A Science and Religion Debate in the New Republic Magazine

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Steven Pinker, Contributing Editor and Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor both involved with The New Republic Magazine.

Overview

In this introduction you will find some succinct comments that frame the ongoing polarized viewpoints between science versus humanities-religion orientations. This succinct commentary presents a short summary that illustrates two scholars’ recapitulation of the bifurcated arguments about the relationship of science versus religion. The full written articles are linked below (click on the article graphics). Leon Wieseltier’s comments are shown in two different video recordings. This discussion between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier expresses bipolar viewpoints in the science v. religion debate. New Republic Magazine published this debate and later named it as one of its best and most read articles in 2013. The question: does science produce substantive truths that disprove fundamentalist religious canons? One way of simplifying this Great Debate is to name it the Religionist versus Scientist unending/unyielding disagreement.

Professor Steven Pinker argued the scientist position titled “Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.”  In response to Leon Wieseltier’s rejoinder video (see below) he wrote “Science Versus Humanities, Round III”

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Leon Wieseltier argued the religion/humanist position titled “No, Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers.” Video response below. And he wrote the article “Crimes Againts Humanites – Now science wants to invade the liberal arts.  Don’t let it happen.”

Selected Comments

Steven Pinker 

 “The great thinkers of the Age or Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. Most of them were religious believers as well. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are ‘infused into our bosoms.’ And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.”

SciencIsNotEnemy

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Rather laboriously, Pinker gives many examples of how the humanities and religion have benefited greatly from the discoveries of science. His attempts to ameliorate the chasm that some religionists and avid scientists have internalized. What follows are a few of the statements that Pinker makes to integrate science and the humanities including religion:

  • “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called ‘scientism.’ . .

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  • Pinker cites the statements of religionist arguments by Leon Kass who was President George W. Bush’s bioethics advisor. Kass wrote: “Scientific ideas and discoveries about living nature and man, perfectly welcome and harmless in themselves, are being enlisted to do battle against our traditional religious and moral teachings, and even our self-understanding as creatures with freedom and dignity. A quasi-religious faith has sprung up among us – let me call it ‘soul-less scientism’ – which believes that our new biology, eliminating all mystery, can give a complete account of human life, giving purely scientific explanations of human thought, love, creativity, moral judgment, and even why we believe in God. . . . Make no mistake. The stakes in this contest are high: at issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.”


Video: Leon Wieseltier’s rejoinder: Science doesn’t have all the answers

  • Pinker responds: “The term ‘scientism’ is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that ‘science is all that matters’ or that scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems. . . . Most of the traditional causes of belief-faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

“In which ways, then, does science illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we come from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is the traditional territory of religion, and its defenders tend to be the most excitable critics of scientism. They are apt to endorse the partition plan proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his worst book, Rock of Ages, according to which ‘the proper concerns of science and religion belong to ‘non-overlapping magisterial domains.’ Science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value.”

  • Pinker goes on to assert: “The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. . . . Though science if beneficially embedded in our material, moral and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science with the viewpoint that science is completely independent of facts about religious beliefs and dogmas. This ‘non-overlapping’ viewpoint dismisses research in Physics, Anthropology, Archaeology, Astrophysics, Geology, Chemistry that update explanations of ancient history; science cannot and should not change religious accounts of creation and dogma.”

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