Much of the discussion I see in the Atheosphere revolves around the conflict between science and religion. IS there a conflict? IS there a way to reconcile the two? Do science and religion attempt to describe the same things, or are they part of two nonoverlapping magesteria (NOMA) as Stephen Jay Gould postulated in his book, Rocks of Ages? Does science deal with the natural world, and religion the supernatural, and never the twain shall meet?
When I first read the Gould book years ago, I didn’t think I was an atheist, and I was open to the possibilities that he was right. There was a place for religion, and there certainly was a place for science, and they really didn’t conflict with each other, unless one went out of one’s way to create a conflict. They could exist peacefully, side by side, I thought, as long as everybody stopped getting their dander up, looking for a fight. If religion could just stick to the supernatural plane, and science to the natural, why should anyone care?
As I matured into my current atheism, however, I began to see why that wouldn’t work. First, as an atheist, I realized that there really was no supernatural sphere for religion to stick to. The natural world, the natural universe is all there is; or at least there is no evidence for a supernatural world. Someone a long time ago thought there was, and that thought seems to have been perpetuated into the present, but a close look at the genesis of that thought, and the evidence to support it, indicates fairly convincingly, at least to me, that the original notion of the supernatural was mistaken.
Second, if there is no supernatural plane, then exactly what is religion sticking its nose into? The answer, of course, is the natural world. In the guise of spirituality, religion fabricates all manner of pronouncements about the natural world. It coats it with a thin veneer of supernaturalism, but rub lightly and you’ll find that it’s just smoke and mirrors. Ignore the man behind the curtain at your risk, because he’s the one manipulating the knobs and levers in order to give the appearance of the great and powerful Oz. Those knobs and those levers are as real as you and me, and Oz is an illusion.
Look at the big one. Immortality. Religion says that when we die, we really don’t, we just go somewhere else; to a better place where all of the people we loved in this life will join us, and we them, in the next. And we’ll all congregate with god, for eternity, in an place of immense joy and bliss. It sounds so wonderful, but in reality what religion is promising is the negation of a natural phenomenon – death. Death, we know, is a reality. The promise of immortality, so far, is nothing but words.
Look at another “big’ example. Creation. Religion tells us that god created us, the Earth and the entire universe, and not just for the fun of it, but specifically for us. To provide a home for humankind, a place where we can give glory to our creator for putting us here. Sure, there’s an element of magic and supernatural woo-woo in this creation story, with the entire process occurring on six successive days, in a manner that can only be described as unbelievable, but at its heart the claim of creation is one that steps on the toes of science. We live here now, in this natural world. Our ancestors did too. Creation of our physical reality can only be explained by natural science, because that is the realm of science. Religion, by making claims about our natural genesis, fails to stay within the bounds of its Gouldian magesterium. It’s cleverly overlapping the line by making a claim about the natural world.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a conflict between the two Rocks of Ages – science and religion. It is very difficult to reconcile the two. That’s a no-brainer, however. Clearly, you can’t believe that science explains the natural world, has in past, does so in the present, and will continue to do so in the future, while at the same time hold the contradictory belief that magic had something to do with it. It is one or the other. You might just as well believe that the Three Stooges were real, and that they were comedic actors portraying fictional nincompoops on screen, both at the same time.
Here’s a recent article that implicitly, at least, acknowledges the fact that science and religion are incompatible, although that’s not the intent. It is written by a theologian (an academic non-discipline if ever there was one), James Emery White, Professor of Theology and Culture, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Senior Pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. In it he comments on the recent publication by the National Academy of Sciences of a book supporting the theory of evolution, called “Science, Evolution and Creationism“, which was purportedly produced to help diffuse the recent tension between science and creationism, especially as manifested in the Dover Debacle.
Dr. White criticizes the booklet, not, as you might expect, because it supports evolution (he’s sees evolution as the method god used to create us), but because it trivializes religion, and especially faith, to that of one’s favorite color, or piece of music. As he says:
There is the experience which can be validated as fact (science), and there is the experience that can only be embraced in faith (religion). So believe what you want about God – that is your prerogative – just don’t treat it like you would a scientific reality.
To him, faith is far more important to understanding reality. He starts to stumble onto some truths, however:
…there is more at hand here than science doing its job, and knowing its limitations in regard to matters of faith. It is about limiting what religion can say about science. The working idea is that we can maintain our religious faith and our scientific discoveries not by seeing both as operating in the realm of public truth – to be jointly engaged and interpreted accordingly – but by seeing them as separate categories altogether that should never be allowed to intertwine. If you wish to believe in God, fine; just don’t posit that this God actually exists as Creator, or that He could actually be pulled out to explain anything.
He’s that close, yet he’s so far! But he doesn’t take that logical step, instead falling back on typical Christian hubris. The light bulb over his head just isn’t getting any juice.
At issue here is the larger cultural current of privatization. …privatization is the process by which a chasm is created between the public and the private spheres of life, and spiritual things are increasingly placed within the private arena. So when it comes to things like business, politics, or even marriage and the home, personal faith is bracketed off. The process of privatization, left unchecked, makes the Christian faith a matter of personal preference, trivialized to the realm of taste or opinion. Yet faith does not simply have a new home in our private lives; it is no longer accepted outside of that sphere. More than showing poor form, talk of faith has been banished from the wider public agenda.
As it should be. We’ve had eight years of one man’s faith being forced onto the public agenda. Critical thinking, logic and science have been placed on the back burner. But I digress.
C’mon, click on the light bulb! It’s time to realize that magic, superstition, and indeed, faith has no place in the public agenda. We live in the real world, not a fantasy one.
No, science and religion are encouraged to co-exist…as long as religion knows its place.
Which is no place at all.