I was not very kind to David Eller’s first contribution to The End of Christianity. I shall continue my curmudgeonly ways as I review his second contribution, an essay titled “Is Religion Compatible with Science?”
I shall begin my complaints with the topic. Why “religion”? Why not focus on Christianity and argue for the incompatibility of Christianity and science? That would be an easier thesis to establish (at least in principle). It certainly would be more focused. By arguing that religion simpliciter is incompatible with science Eller opts for an enormously difficult, overly-ambitious thesis. What is more, that expansive focus is simply inappropriate for this book. Remember the book under consideration is titled “The End of Christianity“, not “The End of Religion.” Consequently, an argument seeking to establish the incompatibility of Christianity with science would have been a simpler, more focused thesis and also one more appropriate to the book’s stated purpose.
In fairness, it is not all Eller’s fault. John W. Loftus, the book’s editor, should have flagged this problem and encouraged Eller to submit a paper both more appropriate and less likely to crash and burn.
Be that as it may, this is the paper we have, so it is the paper I shall review.
There are many little problems with Eller’s paper, but after having spent tens of thousands of words reviewing the book to this point, I’m not keen to bother with the little problems. As for big problems, there are at least two. I shall focus my review on those critically big problems.
Problem 1: Religion poorly defined
Eller’s start is promising as he stresses the need to define religion prior to establishing its alleged incompatibility with science. But then the wheels fall off the wagon for the definition of religion he gives us is, to put it kindly, completely unsuccessful. To put it not so kindly, the definition is bizarre and seems to exist for the sole purpose of generating some kind of inherent tension between religion and science. Here is the definition Eller provides:
“A religion is a particular system of thought that posits nonhuman and, in certain manners, superhuman agents or persons in the world along with humans. These non/superhuman beings are the quality of mind or intentionality or personality and personhood with humans; in other words, in religious thought, humans are not the only persons in the world.” (261)
Now why is this definition so bad? Definitions are supposed to do a couple things. To begin with, the definiens (the word/s employed to define another term) should apply to all exemplifications of the stated term. Moreover, they should apply only to exemplifications of the stated term. For example, defining “car” as “four-wheeled means of transportation” is a good definition only if all cars fit under this definition and only cars fit under this definition. Alas, the definition fails on both counts. To begin with, there are cars with more (or less) than four wheels (ever see a Messerschmitt KR200?). Even worse, there are four-wheeled means of transportation which are not cars (e.g. a wagon). So this is a really bad definition.
With that in mind consider the double failure of Eller’s definition.
Religious views excluded by Eller’s definition. I could provide many examples here but I’ll note just two. First, on Eller’s definition a person who asserts that they believe in God but denies that God is an agent and also denies that there are any other non-human agents or persons is not religious, even if that theist also attends a community of like-minded believers, has a conception of sacred vs. secular space, and seeks to live by a sacred revealed text. Clearly something has gone awry.
Second, according to this definition a deist who regularly attends community meetings centered on sacred rites and the reflection on the nature of deity is not religious on this view because that person doesn’t believe God is “in the world”.
Non-religious views accepted by Eller’s definition. Ric O’Berry became famous with his dolphin co-star on the 1960s television program “Flipper”. O’Berry has since changed his ways and become an advocate for dolphins. I don’t know if O’Berry now believes dolphins are persons or not, but let’s say he does. (Certainly some people do.) According to the definition of religion provided by Eller that belief in non-human persons would be sufficient to make O’Berry religious. But surely this is false.
Conclusion: this definition is rotten and should be worked into the soil ASAP so that it can at least be put to use making the grass a little greener, because it certainly will not illumine our understanding of religion one iota.
A gratis definition of Religion
While it is not my job to define religion, I’m happy to offer a definition off the top of my head which is orders of magnitude better than Eller’s:
A religion is a formalized set of beliefs and practices which guide how one relates to that which one believes to be unconditionally and non-dependently real. (The phrase “unconditionally and non-dependently real” is borrowed from Roy Clouser’s definition of “the divine”.)
My definition may not be perfect. It may be subject to counterexamples. But at least it is much better and more plausible than Eller’s definition.
