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DEFENDING SCIENCE AND NONBELIEF

Taner Edis
Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Truman State University
edis@truman.edu
I appreciate the comments in response to Science and Nonbelief. I find much to agree
with in them, but naturally I will focus on disagreements and attempt some clarifications.
There is considerable overlap in the criticisms expressed—I will attempt to address them
under three different headings.

Science and Nonbelief as part of the skeptical literature
Ginger Stickney associates Science and Nonbelief with the more popular “new atheist”
books that have also appeared recently. This is not without reason, particularly since most
of the book is devoted to explaining how our current scientific understanding tends to
support a picture of the world that leaves little room for supernatural agency.
On balance, however, I do not think that Science and Nonbelief belongs with the
new atheism. Authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris make it very clear that
they think religion is a social evil. Their moral concerns drive their arguments. I do not
entirely share these political and moral views, and I am surprised that Science and
Nonbelief can be read to indicate agreement with a new atheist political agenda. For
example, Stickney’s comments on my chapter on morality and politics misdescribe its
contents. I find it exceedingly implausible that our sciences can produce a “universal
morality,” and neither do I consider religion to be a “shackle” to be removed. If we all
had an overriding interest in achieving the best available description of our world,
supernatural convictions could well be an obstacle. But as I think the text makes clear,
practically no one is in such a situation.
Science and Nonbelief is also not a plea for scientific institutions to be more
supportive of nonbelief as a social phenomenon. I explicitly and repeatedly describe the
good reasons scientific institutions have to keep nonbelief at arm’s length, much to the
frustration of the new atheists. I never argue in Science and Nonbelief that “science needs
to throw its weight behind nonbelievers.” One of the reasons I do not like my work to be
associated with the new atheism is that I take care in describing the relationship between
scientific institutions and movements of religious skepticism as ambivalent, often onesided, and fraught with difficulties.
I am sure that as Thomas Ellis suggests, Science and Nonbelief raises the question
of whether those of us convinced of naturalism’s accuracy should “encourage the pious”
to abandon their prodigal cognitive habits. But the book leaves this question unanswered.
Not only is such a question beyond the scope of Science and Nonbelief, I have no
confident answer to offer. After all, I agree that in many contexts, supernatural religions
may well enjoy a pragmatic advantage. For many people, abstract cognitive concerns are
not overriding interests. And other interests, including psychological equanimity, may be
better served by those supernatural beliefs that come naturally to normal human beings.
Benjamin Zeller is, I think, more accurate than Stickney in locating my book
within the skeptical literature on science and religion.
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I would be curious to learn more about the significance of this literature. the idea that in my view. especially the theistic religions. we try to figure out how our world works.” The significance of belief The commentators. I take a limited view of religion. I appreciate that “religion” is a problematic. these different enterprises must be much the same. indeed.) This interest in figuring out how the world works produces opportunities for interaction. And given my anticipated readership—Science and Nonbelief originally came into being as part of a series intended for North American students—I have used a Western. especially Stickney and McCloud. I dislike the notion of “ultimate truths. predominantly modern Protestant style of faith tradition as my defining example of “religion. has defined itself in interaction with (and partly in opposition to) the modern supernatural style of religion.” Now. I think that my focus on supernatural beliefs is entirely appropriate. with other ambitious sources of fact claims such as religious traditions. And I do not object to the observation that in many contexts. in many cases I expect that questions about belief and the supernatural may well go on the back burner. I doubt that supernatural belief should be set aside as entirely irrelevant. the book is not about religion—at least not religion in any general sense. including conflict. especially the “science-minded nonbelief'” to which I devote most of my attention. but they are all connected. 2 . If their immediate purpose is to understand religion as a social phenomenon. without being uncomfortably shoehorned into a category such as the “new atheism. I see no analytic payoff in then implying that at some level.I have my quibbles—for example. Science. in as broad a sense as possible. I would venture to say that questions about the reality of a supernatural realm are fairly central for scienceminded nonbelievers in technologically advanced Western countries. That is to say. note that Science and Nonbelief conceives of religion primarily in terms of belief. Because I write about nonbelief. “Science and Nonbelief” describes its contents pretty well. Nonetheless. (We usually work on much more narrowly defined problems. And the present forms of nonbelief. religion is more about “embodied practices and habits. But I cannot dispute that this is a narrow aspect of religiosity. restricting my interest to the supernatural beliefs associated with religions. in both its organized and individualist or paranormalist forms. perhaps overly broad category. belief in supernatural realities. there is an interesting question here that I would like to see pursued further.” Furthermore. There is a not large yet interesting literature produced by physicists commenting on supernatural claims and other religious matters. When doing science. do take propositional beliefs very seriously. and how a book like Science and Nonbelief would be classified in a more sophisticated taxonomy. Also. a book on science and nonbelief has to be selective. since having supernatural agents involved in social interactions is one of the especially distinctive aspects of religious traditions. In this sense. Nonetheless. and I stand by the judgments I have had to make. “science is almost a religion” seems odd.” and I would not describe the always-tentative pictures drawn by modern science as such. This is correct: the book is focused on supernatural belief and its rejection. as a comparatively new social institution. not everyone has to find questions about supernatural and paranormal claims as interesting as do I.

