that many Americans are unwilling to accept science as a worthy pursuit, one that should figure strongly in the development of public policy. We know many of them do so because they perceive a conflict between science and religion. Therefore, national figures that reconcile the two should be rewarded and given places of prominence from which they can spread the good news that religion and science are compatible.

But none of that addresses the fundamental question of whether science and religion are actually reconcilable. Consider M and K's argument that:

Collins's approach isn't just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. Granted, it depends how you define your terms: if your religion holds that Genesis must be read literally, then you are in direct conflict with scientific findings about the age of the Earth, the diversity of life on the planet, and so on. Yet if we consider religion more broadly--in its own considerable diversity--we find many sophisticated believers who've made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It's not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."

Just because many sophisticated believers believe something, that doesn't make it true. And though that quote from the Dalai Lama (let's call him by his real name, Tenzin Gyatso) is a popular one, what does it really mean?

After all, Gyatso's form of Buddhism includes a strong belief in reincarnation (otherwise he wouldn't be the current Dalai Lama). Yet a scientific perspective and a belief in reincarnation are pretty much irreconcilable. No, we haven't proven reincarnation never happens, but it's an extraordinary idea that that demands extraordinary evidence. Not only is there no extraordinary evidence, there is absolutely no evidence at all that can withstand scientific scrutiny. What evidence we do have strongly suggests it's not real. And yet Gyatso continues to believe in reincarnation.

But for the sake of the argument, let's grant Gyatso the sincerity of his willingness to give up a core belief. He seems to be nice guy and at worst, he may not have thought this through, either.

Imagine the reaction if Francis Collins were to say "If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change." I suspect Collins' position as a role model scientific Christian (not to be confused with a Christian Scientist) would be in serious doubt. The statement leads inexorably to the conclusion that the only form of religion that can withstand scientific challenges is deism. So long Christianity. And every other form of organized religion. Deism is a copout religion, one grants the existence of a creator but only one who never actually does anything. Science and faith may be compatible in that abstract sense, but it's meaningless in the real sense.

By endorsing Gyatso's line, K and M are basically saying, science and organized religion are not compatible. They've just politely stated what PZ "communion-wafer-be-damned" Myers and all more plain-speaking atheists have been saying all along.

What we're left with is a stylistic difference. K and M don't want to insult people of faith because that rarely serves any useful purpose. Fair enough. But no matter how strongly they argue that they think science and religion are compatible, it seems that, when you get to the core issues at the practical level, even they accept the reality that what we have here are two cultures that simply cannot be reconciled.

By the way, I suspect Collins will be fine NIH chief. He's done great things in the lab, nobody's perfect, and there are far worse things to be than someone who has to struggle with the mild cognitive dissonance that comes with being a scientist and a Christian.

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The accommodationists keep making the specific distinction between what creationists believe and what "sophisticated believers" believe. Yet all Christians, even the most sophisticated ones, believe that Jesus did not have a human father; and somehow that is more rational than Jesus having a pet dinosaur.

Jesus riding a Triceratops conflicts with scientific findings just as much as Mary having a child after being impregnated by an angel.

"Imagine the reaction if Francis Collins were to say "If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change." I suspect Collins' position as a role model scientific Christian (not to be confused with a Christian Scientist) would be in serious doubt."
But he HAS said as much. I've heard interviews with him where he says that his faith would be shaken by someone providing evidence that the resurrection story was false (for instance finding Jesus' body). Now whether he was sincere in that claim or simply safe in the knowledge that it is incredibly unlikely that we could ever discover such remains and know that they were indeed those of the Jesus of the gospels is another question.
The problem with the New Accomodationists like Mooney and Kirshenbaum on this question is their refusal to openly admit the role of comparmentalization/cognitive dissonance in allowing religious scientists to reconcile their faith with the scientific method.

