Religion, Science and False Logic

Analogies are dangerous weapons. If you can persuade someone convinced that "B is terrible" that "A is like B," then they will have to agree that A must also be terrible. Having established with this analogy that A is terrible, it follows that we must then abandon A, go to war against A, stop believing A, vote A down, invade a Middle Eastern country that starts with A, keep A out of our schools, send the CIA to kill A, lampoon A until it is a laughingstock, or all of the above. "A" must be dealt with because "A is like B," and we all know how terrible B is.

Analogies run amok in culture-war arguments as we seek ever more persuasive ways to make our points. Glenn Beck, in his quixotic crusade against social justice, would have us believe that social justice is like Nazism. The Discovery Institute, in their zeal to topple Darwinism, try to convince us it is like Nazism. Pundit Michelle Malkin is routinely called a Nazi by her critics. If we take these analogies seriously, then we must hurry to get social justice off our agenda, evolution out of the public schools, and Michelle Malkin off the streets. It is a sad commentary that our public discourse has become so hyperbolic that we immediately reach for the most preposterous, over-the-top comparison. If social justice is like Nazism, then what would actual Nazism be like? What comparison could possibly be made to rally opposition to something that actually was like Nazism?

A somewhat less hyperbolic but also offensive analogy has been used against those of us who believe that science and religion are compatible. When we note, as many of us have, that there are great scientists who are religious believers and suggest that this implies a compatibility between the religious and scientific frames of mind, we are told that this is a terrible argument. We are told that it is like saying that "Catholicism is compatible with pedophilia because many Catholics are pedophiles."

This analogy, chosen for its shock value as many analogies are in our rhetorically charged world, is incredibly weak, and I would like to see it abandoned by people seeking serious discourse. Here is the problem: A religious scientist functions routinely as a scientist in the lab, perhaps looking for the gene that causes hyperbole. While they are engaged in this search they believe that God is the creator. On regular occasions this scientist goes to church, where he or she sings hymns, listens to sermons, volunteers at the soup kitchen, takes communion, and puts money in the offering plate, all the while believing that the scientific picture of the world is accurate. Occasionally this religious scientist may even daydream about finding that gene for hyperbole while listening to the sermon. At no time do the co-existing mindsets conflict or create cognitive dissonance.

This religious scientist is then compared to a pedophile clergy (I am not going to say "priest" since the only ones I know about directly are actually protestants). Superficially the analogy appears to work. A clergyman can be a pedophile, even though we understand that combination to be profoundly incompatible, which is why the analogy is so effective. It follows that simply noting that a scientist can be religious is not an argument, all by itself, that science and religion are compatible. So far so good.

But here is where, as Monty Python would say, "the argument falls to the ground." Pedophile clergy know their behavior is wrong; they know their pastoral role is incompatible with their sexual pathology; many of them are wracked with guilt over their actions and actively seeking help. There is great cognitive dissonance. This is the critical part of the so-called analogy, and when we get to this part we discover that the analogy doesn't work at all.

I think Jerry Coyne -- in contrast to his cheering throng of knee-jerk commenters -- gets this at some level. He says that the critical conclusion to be drawn from the analogy is that "anybody doing any kind of science should abandon his or her faith if they wish to become a philosophically consistent scientist." By analogy (!) we would agree that "anybody engaged in any of kind pastoral ministry should abandon any sexual impropriety if they wish to be consistent."

But, returning to the analogy above, I would offer that there are philosophically sophisticated scientists who are religious believers. In framing this particular argument, I would emphasize that scientific achievement -- think John Polkinghorne -- is most likely accompanied by a genuinely scientific frame of mind. And careful study and practice of religion -- think John Polkinghorne -- is most likely accompanied by a religious frame of mind. The harmonious co-existence of those two frames of mind is what suggests compatibility -- and even philosophical consistency, although that is a loaded phrase -- rather than the simple observation that geneticists go to church.