The direction of religious studies Sean McCloud observes that I draw on and refer to some criticisms of religious studies that are internal to the field. I disagree with Ellis here: I do not think that science has a prior methodological commitment opposed to personal explanations. He then raises some questions of his own about what religious studies should aim to achieve. This holds some promise for better. do not much favor anti-evolutionary ideas. then the relevance of science to the debate becomes clearer. I think I have been fairly careful in Science and Nonbelief not to lay down the law about what good theories must look like. I agree with Zeller that “neither science nor religion are fixed categories. In many contexts. I have little in depth to say about the ethical objections to religiously-defined societies that drive much of atheism. The supernatural is what makes most religions more interesting than political ideologies or football fandom or secular humanism or any of a host of social phenomena that may exhibit some functional parallels with supernatural religions. I will repeat my wish that religious studies should make stronger connections to fields like evolutionary biology. given that I am an outsider to religious studies. predictive power is a good thing if it is at all achievable. for example. Nonetheless. more predictive theories. If a focus on supernatural belief is appropriate for the purposes of the book. I take the most interesting aspect of religions (including popular paranormal notions) to be belief in supernatural agents and intimations of transcendent realms. Science remains my main focus. First. It is not necessary for theories to be predictive. 3 . I prefer a substantive rather than a functional definition of religion. That conviction of interactions with supernatural agents is. to me. spirits.” I think this is a mistake. I also like to think that Science and Nonbelief is distinctive in recognizing how science is a social enterprise. however useful and fascinating I have found its products for my purposes. Indeed. Nonetheless. I fully agree that there is a lot more to religion. what is most distinctive about the otherwise grab-bag category of religion. Buddhists. Implicitly. some modest measure of predictive ability would not be unreasonable to expect. I think supernaturalism is a vital and nearly universal aspect of most religious traditions. supernatural belief is but a small part of what is going on. But especially popular Buddhism is full of gods. and therefore Science and Nonbelief is not a general argument about dissent from religion any more than it is a book about religion in a general sense.There is more. Once again. I think of the reluctance of the scientific community to pursue supernatural explanations as a pragmatic expression of hard-won historical experience rather than as a predetermined ground rule. Indeed. and magic. I am taking sides in a long-running dispute among students of religion. Let me attempt to contribute—though with some care. If a theory of religion has ambitions of identifying some deep structure in religions that goes beyond a cataloging of diverse rituals and doctrines and so forth.” That is one of the reasons I have been careful about not defining science through allegedly essential features such as “methodological naturalism. This leads to my emphasizing a particular style of dissent from religion as well a particular style of religiosity. and explicitly say so (page 80-81 in the paperback edition).

I do not want to do the same. Religious studies developing closer links with—and acknowledging its continuity with—other fields that have relevant contributions would contribute to more disciplined and more predictive theory-making. most certainly including natural science. and I certainly have developed a good deal of respect for my colleagues who study religion from the perspectives of the social sciences and the humanities. I hope I have also learned something about religion beyond its supernatural claims. I think that there is a lot that we all can learn from one another. 4 . I think that present efforts at constructing an evolutionary and cognitive science of religion are a good example in this regard. Speculation is an important part of any enterprise of explanation. which I have now spent many years addressing from my background in the natural sciences. however.I also have nothing against speculation. In the process. I have acquired a fascination with supernatural claims. There is an unfortunate history of natural scientists suggesting that the humanities would be improved by becoming more like the sciences. But speculation is best disciplined by systematic reality checks. I should. qualify these remarks. Otherwise we end up with monstrosities such as psychoanalytic theories of religion. I only suggest that religious studies can build further on its well-developed interdisciplinary tendencies.