I hear this comment a lot. Consider the following passage from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:
“I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religious document. Indeed, I can make an even stronger statement. Whenever people have used religious documents to make detailed predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong. By a prediction I mean a precise statement about the untested behavior of objects or phenomena in the natural world that gets logged before the event takes place.” (This passage is cited by John Loftus in our forthcoming book God or Godless. In that book I offer a different criticism than I develop here.)
There’s no argument for or against anything in this paragraph, so far as I can see. So I’m not going to engage it as an argument. Just the same, I often hear self-described “atheists” and “naturalists” appealing to this kind of observation as support for their convictions about the nature of the world.
So what should we think about Tyson’s commentary? Well the first question that springs to my mind is this one: what is a religious document? Tyson doesn’t define what he means by this.
Perhaps we can get started in mulling over that question by considering the standard “religious document” for a moment. Yes, I mean the Bible.
Now let’s ask ourselves a basic question: did the authors of the Bible all know that they were writing documents that would serve as part of a religious document? The answer, quite clearly, is a resounding no. The prophets may have thought they were speaking for God, but it is quite a leap to think they believed that by compiling their prophecies in literary form that they were helping to compose a religious document. And of course it strains credulity to think that an apostle like Paul, when he quickly wrote a letter to a church, believed that the letter would be part of a religious document.
So by looking at the paradigm example of a “religious document” we find that the intentionality of the author(s) is not required for the document to be considered religious. Presumably what is required is that some community recognize that document as religious.
But what does it mean to recognize a document as religious? Let me rephrase: Presumably what is required is that some community observe that document religiously.
Okay, so what does it mean to observe a document religiously? Let me suggest that it means something like this:
A religious document is one that is treated as uniquely authoritative for a community’s socio-historical formation. It addresses grand themes such as the origin and/or destiny of humanity or the universe on the whole.
Consider Richard Dawkins talking about Darwin’s Origin of Species:
“A quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief. In his boyhood at least, my chaplain was presumably not aware (nor was I) of the closing lines of The Origin of Species — the famous ‘entangled bank’ passage, ‘with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth’. Had he been, he would certainly have identified with it and, instead of the priesthood, might have been led to Darwin’s view that ‘all was produced by laws acting around us'”. (The God Delusion, 32)
Does The Origin of Species constitute a religious document for some doxastic communities, i.e. those who identify themselves as adhering to “scientific naturalism” or “atheism”? Certainly it may.
Consider the opening pages of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett begins by recalling a Sunday school song from his youth, “Tell Me Why”. In the song God is identified as the loving, benevolent creator of all things. But then along came Darwin: “From the moment of publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin’s fundamental idea has inspired intense reactions ranging from ferocious condemnation to ecstatic allegiance, sometimes tantamount to religious zeal.” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 17)
Wow, that certainly sounds like a document that some people treat as religious. (Of course if that is correct then naturalists/atheists are more like Mormons than Christians in that their canon is an open one which is forever welcoming of new authoritative, substantive revelations about the nature of the world.)
Given that The Origin of Species is a religious document, and it makes accurate predictions about the world, Tyson is wrong to observe that “Whenever people have used religious documents to make detailed predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong.”
Now here’s how a naturalist/atheist might respond: “Well at least our religious documents make predictions about the way the world is.”
Yes, they do that.
But that doesn’t mean you own those documents. It just means you happen to treat them as religious.
Moreover, your religious documents tend to come up a bit short in other areas, like in answering the question how then shall I live?
Of course since naturalists have an open canon they can always add more sources to address questions like that such as the writings of John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer or …
It seems like we’re running into a cul-de-sac in trying to understand Tyson. Perhaps we might make headway if we drop “religious document” altogether and replace it with “divine revelation”. Let’s read his statement again with the appropriate substitutions:
“I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any divine revelation. Indeed, I can make an even stronger statement. Whenever people have used divine revelations to make detailed predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong. By a prediction I mean a precise statement about the untested behavior of objects or phenomena in the natural world that gets logged before the event takes place.”
In some ways this would seem to expresses Tyson’s intention more effectively than “religious document”. Except that now we have to define what a divine revelation is. Instead of doing that let’s note two things. First, countless scientists have viewed the process of scientific discovery as a quasi-mystical process in which they nature of existence is gradually revealed to them, often in surprising and extraordinary ways. Let’s add that for scientists who are theists, this revelatory process is one that is often understood to be superintended by the deity. And so Christian scientists from Kepler to Faraday have often interpreted the experience of scientific discovery as a particular expression of that thing we call divine revelation.
All this leaves me to conclude that Tyson’s observation plays as an effective piece of rhetoric for the right audience. And if you thought that’s damnation with faint praise, well you’d be right.