Singham, Mano. "The Science and Religion Wars." Phi Delta Kappan (Feb 2000 81.6): 424 .
The recent flap over the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to no longer require knowledge of evolution theory in its science standards has rekindled the perennial science/religion debate in education. And so it seems worthwhile to look at this difficult topic in some depth because the issue will undoubtedly be coming soon to a school district near you. A casual (and even not-so-casual) observer of the science/religion debate can be excused for being confused as to whether or not there actually is a conflict between the two. On the one hand, newspapers report that the 1999 Templeton Prize for Religion was awarded to a physicist who promotes dialogue between science and religion, and in 1998 Newsweek determined that "Science Finds God" was worthy of being a featured cover story.
On the other hand, there are the recurrent heated conflicts about questions such as whether evolution or creationism better explains the origins of life in all its forms and which world view should be taught in schools. The push by some groups to obtain equal treatment of both views in school science classes led to state laws (in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1981) mandating such teaching. That such laws have been overturned by appeals courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court may have settled the legal issue of what can be taught in schools (at least for the time being), but the acrimonious nature of the discussion has not changed.
The recent flap over the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to no longer require knowledge of evolution theory in its science standards has rekindled the perennial science/religion debate in education. And so it seems worthwhile to look at this difficult topic in some depth because the issue will undoubtedly be coming soon to a school district near you. In order to be able to discuss the issue without creating undue antagonism, it is necessary to have an understanding of what drives the reasoning of the leading characters in this conflict.
To the casual observer, the conflict seems to be about deciding between two fairly straightforward but dissonant propositions. Proponents of one side advocate the view that both creation science and evolution are unproven theories and that simple fairness requires either teaching or omitting both from the school science curriculum. Those who support the other side argue that creation science is a religion-based belief, while evolution is not, and so the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution justifies the exclusion of the former from the public school curriculum and the inclusion of the latter. The fact that both sides believe fiercely in the rightness of their positions should give us a clue that the underlying issues involving science and religion are not really so simple. In fact, these issues do involve subtle and complex questions, drawing upon knowledge from many disciplines. It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but perhaps nowhere can stranger bedfellows be found than in the controversies surrounding science and religion.
Scientists, theologians, creationists, postmodernists, social constructivists, feminists, multiculturalists, philosophers, and historians of science all play key - and often surprising - roles in this contentious debate. To understand how these strange coalitions are formed, a good place to start is by looking at the discussions of scientific literacy that periodically take place among elite opinion makers. Three features of such discussions are entirely predictable. The first is that everyone will lament the sorry state of scientific literacy in the U.S. and predict dire consequences if the situation is not improved. The second is the inevitable listing of all the deplorable things that the general public believes in (e.g., aliens, alternative medicine, astrology, psychokinesis, superstitions, and the like) and that allegedly contribute to this illiteracy. For convenience, I will lump all these alternative beliefs under the label of "fringe beliefs," not because they are held by only a few people (some of them may actually be held by a majority of the population), but because they lie on the fringes of elite opinion. These fringe beliefs are considered disreputable and labeled with such pejoratives as "pseudoscience" or "nonscience" or "nonsense." The third predictable feature of discussions of scientific literacy is harder to observe because, like the dog that did not bark in the night in the Sherlock Holmes story, it involves noticing what is not said. No one raises the question as to what fundamental difference, if any, exists between these supposedly non- (or even anti-) science fringe beliefs and those of mainstream religions. And it is this silent issue that must be confronted if we are to understand the often bizarre coalitions that form and re-form around the science/religion issue.
In the triangle formed by science, mainstream religion, and fringe beliefs, it is the conflict between science and fringe beliefs that is usually the source of the most heated, acrimonious, and public debate. The other two relationships (between science and mainstream religion and between mainstream religion and fringe beliefs) are usually ignored. But we must examine the mutual relationships of all three knowledge structures if we are to make any sense of the problem because the entire debate ultimately boils down to two key questions: 1) Is it possible to set up a hierarchy of belief structures with science and mainstream religions at the top (and thus respectable) and with fringe beliefs at the bottom (and thus disreputable)? 2) What makes elite opinion makers feel that science is compatible with mainstream religious beliefs but incompatible with fringe beliefs?
