Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

He Works in Magisterious Ways

Posted: November 3, 2009 by Tim Barclay in Religion, Science
Tags: , ,

One area in which the so-called “new atheists” differ from what I can only assume are called “old atheists” is in their views on the possibility of harmonious co-existence between religion and science. Dawkins, Hitchens and Myers, while acknowledging that religious people can understand science and scientists can believe in God, see religious faith as either contradictory or, at worst, obstructive to good science. However, most moderate religious people, and a good number of atheists and agnostics, see no incompatibility between the two systems.

The most famous defence of the accomodationist position was made by Stephen Jay Gould in his definition of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria“. Science is the realm of the observable, the empirical and the testable, he claimed; religion is the domain of that which is beyond human experience. Many people, in my experience, sum this position up in something like the statement that science deals with the ‘how’ while religion deals with the ‘why’ (like answer ‘B’ on this page); scientists may be able to tell us how the Earth came to be formed and how life evolved on it, but it is to the clergy that questions about the meaning of that life ought to be addressed.

I disagree. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ defence is an easy maxim to rattle off in lieu of an agrument, but does it really mean anything at all? Does science helpfully limit itself to the dry mechanistic explanations? And does religion respectfully keep clear of them, only to shuffle out when someone asks a more metaphysical question? Of course not.

The Bible is full of explanations of how things work and how things happened – from the beginning of the Earth to its end. How many of these explanations you may wish to write off as poetically pregnant metaphors will be decided by the particular strain of the religion you most identify with. However, with even the most modern and woolly tea-and-biscuit fuelled reading of the Bible, it is a stretch to imply that the Good Book completely steers clear of physical and biological explanations or politely holds its tongue when any other ‘how’ question is raised.

Similarly, it is only a uselessly simplistic characterisation that would suggest that science limits itself to the ‘how’ questions. The rapidly evolving and endlessly enlightening fields of psychology, neurology and genetics have given us myriad insights into ‘why’ questions that mere decades ago would have been left entirely to theologians and philosophers. In fact science is even able to study the ‘why’ of religion itself (search Pubmed for ‘religion’ and ‘brain’ for examples).

Of course it is possible for scientists to be religious or for religious people to believe in evolution or the big bang. However, this is not proof that they are mutually compatible worldviews so much as further evidence of humans’ ability to hold multiple incongruous viewpoints while coping with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

The cornerstone of science is scepticism of that for which there is no evidence. This is the reason scientists make hypotheses based on observations and then try to test those hypotheses to see whether they hold true after exhaustive efforts to falsify them. Any christian scientist (by which I mean a scientist who is religious, not a follower of Mary Baker Eddy) must either admit that they hold some parts of their life out of reach of the light of their scientific scepticism or tie themselves up in confusing knots of attempted justification and theological gymnastics.

The cornerstone of religion is faith in that for which there is no evidence, and it is for this reason that I see it as fundamentally incompatible with science. A christian (or muslim or jew etc.) who wishes to maintain their faith must approach certain questions without the genuine openmindedness that ideal science calls for.

Once again, I acknowledge that some scientists are religious and some religious people are scientists and I do not think it would be helpful to force polarisation on such people and make them choose one or the other. However, both worldviews cannot be held in one mind without the necessary compromise of one or both.

The religious scientist must protect his faith from the requisite questioning tools of his trade. The scientifically-literate believer must moderate the will, power and scope of their god so as not to to tread on the toes of what rational discovery has given us. Inconvenient as it may be, these are two almost entirely overlapping magisteria, both of which claim powers of explanation and enlightenment.