Nonoverlapping Magisteria and Extremism

My university has been hosting panel discussions on science, religion, and teaching. I missed the first installment, which consisted of faculty members from science and humanities departments and a local clergyman. The second discussion was led by four students from a course cross listed in Science and Technology Studies and Philosophy. The topic of this discussion was teaching science and religion, but the discussion often strayed to the intersection of science and religion in general. It would have been nice if they stayed on topic. I, however, can’t hold much against them, as I once took a class on dynamic modeling and turned in a final project that consisted of a stochastic model (it’s hard to come up with a dynamic model for an evolutionary genetics system, ok!).

The four students all pretty much embraced Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of nonoverlapping magisteria, without calling it so much. They discussed topics ranging from religious support for environmental conservation to faith in science. I’ll touch a bit on those two, but there was one concept that really struck me. One of the panelists painted a picture of extremists on both sides of the science/religion divide, with a neutral group in the middle. This didn’t seem very fair.

Conservation and Religion

The panel began with a presentation on religion and ecology, although it really sounded like a rehashing of E.O. Wilson’s push to mobilize American Christians to join the conservation movement. There was not a mention of Wilson, and the talk consisted mostly of a haphazard collection of quotes from various religious leaders. What stood out to me was the way the student seemed to equate ecology and environmentalist/conservation. He used the term “ecology”, but discussed environmental conservation.

Ecology and environmentalism are closely related; environmentalism depends on ecological research in making conservation decision. Environmental conservation is, in essence, applied ecology. We must make a distinction, however, between science and technology. Science generates knowledge through study of the natural world using empirical observation, experimentation, and modeling. Technology, on the other hand, is the application of that knowledge. I wonder if we can distinguish the conflict between science and religion from that between technology and religion.

Faith in Science

One of the presenters argued that science and religion share a common basis in faith. I’ll take it as a given that religion is based on faith, but here’s how she defined faith in science: scientists have faith in the scientific process; they have faith in the academic integrity of their colleagues; and the public has faith that the scientists are reporting their results accurately.

That makes science and religion sound like one in the same. But equating these two versions of “faith” represents a fallacy that resembles a straw man attack on science. The faith in science lies in the process, whereas the religious have faith in a particular body of knowledge. Scientists make certain assumptions about the scientific methods they employ to study the natural world. But the body of knowledge developed by scientists is based on evidence, not faith.

Scientific Extremism

But here’s the real kicker: one of the panelists argued that the apparent conflict between science and religion is really a conflict between the extremists on both sides — the “neutral” people in the middle are mere victims in the crossfire. The scientific extremists advocate an anti-religion position, and the religious extremists are anti-science. This sounds a bit like the debate that was going on around here between the Neville Chamberlain appeasers and the religion bashers. But is the label “extremist” really appropriate?

The religious extremists attack science by undermining science education, advocating unsound government policy, and use religion to influence science funding. Attacks on the teaching of evolution lead to students receiving a sub par science education. Religious based abstinence only sex education means people receive misinformation regarding the efficacy of birth control and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Denying research areas funding because they conflict with particular religious beliefs impedes the scientific process. And this doesn’t even include attacks by religious extremists on areas outside the realm of science, such as people strapping bombs to their chests or flying planes into buildings.

What’s the worst that the scientific extremists have done? I asked the panelist for some examples, and she mentioned Thomas Huxley. I guess that means we can consider Richard Dawkins a scientific extremist. What do Dawkins and other scientific extremists do? They write books. They give talks. They question religion and advocate an atheist position. But are they actively undermining religion? They’re not preventing anyone from practicing their religion. They’re not legislating away religion. And they’re definitely not as destructive as the worst of the religious extremists.

The worst thing we can say about the scientific extremists is that they may interfere with our attempts to defend science education. Some people argue that Dawkins may scare religious fence sitters away from a pro-science position. So the worst they can do is decrease the amount of science advocates. But there is not tangible evidence of scientific extremists attacking religion in the same manner that the anti-science religious extremists attack science.

This brings us to the importance of framing. The student who presented the case for extremists on both sides appeared to be pro-science. When the supporters of science education and intelligent science policy create a false dichotomy between religious extremists and science extremists, our side is not well served. When a person, such as Dawkins or our local stark raving made atheist (PZ Myers), criticize religion, this should be taken as a separate issue from defending science education. The, so-called, science extremists grant everyone the right to practice their religion; they just find it a bit silly.

But the anti-religion crowd doesn’t get off so easy either. They should be allowed to share their message with the world; anything else would be censorship. They should not, however, label some pro-science groups as somewhat anti-science. It’s simply not acceptable to undermine their efforts in defending science. Make fun of them for their sky fairy, but don’t claim they are anti-science.


  1. #1 Todd O.
    December 8, 2006

    The biggest problem here, at least as I see it, is that the “separate magesteria” argument is specious in the first place. Science and religion are making truth claims about the same things. This boils down to a methodological problem: is the scientific method of ascertaining a particular truth superior to the religious method of ascertaining a parallel truth? I understand why people are tempted to see them as separate, so that both can exist in peace and harmony. But the problem is that as long as religion claims to be a description of natural, literal, material realities, they will be in conflict.

    I do believe, however, that religion can be seen as one of the Humanities (like art and literature), those areas where human beings attempt to figure out what their lives and experiences mean. Even when science can inspire a sense of awe (for example, the more I read about evolution, the more overwhelmed I am with how closely related I am to every living thing on this planet), to explain that sense of awe and give it meaning requires a forray into humanities (e.g., philosophy). Unfortunately, most religionists around the world continue to accept their religions not as art or literature, but as a description of reality and the natural world. As long as those kinds of truth claims come from religion, they will be in conflict.

    Finally, I do have to ask why everyone is so upset about the conflict in the first place. Isn’t it normal and good that competing truth claims be in conflict in public so that we can vet them? It might make people uncomfortable and it might hurt some feelings, but we should just get a backbone. This is a democracy and making and defending arguments is the very heart of what our society should be.

  2. #2 nerdwithabow
    December 8, 2006

    “Finally, I do have to ask why everyone is so upset about the conflict in the first place.”

    Mostly, I think, because of the efforts to get the religious ideas into science classrooms disguised as “science”.

  3. #3 writerdd
    December 8, 2006

    “What stood out to me was the way the student seemed to equate ecology and environmentalist/conservation. He used the term “ecology”, but discussed environmental conservation.”

    That’s so 1970s!

  4. #4 Simon G.
    December 8, 2006

    our local stark raving made atheist (PZ Myers)

    PZM’s in the mob now? That explains a lot!

    (sorry – I know that making fun of typos is lame, but I couldn’t resist).