Part of the confusion in dealing with these questions arises from trying to lump everything under a single label - either science or religion. Following the suggestion of theologian Langston Gilkey, it is perhaps more enlightening to split each of the two belief structures into two subgroups (elite and popular science and elite and popular religion) and then to examine the relationships between the resulting four subgroups.
Elite science encompasses the consensus belief structures of the scientific establishment, as represented in the departments of science at universities and research institutes and as published in mainstream scientific journals. Members of this group have a fundamentally naturalist belief in the idea that each and every physical phenomenon must have a scientific explanation, with no arbitrariness allowed. The eminent paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (who had some personal reservations about the belief that everything in the universe can be explained naturalistically) captured the essence of the naturalistic position when he said, "The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only" (emphasis added).
Popular science, on the other hand, represents the widely held beliefs of people in superstitions, astrology, magic, witchcraft, psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, and the like, all of which can be categorized as what I have called fringe beliefs. People who believe these things view as quaint the notion that everything must have a scientific explanation. They have no difficulty believing that there are extraphysical entities capable of violating the laws of science at will.
Elite religion represents those views held by theologians of mainstream religions. In the theistic religions, this view holds that, while a creator exists, the creator does not directly intervene (or intervenes only rarely) to change the course of everyday events, thus violating scientific laws. Changes are usually achieved indirectly, by changing the minds of people and causing them to act in different and better ways.
Popular religion, on the other hand, incorporates beliefs in a personal God, a creator who can and does intervene when and if the creator sees fit, and thus can be induced to intervene to change the course of everyday events by prayer and other supplications. The fundamentalist strains of most major religions fall into this category.
So who is fighting with whom? Popular science and popular religion generally have no problems with each other (and I place both under the umbrella label of fringe beliefs). After all, both groups have no difficulty in accepting the occurrence of phenomena that defy scientific explanations. This does not mean that they always agree. For example, fundamentalist Christians are adamantly opposed to witchcraft, which falls into the category of popular science. But such disagreements concern issues of moral right and wrong and of good versus evil and have nothing to do with the issue being addressed here of whether it is possible that events may violate scientific laws.
Similarly, elite and popular religions are usually not in open conflict since the major religions can encompass both viewpoints under their umbrellas. The mass of believers tends to adopt popular religious views about an interventionist deity, while the elite tends to believe that God works in indirect and subtle ways that are not easily attributable.
Elite science and popular science, on the other hand, have had a long history of conflict, ever since (around the time of Galileo) science became an established field of study, with its own protocols for judging evidence and establishing truths. Even now, the constant calls for increasing scientific literacy are a symptom of the scientific community's exasperation with the fact that, after many years of mass science education, large numbers of people still believe in all sorts of things that the scientific community views as wholly irrational. For example, fairly recent surveys show that 55% of American teenagers believe that "astrology works" and 38% of college students believe that human life originated in the Garden of Eden.
THE NATURE of all three of the above relationships has remained stable over the years. However, there has been a dramatic change in the fourth relationship, the relationship between elite science and elite religion. In the early days of science, this relationship was one of hostility, as scientific inquiry grew and rapidly dethroned religion as the source of authoritative knowledge about the world. From the days of Copernicus and Galileo through Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, elite religion battled the scientific community to see which world view would be dominant.
The well-publicized Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925 is a good example. The outcome of the case was technically a defeat for the scientific establishment because a court in Tennessee convicted teacher John Scopes of violating a law banning the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in public schools. But the case is popularly perceived as a victory because Clarence Darrow (the attorney defending Scopes), assisted by the establishment press, managed to bring into ridicule Biblical theories of the Earth's origin, as propounded by prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan, and to persuade at least elite opinion of the day that the Biblical story of creation was not very credible as a scientific account of the history of the Earth and the origin of species. The supporters of Darwinian evolutionary theory thus achieved a major public relations victory, even as they suffered a legal defeat. The explosive growth of science and technology in the middle of this century seemed to consolidate the feeling (at least among the elite) that science, not religion, had the answers to questions about the origins of life and the universe.
