Sunday, September 16, 2007


Talking Dialogue

John F. Haught is the Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. and a Roman Catholic theologian* of some note. For the wider public, he is notable as the sole expert witness on theology to testify in the Kitzmiller case. Judge Jones said that Professor Haught:

... succinctly explained to the Court that the argument for ID is not a new scientific argument, but is rather an old religious argument for the existence of God. He traced this argument back to at least Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century ... [and] in the 19th century by Reverend Paley ... The only apparent difference between the argument made by Paley and the argument for ID ... is that ID's "official position" does not acknowledge that the designer is God ... [though] anyone familiar with Western religious thought would immediately make the association ... (Judge Jones' decision, pp. 24-25)

I have been reading Professor Haught's book, Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (1995, Paulist Press, New York). Professor Haught does, in spades, what some people have criticized Richard Dawkins' much more widely known book, The God Delusion, for failing to do. Haught set out to discuss whether modern science is compatible with those religious beliefs that are more sophisticated than fundamentalism and creationism. Haught, if nothing else, produced a thought-producing ... and, no doubt, a blood pressure testing ... book in which most everybody will find something to hate.

Haught's approach, in a throwback to dialogues like Hume's, is to take certain issues nominally dividing science and religion and have proponents of four different views make their cases. The four viewpoints are:

1) Conflict: the view that religion is utterly opposed to science, with science invalidating religion -- essentially the atheist viewpoint;

2) Contrast: the position that religion and science are so completely different that conflict is logically impossible; both are valid but are or should be rigorously separated -- similar to Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA);

3) Contact: religion and science are distinct, each has implications for the other, inevitably interacting, with religion necessarily adapting to new developments in science; and

4) Confirmation: similar to but supposedly distinct from the Contact model, holding religion as subtly but positively supporting scientific discovery, actually paving the way for some of science's ideas and even "blessing" science's search for "truth."

The issues examined include: "Is Religion Opposed to Science?", "Does Science Rule Out a Personal God?" and "Is Life Reducible to Chemistry?" The dangers of this approach are many. The attempt to break down complex views about a broad subject into only four categories is bound to result in blurred borders, a problem Haught acknowledges. For example, the most stark division -- atheism vs. theism -- crowds out any other in Haught's book. All Haught's advocates except the atheistic Conflict supporter, speak of their theology's relation to science. My own agnosticism, tending to the Contrast view, with dollops of Contact and Conflict, finds no voice in the dialogue. But that is a relatively small point, easily enough filled in by the reader.

A larger danger is failing to fairly represent the arguments of one's opponent's -- the charge that has been made against Dawkins. Haught admits his preference for the Contact view, supplemented by Confirmation. He sees that as the "most fruitful and reasonable response to the unfortunate tension that has held so many scientists away from an appreciation of religion and an even larger number of religious people from enjoying the discoveries of science." Needless to say, many will reject even the attempt.

There is no way, of course, that Haught could perfectly succeed in representing all sides. Proponents of atheism will, no doubt, complain that Haught has missed the nuances of their arguments and many religious advocates may object that he has given too much credit to science. In fact, Haught hopes that the "polemical edge" he gave each proponent won't serve as an indicator of dead-end hostility but only as an inducement to discussion. In my opinion, Haught has, despite the dangers, produced a stimulating and valuable work that belies the notion that there are no sophisticated arguments for theism. But, as Haught himself states, it is less a conversation than a prologue to a conversation.

Now, if we can only get somebody interested in listening.


* In the interests of full disclosure, I was raised in the Roman Catholic religion and attended Catholic schools for sixteen years, through college, the latter under the gentle tutelage of Jesuits. I had lost what faith I might ever have had well before the end of that time but it is possible, as my wife often says, that "you can take the boy out of the Church but you can't take the Church out of the boy." In any event, during those years, I met many people who struck me as possessing both a deep faith and considerable intellectual rigor . Those experiences no doubt resulted in my being less disdainful of believers than I might otherwise have been and less certain of the righteousness of my own infidelity.

I find this post of interest, because I've been following comments raised by this post at ScienceBlogs.
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