(Incidentally Eller’s definition of science is almost as bad. He says “The crucial premises for science are detectability and doubt, and it is these that separate it from just any old explanatory system or manual procedure.” (264) I won’t bother critiquing these statements here except to note that there really is no incompatibility between these “crucial premises” and the existence of non-human agents as in his definition of religion.)
Problem 2: Where’s the incompatibility?
So why did Eller provide such a strange definition of religion? As I said, there is one obvious reason: as support for his thesis that religion and science go together like oil and water. Here’s what Eller says:
“the crucial and incontrovertible difference between science and religion–that which makes them incompatible at their core, even if they happen to agree on some details–is the basic premise from which each arises and therefore the ‘kind of answer’ that each wants to offer. Religion functions on the personal premise that some or all facts and events are the results of the motive of (supernatural) agents. Science functions on the impersonal premise that facts and events are the effects of antecedent and nonagentive–and therefore knowable–causes.” (278)
First, let’s deal with basic consistency. In this statement Eller says that religion functions by trying to explain “facts and events” in terms of “supernatural” agents. Where does that reference come from? As we already saw, Eller defines religion in terms of belief in “non/superhuman” agents, not “supernatural” ones. (And as I noted, this leaves him open to the problem of Flipper the non-human person.)
Next, consider how this statement just falls apart on closer examination. Take a look at the following excerpt again:
Religion functions on the personal premise that some or all facts and events are the results of the motive of (supernatural) agents. Science functions on the impersonal premise that facts and events are the effects of antecedent and nonagentive–and therefore knowable–causes.”
According to this definition (and ignoring the gratuitious and undefined addition of the term “supernatural”), this statement identifies as “religious” any event explained with reference to agency. Now let’s take a moment to digest the implications here. My writing this review is an “event”. What is the explanation of this event? Not surprisingly, I appeal to agency to explain it. If Eller is to be believed then this kind of explanation is inherently “religious” because it explains events in terms of persons.
“But wait a minute!” says the Eller defender. “In the passage quoted above the reference was to non-human persons. Thus, the event would only be religious if you explained the event of the essay writing with respect to a non-human person.”
Okay, imagine for a moment that we discover a surviving tribe of Neanderthals living in a remote part of Siberia. I teach one of them to write and he soon writes a review of Eller’s essay. Now we have two events, one in which I wrote a review of Eller’s essay and the other in which the neanderthal wrote a review. According to Eller’s definition appealing to my agency is a non-religious explanation of the event but appealing to the neanderthal’s agency is a religious explanation. Could this be any more muddled?
I have to wonder: isn’t Eller familiar with the concept of emergent complexity? Surely he must be. So what is the problem then of a scientific explanation of an event at x and y levels while recognizing that there are agent explanations at z level?
Here’s what I mean. As I sit and type this review here are some different levels of explanation:
Physics level: the complex interrelationship of subatomic and atomic particles.
Biological level: the contraction of muscles and depression of fingers on pieces of plastic.
Personal level: the intent of the writer to compose a review.
There’s no incompatibility between these different types of explanation of the same event. Admittedly we don’t know exactly how they work, but that hardly means we deny one or more of those levels! So why think there is suddenly an inherent incompatiblity if the operating agent at the personal level is a dolphin, or a neanderthal, or an angel, or God?
I suspect that in the background is the concern that if we allow personal agent causes into our nexus of explanation then science will be undermined somehow. But again I see no reason to think that this is the case. Science has no problem accommodating human, dolphin or neanderthal personal causes. Why think the show’s over if the personal cause is one without a physical body?
In closing let me make two footnotes.
First, Christianity is fully consistent with a causally closed system. (For more on that see my book Faith Lacking Understanding, chapter 3.) However, there is absolutely no reason to think a causally closed system is necessary for science.
Second, philosophers of science are all over the map on the epistemology and ontology of scientific descriptions. Some are rational realists, others are non-rational non-realists, and still others are somewhere in between. What is more, philosophers of science are also all over the map on the ontological status of natural laws. Some believe natural laws map necessities, but others believe they are merely summary statements of regularities, and others take a more extreme occasionalist perspective. All this reminds us that there are countless different epistemological and ontological conceptions of science, and thus there will always be multiple different conceptions of science that are fully compatible with very many religious perspectives, Christianity included.