Froese, Bader, and the compatibility of science and religion

I just finished Paul Froese and Christopher Bader’s America’s Four Gods, which was a very interesting survey of American religious beliefs analyzed according to four major conceptions of God: the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, and the Distant God. It’s well worth reading.

Still, I have to gripe about something that appears on page 145.

The authors cite the books of Richard Dawkins, Vic Stenger, Mark Perakh, and myself as examples of “prominent science professors making similar arguments” against the existence of God. (Including me among the prominent is not a good sign.) Then, after adding Christopher Hitchens to the mix, they say

Although the arguments of the New Atheists are certainly engaging, they tend to misrepresent the current relationships among science, progressivism, and belief in God. Today, Democrats and cultural progressives are overwhelmingly likely to believe in God. Many professional scientists are also devout believers. In sum, a large swath of America is religiously devout, politically liberal, and scientifically savvy—three things we are told cannot go together.

Well, this misreads our arguments. First of all, like too many people, the authors confuse a pro-technology attitude in the general population with being supportive of science. These are not at all the same. I know this is a common mistake, but academics writing about science and religion have no business ignoring this distinction.

Second, some of us—Vic Stenger in particular—counts the believers in what Froese and Bader call a “Distant God” as near-atheists in a broad cultural and political context. Froese and Bader’s own data shows that political liberalism, a genuinely pro-science (not just technology) attitude, and weakness of religious commitment tend to go together. I have my doubts about Stenger’s lumping in Distant God believers with nonbelievers—in some contexts their supernaturalism is very significant indeed, and not just a pale echo of a more traditional God. But in the broad-brush political picture Froese and Bader are concerned about, I think that Stenger has it about right.

Third, our argument that science and religion are not as compatible as often presented does not imply that no scientists believe in supernatural entities. Of course many do—we argue, in some detail, that they are mistaken. And we add that the comparatively high levels of skepticism among professional scientists (not applied scientists) are no accident in the light of our arguments.

It’s disconcerting to be accused of misrepresentation by authors who do not accurately present our position. I daresay we might be wrong. We’re not social scientists, any of us. But, dammit, the argument we are engaged in is not something that can be deflected just by observing the existence of the Francis Collins’s of this world.