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Taner Edis

Science and Nonbelief

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Taner Edis is the author of one of the best books on religion from a sceptical viewpoint (The Ghost in the Universe), and this book is in some sense a sequel or a complement to it. If you liked the first book you will want to read this one as well.

What I find particularly valuable, and unusual, about Edis is that although he is a non-believer his treatment of religion is relatively even-handed. Although he makes his own position clear, he does not hesitate to point out shortcomings that frequently exist in more vociferous statements of the case for non-belief. This restraint makes his criticisms of religion all the more effective. Just because he is prepared to point out where non-believers are guilty of overstating the implications of science, his demonstration of why science offers a genuine and serious challenge to religion carries all the more force.

His first chapter provides a brief survey of the history of non-belief and considers the position of religion today. Clearly, science has not done away with religion, contrary to what some have hoped and expected. Even if there is decline in adherence to formal religion in Europe and Japan, most people there describe themselves as "spiritual". In the USA, religion is still dominant and the great majority identify themselves as believers.

In his second chapter Edis makes the important point that one reason for the failure of science to displace religious belief is that science, particularly physics, is hard. To think as a scientist does not come naturally to the human brain. Moreover, the discoveries of modern physics can be interpreted as offering support for religious or mystical ideas. Quantum mechanics is strange and paradoxical in the extreme and some have latched onto this as justification for mysticism, while the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe can sound like a modern restatement of the Book of Genesis.

Darwin famously did away with the need to postulate direct intervention by the Creator to produce the world of living things, although there are still some Biblical fundamentalists, especially in the USA, who refuse to accept this. The extreme form of this is frank Creationism, but there is also a more sophisticated version, Intelligent Design. Other Christians adopt a less extreme position and find it possible to accommodate Darwinism within their religious framework.

The question underlying all this argument is whether anything approximating to purpose can be discerned in evolution. Edis conclusively demonstrates the shortcomings of Intelligent Design, though he points out that some secularists have gone too far the other way and seek to export Darwinism beyond its legitimate bounds. Moreover, even leading scientists are divided on the question of whether the appearance of conscious intelligent animals like us was inevitable.

Consciousness is in fact a central question for believers and non-believers alike. Traditionally, it has been thought to be a property of the immaterial soul, but our modern understanding of the brain has made these older ideas largely untenable. However, we still have no real explanation of how brain activity gives rise to conscious experience (qualia). Many regard this as the most important question facing science today, though others say it is either meaningless or insoluble. Edis tackles the question of consciousness in Chapter 4. He sets out the main issues clearly but, understandably, does not offer any definitive solution.

For some, the paranormal represents a way of reintroducing spiritual principles into science. Edis considers this option in Chapter 5, where he concludes that the evidence adduced in favour of paranormal phenomena is thin. Sceptics frequently dismiss all such ideas as "pseudoscience", but, as Edis remarks, there are no unique features that distinguish pseudoscience from genuine science. Creationism, parapsychology, and UFOlogy are wrong, but they are wrong in different ways and do not all fail the same test.

Chapter 6 summarizes the main secular explanations for religions that have been proposed: none seems wholly satisfactory. And if, as some claim, religious belief is in some sense built into the human mind, how can we explain the existence of non-belief? Edis's discussion of these questions is excellent. I particularly liked the distinction he draws between the abstract philosophising of theologians and the practical experience of religion in the lives of believers. Popular religion, even today, is little different from how it was in the Middle Ages or earlier times. In other words, magic and religion are not that different from each other and similar explanations can apply to both.

If, as seems probable, religion is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, what are the prospects for non-believers? Probably the best they can hope for is to live in a society that does not demand proclamation of religious belief from people in public life. This is currently the case in Western Europe but not in the USA, where questions about faith intrude into politics and education and atheism is widely regarded as synonymous with immorality. For this reason, American scientists are often reluctant to make a connection between science and non-belief in public. A popular compromise is to sidestep the problem by saying that religion and science talk about different things and so are not in conflict.

Whether this is really true is probably ultimately a matter of opinion. There is certainly no inevitable contradiction between science and faith; it is still perfectly possible to be a good research scientist while remaining a religious believer. Nevertheless, modern science provides a factual basis for non-belief which was largely lacking in earlier times. The conclusion I draw from Edis's book is that science may not compel non-belief but it does provide an intellectual framework within which non-belief can comfortably exist.

Edis includes as appendices some examples of arguments that are used to support criticism of belief and the supernatural. The first is from the nineteenth century and is by the German materialist Ludwig Buchner; the others are modern and are by Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Owen Flanagan, Susan Blackmore, and Pascal Boyer.

%T Science and Nonbelief
%A Edis, Taner
%I Greenwood Press
%C Greenwood, Connecticut; London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-31333078-6
%P xvi + 285 pp
%K religion, science
%O foreword by Richard Olson

23 November 2006

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