Is Religion Pseudoscience?
A review of the Special Divine Action Conference in Oxford
Published on July 31, 2014 by David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D. in Plato on Pop
A pseudoscience is a set of beliefs or practices that pretends at being science—that puts forth evidence and arguments which it says are scientifically sound, but in fact are not. Pseudoscientists argue in support of new fundamental forces (e.g., Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic resonance) and even entities (e.g., ancient aliens). The TV show Ghost Hunters is a prime example; they even have instruments—like voice recorders, EM meters, laser thermometers (and deluxe carrying cases)—which seem scientific, but of course do nothing to detect ghosts. But all pseudosciences have one thing in common: The arguments and reasoning they put forth violate basic rules of scientific reasoning.
As an atheist, and a logician, I’m often tempted by the notion that religion is just socially accepted pseudoscience (with tax breaks). After all, the arguments in favor of ghosts, alternative medicine and ancient aliens, are very similar to the arguments for angels, the “power of prayer" and God. Sleepparalysis and hallucinatory visions are taken to be evidence for ghosts/angels, post-hoc reasoning is used in arguments for alternative medicine/prayer, and “unexplained mysteries" are counted as evidence for aliens/God. But as tempting as this notion is, it’s difficult to see it all the way through. Although I know plenty of people whose religious belief is steeped in pseudoscientific thinking, I also know religious people who pride themselves in their critical thinking abilities. Does this mean that religion isn’t steeped in pseudoscience, or are these religious people who say they are critical thinkers just fooling themselves? I’d hate to think the later is true.
This last month I attended (and presented at) a conference on “Special Divine Action” (i.e. miracles) at St. Anne’s College in Oxford (July 13-16, 2014). It was sponsored by the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the John Templeton Foundation, both of which are dedicated to demonstrating the compatibility of science and religion. It was headlined by some pretty heavy hitters, including Oxford professor and Christian philosopher, Richard Swinburne. If anything would dissuade me of the notion that religion is pseudoscience, it would likely be this conference. I hoped to find champions who decried the pseudoscientific elements of religion, openly spoke against them, and instead embraced lines of thinking compatible with science.
I was partially successful in my conversations, where I met some wonderfully rational religious people who understood and cared about science. They helped me hone some of my own arguments and I hope I helped them hone theirs. Unfortunately, I also found creationists, people who believe in demons, new-ageism, and even defenders of the pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake. Some even refused to say Dawkins’ name—saying instead “the D word"—because (as someone suggested) he was like Voldemort. If you say his name, especially in Oxford, he might appear. And then there was the New Testament scholar who insisted that the idea that 21st century medical doctors are more qualified to distinguish illness from death than 1st century Palestinians was just a conclusion driven by “western bias."
But what was most disappointing were the headliners—the keynote speakers, none of whom were academic lightweights, and all of whom were there to speak at the request of the foundations. Although a few of the talks were interesting, far too many were tinged with pseudoscience—and the biggest names seemed to be drenched in it.
Hell, it’s not even quasi-science.
His concern with intelligent religious people who seem to be critical thinkers, but still don’t see the flaws in their reasoning, is something we’ve discussed here before. Critical thinking is based on facts, not opinion, but we consider our facts to be reality, when they are really just “truth”, and our view of truth can’t help but include items we were taught in our first few years. No matter how intelligent and clearly critical thinking a person is, if s/he has as one of the “truths” of his/her universe that a god exists, it’s going to be extremely difficult for that person to put that “fact” aside.
That was an extremely well written essay, and goes a long way toward explaining why science and religion are incompatible.
I think pseudoscience is a “straw” crutch that religion uses to gain pseudo-credibility. They prop up each other’s dreams of credibility.