Science and Religion: The Clash of Ideals

In my previous post I argued that science and religion still can and do clash, especially concerning the implications of evolutionary theory and neuroscience. Specifically, an account of human origins that views Homo sapiens, like every other species, as the highly improbable end-product of a very long series of contingencies and accidents, cannot rest easily with worldviews in which humanity is an essential element if not the centerpiece of creation. Further, many if not most religions require that there is a spiritual element or essence that constitutes the true human self, a soul or mind that purportedly survives bodily death and confers special abilities like libertarian freedom. Yet neuroscience, a rapidly growing and successful research program—or cluster of research programs—finds no evidence for incorporeal souls and assumes as a regulative idea that there are none and that brains are sufficient for all mental functions. Science cannot prove that the human species was not intended or that souls do not exist, but it renders such suppositions gratuitous and pointless.

Perhaps, though, the greatest potential conflict between religion and science is epistemological. It is easy to slip into facile and misleading thinking on this point. Atheists all too often assume that religious belief is a product of faith, which they then helpfully characterize as an excrescence of irrationality, something like Ambrose Bierce’s definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Surely, anybody who believes propositions, especially those of the deepest personal significance, on the basis of faith so defined is a fool and anyone who defends such belief is dishonest.

Faith may be more reasonably depicted, as John Hick does in An Interpretation of Religion, as an exercise of interpretive freedom. Hick argues that the universe may reasonably be construed in either a naturalistic or non-naturalist manner; the universe is religiously “ambiguous” he says. Further, all acts of cognition, even the most spontaneous and mundane, involve an interpretive element; we see cats as cats, not as, some empiricist philosophers have had it, as sets of sense data from which we may infer cats. At the mundane level, most of our interpretations are determined for us. We cannot see cats as anything but cats. At other levels we enjoy a considerable degree of interpretive freedom that permits us to regard things as under one aspect or another without being compelled into such an interpretation. Thus, says Hick, those who have found their “depth” experiences in religious contexts, or who have found deep satisfactions in activities such as worship or prayer may reasonably exercise their interpretive freedom to see the world as “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins) and themselves as living in the presence of the divine.

Whatever you think of Hick’s view, surely it is not simply knuckleheaded. Faith is not believing anything you damn well please and to hell with the evidence. In my view, Hick makes an excellent case for the reasonableness of faith as a sort of global openness to the transcendent. Where I think his account of faith fails is with respect to the particular claims of particular religions. Hick rejects those particular claims and advocates a religious pluralism that sees the world’s great religious traditions as equally valid approaches to the transcendent. Unquestionably, though, many religious people will find such pluralism thin and jejune, lacking in the sort of definiteness and “blessed assurance” that they crave and which traditional, particularist creeds promised. Compared to the robust claims of, say, Roman Catholicism, Hick’s pluralism will seem to be a watery gruel when people crave spiritual red meat. In non-gastronomic terms, Believers desire specific assurances that it is hard to see how Hick’s pluralism can provide or that his idea of faith can accommodate. It would be a real stretch Hick’s idea of interpretive freedom to say that it encompassed the swallowing whole of the Athanasian Creed.

When, therefore, we move from a general, vague claim about a transcendent dimension of reality to the particular creedal claims of religion, the epistemological chasm between science and religion begins to open. Science and religion both represent attempts by human beings to come to terms with the confusing and often frightening universe that we encounter. Scientific explanations and religious explanations are based on very different means of verification. Science poses bold hypotheses and subjects those hypotheses to the most exacting tests we can impose upon them. Those hypotheses that survive this trial by fire are never, or hardly ever, taken as proven, but are tentatively accepted as confirmed to a greater or lesser degree and assumed for practical purposes. Some scientific claims, such as the claim that things are made of atoms, are so well confirmed, and so fundamental to our entire body of scientific beliefs, that it is hard to imagine anything that could overturn that claim. Nevertheless, the scientific ideal is to give up our theories, however deeply entrenched they are, once that they are shown unquestionably to be at variance with data.

Religion, on the other hand, inevitably seeks absolute truth and seeks to know it absolutely. Religion, by its nature deals with ultimate concern, that which is of the highest possible importance. Clearly, people crave certainty when the issue is of the highest importance. Historical or scientific investigation can never impart the degree of certainty demanded for knowledge of The Absolute. Hence, to receive the degree of assurance that is craved, there must be a leap of faith, a commitment beyond the evidence, an affirmation of one’s whole being as belonging to a purported Truth that cannot be proven. Religious commitment cannot be tentative or contingent; it demands through-and-through dedication of one’s whole being, something much deeper than Hick’s exercise of interpretive freedom. The religious ideal is not to hold on to hypotheses only so long as they pass our empirical tests, but to discover a Truth to which we can adhere forever as our most precious possession. The real conflict between faith and reason is therefore not that faith is opposed to reason in some simplistic way. Faith is not believing whatever you like, in defiance of reason, if need be. Faith simply demands more than reason can possibly deliver.

It appears to me, then, that there is indeed an unbridgeable chasm between the epistemological ideals of natural science and those of creedal religion. The former seeks knowledge that, however robustly confirmed, cannot become sacrosanct and invulnerable. The pride of science is how even fundamental theories and assumptions can be changed when contrary facts become unassailable. In just the past decade or so, astrophysicists have had to accept the existence of a mysterious “dark energy” force when they found, wholly contrary to all prior expectation, that the universe at cosmological distances is not only expanding, but that the expansion is accelerating. Can you think of any religion that likewise makes is basic claims and assumptions similarly revisable? Is the oneness of God, the divinity of Christ, or Mohammad’s status as The Prophet revisable for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, respectively? They cannot be. You simply cannot have a religion whose basic affirmations are precarious in the way that scientific theories must be. The upshot is that the relation between science and religion need not be one of eternal warfare. In many circumstances, a modus vivendi will be found. There may even be times of mutually beneficial interaction. But when basic ideals are irreconcilable, a potential for conflict cannot be banished.