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April 17, 2010

A few remarks on Science, Religion and Secularization by John Hedley Brooke

On the 15-th of March, Mr. John Hadley Brooke held a lecture at the Faculty of Philosophy in Bucharest entitled: Science, Religion and Secularization: Past Present and Future. I will jot down here a few remarks about his lecture.

Mr. Brooke’s main thesis is that the process of secularization that we experienced in the last centuries wasn’t caused by science or at least not by science alone, but rather by religion eroding itself from the inside. So religion doesn’t actually contradict science (nor vice-versa) and science isn’t that important in the spiritual lives of people.

Now this idea is quite interesting coming from a theologian but let’s see how he proves it and what are the consequences of it if it were true.  He uses mostly a historical account of different events and he groups these events in certain order showing them to be relevant for his conclusion. But this way of proving things based on interpretation of history is itself prone to interpretation.

First Mr. Brooke talked about Dawkins and his opposing of Darwinian evolutionism to religion; Mr. Brooke wonders why people like Dawkins always chose bad examples of religion like creationism (which is so easy to defeat). My point of view here is that one chooses what is fallible in the opponent’s position and that’s what philosophers do; why should religion benefit from a special treatment and be held unaccountable for the scientifically irrelevant theories it produced? If religion backs up creationism, then religion should assume the responsibility for this and take the fall together with it. But maybe Mr Brooke’s point was that actually creationism wasn’t the official stance of christian religion all over the world. But this doesn’t really matter for an external observer, religions should settle this inside and then come out with a single point of view on the origin of life.

Then Mr. Brooke  said that the debate with religion makes science look more interesting and that’s why Dawkins uses it. That’s not very elegant and I hope it was just a joke on Mr. Brooke’s part as this statement implies something about the opponent’s intentions and in philosophy we call this an ad hominem argument.

Another argument was that 150 years of evolutionism in education didn’t erode the belief in creationism in countries like USA. Now this argument is flawed in many ways and I will show just a few. First of all it assumes that from the discovery of the theory of evolution until now this theory has been taught all over the world in a consistent and widespread manner but that is not the case. We all know that even today evolutionism isn’t taught everywhere in the USA so asking why people who never heard of evolutionism in their lives don’t believe it it’s kind of pointless. Secondly, science itself isn’t taught at an equal level in all states and countries and it all depends on the community in which the student was brought up. If you live in an Amish family, you will never even hear about the laws of physics; generally people coming from strong religious backgrounds will look with disbelief at anything that wasn’t already said in their church. It doesn’t even matter if the science teacher is allowed to teach evolutionism or not in certain communities if the children are already filled with disbelief before even hearing the arguments.

Third, why would it even matter that some people were not convinced by science in 150 years? Do we measure the truth of a theory by the number of its adherents? No, we do this only with religious cults. Was the decision of secularization of the state a common decision made by the population? No, it was a political decision taken long before the discovery of evolutionism.

The same type of arguments is present when Mr Brooke says that religious fundamentalism has known a resurgence in science-based societies. If a society has known the highest form of science through its research this doesn’t mean that the medium population has become more science literate. An example of fundamentalism + science given by Mr. Brooke: the terrorists using mobile phones and al jazeera television. But technology is different from science itself and using a mobile phone says nothing about your scientific education. Actually this is a problem of our own society: technologies become more and more complex and people become less and less trained to handle it, we are becoming barbarians with high-tech devices.

Another of his strange arguments was that religion influences science in strange ways – and he gives the example of a British astronomer, Eddington, who worked with German scientists during the second world war and he did this because he was a quaker and his faith made him act ethically and not treat the others as enemies. This argument assumes that one can’t be ethical unless one has faith in a god of whatever type.  But then what happens with the sea of believers who act unethically everyday? One needs some kind of methodology of assigning whether the behavior of someone is caused by her belief or by some different reasons, otherwise this is just observational selection: one chooses only the examples that support one’s theory and discards the rest as irrelevant.

And why would it have to matter so much to history if Einstein or Newton were believers or not? What they did in science had  to do with their religious choices as much as their choice of clothes had to do.

All these were the flaws and unconvincing arguments that Mr. Brooke had in his lecture but he had also a few good points. One of them was that a methodological naturalism doesn’t necessarily entail an ontological one. This point was interesting and really philosophical, I wish he would’ve concentrated more on ideas like these than on the personal lives and choices of scientists.

Another point was that the major source of secularization of the society was religion itself which is mined from the inside. When people chose a secularized society they do so because they are appalled by the  injustices in the world and the conflicts between different religious cults so it’s actually an ethical choice. This was a really interesting point and I think it deserved more thought and space than it was given in the conference.

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