Atheism's Best Arguments? - Charles L.Harper Jr.

Charles L. Harper - Science and Religion

Charles L. Harper

Charles L. Harper Jr. is former Executive Director and Senior Vice President of the John Templeton Foundation.

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Charles L.
Harper

Cosmologist and Theologian

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Chuck, atheistic arguments would point to the progress of science as triumphing over religion, and this natural progression in history reading inevitably, although some local perturbations and people have this natural interest, but over time there's no doubt that science would dominate. How do you see the history of science and religion as indicative of where the future may go?

Charles Harper:

Well, in terms of the origin of science, this idea that science replaces religion doesn't hold up very well. There's the idea that religion is about ignorance and mystery, and as science grows and ignorance decreases, and so science naturally takes the turf, or the terrain, of religion. Because if you think religion is about explanation, about a kind of magical explanation of anything in the world, like, say, why a seed grows; God makes it grow. It rains, God makes it grow. So if you have that kind of concept of what religion is about, then science will replace it. I think of that mostly as a folk concept, and it does have some problems with the historical roots of science.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So let's talk about the historical roots.

Charles Harper:

Well, it's interesting. In 2010 we'll have the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. That's an interesting set piece, actually. The founders of the Royal Society—well, probably the most important person in actually creating the institution, is John Wilkins. Now he's a bishop. Sprat is also a bishop. He writes the first history. Probably the most important founding scientist, the scientific creativity in the early Royal Society, is Robert Boyle. So Robert Boyle writes his biographical work, called The Christian Virtuoso. So he's very—it's clear that he's very interested in theological issues. And there may be, there probably is a theological purpose for pursuing the experimental philosophy.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

One could argue that this is a historical accident. That over the centuries religion had such a grasp on human desire for exploration and explanation that the smartest and best people were religious because they had this interest, and over time these are the people who became scientists. So the fact that they were religious and then became scientists is not a cause and effect, it's almost an emergence of the people who self-selected to be the most intelligent.

Charles Harper:

well, it's interesting. We use in modern parlance this term, religion. It's a little like a zoologist giving a lecture about animals in general and conflating together a flea, a whale, a bat, a worm, all as if they're the same thing, and it's a modern habit. So in the historical effort to look at the rise of science, it's peculiarities in the religious context of belief, of thought, of culture, that are looked to. So it's, there are different layers. For example, there is a very peculiarly important innovation that happens in the 12th and 13th century. That's the creation of what we now think of as the modern university. That's a new thing in the 12th century. There are few things before this. Al-Azhar is the only surviving institution from the age before this 12th century. But the modern university arises for a reason. It's different from a monastery. Now, it arises for a reason that relates to transformations within the religious culture of Western Europe at the time. So the religion there, what we call a religion, is a very peculiar thing. It's an innovation. It's different from anything else in history before it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, I think it's an open question, but as I said, I don't feel intrinsically convinced that because science emerged from that religious environment that that gives religion any credit.

Charles Harper:

The argument here is a simple one. To say that science is generically, in its essence, the enemy of faith, is simply historically inaccurate. And the argument wouldn't need to go beyond that very much.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Fair enough, fair enough. But I think that over time it does seem to be the historical fact that if we're in a room and religion had three-quarters of it, that as science marches in, religion is being backed into a smaller and smaller corner. Now maybe that's the wrong playing field on which religion should operate, but it's certainly been the history of religious experience.

Charles Harper:

Well, you do have the history of European secularization, which has been interpreted that the rise of intelligence causes the decline of faith. So there is that European example. However, the United States, the example of the United States, is contrary to that.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yes, that's correct.

Charles Harper:

So you'll typically find that if you take scientists, as it were, in a class within their culture, they will map to some degree the demographics of belief, or unbelief, or agnosticism within their culture, sometimes differentiated by the fact that they're just elites, they're part of the cognitive elite. So in the United States, you'll find a pretty large proportion of theistic scientists, but maybe in the National Academy it'll be less.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It'll be a lot less. It'll be enormously less.

Charles Harper:

I think the play on those numbers is partly politicized. I've seen numbers which would claim that there's almost nobody, say, in the Royal Society or the National Academy that's a theist. I think those numbers are cooked.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Cooked how? Cooked by the individual not wanting to kind of expose himself?

Charles Harper:

I think they're propagandistic. That is, that there are polls that are done informally, and some of those polls have response rates that are very low. So they're just not statistically accurate.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, I think it's an interesting question—

Charles Harper:

And they're biased. There's an agenda.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, first of all, they wouldn't arbitrate truth one way or the other. But it's certainly an interesting statistic. Another one is that biologists seem to have an even lower appreciation for the possibility of God than physicists would. I don't know if these are anecdotal—

Charles Harper:

Well that's quite interesting, because that raises I think, for the United States, a very important issue. If the public is persuaded that biology is intrinsically atheistic, then you'll have a selectivity bias of people that do go in and don't go into the field. In fact, for all of science in the United States, if people think of science as an ideology—because science in itself is very complicated technical stuff that almost—many scientists can't even read their neighbor's paper—so people tend, that aren't in science, they tend to think of science through the lens of popularization. So if the popularization is ideologically polarized, that will have an impact on who will go in or not go in to science.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So it's shaping the future.

Charles Harper:

Well, when I was a little kid, science was very popular. It was the Sputnik edge, and parents wanted their kids to go into science. Today, they want them to go into hedge funds. So there's an issue with the future of science and the future of funding and culture enthusiasm for science.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, irrespective of the current culture, I try to look for—it sounds idealistic—but what is really true. Again, get rid of the perturbations of our current culture which will go through various ups and downs, and try to discern some of these fundamental principles. And I find the history of science and theology to be very interesting but frankly not very instructive. Newton, for example, perhaps one of the greatest if not the greatest scientist of all time, in his pioneering work, he probably spent as much time in trying to discern the prophecies of Daniel as he did—and I interpret that as just somebody who has a voracious desire to understand whatever is the best way of understanding.

Charles Harper:

Well Newton probably had a big project. His unpublished papers suggest that he did. And his big project was that he seems to have thought that he had a destiny, that he was elected, so-called, to recover the ancient knowledge that existed before the fall, and if he could recover this knowledge, it would lead to the cessation of conflict in his society. People would understand how you should govern a nation, whether you should have a king or you shouldn't have a king, whether parliament should be in charge or not in charge. There would be the methodology for learning the truth on any issue, and that's perhaps what Newton thought. So his agenda included his gravitational discoveries almost as a kind of sidelight.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, the hubris of scientists are well known, and I'm very happy we have his three laws of motion and calculus, and I'm also happy we don't have his explanation for how we should run everything.

Charles Harper:

Yes, I agree with that.