Science and Religion: Four Models

I recently spoke at Christ the King Lutheran Church near the Rice University Campus. The topic was “Science and Religion.” This, of course, is a very big topic. How to deal with it in a single short presentation? I think the first thing to do is to some models for simplifying the multifarious complexities here. Also, by “religion” I will mean “monotheistic religion.” I offer the following four models:

1) Warfare: This is the view given classic expression by T.H. Huxley (paraphrasing): “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every new science like the serpents strangled by the infant Hercules.” In other words, science and religion, in the current jargon, are a “zero sum game,” with each advancing only at the expense of the other. Science and religion are simply incompatible. They make contradictory claims, so that you must accept one or the other, with no possible compromise or middle ground. For instance, religion says that the earth is young and that all species were created in the six days mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The facts of geology and evolutionary science, on the other hand, flatly contradict such claims, and provide overwhelming evidence for the scientific rather than the religious claims. It follows that religion can only play an obscurantist role, blocking scientific progress, and, therefore, all rational people will unceremoniously give religion the boot. Science wins, and religion goes into the “superstition” bin.

The warfare view was, and is, favored by those with a really big ax to grind against religion, such as some of the so-called “new” atheists. It has the appeal enjoyed by all simplistic reductions of complex issues. No need to fret over details, subtleties, or nuance. Science good; religion bad. Of course, the Warfare model is based on a stereotype that reduces religion to its narrowest, most dogmatic, and most fundamentalist expressions. As scholars have shown at length, even Darwin’s Origin was received by religious thinkers with reactions ranging from horrified condemnation to enthusiastic acceptance. Darwin’s strongest supporter in the U.S. was Asa Gray, Professor of Botany at Harvard, and a Christian of the Congregationalist denomination. Yes, there are regions of the U.S. where hard-core fundamentalists are so loud and aggressive that one might be excused for mistaking these views for the views of religious people in general. However, in an age of extreme polarization, it is essential for rational people to resist the urge to judge any group by its worst representatives.

2) Cooperation. This is the view opposite to the Warfare model. It sees religion as supporting science and science as supporting religion. In the jargon, the relation is win-win, not a zero-sum game. On this view, religion has historically supported science by offering assurance that the universe is rationally designed and thus is amenable to inquiry by the human mind. A rational God will create a rational world, one that operates in accordance with knowable laws, and he will also design the human mind to have the capacity to understand the order of nature. Proponents of this view argue that it is no accident that modern science arose in Christian Europe, but, rather, modern science was a legacy of Christian rationalism.

Science, in turn, supposedly helps religion by revealing natural facts that are highly suggestive of divine creation or intelligent design. To consider just one instance, physics discloses that the values of fundamental natural constants, like the gravitational constant, are so “finely-tuned” that even a tiny alteration of these values would make impossible the existence of a complex universe of the sort that can support intelligent life. Since we know of no reason why the constants had to have these values, or any within the narrow range of values that would be “life-friendly,” we may infer as the most probable explanation that these values were intentionally chosen by a being, like the theistic God, who wanted a complex universe capable of supporting intelligent life.

The Cooperation Model faces at least as many problems as the Warfare Model. Was religion, Christianity in this case, the inspiration for the European beginnings of modern science? Theoretical science and mathematics (much of it quite sophisticated) began in pagan Greece centuries before Christianity. Science and technology were more advanced in China than in Europe until the seventeenth century. Should paganism and Confucianism be given the credit? Christianity was certainly not a sufficient cause of modern science, since Christianity had flourished both in the European West and in the Byzantine East since the fourth century without producing a scientific revolution in either locale. Neither was Christianity a necessary condition for modern science since there is no feature of early modern science, not even the experimental method, that was not anticipated by ancient scientists.* Correlation is not causation, and the fact that modern science began in Christian Europe is not per se evidence that modern science is in any significant sense a product of Christianity. Further, early modern religion was rife with superstition. The Churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were obsessed with demonology and witchcraft. Many Protestant sects were millenarian if not Messianic. Prima facie, such a milieu contained at least as many elements hostile to the rise of scientific rationality as conducive to it.

*Historians of science have thoroughly debunked the idea that experimental methods were not used by ancient scientists. See, for instance, David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd Edition, pp. 362-364. The few examples given by Lindberg could be augmented at length.

