On the Conflict Between Science and Religion

I’d like to take some time this week to give my thoughts on why I believe that science and religion are incompatible with one another. While there are many out there who  actively balance these two worldviews, they seem to do so in one of two ways: either they believe that the questions of science and religion do not overlap, or they believe that one ultimately trumps the other whenever conflict arises. I believe the first is ultimately untenable, leaving the second option as the more intellectually honest position to hold. In what follows, I will lay out my reasons against the first position and for the second, and what the implications of that choice might mean in the long-term for atheists and secularists. This topic has been brought up many (many) times in a variety of forums, but I think it bears revisiting. The most recent article I have seen about this can be viewed here. In it, Caltech physicist Sean Carroll discusses the uneasy relationship he has had with the Templeton Foundation, an organization that actively tries to promote a harmonious existence between science and religion. I will let you read his own words for the specifics, but the gist of Carroll’s blog entry is that religion makes claims that tread on science’s turf and any attempt to deny this is disingenuous.

Non-overlapping Magisteria

This flies in the face of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” or “NOMA”, which roughly captures the Templeton Foundation’s central thesis. The idea behind NOMA is that religion and science are focused on truth claims in fundamentally distinct areas. Science aims to understand the way the physical world works while religion makes claims about metaphysical truths that are separate from the physical realm (or are at least not dependent on the physical realm). To put it in very simplified terms, science is about the “how” or the “what”, while religion is about the “why” or the “ought”.

This distinction prevents the “God of the gaps” problem from arising. Rather than having religion explain those things that science has not yet explained - but may very well explain in a doctrinally contradictory way at a later date – NOMA suggests the two worldviews cannot overlap or override one another because they do not talk about the same things. Science cannot put pressure on the truths of religion because science has nothing to say – and no way to say – anything about them, and vice versa. This means that the religiously and scientifically inclined can have their cake and eat it, too, without every worrying about cognitive dissonance cropping up and ruining their day.

This seems like a reasonable détente between two philosophical superpowers, but is it a viable peace agreement? I think that the answer is no, and the reasoning is simple: the type of religion that would be incapable of clashing with the claims of science is fundamentally different from religion as recognized by many, if not most people who practice it. As Richard Dawkins has written here:

…it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

For a real-world example, there is a reason that creationism is a hotly debated issue: people believe that what the Bible says about the world and the order of things is literally true. These people are committed to a conflict between science and religion by disallowing for a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of the events captured in that tome. Of course, given the prominence of the Bible in their worldview, religion trumps science whenever there is a battle between the two. This has real-world implications that we see as time and time again school districts are faced with legal challenges to either allow or disallow the teaching of creationism in the classroom.

None of this is to say that there is a perfect overlap between the two magisteria. Religion does tend to occupy itself with seemingly non-scientific concerns, and vice versa. The simple fact, however, is that there is enough overlap for there to be continuous and consequential conflict between the two which contradicts the necessary conditions for NOMA to hold. The only way out of this, in my opinion, is to relegate one or the other as subordinate to the other whenever there is a disagreement between science and religion.

Before I continue, I should note that there is in important distinction here between religion qua religion (if such a term makes any sense at all) and a particular religion. Only specific religions make claims that are particular enough to be challenged by science, so every potential struggle will be between a given scientific claim and the teachings of a given religion (or set of religions, e.g. the Abrahamic faiths). This specificity accounts for the fact that some traditions can be more conflict-prone than others, even if they are similar in many respects. One can point to the Catholic Church as an example of a fairly accommodating Christian religion, even while other, traditionally Protestant, Christian traditions seem hell-bent on warring against science at the slightest provocation.

The Significance of the Struggle

I point this out because the particulars will help determine whether science or religion will take the back seat to the other in a given instance. For those who take the doctrines and teachings of their religion as literal truth, science will be subordinate to those truths at all time. Even when there seems to be an unresolvable fight between a scientific claim and a religious belief, religion will win despite any evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, traditions with a stronger metaphorical tradition, like Catholicism, can prevent conflict by allowing their religious interpretations the required flexibility to accommodate new scientific truths.

Given that the latter methodology prevents cognitive dissonance and outright absurd denials of scientific truths, I think it will be the only viable option in the long-term for the majority of people. My hope is that the success of science, and the increasing lengths to which religions will have to go in order to avoid contradicting scientific findings, will render religion more or less harmless. If (as I have said elsewhere) religion is not making claims about the way the world actually is, then it seems to have no greater claim to the truth of things than any important work of literature or art. Perhaps the religions of the world will descend to the status of fairy tales after enough time has passed – essentially human attempts to come to grips with important philosophical issues, but with no unique claim on the Truth.

If NOMA is not a viable way to define the relationship between science and religion, then ongoing clashes between the two seem inevitable. It is critically important that science be unrelenting in its encroachment on religious territory, as I believe religions, as effective, large-scale institutions, have only two options: adopt the “God of the gaps” strategy, or adopt a metaphorical stance towards their religious truths. I believe the gaps option will lead to an increasingly ineffectual and unimportant notion of God which will in turn undermine the religion based upon it, while the latter option will lead to a religion so disengaged from the world as to render it harmless (if still somewhat misguided). In light of this, I think that secularists and atheists have a duty to stand up against religion when it dares encroach on science’s hard-won territory. The alternative is too costly for humanity to bear, given that it means the loss of myriad truths in the face of antiquated and potentially harmful religious beliefs.


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