The relationship between elite science and elite religion nowadays is dramatically different and can be well characterized by the Cold War term "peaceful coexistence." In its political context, this term referred to the recognition of separate spheres of influence over which each side in the Cold War held unquestioned supremacy. This avoided endless border skirmishes that might have precipitated a major conflict. In the science/religion context, the philosophical basis for this coexistence can be called the "two worlds model": the physical realm, comprising all phenomena accessible via the senses, belongs to the world of science; the spiritual realm, dealing with moral and ethical questions and the soul and the afterlife, belongs to the world of religion. This formulation is aptly captured in a statement by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, which says, "Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."
Most noncombatants in the science/religion wars subscribe to some version of this statement and thus see no conflict between scientific and religious belief structures because each deals with one of two distinct worlds that do not overlap. This group comprises a large number of people, scientists and nonscientists alike, who are respectful of science and its accomplishments but also believe in a deity and are active members of churches, temples, and mosques. Such people view the creation narratives in their religious texts as figurative and metaphorical - not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to view the periodic legal and political skirmishes between the creationist and naturalist camps as the work of overzealous extremists, both religious and scientific, who are attempting to mix together things that should properly be kept separate.
But is this "middle ground" viewpoint intellectually robust enough to achieve amity between the scientific and religious world views? In other words, are religious views about the workings of the world in fundamental conflict with known scientific laws? Or does this middle ground survive by not posing awkward questions?
One awkward question that is avoided deals with the miraculous events that are central to every theistic religious tradition and that seem to violate directly the laws of science. Are they purely the result of natural laws (of which we may currently be unaware), thus ceasing to be miracles in any meaningful sense of the word, or are they singular events that occur in direct contradiction of natural laws? For example, take the well-known Biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea. In the orthodox religious view this is a miracle pure and simple, an act that occurs in clear contradiction of natural laws. So does it belong only to the world of religion? Yet it is an event that is supposed to have occurred in the physical world, so should it not also belong to the world of science? How can the National Academy of Sciences' sharp distinction between the spiritual and the physical worlds be sustained? One solution is to reject the idea that the parting of the Red Sea ever occurred as described, thus denying it historical status. Another is to look for evidence that some unusual, but wholly natural, combination of causes resulted in something that seemed to be miraculous to the naive observer of that time.
The key consequence of both these explanations is to remove the event from the realm of the miraculous. The evolution of knowledge throughout history has been precisely in this direction, replacing "miraculous" occurrences with scientific explanations.
But can every single event that is commonly believed to be miraculous be explained away in this manner? The committed naturalist would argue that this must be so; otherwise, the entire framework of science will collapse. The scientific establishment starts with the assumption that all natural phenomena should be explainable by natural laws that can be discovered using the methods of science. It does not allow for even one deviation from these natural laws. Miracles, by definition, have no place in this framework. The evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin put it clearly and bluntly: "We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit." His point is well-taken. If the scientific community concedes even one miraculous event, then how can it credibly contest the view that the world (and all its fossilized relics) was created in one instant just 6,000 years ago? Robert Park, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, goes even further when he says that "to attribute natural events to supernatural forces is not merely lazy, it defines anti-science."
Although both these comments were specifically aimed at creationists, they undermine traditional mainstream religions as well. If there is to be no divine intervention at all, what is left for religion? Is it just a system of beliefs that have no tangible consequences whatsoever? John Horgan in The End of Science quotes cosmologist Stephen Hawking asking rhetorically, "What place, then, for a creator?" There is no place, was Hawking's own reply; a final theory would exclude God from the universe - and with him all mystery. Hawking "hoped to root mysticism, vitalism, creationism from their last refuge, the origin of the universe."
