Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?

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Whether science and religion are compatible has been a debate for some time (probably ever since modern science got rolling).  Anyone who has written a book, been a part of a debate, or given lectures on the subject of science, religion, or philosophy has taken a stand on the issue.  There are many differing views.  Obviously, it's impossible to cover it all in one blog post.  This will serve only as a very cursory - and rather meandering - introduction.

Stephen Jay Gould - the famous paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and all around extremely smart person - put forth his own ideas about fifteen years ago.  He believed that science and religion were two completely different realms.  Science deals with empirical facts, and theories explaining those facts, and religion deals with ultimate meaning and value.  They each have their legitimate place, but there is no interaction between the two.  They are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).

In some ways this type of position makes sense.  For one, it makes everything neat and tidy.  For another, there are clearly areas where there really is no overlap.  But I have to agree with Richard Dawkins (of all people!) in his criticism of Gould's view.  He points out the issue of miracles; they are definitely empirical claims, made in order to establish the existence and/or authority of a higher power.  In a debate with the Christian philosopher of science John Lennox, Dawkins argues that even though the miracles recorded in the gospels are in practice impossible to confirm or debunk, they are in theory scientific claims.  If DNA evidence were discovered that could somehow verify that Jesus did not have a biological father, that would be a scientific claim.1

Where I differ from Dawkins is that he believes science and religion are in direct conflict (and that of course religion is to be thrown out).  This is a fairly popular view today among the general populous and among those like Dawkins who may be an expert in one or more fields of science but a layman - and often a novice - in other areas (such as religion and philosophy).  However, this view is not very popular among the scholarly.  For example,
The conflict thesis, at least in its simple form, is now widely perceived as a wholly inadequate intellectual framework within which to construct a sensible and realistic historiography of Western science.2
This view is often bolstered by various stories of the church persecuting the early scientists; most of these stories have since been discredited, but they remain almost intractably popular.  That being said, there indeed was quite a lot of resistance from the Catholic Church to the ideas presented by Galileo, Copernicus, and others.

There is, almost needless to say, the view that science and religion are in direct conflict, but it is science that should be thrown out.  This is the view of those on the outer fringes of creationism.3

Opposing both Dawkins and the extreme Creationists is the view that science and religion are not in conflict, and in fact compatible.  This is a view that is becoming increasingly popular in the Christian community, though there is still resistance from some conservative circles.  There is also the new twist, added by Alvin Plantinga, who maintains that not only are science and religion compatible, it is science and naturalism that are in conflict.  So, there are three basic positions (though there are differing views within each of these positions): science and religion don't overlap, science and religion conflict, and science and religion are compatible.

The Plot Thickens...

Fleshing out each of these views and trying to determine which is the right one is where things get fairly complex.  This discussion has been going on for centuries, and while today it is framed in terms of modern science, it even predates the Enlightenment, going back to the Greco-Roman period.

Needless to say, much of the discussion about the relationship between science and religion over the past few centuries has not been about religion in general, but about Christianity specifically.  That isn't to say the discussion hasn't taken place with other religions, but it is pretty clear why Christianity is the religion most often dissected.  It is out of a largely-Christian Europe that science sprung.  And many - perhaps even most - of the early scientists were devout Christians, often priests themselves.  It's worth remembering, however, that the answers to the questions "Are science and religion compatible?" and "Are science and religion x compatible?" may be different.

Muddying the waters are issues like the fables of scientists being persecuted, and the fact that religion really does affect what scientific theories are accepted or rejected.  Evolutionary theory is rejected by a large - and almost entirely Christian - chunk of the United States citizenry.  Evangelicalism has no qualms with Newtonian physics, the rudiments of chemistry, or the fact that the earth is not the center of the solar system, but evolution is another matter entirely.  It's not just that evolution is false; it's that scientists know it's false, but have formed a conspiracy in evolutionary theory to steer us all into godlessness.  Growing up, I remember learning that Big Bang theory and evolution were both concocted in order to destroy Christianity.  There is now somewhat less resistance to Big Bang theory, but the debate about evolution rages on in conservative Christian circles.  And while evolutionary theory has been accepted by many moderate-to-liberal denominations, the extent to which the theory should affect theology - if at all - remains an issue of vigorous discussion.

To make matters worse, it's not as if the lines are clearly drawn among people; we don't have scientists on one side and theologians on the other.  In his book The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, Ronald Numbers recounts all the complexities of the issues and motivations that came to a head in the 1981 Arkansas trial (McLean v. Arkansas), and the battle lines that were drawn are bewildering.  If I may quote Numbers at length,
The Arkansas trial also shattered myths about the so-called warfare between science and religion.  As Judge Overton pointed out in his opinion, the plaintiffs (who opposed the teaching of creation science) included "the resident Arkansas Bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and African Methodist Eposcopal Churches, the principal official of the Presbyterian churches in Arkansas, and other United Methodist, Southern Baptist and Presbyterian clergy," and various Jewish organizations.  Joining them were one high-school biology teacher and one scientific society, the National Association of Biology Teachers.  No religious groups appeared on the list of defendants.  Testifying at the trial against creationism, in addition to four scientists and various other experts, were a Methodist bishop, a Catholic priest, a Protestant theologian, and an evangelical church historian.  In contrast, most of the witnesses for the defense (supporting creation science) were well-credentialed, if not all well-known, scientists.  Given the surprising composition of the two sides, the theologian-participant Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) characterized the controversy as involving "two bizarre, unaccustomed and visibly uneasy partnerships: on the one side a union of what we might call elite religion and elite science, and on the other side a union of 'popular' (fundamentalist) religion with 'popular science.'"  There may have been conflict in Little Rock, but it scarcely conformed to any simplistic science-versus-religion formula.4

And Thickens...