Unfortunately, society changes slowly and religions even more so. Galileo, his expulsion from the church (and society at the time) and subsequent re-instatement is a prime example of this to me. As such, having someone in the office who won't stifle science and may actually bring aspects into our culture that otherwise would be fought far more is a good thing. I may not believe in Christianity (or any of the others...) but as a minority (atheist) who is despised more than racists etc, I'll take what I can get and hope for continued forward progress. It sounds defeatist to write it up; but then again, things not understood are so like magic as to be inseparable and most don't know how their microwave ovens work. Based on this, teaching and exposure are the ways to remove the magic.

"'If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change.' ... leads inexorably to the conclusion that the only form of religion that can withstand scientific challenges is deism."

At what point was it proven that no deity intervenes on the world, ever? That seems like a pretty tough claim to prove. Each religion involves specific claims about events in the past, present or future and those can potentially be tested scientifically. The general claim about the existence of a deity that intervenes when he/she feels like it is always going to be a matter of faith. As implausible as it sounds to you, a world like ours without such a deity sounds just as implausible to others.

Imagine the reaction if Francis Collins were to say "If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change."

Except that Collins is, theologically speaking, just another serf like the rest of us rabble. Your parallel would be more apropos to suggest (since you prefer using "real" names) Joseph Ratzinger saying such a thing.

jake @ # 1: ... Mary having a child after being impregnated by an angel.

When speaking of the (ahem) intersection of science and religion, we must be precise: according to all available documentation, little Mary was impregnated by a ghost.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 15 Jul 2009 #permalink

The general claim about the existence of a deity that intervenes when he/she feels like it is always going to be a matter of faith.

Always?! Well, if said deity consistently avoided acting whenever that action would create scientific evidence of its existence, then we can assume the deity wants us to be atheists. I think it's very uncharitable of the faithful to deny the deity its wish for non existence.

Silly me, but of course you are correct Pierce, it was an angel that told Mary the good news, but it was a ghost that actually did the deed.

I think what the Dalai Lama was getting at, in a rather oblique way, is that some religions (Mormonism, Islam) make non-allegorical assertions about reality that are falsifiable. (You can also do the same for Christianity, but non-fundamentalist simply declare those bits allegorical.)

He is saying, "Nothing in Buddhism has been disproved." That's true, asfaik. You're reversing that statement to make it seem like he's saying, "Buddhism is scientifically sound," which is not what he's saying at all.

By Paul Paquet (not verified) on 15 Jul 2009 #permalink

I have a better idea.

Until religious organizations of all kinds place a reputable scientist at the head of their governing body, the heads of all types of science organizations will only be legitimate scientists expert in the disciplines of that organization.

F***ing religious people demand their right to invade science and also demand their right to refuse to allow the same to happen to them. In their eyes no one has rights but them.

Archeology, forensics and even the known common knowledge in the Middle Eastern and Eastern world flatly denounce and disprove most all of Christianity - ie plastering the real life of a radical Jewish philosopher called Jesus over the Mithraic/Zorastrian cosmology and messiah cult by saying he performed miracles and resurrected. The Jews who followed Jesus rejected the increasing fringe cults calling themselves 'Jesus followers'.

But the REAL person that cannot be denied existed for stories and myths to be made, teaching ethics of peace, non-violence and caring for your fellow human beings and denouncing control of belief by self appointed priests is a laudable philosophy to follow and extol and in no way rejects science. Saying Jesus isn't real is like saying the real Indian prince who started Buddhism wasn't real because it threatens atheism with agnostic spiritualism. Some people need a crutch to uphold higher ethics and morals but it doesn't require anything to choose to do harm to others and the planet and find an excuse or justification as science based or faith.

Hold on #8. Didn't Buddha meditate under a tree for some ridiculous amount of time without dying of hunger or exposure? Isn't that reasonably falsifiable in the absence of the temporary suspension of the laws of physical reality as they relate to human biology (ie, a miracle)? And I'm sure one could find other examples.

Gyatso may be non-violent and well meaning, and Buddhism may be less 'theistically' inclined than many other religions. He and Buddhism both still represent the ideology that faith - truth by the arbitrary definition of truth - is a valuable and legitimate way to understand the universe. If every other religion were to vanish and be replaced by Buddhism, this fundamental problem would result in the re-evolution of yet more idiot theistic religions in no time.

