I disagree with Adam Frank and believe that a false impression has caused him to misdiagnose and underestimate a serious problem; as stated in a recent psychology publication (cited below):
“Moreover, academics are largely nonreligious, a pattern anticipated by the negative correlation between education and religiosity. Being exposed to like-minded colleagues, academics may form the false impression that religion is a rather rare and marginal phenomenon.”
Furthermore, let me express that I have doubts as to Adam’s sincerity in this stated endeavor. Most would agree that the best way to “move forward” from a subject is to talk about something else – a different topic altogether. Adam chose a different tactic. He placed religion on even ground with science under the premise that both can “be sources of wisdom” and represent "...the many ways humans encounter the True and the Real." This fallacious pairing of religion and science to me seems more conducive to forming an argument than to dispelling one. That aside, the ‘can’t we all get along’ position is a great sentiment, and makes sense in regards to personal communication, but when it comes determining what is real, and what is true in nature, giving equal standing to relativistic mumbo-jumbo and spiritualism is a nonsensical move for anyone that values what is true.
What is real? What is true?
I am typing this piece from the comfort of my couch in Tallahassee, Florida. To type and transmit the text of the post, I’m using a manufactured conglomerate of silicon and plastic that is more commonly referred to as a “laptop computer.” Rather than detailing what precisely a laptop computer is, I am going to assume that the readers of this article are familiar with the technology. Of course, this is a big assumption…
If, for example, you happen to be reading this as a recently arrived member of a primitive tribe from the Amazon Basin or some remote island in Indonesia, a ‘computer’ may be a foreign notion; as would the internet, electricity and many other miracles that I treat as commonplace. In fact, due to its relative rarity in your homeland, your native tongue may not even have the words to describe the luminous rock at which I now peck. Taking it a bit further, the laptop’s ability to conjure light in the absence of fire might even earn it a descriptor with a magical or spiritual connotation! However, regardless if you consider my laptop to be magical or mundane, its nature remains unaltered by our differing languages. It is real - it exists independently of our individual perceptions and doesn’t require faith. It can be held in your hands, measured, weighed and contemplated. The laptop maintains the same physical attributes rather it is in my living room, or it’s placed at a Dani village in New Guinea for use as a backlit fish-cleaning station and object of worship. A laptop is a laptop, is a laptop; thinking that it’s anything other than a laptop is factually incorrect and an artifact of ignorance or self-deception. Believing a laptop to be magic is not insightful, “deep” or quant, quite the opposite - it is something to be remedied through education.
From a philosophical view, does science prove that my laptop is real or that it truly exists? No, science has never, nor will it ever, ‘prove’ anything. After all, it is possible that my laptop is only a figment of my imagination (just as it’s possible that it has magic); but, just because anything is possible, it doesn’t follow that everything is equally likely. There is an ‘objective reality.’ Individual phenomena are labeled as true or un-true based on that objective reality as measured by observation, rationality, discourse and methodical inquiry – reality is measured by science.
Science isn’t in the business of determining certainty; instead it applies a probability based on all available evidence. For example, it is not absolutely certain that humans reproduce through sexual congress. But, based on independent experimentation the stork hypothesis seems unviable, and sex appears to be a statistically significant contributing factor to human pregnancy; thus, sexual reproduction is considered a fact by medical professionals around the world.
In strong contrast to science, religion places subjectivity above objectivity, it requires no evidence, and need not be measurable or even rational. Religion affirms that what may be true for one person need not be true for another. Faith is belief in the absence of, or despite of, evidence. Its tenets are as variable as the range of human personality. With religion all things are possible - even human pregnancy without sex.
Superstitious beliefs are used to affront more than just science education. They’re also used daily as justification for sexism, domestic abuse, racism, killing children, terrorism and numerous other immoral behaviors the world over. Rationalizing these behaviors as different ways of experiencing reality or as acceptable consequences of cultural relativism is just as fallacious as staging a debate between legitimate biologists and creationists – it just serves to validate ignorance.
In closing, let me contrast my perspective from that of Mr. Frank one last time. In his post he writes, “it is clear that at this particular moment in history, when we face such obvious and overwhelming dangers, it's time to put the prejudices that drag down discussion between science and the domains of human spiritual endeavor aside.”
Because I fully agree that there are “overwhelming dangers” in the world, I would declare that the very worst thing we could do would be to offer safe heaven (or, safe haven) to ignorance, superstition and irrationality. Our best hope to prevail over danger is to aggressively combat ignorance with the greatest prejudice we can muster. We should strive to eliminate ignorance from every political office and every schoolhouse. There are some things that should not be tolerated or compromsed.
Sedikides, C. (2009). Why Does Religiosity Persist? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14 (1), 3-6 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352323