Some thoughts on the relationship between science and religion in an American context

I’ve been lately thinking a lot about the relationship between science and religion. This thinking has been prompted by my move to the US where some people seem to be on different planes of existence concerning what the scientific facts are supposed to be, mostly about evolution, but also about geology, cosmology, infectious disease, and many other topics. I’m also a bit taken aback at the lack of scientific literacy of many Americans, especially those who are Christians. Added to this are the unrelenting political attempts by some Christians to undermine, defund and discredit the scientific establishment.

This American context is not everything: we should beware of a kind of ideological imperialism, where American discussions dictate how the rest of the world (ought to) think about certain topics, but it is nevertheless salient, and foremost on my mind, as after all I live here now.

Informed by this are some questions of whether science and religion are compatible, and if so, how are they compatible.

Since Ian Barbour introduced the classification of Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration in the 1960s, we have some useful frameworks of thinking about the relationship between science and religion. For instance, one straightforward question one could ask is: Are science and religion compatible, and if so, how? But answering those questions critically depends on how we conceive of science and religion, specifically if we think of both as human endeavors that are supposed to do something for us. Taking this pragmatist approach can help us to get a better grasp of how they interrelate.

I take Stephen Jay Gould’s view of NOMA, of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria as a starting point, say what I take to be wrong with the view, and how we can get to a more nuanced position.

Gould’s classic formulation of NOMA sees religion and science as working independently, religion is about moral truths (oughts), science is about empirical facts (is). He starts off from a Catholic, science-friendly context, and endorses the NOMA principle enthusiastically as follows:  “if religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.”

The problems with this position are plenty and have been remarked by many others, but just to summarize: NOMA doesn’t describe how most people do science or religion. Religious people think that their views express at least some factual claims, for instance about the existence of historical figures (the Buddha, Jesus), about divine commands (we ought to do X because God commanded it), and about things that science has a lot to say about, such as the origin of the planet or the species Homo sapiens. Religions across the world commonly have had lots to say about factual claims of grave existential importance to us as human beings, such as what causes illness, where humans originate from and what their destiny is, and what happens to us after we die. It would be strange to dismiss this entire discourse as somehow not how religion should be, religion clearly didn’t get the memo.

Scientists have a great many ought-claims. For instance, many respectable climate scientists and epidemiologists I follow on Twitter are saying things, qua scientists, about what we ought to do. We ought to stop eating beef (and other meats), we ought to reduce travel, we ought to wear masks, socially distance etc. Those are ought-claims made by scientists, in their capacity as scientists, using their epistemic authority. It would be strange to dismiss this as improper or an anomaly.

To answer how religion and science relate is a difficult question because we need a better grasp of what science and religion are to begin to answer it. According to one picture of science, science is a delicate flower that has arisen under exceptional circumstances in the west, perhaps under positive influence of Christianity (at least according to Rodney Stark). For example, Robert McCauley in his aptly-titled book Why Religion is Natural but Science is not (2011) contrasts science with religion, claiming that religion is “maturationally natural” to our minds, that our minds are prone to form all sorts of religious beliefs, whereas science is deeply counterintuitive and can only be maintained thanks to an enormous structure of funding, university training, etc. Without large-scale societies that can store information, you do not have science.

McCauley echoes a view that is common in cognitive science of religion. Pascal Boyer, in his classic Religion Explained dismisses early natural histories of religion such as Bernard de Fontenelle who in 1684 proposed that myths were explanations for phenomena that people could not wrap their minds around. For example, early humans would wonder where rivers come from. They see that the closest that comes to this in terms of causes is a human being pouring water out of a jug. Now clearly, no human is strong enough to pour a water stream that vast, so they then imagine a super-powerful, vast being that is similar to us (an anthropomorphic god) pouring the river from a gigantic jug. Boyer breaks with this earlier tradition and argues that religious beliefs are not there to satisfy our needs to know why things are the way they are. Religious beliefs are just a spontaneous by-product of how our minds work. Rituals operate in the same way.