It's faith itself that's the problem. When people are willing ot belief some arbitrary assertion based on zero evidence -- or even despite evidence to the contrary -- that's when the trouble starts. And it's faith itself which is incompatible with reason. By extension, religion, a symptom of faith, is incompatible with science, a derivative of reason.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink are two cultures that simply cannot be reconciled.

Depends what you mean by "reconciled". If you mean be philosophically and logically compatible, well, no, the Christian and other religious myths don't stand up to any scrutiny.

But if you mean "rub along together", then I think you need to take a more international perspective. In Europe and elsewhere outside the USA, religion and science bumble along together reasonably contentedly. The anti-science culture amongst USA's fundamentalist Christians is a phenomenon specific to the USA.

Can that culture be reconciled with science? Not as it is, but it could change to become more sane.

Ultimately though, a lot of this is more about politics of groups than about faith or science. Appearances deceive!

In Time Magazine, November 13, 2006, Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said religion answers the why questions, the meaning of life questions.

This is how Collins finds the meaning of life. First he says, âGod could have activated evolution...â So far he sounds like a 19th century deist, content to leave it at that. But then he goes on, âwith full knowledge of how it would turn outâ. When asked, about belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection, he answered, âif you believe in a God that is outside of nature, why couldnât that God invade the natural world with miracles?â And, âI donât think itâs Godâs purpose to make everything absolutely obvious to us. It would not have been sensible for Him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal His role in creation.â

Let me see if I have this right. Collins believes there is a God that created the universe, a belief for which there is no reliable evidence, and he knows that his God thinks, what his God thinks and that his God would not do something that wasnât sensible. Oh yes, itâs all based on reason. It seems to me he reasons that if he were this God of his, this is what he would think and do. I guess once you take that leap of faith anything goes. Sounds more like making meaning than it does like finding meaning to me.

"If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change."

The real problem with Americans is that they are not willing to give up their beliefs about anything (not just about religion, but about capitalism, health care, their government's actions, environmental degradation, etc) EVEN if those beliefs conflict directly with reality.

Americans would rather go on believing that only a few thousand civilians died as a result of the Iraq invasion than believe the results of scientific studies like Lancet (which said half a million or more).

Americans would rather believe their leader when he says that that "America does not torture" than believe the photos and other documentary evidence.

Americans would rather believe that global warming is not likely to be a problem than believe the scientists when they say otherwise.

Americans in general just don't like anyone telling them what to believe (and certainly not what to do), period. not just on science, but on anything.

I'd have to say that American aversion to science is a direct outgrowth of our belief in our own exceptional character.

How dare some scientist (or anyone else) tell us what we should and should not believe?

"there are far worse things to be than someone who has to struggle with the mild cognitive dissonance that comes with being a scientist and a Christian."

I'd wager that their is far more cognitive dissonance present when it comes to being a scientist and a humanist, than there is for Collins. Many liberal ideals are magical bunk, but this hasn't led many scientist to not cater them.

In general, it's a fairly straightforward matter to accommodate religious beliefs with scientific theories by accepting that much of what many take as literal fact in religious stories is instead metaphor. So in the story of Christ for example, his death equals the death of the individual's personality formation. The resurrection equals the birth of the new personality with its more realistic and harmonious world view ("the kingdom of heaven"). As for his being the son of God, what else could it be than that we are all God's sons and daughters - and therefore divine - and deserving of the respect such an insight demands?

Religion at its best is about reconciling men and women to the realities of existence. The stories can guide you there or hinder you - depending on how you approach and apprehend them.

As for the Dalai Lama, well - although he is the face of Buddhism in the west, and seems to be taken by many here as something like the Buddhist version of the Pope, he is not regarded as the spokesman for Buddhism by many (most?) Buddhists. He is the Leader of the Tibetan government in exile, and the leader of one branch of Buddhism, to me he seems as much a politician as a spiritual leader.