Another awkward question is also avoided: While we can readily see that the physical world exists, is there any tangible evidence that a moral/ethical/spiritual world also exists? If the answer is no (so that the existence of the moral/ethical/spiritual world is to be simply believed and not experienced in any way), that means its existence does not have any consequences that affect the physical world. Then of what use is this supernatural world? What would be the point of believing in a deity if the spiritual world occupied by the deity could have no influence whatsoever on the physical world we actually live in? This answer seems to imply that we can dispense entirely with the spiritual world, a position that is surely not the intention of those advocating the "two worlds" model. If the answer is yes, how can we still maintain the clear distinction between the two worlds? After all, tangible evidence is something that belongs to the physical world, and so such evidence for the existence of a spiritual world must imply that the two worlds overlap. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that this middle ground that treats "religion and science [as] separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought" contains a basic internal contradiction. The middle ground seems to start by saying that there is a self-contained world of natural laws and another self-contained world of spiritual laws. But then it goes on to imply (since moral and ethical values presumably influence human behavior) that these two worlds do overlap, which means that they are not self-contained after all.
WHY IS it that this middle ground is so popular and its shaky foundations relatively immune from close questioning? It is possible that, wearied by the historical baggage of such conflicts as those involving Galileo and Darwin, the elite scientific community has reached an unspoken agreement with mainstream religions that they will not attack each other. The physical/spiritual distinction provides a useful escape route for both groups. Pope John Paul II's statement in 1996 that "fresh knowledge [which he failed to specify] leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis" can be viewed as further consolidating this alliance. The Pope did reserve some area for religion by emphasizing that "if the human body has its origins in living material which preexists it, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God," thus showing that he too is an advocate of the "two worlds model" endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences.
Thus elite science is allowed to interpret the physical world, while elite religions interpret the spiritual world, and both sides agree not to stray onto each other's turf. This tacit agreement then allows the elites to combine forces and attack those who brazenly mix the two worlds together, such as upstart creationist believers and those who put their faith in other unorthodoxies, such as astrology, witchcraft, New Age mysticism, and the like. For example, in the 1981 Arkansas "balanced treatment" case, the witnesses against the law mandating that creationism be taught alongside evolution in the public schools were from both the mainstream religions and the scientific establishment. Understandably, creationists are not happy with the development of this alliance, since it makes them vulnerable to attack on two fronts. To continue with the war metaphor, creationists look on the deal as appeasement by the elite religionists who have been duped by the scientific elite into thinking they have negotiated a long-term peace, when what the elite religionists have really done is to lose the war by allowing the scientific community complete hegemony over the physical world.
To understand the creationists' argument, we must go beyond the superficialities that are frequently used in describing them. If there is one common thread that all creationists share, it is the view that the world as we know it now is too complex and subtle to have come about without the active and repeated intervention of an external agent or a deity, acting outside the laws of science. It is this unifying belief (rather than any specific model or religious tradition) that I will characterize as the "creationist point of view," and it is the source of the fundamental conflict with elite science. When we formulate our description of creationists in this way, we see that creationism is not some narrow sectarian grouping but incorporates major elements of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and other theistic religions. They differ only in their beliefs about the extent and nature of this divine intervention. (One other model that should be mentioned is that in which the creator is a sort of prime mover who creates the universe and all its laws of evolution at one instant at the beginning of the universe but never intervenes thereafter, allowing the universe to evolve in a manner consistent with the laws of science. This model has a creator in it, but it is not creationist as defined above because there is no subsequent intervention in any form to change the natural course of events. Thus this model does not lead to any conflict with elite science.) Nowadays, elite religion has tacitly (if not openly) conceded the understanding of the physical world to science, reserving for itself the moral/ethical/spiritual realm. The creationists argue that the elite religionists' strategy of retreating to the moral and ethical sphere puts them in an extremely weak position that can be easily overrun by the advancing scientific hordes. After all, it is quite possible that neurobiology may someday be able to pinpoint specific areas in the brain that are the source of moral and ethical impulses and spiritual feelings. Neuroscience may even be able to locate the neurons that trigger good and bad impulses or generate moral decisions. Creationists realize that such developments will result in the total subjugation of religious beliefs to scientific hegemony. Thus it should not be surprising if some of the most incisive critiques of the naturalist view have come from creationists, who see in it a real threat to their own religious belief structure. But rather than try to fight border skirmishes with science in order to eke out a larger sphere of influence for religion, these creationists have gone for broke, waging an all-out counterattack on elite science.
