Science and Religion Forum

By Novella, Steven | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Science and Religion Forum


Novella, Steven, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


There is a ongoing debate within the skeptical movement (and beyond) which is framed as the question of the relationship between science and religion. The Vol.8 No.2 issue of SKEPTIC was almost entirely dedicated to this question, and in this issue Massimo Pigliucci contributed an excellent article which provided a roadmap to this important debate. The article defined the various positions on this topic, covering the spectrum from the position that there is no conflict between science and religion, to the belief that they are in direct conflict.

Among the various positions, Pigliucci included scientific skepticism, using as a source for his definition of scientific skepticism an article written by myself with David Bloomberg. Although Pigliucci seems at times to understand the essence of scientific skepticism, he misrepresented some of the key points in the article.

The essence of scientific skepticism is that it seeks to recast the distinction to be drawn as that between science and faith, not science and religion. Science, it is argued, deals with the natural world and must work with testable--meaning potentially falsifiable--hypotheses. Faith is defined as a personal choice to believe an hypothesis that is not testable, or falsifiable, and is therefore outside the realm of science. Scientific skepticism puts this distinction at the center of its philosophy because it is elegantly simple and practical. According to the "rules" of scientific skepticism, one should not use faith to answer questions of physical reality which are testable, as this is the realm of science. Also, one should not attempt to use science to answer untestable questions of faith, for it is, by definition, not able to do so.

Religion is more complex than just faith. There are countless religions and each one contains a unique assortment of beliefs based upon faith, morality, philosophy, and aesthetics. Some may also violate the rules of scientific skepticism by claiming to have the answers to questions which are clearly in the realm of science, but others, scrupulously, do not.

Pigliucci's definition of scientific skepticism is essentially what I just described above, although I think he missed the main point, i.e. that the real distinction is between science and faith, not religion. For example he writes, "However, scientific skepticism immediately embarks on a slippery slope that the same authors acknowledge in their article. They admit that 'Testable religious claims, such as those of creationists, faith healers, and miracle men are amenable to scientific skepticism,' so that religion is not entirely out of the scope of skeptical inquiry." But we never said that it was--faith is. Whenever religion trespasses into science then scientific skepticism applies. Pigliucci's slippery slope argument turns out to be a straw man. In fact the strength of scientific skepticism is that there is an identifiable line of demarcation with one rule--can the claim be empirically tested?

Pigliucci then goes on to advocate what he calls "scientific rationalism." This basically states that when dealing with religious claims it is appropriate to use scientific methods to deal with scientific issues and philosophical methods to deal with philosophical issues. Therefore, if a religion makes a faith-based claim that is untestable and therefore outside of the realm of science, defenders of rationalism can and should use "philosophy and logic" as their methods of inquiry. Scientific skepticism, however, would simply point out that the claim is outside the realm of science and stop there.

Pigliucci also takes one quote completely out of context. He writes, "Furthermore, they (Novella and Bloomberg) acknowledge that there is no distinction in principle between religion and any other kind of nonsense believed by all sorts of people: 'There is no distinction between believing in leprechauns, alien abductions, ESP, reincarnation, or the existence of God--each equally lacks objective evidence. …

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