Buddhism like other religions with ancient roots, has had centuries for various other cultural ideas, beliefs, and practices to attach to it. Like the Christian gospels, the oldest Buddhist teachings were not written down until some time after the original teacher Siddhartha's death. Nevertheless the core of the Buddha's ("Buddha" means "awakened one" - someone completely free of delusions) teachings reveal a man who was a fierce and uncompromising empiricist.

He was apparently either an atheist or agnostic himself. He felt that no religion was a true one unless it addressed our relationships with each other and our world. He dismissed superstition and magical thinking, and thought anything which could not be affirmed by observation and/or experience was irrelevant. And most refreshing for a spiritual teacher, he even asserted that people shouldn't take the word of any authority on anything without seeing for themselves. He applied this standard to his own teaching ("the Dharma") as well, challenging the would-be Buddhist to test the teachings by applying them. Of course this requires one to actually live the teachings and give them a serious effort, not just read about them. Furthermore, he refused to name a successor as leader of the movement he founded because he felt the Dharma stood or fell on its own - looking to the authority of a figurehead wouldn't help anyone to free themselves from delusion.

I would argue that everything you hear about Buddhism that has to do with levitating monks and other such nonsense has nothing whatsoever to do with what Siddhartha taught. You don't have to believe in reincarnation to be a Buddhist - in fact it's not 100% certain he even taught that. It doesn't form a significant (or any) part of his core doctrine (the four noble truths).

His program is one of ruthless and non-judgmental self examination. The idea is to observe all one's perceptions, and the mental formations and feelings that result. This sounds simple, but the mind is easily led astray - in fact most of us have minds that run nonstop from one thing to the next. Meditation is used to both learn how to focus the mind on one thing at a time (in spite of its incessant chatter) and to then examine the formation of the personality. Ideally, the end result is liberation from delusion and freedom from "suffering" - perhaps better translated as disquietude or dissatisfaction.

Essentially this is a program for people to become fully realized, mature human beings. And it has been argued that Buddhism is really more of a philosophy than a religion. There is no priesthood to run and order your spiritual practice - the Buddha was suspicious of priesthoods and established religions. Although there are no priests, mullahs, or rabbis to hold one's feet to the fire, at some point the practicing Buddhist will need help from a meditation teacher. The "problem" with Buddhism is that it's really hard work. If you have never tried it, then I think you may find that meditation for example is one of the most difficult things you ever attempted. In fact this kind of self examination is so brutally honest when done correctly, that most people probably will give it up - often not long after beginning. It's a lot easier to go to church every Sunday.

To sum up: there is no "faith" in Buddhism, nor any arbitrary definition of truth as asserted in a post above. There is no need to believe in God, although most Buddhists don't care if you do, and the same holds for reincarnation. An awful lot of what looks like Buddhism, the statues, or the rituals, etc., are cultural expressions which have little or nothing to do with what the Buddha taught. From where I sit, there is absolutely no conflict with the core doctrine in Buddhism and our modern scientific method - they in fact closely resemble each other and have the same aim - revealing reality.

I believe that if you dig into Western religions deeply enough you will find that the primary god sometimes impregnates women while appearing in the form of a swan. Thus I suspect that Mary was actually raped by a swan, which might or might not have been the erstwhile god of Israel pretending to be a swan. I suspect she said it was a ghost because she thought no one would believe it was a bird.

Science and Religion are perfectly compatible, provided you compartmentalize both into their respective paradigmatic fields. Science Compatible Religion is like embracing the placebo affect, not to actually perform magic or truly explain what actually happened in the past, but to make you feel good and help bond a community around a certain set of metaphors, magical ideas and belief-in-santa-claus-like justifications for societal quirks. As long as you can take comfort from that sort of religion and not let it get in the way of understanding how the world works based on the best science has to offer, I think it's perfectly compatible.

Ahhh, but science will never be able to explain the super-natural...such as the spirit. So, perhaps re-incarnation does do you prove it?
Has "science" ever been wrong? Plenty of times....look at all the 'scientific studies' on pharmaceuticals....they say they are safe, but end up being pulled from shelves.
Nonetheless, science cannot explain everything and it's not meant to. There has to be some mystery in the world to make it interesting.