Image result for zeus with lightning bolt classic painting
Zeus with Lightning bolt

Nevertheless, we cannot entirely dismiss the fact that humans have deep epistemic drives. Humans want to have true beliefs, and avoid false beliefs. Even the most inveterate Young Earth Creationist has this deep epistemic drive, and attempts to have a coherent picture of the world where her facts and values align. An alternative to the science-as-delicate-flower view, of science as this bizarre orchid that sprouted out of western culture, sees science as an expression of more fundamentally human epistemic drives, desires and practices. We can see e.g., biological, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge in many non-western cultures, we see Chinese, Islamic, ancient Indian advanced knowledge in these domains. There are sophisticated Indigenous systems of knowledge about astronomy, botany, zoology. Peter Carruthers has argued that our extractive way of acquiring food, through hunting and gathering, provides the cognitive basis of science. Humans have been tracking for hundreds of thousands of years (we know, thanks to finds of spears and other hunting technology) and probably been using extractive technology even longer (e.g., digging spears etc).

If this second view is correct, and I believe it is, then McCauley might be too pessimistic in his appraisal that science is a delicate flower that could easily be swept away by the religious waves. It is true that science in its current form requires the extensive infrastructure it has to be able to continue, but without it, humans would still be engaged in systematically thinking about their life world.

Rather, I see science and religion as two not entirely disconnected ways in which we make frameworks for how to do life: what the stuff is we should know, how we should live, emotion-management, the limits of our knowledge, and so on. The emphasis might differ, for instance, religion (according to Stephen Asma) might be to an important extent emotion-management: religion helps us to deal with life’s curveballs and gives us meaningful frameworks and rituals to process all this.

But religion is also, like science, born from a sense of wonder. To quote this well-known passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics

For it is owing to their wonder (to thaumazein) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g., about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled (aporon) and wonders (thaumazon) thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. (Metaphysics I, 982b).

So, harkening back to this old-fashioned idea of science and religion as born from wonder, I think ultimately that science and religion cannot but venture on each other’s territory, because they are both peculiar types of manifestations of more fundamental human epistemic and pragmatic aims.

The reason we have the peculiar conflicts between science and religion in an American context is a messy history whereby factual religious explanations were given to deep, persisting questions such as where humans originate from, how the world came to be as it is, and those explanations conflict with science.

Conflict claims make advancement more difficult and have steep costs. For example, Americans buy into the conflict model between science and religion and predictably, this leads to a host of bad consequences such as low scientific literacy and even stereotype threat and disengagement. As McPeters, Jong and Zuckerman point out, these attitudes can’t be generalized to a global context. In recent years, specifically with the pandemic we have become more conscious of how the cultural, organically grown scientific and religious institutions help us to deal with life and to answer persisting questions. Conflict claims push us into an unproductive culture war, and independence does not work either (for reasons mentioned above). Both conflict claims and independence claims are also false because they presuppose a chasm between religion and science that I believe to be artificial. Rather, the question becomes, at a societal and also personal level, of how we can use institutions and frameworks from science and religion to help us grapple both with factual and normative questions.

One comment

  1. What exactly is the conflict thesis? That science and religion inevitably conflict, or that particular scientific and religious beliefs are in conflict?

    I think once this is disambiguated, it’s unlikely all you say here can be correct at once:

    If the conflict thesis is the claim that they inevitably conflict, I’m not sure this is really the source of US Christian resistance to science. It seems like the genuine conflict between the specific creationist religious beliefs of many US Christians and the scientific theory of evolution would be enough to generate a fair amount of distrust on its own. After all it’s natural to think ‘if scientists are wrong about evolution, when they’re so certain of it, what else are they wrong about?”Furthermore, presumably what people care about is not whether science is consistent with some beliefs or other that count as religious, but whether it is consistent with their own religious beliefs. So it seems like even if US Christians gave up on the idea that there was an inevitable conflict between science and religion, they’re still not going to have the warmest feelings towards sciencs if they think its in conflict with their religion.

    On the other hand if the conflict thesis is just that, as a matter of fact, you often get conflicts between particular scientific theories and religious beliefs, it seems like you yourself endorse the conflict thesis. After all, you believe in the scientific accounts of the age and origin of the Earth and the universe and of the origin of species which conflict with the accounts given by many religions not just (some versions of Christianity). And I doubt those are the only beliefs you have that are scientific in origin and conflict with some religious claims.

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