Links and Comments: Reviews of Books about Religion and Science

NY Times: “Ivory Tower” column review of three university press books on religion: Unknown Unknowns: Three Inquiries Into Religion, by James Ryerson.

The most interesting of the three seems to be the first, Tim Crane’s THE MEANING OF BELIEF: Religion From an Atheist’s Point of View (Harvard University, $24.95).

Crane proposes to paint a more accurate picture of religion for his fellow unbelievers. Religion is an immense, sprawling and variegated affair. Any attempt to define it, however comprehensive, will omit some aspects, and most attempts to define it, however crude, will capture something. The name of the game is what you see as central. Crane resists the notion, common to combative atheists, that the core of religion is an archaic cosmology (beliefs about things like the origin of the universe and supernatural agents) grafted onto a moral code. If you conceive of religion this way, as bad science plus arbitrary injunctions, of course you will think it should be replaced by good science and rational ethics.

For Crane, the religious worldview is better understood as the combination of two attitudes. First: a sense of the transcendent, of an unseen moral order to the universe, often known as God. Second: an identification with a community that tries to “make sense of the world” by attempting to bring its members into alignment with this moral order through a tradition of narratives and rituals. Crane concedes there is a cosmology here; a belief in the transcendent is “a claim about the universe.” He also grants that religion, like science, is trying to explain things. But the kind of explanation and the kind of cosmology offered by religion, which does not “expect all aspects of the world to be intelligible,” are nothing like those of science, which strives to eliminate mystery.

Of course there are zealots who do take “archaic cosmology” seriously and cannot be swayed by modern evidence; they are in part suspect to the bias that ancient authorities (scripture writers, founding fathers) contained some kind of wisdom that can never be recaptured or challenged. (They are like children, or patriots, who forever believe their home town team, and their home town, are the bestest ever.) But I’m sympathetic to the view that, for some people at least, religious isn’t about archaic cosmology, but about that sense of community and shared values.


From the week before, in the NY Times Book Review, Marilynne Robinson, a midwest novelist known for deeply felt family portraits saturated by religious sensibility (e.g. Gilead) reviews a nonfiction book by Stephen Greenblatt called The Rise and Fall of Adam and Even, a cultural history of that iconic couple. Online the review is called The Truth and Fiction of Adam and Eve; in print it was “Almost Paradise: A cultural history that traces the path of the first man and woman.”

I’ve glanced through Greenblatt’s book, and he admits he is not a believer in a literal Adam and Eve, and Robinson takes issue with this.

There is, however, a complicating factor here, having to do with the question of truth. Greenblatt, an English professor at Harvard University and author of the National Book Award-winning “The Swerve,” frames his inquiry in terms of truth or fiction. For him truth means plausibility, and by that measure the story of Adam and Eve is no more than a miracle of storytelling. But science tells us that Homo sapiens does indeed roughly share a single lineage, in some sense a common origin, just as ancient Genesis says it does. In the Hebrew Bible the word adam often means all humankind, mortals. Greenblatt never seems to consider why the myth might have felt so true to those who found their religious and humanist values affirmed by it — and their own deepest intuitions, which science has partly borne out. It is interesting that those who claim to defend the creation narrative from rationalist critiques ignore the fact that its deepest moral implications, a profound human bond and likeness, have been scientifically demonstrated.

Nonsense. This reminds me of the many Biblical apologists who perceive any scientific discovery that they can match to any passage in the Bible, no matter how brief or how weirdly interpreted, to claim that science proves the Bible. Robinson is a better writer than those apologists, but her reasoning is just as flawed.


From NYTBR a month ago, a short review by Christopher Chabris of four books about decision making, including Andrew Shtulman’s SCIENCEBLIND: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

You’ve probably heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains. You might also know that this is a famous or even infamous scientific myth — no more than a scientific urban legend. But why do so many people believe it when the experts don’t? It’s one of many instances in which people resist scientific understandings in favor of imprecise, inaccurate, or just plain wrong theories about how nature works.

The problem — as Shtulman, a developmental psychologist, cogently explains — is that new knowledge doesn’t erase old misconceptions the way a software upgrade deletes the previous code. Instead, different theories coexist within our minds, and compete to explain the world. We may have been taught about plate tectonics and biological evolution, but we still sometimes act as though the earth and its occupants have always been the way they are now, and thus will stay that way in the future.

This appeals to my whole notion of ‘intuitive science’ which in turn explains why scientific accuracy in most movies, and even some literary SF, is egregiously wrong. Because our sense of the how the world works is based on our experience, over our entire evolutionary history, which how that world works within one tiny slice of experience, and it doesn’t translate to, say, outer space.

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