The Atheist Spy sent me an email asking me to comment on his blog, and this post in particular. My knee-jerk reaction was that he is taking an awfully long time to say a fairly simple thing, but I think his point (once you get to it) is basically valid: people become religious or not depending on whether they care more about "why" than "how", or vice-versa. And there's no way to justify a concern for one over the other from first principles. Every world view, even atheism (even solipsism or nihlism), requires a leap of faith. (I actually made this point in my very first post here.)
But all that got me to thinking: why (it's a loaded word now!) must these two questions put people at loggerheads? Why can't we care about both? How (!) can we reconcile the conflict that seems to arise between the Whyers and the Howers?
The answer, I think, is very simple. The problem is that the methods that are effective for answering "how?" are not very effective for answering "why?". So if you care about one or the other then you naturally conclude that the methods that are effective for answering the question that you care about are "good" (because they produce the answers that you care about).
Can these positions be reconciled? Of course they can. All it takes is to recognize that there are two questions being asked, that people can be legitimately concerned (or not) with both of them, and that the effective methods for answering them are different.
Of course, this requires a bit of humility and a willingness to admit that what is important to you might legitimately be different from what is important to someone else, and perhaps even a willingness to admit that you might be wrong about some things. Such humility is in short supply at both extremes of the debate. Both religious fundamentalists, who insist that X must be true because it is what they think their holy text says (they are very rarely actually correct about this -- more on that later), and science fundamentalists (like Dawkins), who insist on pretending that anything that does not succumb to reductionism is nothing more than a human foible, will never be convinced. For the rest of us, middle ground is not hard to find.
The problems with fundamentalist religion have been extensively cataloged. Fundamentalists have attempted to make similar catalogs of the failings of "fundamentalists science" (e.g. creationist/ID critiques of Evolution) but these fail because they attempt to critique science using logic, and that can never work because science by definition *is* logic. It is rather like trying to critique faith by saying, "Jesus can't be the Son of God because I don't believe it." It doesn't work.
An effective religious critique of science must be based on the methods of religion, not science. The problem with science is not that it has trouble explaining how we got here, it's that it is utterly uncapable of explaining why we got here. The scientific answer to this is to simply dismiss the question as unimportant, but that's cheating. It's just as much of a cheat as saying, "It's true becuase the Bible says so." If I want to ask "why?" it is not for you to say whether my concern is worthy of consideration. The mere fact that I am a human and I choose to ask makes it worthy of my fellow human's concern. (Likewise for those who choose to ask "how".)
It is a happy circumstance that those who choose to ask "how" have stumbled recently (like in the last few hundred years) upon a method on which they (we) could all mostly agree and which seems to be effective. Those who choose to ask "why" have not yet been so fortunate. But that in and of itself is not license to dismiss the question. It was not that long ago in the grand and glorious scheme of things that the how-askers were trying to convert lead into gold. The arrogance of fundamentalist science is no more well founded than the arrogance of fundamentalist religion. Just because we scientists have found some common ground does not give us license to dismiss as unimportant the concerns of our fellow humans who have not been so fortunate.
I think we would all be well served with a little more humility and compassion all around.