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Science & Religion


Expelled caricatures scientists and the scientific enterprise as dogmatically committed to atheism. It also makes much of a supposed inherent incompatibility between evolution and religion. Although some religious beliefs are indeed incompatible with evolution, Catholic, mainstream Protestant, and Jewish theology long ago accommodated evolution. And, as in any profession, scientists as individuals embrace a wide range of beliefs as well as no belief; science itself cannot honestly be said to be pro- or anti-religious.

The Claim

Scientists are atheists, as proven by leading spokespeople for science: “I think that God is about as unlikely as fairies, angels, hobgoblins.” (Richard Dawkins, Expelled)
“Religion. I mean, it’s just fantasy, basically. It’s completely empty of any explanatory content. And it’s evil, as well.” (Peter Atkins, Expelled)

The Facts

Expelled makes a big point of connecting atheism to advocacy of evolution, reinforcing the “conspiracy” theme that atheist scientists are actively repressing intelligent design advocacy. The movie sets up an unnecessary dichotomy between science and religion by pretending that a selected group of atheist scientists represent all scientists. Associate Producer Mark Mathis admitted in an interview that religious scientists like Kenneth Miller of Brown University, a practicing Catholic, were deliberately excluded from the movie because their views would have “confused the film unnecessarily” (listen to the podcast or view the transcript).

But why assume that Richard Dawkins or Kenneth Miller speak for science? In truth, the religious views of scientists reflect a wide range: it is impossible for any one scientist to reflect the diversity of opinion among scientists, any more than the Pope or Jimmy Swaggart can speak for all Christians. To present only one of the views about religion among scientists as characteristic of all of them is inaccurate at best, and dishonest at worst. But it is part of the strategy to link evolution to atheism.

The Claim

Science has a commitment to atheism. “There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch a higher power, and it can’t possibly touch God” (Ben Stein, Expelled).

The Facts

Science and religion are distinct domains of human thought and experience, and thus their methodologies are different. In the centuries after the Scientific Revolution (1650-1870), both scientists and clerics recognized that science is obliged to restrict its attention to the natural world. This was not because either scientists or clerics suddenly became atheists, but because it was realized that attaining a more complete understanding of nature required testing explanations against the natural world. Any explanation that involves God as a direct actor (“God makes the planets go around the Sun”) cannot be tested: any result of an experiment is compatible with the hypothesis that an omnipotent God was responsible. So scientists restrict themselves to explanation through natural causes regardless of whether or not they are people of faith. Biological evolution attempts to explain the diversity of living things through natural causes, just like any other science. It is no more nor less atheistic than is the study of cell division, gravitation, or the movement of continents.

But Expelled seeks to conflate adherence to scientific method with materialist atheism, the philosophical view that only material causes operate in the universe: dark comments linking “material mechanisms” and evolution abound in Expelled. Logically, however, the link is weak. Employing the scientific method in investigating the natural world, and not appealing to the supernatural to explain natural phenomena, does not require scientists to reject religion — a fact demonstrated by the thousands of scientists who are also people of faith.

The Claim

Evolution leads to a devaluation of human worth. “First of all, if you take seriously that evolution has to do with the transition of life forms, and that life and death are just natural processes, then one gets to be liberal about abortion, euthanasia, all of those kinds of ideas, it seems to me, follow very naturally from a Darwinian perspective. The de-privileging of human beings, basically” (Steve Fuller, Expelled)

The Facts

Powerful ideas are always seized upon by ideologues to advance their own interests. A powerful scientific idea like evolution has been used at different times and by different social and political movements to promote both racism and the equality of races, to justify both the exploitation and the conservation of natural resources, the necessity of economic competition and the need for economic cooperation, and so on for many opposed views. But it is necessary, and important, to separate the science from the rhetoric, and it is unclear precisely what Fuller is proposing.

If the claim is that accepting evolution logically requires a devaluation of human worth, it is clearly wrong. For a biologist, life and death are indeed natural processes, but evolutionary biology doesn’t and can’t show that they are “just” natural processes, any less important or meaningful. That inference is a philosophical, not scientific, conclusion.

On the other hand, if Fuller’s claim is that accepting evolution leads causally to a devaluation of human worth, it is a sociological claim for which no plausible evidence has been offered. Given that the scientific and industrial revolutions (of which the development of evolutionary theory was only a part) were world-shaking in their economic, political, and social effect, it seems unlikely that it would be possible to tease out any changes that are distinctively due to evolutionary theory.

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