Sam Harris, when recently interviewed by salon.com, raised his tired old “zero-sum contest” claims about religion and science:
But we shouldn’t lie about the zero-sum contest between reason and faith—and, therefore, between science and religion.
There first thing to note is how quickly Harris reaches for the word “lie.” This language exposes Harris as an extremist and ideologue. Y’see, it’s not that people are mistaken, nor is it that people see things differently. Instead, there is a moral dimension to their “wrong” views – they are lying. Sam Harris is so certain of his own views, and so closed-minded about differing views, that he naturally dismisses different viewpoints as “lies.”
Sorry Sam, but you are wrong in thinking there is a “zero-sum contest between reason and faith—and, therefore, between science and religion.” I have debunked this before. That talking point is premised on bad science and bad theology. Let’s have a look.
Religious people do make claims about the nature of reality on the basis of their faith, and these claims conflict with both the methods and conclusions of science.
Conflicting with the method of science (the need for controlled, objective, experimental testing) is irrelevant. Being a good father, being a good husband, and being a good politician, all conflict with the methods of science. But this does not mean being a father, husband, and politician means you are in a zero-sum game with science.
Conclusions are different and it would depend on the conclusion itself. Harris thinks:
If you believe that the historical Jesus was born of a virgin, resurrected, and will be coming back to Earth, you are a Christian. Indeed, it would controversial is to call oneself a Christian without believing these things. But each of these claims rests on terrible evidence and stands in contradiction to most of what we now know about the world. The odds are overwhelming that Jesus was neither born of a virgin, nor resurrected.
First, Christians have always believed, from the beginning, that virgin birth and resurrection were miracles. Thus, if science is to test these religious claims, science must come up with experiments to determine a) was Jesus miraculously born of a virgin and b) did Jesus miraculously raise from the dead? Have any such experiments been done? Of course not. A truly scientific claim must have at its basis an experimental result. If the scientific claim is not rooted in experimental findings, it is bad science.
Now yes, someone can point to all kinds of experimental work helping us understand why the dead stay dead and why a man (sperm) and woman (egg) are needed to make a child (fertilization). But here science is simply helping us understand what commonly occurs. Science is not in any way testing whether a miracle did occur or even could occur.
Second, Harris’s “odds” argument is silly nonsense. That argument would only apply if Christians believe, and have always believed, the virgin birth and resurrection were naturally occurring events. Since such events have always been thought to be miracles, and such miraculous claims cannot be assessed through probability analysis, the “odds” argument is junk science.
Third, one might argue if only science had documented several other examples of virgin births and resurrections, then science would support these Christian claims. But this would take us down the road of Bad Theology. If virgin births and resurrections were common enough to be detected and studied by science, there would be nothing special about them. They would just be rare, but detectable, events. Christian theology has always been built around the very special nature of these one-time events, because they signified all sorts of theological insights. So oddly enough, the only way science could support these Christian claims would at the same time rob them of their significance and meaning.
So yes, the Christian beliefs about Jesus’s birth and resurrection are not the output of science. They are not part of science and not what science teaches. But that does NOT mean such beliefs are part of some zero-sum contest with science. That notion is founded on a misguided understanding of both science and Christianity.
One more excerpt from Harris:
Of course, we can pretend that none of this is happening and that science and religion represent “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould infamously said. But this is a lie. And it’s a lie that has many unhappy consequences.
Harris is back to his extremism, where those who don’t think like him are “pretending” and telling “lies.” Sam doesn’t understand that Christian belief about Jesus does not overlap with science. If he or his fans disagree, the burden is on them to come up with experiments to test the miraculous birth and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, they would all fail to design and implement such experiments. It’s because I am right; it’s because of the non-overlapping nature of these beliefs and science. That Sam would label such logical thinking a “lie” speaks to his own anti-religious bigotry.