The contentious relation between science and religion is the topic of this, the penultimate post in the current series. Ever since science has gone mainstream, there have been futile attempts to erect a firewall between science and religion. Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church, not so much for saying the earth moved as for suggesting the church steer clear of scientific controversies. More recently, we have methodological naturalism (discussed in a previous post), a misidentification of why the supernatural is absent from science. Then there is the: science cannot answer the why question—but it can when it helps make better models (also discussed in a previous post). For example, why do beavers build dams? This can be answered by science. And there is the ever popular non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) of Stephen J. Gould (1941 – 2002). NOMA claims that “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: … The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”
The empirical realm covers not just what can be directly observed but what can be implied from what is observed. For example, quarks, and even something as well-known as electrons, are not directly observed but are implied to exist. That would also be true for citizens of the spirit or netherworld. If they exist, they presumably have observable effects. If they have no observable effect, does it matter if they exist or not? Similarly, a religion with no empirical content would be quite sterile, i.e. would prayer be meaningful if it had absolutely no observable effects?
Moral issues cannot be assigned purely to the religious sphere. The study of brain function impacts questions of free will and moral responsibility. Disease and brain injury can have very specific effects on behaviour, for example, a brain injury led to excessive swearing in one person. What about homosexuality? Is it biological or a lifestyle choice? Recent research has indicated a genetic component in homosexuality, thus mixing science with what some regard as a moral issue. Finally, what about when life begins and ends? Who decides who is dead and who is alive? And by what criteria? Scientific or religious? This has huge implications for when to remove life support. The bigger fight is over abortion and the question of when independent life begins. Is it when the sperm fertilizes the egg? That is a scientific concept developed with the use of the microscope. That simple definition has problems when there are identical twins where the proto-fetus splits in two much later than at conception. In the other direction, both the sperm and the egg can be considered independent life. After all, the sperm has the ability to leave the donor’s body and survive for a period of time. The arguments one hears regarding when independent life begins are frequently an ungodly combination of scientific and theological arguments.
In the end, there is only one reality, however we choose to study or approach it. Thus, any attempt to put a firewall between different approaches to reality will ultimately fail, be they based on science, religion, or philosophy. At least the various religious fundamentalists recognize this, but their solution would take us back to the dark ages by subjugating science to particular religious dogmas. However, it does not follow that religion and science have to be in conflict. Since there is so much variation in religions, some are and some are not in conflict with any particular model developed by science. Still, it should be a major concern for theology that something like religion has not arisen naturally from scientific investigations. While there are places God can hide in the models science produces, there is no place where He is made manifest. And it is not because He is excluded by fiat either (see the essay on methodological naturalism referenced above).
One should not make the same mistake as Andrew Dickson White (1832 –1918) in setting science and religion in perpetual hostility. He was a co-founder of Cornell University and its first president. He was also embittered by the opposition from the church to the establishment of Cornell as a secular institute. The result was the book: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896); a polemic against Christianity masquerading as a scholarly publication. This book, along with History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper (1811 – 1882), introduced the conflict thesis regarding the relation between science and religion and said it is perpetual hostility. Against that, we note Newton, Galileo, and Kepler were all very religious and much science was done by clergymen in nineteenth century England. White’s book, in particular, has many problems. One is that the very opposition to change is cast as science versus religion rather than recognizing a lot of it as simple resistance to change. Even science is not immune to that—witness the fifty year delay in the acceptance of continental drift. The historical interplay between science and religion is now recognized to be very complex with them sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord, and most commonly, indifferent.
If we take a step back from the results of science and its relation to particular religious dogmas, and look instead at the relation between the scientific method and theology, we see a different picture. Like science and western philosophy, science and theology represent competing paradigms for the nature of knowledge. Science is based on observation and observationally constrained models; Western philosophy on rational arguments; while theology is based more on spirituality, divine revelation, and spiritual insight. This is, in many ways, a more serious conflict than between scientific results and particular religions. Particular religions can change, and frequently have changed, in response to new scientific orthodoxy, but it is much more difficult to change one’s conceptual framework or paradigm. Also, as Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) and Paul Feyerabend (1924 – 1994) pointed out, different paradigms tend to be incommensurate. They provide different frameworks that make communication difficult. They also have conflicting methods for deciding questions, making cross-paradigm conflict resolution difficult, if not impossible. Hence, there will be tension between science and theology forever, with neither dominating.
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 NLP in the notation of effective field theorists.