THE ATTACK HAS been two-pronged. On one front, creationists try to drive a wedge between elite science and elite religion by arguing that, at a fundamental level, the scientific and religious world views are incompatible and that both cannot be believed simultaneously. Some creationists have sought to win back elite religion to their side by pointing out to followers of mainstream religions that their beliefs too are undermined if the naturalists' claims to be the sole authorities for knowledge of the physical world are allowed to pass unchallenged. They argue that the very same arguments that are used to assert that creationism is incompatible with science can also be used to argue that mainstream religious beliefs are inconsequential, because the spiritual world has no influence whatsoever on the physical world. In other words, the creationists argue that all the naturalists who reject creationism as either irrelevant or wrong are actually (though not openly) implying the same thing about mainstream religious beliefs as well.
Phillip Johnson, a creationist, recently wrote a book titled Darwin on Trial, which makes the by-now familiar claims that Darwinism is a poor theory both on logical grounds ("survival of the fittest" as a mechanism for change is tautologous and lacks any predictive power) and on evidentiary grounds (the evidence is sparse for the existence of intermediate forms of life, and the rate at which micromutations can occur is not rapid enough to explain the current diversity in life forms). But in addition, he goes on to charge explicitly that beliefs in evolution and a creator are fundamentally incompatible.
The response to Johnson's book was fierce. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould responded with an extremely vitriolic review in Scientific American. Disposing swiftly of the logical and evidentiary arguments (which he had encountered many times before), he directed his attention to the claim that beliefs in science and God are mutually exclusive. It was clear that Johnson's charge had stung. For example, Gould says, "Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs - and equally compatible with atheism." Or later, "To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time . . . science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm it nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists. . . . Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example)." Gould also states that science and religion "should not conflict because science treats factual reality, while religion struggles with moral reality" and asserts that there is a "consensus that science and religion are separate and equally valuable." Both of these assertions are reformulations of the National Academy of Sciences' "two realms" statement. The key point that Gould does not address is the nature of the "moral reality" he refers to. If by this he means that religious beliefs can influence our behavior, then that resulting behavior must be part of the physical "factual reality," and hence the two realities are not separate.
Gould is certainly correct when he asserts that many scientists are also religious believers. Surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement "a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man . . . to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." Despite the explosive growth of science in the 20th century, this figure of 40% has remained stable since previous surveys done in 1914 and 1933. The figure would undoubtedly be much higher if belief in a nonpersonal God (some sort of prime mover who acted only through natural laws) were included as well.
There are two interesting features about Gould's review. One is the extreme harshness of the response. Gould is one of the more open-minded of well-known scientists and usually understanding of heterodox views. Creationists frequently use his frank views on the ambiguities and problems of evolution to attack the theory, much to his chagrin. But here he unequivocally lays down the scientific party line against creationism. The second interesting feature is that, instead of countering Johnson's views with careful arguments, Gould responds by simply asserting that the two belief systems must be compatible because many scientists are also religious people. Gould seems to be saying that his position that science and religion are compatible must be correct simply because he and many other scientists believe it to be correct.
In a subsequent book, Gould expands on this position, trying to further the case for the "two worlds model." He reserves all explanations of physical phenomena for the realm of science (explicitly ruling out the possibility of any miraculous events), while leaving the moral and ethical realm for religion. But he still does not address the issue of the source of moral and ethical feelings. Do they originate within the brain and achieve their effects via commands that originate from the brain? If so, surely they lie within the realm of science, since the brain is a part of the physical world and thus subject to the investigations of science. However, if moral and ethical feelings transcend the brain, then how can they have any influence on people who live in the physical world?
Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala (president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1994 and one of the expert witnesses against the creationist position at the 1981 Arkansas trial) also tries Gould's approach of arguing that science and religion must be compatible because famous intellectuals believe they are. Whereas Gould points to the religious beliefs of scientists, Ayala looks to the scientific views of famous theologians. Speaking at a symposium titled "Anti-Science/Anti- Evolution," he examined what Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas had to say about the Bible and creation. Ayala concluded that "the point is that the two greatest thinkers of Christianity could find no reason based on the Bible that species could [not] find their origin in causes other than God." He goes on to quote two popes (Leo XIII and John Paul II) to the effect that the Bible should not be interpreted literally or serve as a source of scientific understanding. Both Gould and Ayala seem to argue that the fact that eminent scientists and eminent theologians do not see a conflict between science and religion must mean that there is no such conflict. But all it might mean is that such people want to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion and are not keen to provoke a split.
the targets of this alliance between elite religion and elite science, creationists have no such interest in papering over any fundamental conflicts that might exist between the two. In this, they receive support from an unlikely source in biologist Richard Daw-kins. Dawkins is a fervent advocate of Darwinian natural selection, the very theory that creationists love to hate. He has spent a great deal of time and effort refuting the claims of creationists that it is very highly improbable that natural selection could have led to the diversity, complexity, and sophistication of present-day life forms.14 But Dawkins joins forces with Johnson in pouring scorn on the "two worlds model" of the National Academy of Sciences, calling it "a cowardly cop-out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable."
The second front opened up by the creationists in their war with elite science is a direct attack on the very foundations of the scientific world view, which is that science is the sole source of authoritative knowledge about the physical world. And in this attack too creationists have found some unlikely allies, namely philosophers and historians of science and postmodern social constructivists of knowledge.
Philosophers of science, following in the tradition of Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend,16 have long tried to understand the basis from which scientific knowledge derives its success and authority. It seems plausible that this success can come about only because the methods of science are leading toward truth. But notions of truth and objective reality have been extraordinarily difficult to pin down. Although these philosophers of science are, by and large, supporters of science and admirers of its achievements, they have regretfully concluded that there is no compelling reason to believe that scientific progress is leading to the truth about the physical world or even that there is such a thing as the truth or objective reality. Postmodern philosophers have expanded upon this last point. Social constructivists have argued that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is filtered and interpreted through the lenses of the observer and is thus inevitably colored by those lenses. What this means is that, when I directly experience something through my senses (say, I see a pencil), I make sense of that experience using my prior knowledge (what a pencil looks like, feels like, and does) and embed the new experience in my existing knowledge frameworks, modifying those frameworks in the process. Each person does the same thing, but since each person's history is different, his or her understanding of the same phenomenon must also differ. The unfiltered truth about a pencil (independent of any particular observer's interpretation) is thus impossible to discern. The best we can hope for is to negotiate a shared meaning so that we can communicate with one another.
Therefore, some social constructivists argue that modern scientific knowledge is the product of the people (primarily male and Western) who were involved in its creation and that there might be equally valid alternative scientific world views, depending on the perspective of the people who engage in the creation of such alternative views.17 Thus science cannot claim that its knowledge structure is objective and unique, and this has led to the discussion of possible alternatives, such as feminist science and multicultural science, in contrast to the present "orthodox" science. Scientists employ positivism (the view that the only things we can talk about are those that we can show to exist by making measurements) to both understand and interpret scientific theories (especially difficult ones like quantum mechanics) and to attack fringe beliefs and creationism (since those beliefs involve phenomena that elude systematic observation).
Taking a leaf from positivist science, however, radical social constructivists have argued that there can be no objective reality at all since one can never detect its existence independently of the interpretations of the observer. This illustrates another of the many ironies in the science wars in which one of the pillars of the scientific world view (positivism) is used to undermine another pillar (the belief in an objective reality).