As for those religious apologists who seek evidence for God in science, if you look closely at their arguments, you see that their premises are never strictly scientific, but, rather, they must always appeal to tendentious or dubious assumptions and intuitions. For instance, proponents of “fine tuning” arguments must assume that ultimate brute facts can be objectively probable or improbable in some meaningful sense. They must assume, for instance, that the value of the charge of the electron must be extremely improbable if this is an ultimate brute fact, i.e. a fact that cannot be subsumed under any more basic theory or explained by more basic facts. The reason they give is that we can imagine seemingly infinitely many other values that this constant could have had, so there is a vanishingly small probability that it would have precisely the value it does have, unless something (or someone!) gave it that value. However, if we reason this way, then all ultimate, brute posits must have the same probability, namely, one over infinity or zero. This is because for any ultimate contingent (i.e. not logically necessary) fact, it will always be possible to imagine an infinite number of other possible states of affairs that could have existed instead, and the quantity of one (or any finite number) over infinity equals zero.* It does not matter whether this putative ultimate fact is an electron with a specific charge or a specific cosmic fine-tuner (e.g. the Christian God). Each will be one out of infinitely many possibilities, and so each will have the same probability, i.e. zero. If the electron needs a fine-tuner, so does the fine-tuner.

*Note that when the possibilities are infinite, then a zero probability for one of those possibilities does not mean that it is impossible.

3) No Overlap. In his book Rock of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion should be viewed, in his wording, as “nonoverlapping magisteria, a rather clumsy phrase for a simple idea. The idea is that science and religion, rightly conceived cannot conflict, because each is sovereign in its own sphere, and those spheres do not overlap. On Gould’s theory, science deals with the realm of fact, those objective states of affairs that can be verified by scientific methods. The age, size, and constitution of the universe, for instance, fall within the purview of science. True, religious texts have made claims about such matters, but, according to Gould, when it does so it steps out of its true and proper sphere and intrudes into that of science. The proper realm of religion is the realm not of fact but of value.

Gould holds, as did the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot infer values from facts; from what is we cannot make any determination of what ought to be. Religion, therefore, has value as its proper study. The job of religion is to tell us what matters, that is, what our values should be. Religion tells us what is meaningful and good. Science cannot inform us of such things. For instance, we know that nature is often ruthless. Stronger chicks will often push their weaker siblings out of the nest so that they alone can enjoy their parents’ attention. However, we cannot infer from such natural facts that we should be ruthless. Those, like the Social Darwinists of the nineteenth century who tried to elevate the Darwinian struggle for existence to a moral system, were abusers of science who appropriated scientific findings for ideological ends. So long as science and religion both respect their boundaries and play only their proper roles, no conflict can occur.

But on whose authority do we say that religion cannot concern itself with fact? Indeed, Christianity seems to require certain historical claims, most notably that Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. As Paul pointedly puts it (I Corinthians, 15:17), “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….” The Apostle’s Creed, for instance, makes a number of ostensibly factual claims, e.g. that God the Father is the “Maker of heaven and earth.” That God is the Creator of all things is held even by those who do not espouse the literal six-day creation of the young-earth creationists. Should we take the doctrine of divine creation as merely metaphorical, as symbolic language with the purpose of encouraging an attitude of reverent appreciation of the natural world? We are to see nature as if created by a benevolent being? One would hardly need to be a fundamentalist to see such a suggestion as a negation of theistic belief rather than an explication of it. Theism regards God as a person, capable of acting, and, indeed, as the creator and sustainer of all that is. If God is only a metaphor for, e.g., the sacredness of the world, then what we really have is a form of pantheism, which may be fine, but will be difficult to identify with anything resembling the historical forms of theism.

Further, who is to say that science can say nothing about value? On the contrary, the theory and practice of medical science is based on the idea that there are natural states of health or well-being that are intrinsically valuable, and that disease is bad because it disrupts such states. In fact, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia, human flourishing, is, in its basics, just as valid today as 2300 years ago. Human flourishing consists of mental and physical health, a modicum of prosperity, and success both as a rational agent and as a social being. Such a state is intrinsically valuable and desirable, that is, it is intrinsically worthy of being valued and desired by us. But surely, someone might object, such a state of flourishing is a non-moral good. What about specific moral goods such as kindness, justice, and generosity? An ethical naturalist could say that moral value supervenes on non-moral value.  That is, an act has moral value only insofar as it promotes non-moral values such as flourishing or some aspect of flourishing. Generosity, for instance, is morally good, because generous persons devote their time and resources to making their communities better in some ways. On such a naturalistic view, then, it will be an objective fact that some acts promote non-moral goods and some do not. Therefore, we can have empirical criteria for moral acts.

For these reasons, the No Overlap Model seems no better than the Warfare or Cooperation Models.

4) Uneasy Coexistence: My view of the relation between science and religion is that they exist, and must exist, that is, in a state of uneasy truce that one side or the other will sometimes violate. Science and religion must coexist since neither is going away anytime soon. Zealous atheists who want to drive the last nail into the coffin of Christianity (I used to be one of those) are simply talking moonshine. When confronted with particularly egregious examples of Christian obscurantism (e.g. creationism) or an especially blatant instance of Christian hypocrisy (e.g. protecting pedophile priests) one may be excused for groaning, as I have, “Two thousand years of Christianity are enough!” Well, maybe, but it ain’t happening. Christianity will continue to bury its undertakers for the foreseeable future.

