Miracles & the Scientist

To the Editors:

I generally enjoyed the review by H. Allen Orr [“A Passion for Evolution,” NYR, February 26] of Richard Dawkins’s work. However, as a research scientist, I would like to comment on the latter part of Orr’s statement that “indeed you might argue that—while scientific beliefs are propositions about the state of the world, religious beliefs are something else—an attempt to attach meaning or value to the world.” Yes, the latter phrase does accurately describe one aspect of religious beliefs—but not the aspect that disturbs many scientists. A central tenet of science (particularly of the physical sciences) holds that, at least since the Big Bang, a fundamental set of laws has governed the entire universe—no exceptions permitted. Yet some sects of a major religion, Christianity, hold that at least one person (or being) performed miracles, which by definition must violate some basic universal law(s). It is this “exceptionalism” underlying certain religious beliefs that conflicts strongly with the central worldview of many scientists.

Carter Bancroft
Professor of Physiology and Biophysics
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
New York City

H. Allen Orr replies:

Professor Bancroft understates his case considerably. It is not that some sects of one religion invoke miracles but that many sects of many religions do. (Moses, after all, parted the waters and Krishna healed the sick.) I agree of course that no sensible scientist can tolerate such exceptionalism with respect to the laws of nature. But the solution seems obvious and, at least since Augustine in the fifth century AD, uncontroversial: we must often abandon literalism when reading religious texts. (As the Catholic Garry Wills said of the Virgin Birth, “the New Testament is a book of theology, not of obstetrics or gynecology.”)

None of this, though, bears on my key objection to Richard Dawkins’s treatment of religion. When Dawkins attacked the “different dimensions” view of religion defended by Stephen Jay Gould and others, he assailed a variety of religious thinking that had already rejected miracles as literal events. Indeed he attacked a body of thought that holds that religion must surrender all pretense of describing the physical world. Now I don’t know if this different dimensions view is entirely defensible—and I certainly don’t claim it’s common among the faithful—but I do maintain that Dawkins’s attacks on it were less than cogent. In the end, we scientists must guard against our own kind of literalism: it is one thing to ridicule religious persons for believing in virgin births; it is another to continue snickering after they’ve said they don’t hold that belief literally.