Some creationists have used the arguments of all these groups to argue that elite science, rather than being the imposing body of knowledge its supporters claim, has feet of clay and that its claim to sole authoritative knowledge about the physical world is unjustified. In particular, creationists assert that the views of elite science on the issue of evolution (a subject close to the heart of creationists) should not be accepted unquestioningly.
THE SCIENTIFIC community has been somewhat flummoxed by the wide-ranging nature of the criticisms it has received. The assault against its authority by an unexpected convergence of creationists, philosophers of science, postmodernists, social constructivists, feminists, and multiculturalists (groups that share little in common other than their skepticism of the scientific community's claims to special authority about the physical world) - coupled with the refusal of large segments of the public to give up their beliefs in astrology and the like - has caused considerable despair within the scientific community. Members of the elite scientific community decry what they see as the exploitation of widespread scientific illiteracy to create a growing anti-science sentiment.
The response to this situation by the more moderate members of the elite science community has been to call for more investment in science education in order to improve science literacy. Those in this group feel that the problem arises because of popular misunderstanding and ignorance about the nature of the scientific enterprise. They feel that, if people really understood what science is and how its knowledge is acquired, they would be more supportive of science and more skeptical of alternative beliefs.
However, the more militant members of elite science see a more sinister anti-science conspiracy at work and have launched a vigorous counterattack. In the vanguard of this initiative have been Paul Gross and Norman Leavitt, who in Higher Superstition rail against philosophers, feminists, postmodernists, and all the other people (whom they dub the "academic left") within the academy who, they feel, are willfully undermining the authority of science in an attempt to dethrone science from its position of prestige within the academy. Their polemic is a bitter and often mean-spirited attack on anyone they see as an enemy of science.
They followed the publication of their book by convening a conference in New York in 1995 and publishing the papers presented as The Flight from Science and Reason. About 200 scholars were invited to lead the charge against the perceived danger to science from both within and outside the academy, and the rhetoric was heated. Philosopher Mario Bunge said, "Walk a few steps away from the faculties of science, engineering, and medicine. Walk towards the faculty of arts. Here, you will meet another world, one where falsities and lies are manufactured in industrial quantities. . . . We should expel these charlatans from the university." According to philosopher Barry Gross, "The sole remedy at our disposal is to quarantine the anti-science brigades and inoculate the rest of the population against them. Scientists will have to devote some of their energy to systematic confrontation with the enemies of science." But the very vehemence of this counterattack may be backfiring on science. Rather than coming across as reasonable defenders of the scientific world view, these scientists risk being perceived as arrogant elitists who sneer at those who do not understand them and adopt a scorched-earth policy in dealing with those who disagree with them.
At present, there seems to be very little attempt by any of the soldiers in the science/religion wars to try really to understand what the other groups are saying. The debate is often cast in apocalyptic terms, with both sides determined to "win" the hearts and minds of the general public and forecasting dire consequences if they "lose." In the view of elite science, a "win" for fringe beliefs will mark the end of civilization as we know it, with rampant ignorance and superstition eventually driving out science from decision making, giving respectability to astrologers and other charlatans, and replacing reason with gullibility and foolishness. In the view of creationists, if they "lose," it will also mark the end of civilization as we know it and constitute the first step in the march toward rampant atheism, moral degeneracy, and, of course, secular humanism.
Given that this engagement is ostensibly a battle for public acceptance of competing world views, the vitriolic tactics that have been adopted by both sides seem more likely to alienate people than to win them over. Rather than being convinced by one side or the other, the public is more likely to wish a plague on both their houses and tune out the debate. That would be a pity because the issues raised are deeply interesting and have profound implications for anyone who seeks an understanding and synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy. The subject is ripe for fresh insights, but new ideas are often delicate and ambiguous and require nurturing. This is unlikely to occur in the present climate.
In this war, as in any other war, the question that is always immediately posed is "Which side are you on?" And deeper questions about whether the war itself makes any sense or should be fought at all get shunted aside. As long as the debate continues in its present adversarial form, we are unlikely to make much progress. What is clear, however, is that a solution to this seeming incompatibility between the scientific and religious world views remains extremely elusive.