But there are even difficulties fundamental to the discussion.  For example, what the heck is science, anyways?  If you read my post on science "vs." philosophy, you'll already know that defining what science is isn't exactly cut-and-dry.  The debate about what science is has raged for decades now, and there are fundamental disagreements about the underpinnings of science.  One issue is whether or not science presupposes methodological naturalism.  That is, the view that in doing science, one should only posit natural causes and events as explanation.  In this sense science is theologically neutral, and fits most comfortably with Gould's NOMA principle.  But is methodological naturalism reasonable?  The fine-tuning of the universe has eluded any sort of natural explanation up to this point; must we reject any teleological explanation out of hand?

Not only is precisely defining "science" difficult, but figuring out where it starts and ends - or demarcating - is also a matter of debate.  Returning to Arkansas, the trial was presided over by Judge William R. Overton.  Given the complexities of the issues, the philosopher of science Michael Ruse "instructed the judge on the Popperian method of separating science from nonscience."  Following the trial, however, Larry Laudan - a fellow philosopher of science - was highly critical of Ruse "for failing to disclose the vehement disagreements among experts regarding scientific boundaries in general and Popper's lines in particular."5  There are also specific instances in scientific study where the issue of demarcation runs into religion.6

Another issue is determining the extent to which a religion makes scientific claims.  Certainly claims of the miraculous are in some sense empirical claims, but to what extent should the creation stories of various religions be treated as scientific treatises?  Should other stories - like the Flood - be taken at face value, or should they be considered fables conceived to make a theological point?  Many theists believe that God's existence provides a ready answer for where the universe came from, where life came from, and how life came to be as it is now, and in this sense theism has an advantage over science simpliciter, which struggles to come up with explanations for those issues.  While this certainly gives one a solid metaphysical foundation to answer those questions, I sympathize with Thomas Nagel, who states,
...[T]he disadvantage of theism as an answer to the desire for comprehensive understanding is not that it offers no explanations but that it does not do so in the form of a comprehensive account of the natural order.  Theism pushes the quest for intelligibility outside the world.  If God exists, he is not part of the natural order but a free agent not governed by natural laws.  He may act partly by creating a natural order, but whatever he does directly cannot be part of the order.
...[Theistic understanding] would not be the kind of understanding that explains how beings like us fit into the world.  The kind of intelligibility that would still be missing is intelligibility of the natural order itself--intelligibility from within.7
To put it simply, the universe coming into existence, biogenesis, and biodiversity all make sense under theism.  But simply saying "God did it" does not give us any sort of understanding of how God did it; it leaves our understanding of the natural world incomplete.  It is possible that God used natural processes to being these things about, and that means they are in principle things that can be discovered by science.

Finally, where exactly does religion end?  Does it end?  In other words, can a religious person assume methodological naturalism or something like it when doing scientific study (provided the difficulties mentioned above can be solved satisfactorily), or should their religious views inform the way they even go about doing science?

These are all vexing issues, and no consensus has been formed on any of them.  So, the answer to the question, "Are science and religion compatible?", the answer is that it's difficult to say.  Just what is science, and what are its bounds?  What scientific claims does religion x make, if any at all?  And how far should the reach of religion go?  And which religion is the closest to the truth??

As you may already suspect, I support the view that science and religion - or at least Christianity - are on the whole compatible.  My belief is that God exists and created the universe, and that He created the natural world not only to enjoy and live in but to be discovered.  And science is our best tool in pursuit of that discovery.  Further, many of the assumptions necessary for science (e.g. that the universe is intelligible and orderly) are inexplicable under certain metaphysical views, but find a solid foundation in theism.  Granted, there are some theories and hypotheses considered science I take issue with, and I am still working through some points of biblical hermeneutics. But on the whole I am confident Christianity and science that is not laden with metaphysical garbage are in concord.  There is plenty more to say about my own position than that, but I will wait to expound upon it in future posts.  My goal in this post was simply to show that the relation between science and religion is complex, and often difficult to delineate.

1.  Dawkins mentions this both in The God Delusion and his debate with John Lennox
2.  Ferngren, Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, p. 7
3.  I say this because most creationists have no objections to science in and of itself, or at least some of science
4.  Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, pp. 278-279
5.  Ibid., p. 277
6.  Plantinga has a paper with three such examples, and also discusses the difficulties of methodological naturalism.  Here is Part 2 of the paper as well.
7.  Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, pp. 25-26
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