There has been a bit of a resurgence of science versus religion posts and chatter in various forums* that I inhabit when I’m not working lately. It occurred to me that it might be time to do one of my sermons.
There are basically two popular views of the relation between science and religion. One is the All-Or-Nothing view: science is either entirely subsumed under religion, or totally excluded from it. The other is the view that each has their own special role – Stephen Gould called it the Non-Overlapping Magisterial Authority (NOMA) view. Both are, in my opinion, quite wrong, both factually/historically, and prescriptively.
Science is a process undertaken by human beings. Religion is also a process undertaken by human beings. They are conceptually distinct, but human beings are not driven by conceptual niceties. Rather than seeing religion and science as isolated endeavours, or as the same thing, it is best to expect that science and religion will have their own domains but that these domains will occasionally overlap. As I like to say it, religion and science jostle each others’ elbows for space on the dancing floor of human activities.
Often, religion is used as an inspiration for some scientific goals, or even for results. It is fair to say that the linear notion of time now employed by cosmology would not have been widely adopted in western thought if not for the Christian eschatological tradition. But this doesn’t immediately license the other claim that some religious want to make: that science would not have occurred if not for theism. I think this is just wrong. Some science depended on prior religious views, but a whole lot depended even more on pre-theist views like those of Aristotle, or of Plato, or the neo-Platonists, or the classical Empiricists. And in any case, there’s a fallacy lurking here – the Genetic Fallacy.
According to the Genetic Fallacy, the worth of something is its origin, not its present utility or function. Think of those who talk about “drug money” being somehow morally tainted and therefore of no use for, say, feeding the poor. Likewise, the appeal to authority, especially long dead authorities like the authors of religious texts, is a kind of genetic fallacy. They were right or they were wrong, and it doesn’t really matter how high an esteem we now hold them in, nor how low.
So the idea that religion has to be right, or supported, or included, because some aspects of present science have a history that (necessarily, given our cultural history) includes theism, is a fallacy. If an idea came from Satan by FedEx, and worked in science, it would nevertheless be true or justified in science.
In the 18th and later the 19th centuries, there was an increasing move to distance the control and censoring of science from the religious powers-that-be. An example of this is Richard Owen, a precursor to Darwin. Owen was moved by the increasing evidence of biological variety to suggest that the morphology of animals evolved over time. This was seen as politically radical by the church authorities to whom he owed his position at the Royal College of Surgeons, and his Cambridge contacts, and contrary to religion (the two views being more or less the same at the time). He was therefore persuaded to relinquish the idea.
Now, when Darwin firmly established the view that species evolved, Owen tried, understandably, to garner some of the credit for himself, to no avail, and an anonymous review of the Origin in the Edinburgh Review by him praised his own genius and denigrated Darwin’s novelty. Had religion remained agnostic about the history of living things at the time, maybe we’d now be praising or attacking Owenism. Instead he became an implacable opponent of Thomas Huxley and therefore of the “Darwinians”.
Religion has often tried to constrain science, and always will. Conclusions that do not cohere nicely with some doctrine or suggest a consequence that is regarded as unpalatable will be attacked by largely scientifically ignorant religious authorities. Religious views that do not fit the consensus social opinions of those who are scientifically literate will be attacked as dangerous or foolish. The issue is not, therefore, whether science and religion are in conflict, for they always are to some extent. The issue is whether or not they are improperly affecting from without the development of their own traditions. Scientifically literate religious people will try to amend their own traditions from within; that is entirely appropriate in my view. And while it is every person’s right to disagree with this or that social view, I think that change of religious views in favour of a more liberal relationship between science and religion will not be achieved by critics from without those traditions. Atheists are too easy to caricature, by the religious, just as the religious believers are too easy to caricature by atheists. Instead attacking in the “name of science” any religion is simply going to harden resistance to the modern world.**
What I want to see is that religion tends to its own business and doesn’t use the secular structures and its majority of the populace to control the way science investigates, nor the conclusions it will reach. Reality is not orthodox. Likewise I would like to see that those who do science or promote it (as it surely should be, being the only successful epistemological innovation of the past 200,000 years) avoid trying to limit or denigrate the role of religion in a society. Religion is here to stay, and if we (whoever that eponymous “we” may be) insist on it going to get a reasonable society, we are in for many centuries of bitterness and disappointment. Science is here now and we should incorporate it into our society in a positive fashion, not a negative one.
So I will continue to defend the right of those with whom I disagree to believe what they like, and of those who do science to not be hedged about or attacked. There will be, as football fans like to call it here, a bit of biffo. Let’s make it constructive and fun rather than life or death.
* It’s an English word now, so it gets English plurals. Likewise platypuses, octopuses and viruses. So there.
** I really really really hate the term “modernity”, which gives a false impression that there is some monolithic worldview that opposes that which came before.