The current issue of the New Yorker includes H. Allen Orr's review of "Breaking the Spell," Daniel Dennett's new book calling for scientific inquiry into the phenomena of religious belief. Dennett, as I mention at every opportunity, was my faculty advisor in college, so his position is not surprising to me.
Orr's review ends with the usual, waffly, ahistorical science-and-religion-explore-different-terrain silliness. Here's a prime example:
Science can certainly undermine particular factual claims made by religion (the universe was created in six days), but it’s far less clear that it can challenge religion’s general metaphysical claims (the universe has a purpose). To insist on this distinction is to recognize what it means for something to be a metaphysical, not a physical, claim. What experiment could prove that the universe has no purpose? To suppose that a kind of physics can demolish a kind of metaphysics is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake.
That may well be (my scholarship was sufficiently slovenly that I don't recall what a category mistake is) but it's also a mistake to claim, as Orr does, that saying the universe has purpose is to say something metaphysical rather than physical. Who says? There are two possible meanings to the phrase, "the universe has a purpose." One is that the universe was created to fulfill an end. The other is that the universe itself has intentionality. Both of these interpretations belong just as firmly in the realm of the physical as does the claim, "Britney Spears has a purpose." If someone created her to fulfill an end, that is something that can be determined physically. If Britney Spears herself has some purpose of her own, that, too can be determined physically. Eventually, we will be able literally to see that purpose as a neurochemical configuration in the brain of either Britney Spears or, if she was created to fulfill an end, in the brain of her creator. The MEANING of the universe may be a metaphysical debate, but whether it - or its creation - is or was imbued with intentionality, is not.
That said, I've been thinking a lot about Dennett's challenge to science, that it confront religion head on, not as an adversary but as a subject. I think the time has come for journalism to do the same thing, and in my next post, I'll attempt to lay out what a Journalism of Religion ought to look like.