Science is actually the more fragile of the two. They say that we live in a scientific age, but the vast majority of people know little about the facts of science and less about its methods. Many of my students—college students—get glazed eyes when I start to talk about anything too “sciency,” and if I put an equation on the board, some begin to experience heart palpitations. Since science is a black box to most people, it is easy for crackpots, ideologues, and special pleaders to coat their subterfuge with a patina of scientific-sounding jargon, skewed statistics, and fake facts, and fool the majority into thinking that self-serving junk is science. Big tobacco pioneered this technique back in the Fifties. When science increasingly indicates that your product is gruesomely killing hundreds of thousands of your customers, yet that very product is bringing you wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. You find some bitter and unsuccessful scientists and pay them big bucks to conduct “research” that exonerates your product. Most people cannot tell the difference between self-serving junk science and the real thing. Add that the purveyors of junk science pour huge amounts into politicians’ campaign coffers, and real science has an uphill battle.

Under the influence of anti-science ideologies (e.g. postmodernism, radical feminism, “intelligent design” creationism) and/or big money interests (e.g., Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Coal), science has been attacked in recent decades, and now certainly has less prestige in American society than it had, say, fifty years ago. Are we heading for a new Dark Age? I think not. Science will stick around, if only because it gives us so many goodies (i-Phones, etc.). So, if we are to have a future with both science and religion, how will they get along? Will they get along?

Mainstream religion has already made major concessions. Recent popes have emphasized that evolutionary theory is not at odds with Catholicism. Likewise, most Protestant denominations have no problem with evolutionary theory or big bang cosmology. Further, most theologians now realize the folly of “God of the gaps” apologetics, and no longer try to locate God’s activity in the in the domains not (yet) explained by science. As science progresses and gaps are closed, gap-apologists must beat a hasty and undignified retreat. Scientifically sophisticated believers such as John Polkinghorne have made their peace with science. Many millions of believers have not, however, and in places like Pakistan and Texas, where extreme forms of belief predominate, there will be continued obscurantist activism.

Even mainstream religion may find that advances in some fields of science threaten core beliefs. For instance, neuroscience, one of the most important and rapidly progressing sciences, operates on the regulative assumption that who we are and what we are, the very essence of our “selves,” is a product of brain function. Cartesian souls are still defended by some philosophers, but they have no place in scientific theory. Can religion, even mainstream religion, be easy with the idea that there is no soul or spiritual element of the human person and that every thought and feeling, and even our spiritual urgings, are products of the brain? This may be a pill even harder to swallow than evolution, since it is one thing to say that the human body evolved, and something else to say that the mind is a physical function, like digestion, and that humans contain no spiritual essence.

In the end, with neuroscience as with evolution, religion will have the choice: bite the bullet or become obscurantist. When science and religion conflict, science always wins, but the saving grace is that when science wins, religion need not lose. It will lose if it takes the obscurantist path, but the fact is that religion can progress also. As noted above, four centuries ago even the most mainstream religious bodies were obsessed with demonology and witchcraft. Can anyone doubt that it was the progress of scientific rationality that led even the most religious people to see witch-burning as superstitious folly? Can anyone doubt that religion was greatly improved by casting off its morbid obsession with demons and witches? Maybe, then, this is the key to a healthy relationship between science and religion. Perhaps science can be seen not as a potential enemy but as a gift of God, a gift that challenges religion and calls it to grow and expand. Religion, left to itself, tends to ossify. Maybe it needs a deep challenge every now and then to keep it honest, vibrant, and relevant.

What should the role of science be with respect to religion? Most scientists have no interest in either promoting or debunking religion. Some do, of course, and there is no reason why a scientist cannot take an interest in religion, either supportive or in opposition, the same as anybody else. There is no reason why a scientist should not step out of the lab and enter the arena as a public intellectual. It only becomes a problem if scientists compromise their science in the interest of apologetics or anti-apologetics. This has happened; scientists, being human, can succumb to ax-grinding agendas. In general, I think that the attitude of scientists towards religion, or any doctrinal or ideological scheme, should be the one epitomized by the slogan on my favorite T-shirt: “Science does not care what you believe.” Science has its own agenda and no responsibility whatsoever to either promote or debunk any other agenda. That is what makes science truly threatening to ideologues—not that science opposes their doctrinal infatuations, but that science just does not care.

Yes, science can have a corrosive effect on ideologies. Philosopher Daniel Dennett famously called Darwinism “universal acid” because it can threaten many dogmas, whether they are found in the First Baptist Church or the Harvard Faculty Club. Yet, despite the fulminations of anti-Darwinians, evolutionary theory was not designed to follow any goal other than that of explaining the diversity of life on Earth. And understanding the physical universe is the role, the only role, of science. The proper attitude of the scientist, qua scientist, towards religion should therefore be neglect—neither benign neglect nor malign neglect. Just neglect.