The Snarky’s Tin Ear: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part V

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 5, 2008 10:31 PM


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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, "The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate," has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?

—John Calvin

This was my favorite quote. I discovered it at age 16 in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and have been using it in my Intro to Astronomy lectures for years. It seemed like the perfect embodiment of blind religion ignoring the fruits of understanding that scientific progress was willing to offer. Then, in writing my book on science and religion, I found a problem with Calvin’s words: He never said them. The quote can traced to the 1899 work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University. This book had enormous impact, setting attitudes for years within the scientific community about the proper attitude in the science v. religion debate. Now, a spate of literary sleuthing by historians leads them to conclude the quote must be considered suspect. While White’s mistake is likely an honest one, the book has other flaws that point to the rigidity and inherited biases on the other side of the traditional science v. religion debate. Too often, scientists can seem so casually dismissive of the entire domain of human religious experience that it appears that not much study or scholarship lies behind the attitude. This approach we will call (thanks to the Occasional reporter) "The Snarky." The essence of Snarkydom in the domains of Science and Religion is the condescension of, "If only you were as smart as me, you wouldn’t have such a dumb view of things." Along these lines, one also finds, "if only you were as intellectually strong as I was, you wouldn’t need any sense of religion to face the cold realities of this universe." Since I have already laid out the arguments against the Sullen and the Silly, I am hopeful I will catch a break here when I say that the alternative is not blind submission to dogma, or a starry-eyed rejection of critical thinking. My experience of people who are authentic in what they consider their spiritual lives (even if I disagree with their beliefs) has been marked by thoughtfulness and considerable courage in compassion. Unfortunately, what appears to be the "Science" perspective in the science and religion debate often looks like it’s aimed at the Sullen, but then sweeps everything else into the same bag. What one hears is really an argument against one form of one religion taken to be an argument against all forms of religious life and experience. The Snarky attitude manifests as unwillingness to see religion, and its roots in mythologies, as a very broad, very human experience that speaks to something ancient and essential in us, and it goes beyond arguments of what words like "Sacred" or "Spiritual" do mean, or should mean, or are not allowed to mean. When science appears in its snarky mode, it displays a fantastically tin ear for the rich, fecund, and very fertile encounter humans have at the boundary of the expressible and inexpressible. It also ignores a very rich field of scholarship by writers like William James, Mircea Eliade, and others. The attitude of snarkydom is, I believe, very dangerous for science for many reasons. The first is that it is unlikely that religion is going away anytime soon, so telling everyone who might consider themselves to have a spiritual or religious dimension to their lives “You're dumb” invites charges of arrogance, and provides the public with a reason to turn away. More importantly, much more importantly, we scientists are in no position to make such sweeping statements about the full range of human experience. At the roots, our lives, like everyone else’s, are rounded with a sleep, and we do not know what, really, these dreams are made on. We need to respect the beauty and mystery at that boundary between the expressible and inexpressible. We need to respect the capacities of poetry and myth and the domains of the sacred. That’s it for this week. My graduate students are getting angry at me, so I had better go read some referee reports. Next week, we try defining alternatives.

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