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Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Philosophy, Religion, Science | 3 comments

Are science and religion compatible?

Alas, I’m not going to give a nice, neat, incontrovertible answer to the question in the heading. However, variations of this question keep coming up in the blogosphere, with my colleague Notung being one of the more recent to have a go at it.

Udo Schuklenk and I will be discussing issues related to this at considerable length in 50 Great Myths About Atheism. There, we will, indeed, be putting what is known as an anti-accommodationist view, i.e. a view that science really does undermine religion.

Meanwhile, allow me to make the unoriginal observation that debate around this question invariably runs into all sorts of difficulties over semantics because the question is so open to interpretation. It’s also open to equivocation – you might prove that science and religion are compatible in some sense, and then go on to talk as if science creates no problems for religion at all.

For example, consider this claim: No matter what robust findings emerge from the enterprise of science, it will always be possible to modify any given theological system to maintain its consistency with those findings.

That claim may well be true; in fact, I think it probably is. At least for the sake of argument I’m going to assume it’s true, so please bear with me, if only for the sake of argument, even if you reject the claim.

If someone says that this claim is all she means when she says that “science and religion are compatible”, then, sure, they are compatible in that sense. But so what? What this mainly shows is that theological systems can, in principle, be altered… and perhaps that this is not just an in-principle thing. They can also (sometimes or often) be altered in practice. It doesn’t follow, however, that science causes religion no problems. For one thing, theological systems tend to be quite closely integrated, and whatever aspects might be inconsistent with scientific findings can’t necessarily be jettisoned in practice – for many adherents, these very aspects may be core commitments. If they are abandoned, the theological system may lose much of what made it attractive to many people in the first place.

And what if a particular theological system keeps getting altered over time to maintain consistency with whatever findings are coming out of the enterprise of science? Surely in such a case science is causing that theological system problems. Perhaps the system can maintain formal consistency with the best science of the day. But if this keeps happening, some people will start to wonder why the theological system was so badly aligned in the first place with the facts that science is discovering (especially if the system claims to be based on divine revelation). The system might then give some kind of theological answer to that question, but this may or may not be plausible, based on both common sense and science. In the end, the system may lose its overall plausibility and/or morph into something less psychologically attractive.

Generally speaking, anti-accommodationists like me are not arguing for some extreme thesis such as that all religious claims are logically inconsistent with current science, or that they will all eventually be disproved by science. We tend to emphasise that religion and science use different means to draw their conclusions and that these tend to reach different conclusions as a matter of practice and history. There’s a sense in which things didn’t have to be like this: if some religion or other really were based on what was revealed by an epistemically superior being of some kind (a god, an angel, a god-inspired prophet, or whatever), religious claims and scientific findings might have tended through history to converge on the same truths and cohere into a single system of knowledge. However, it has simply not turned out like that. Thus, what might have been different, yet converging, epistemic approaches have turned out in practice to amount to an epistemic incompatibility. And that fact itself seems to demand a theological explanation (which, again, may or may not seem plausible to adherents or potential adherents).

It is easy for the religious to portray anti-accommodationists as philosophically and theologically unsophisticated, unappreciative of the resources available to theologians and philosophers of religion. But that need not be so. We’re mainly critical of simplistic theories and position statements that try to defuse the real dangers of science to religion – for example with talk of non-overlapping magisteria, or the restriction of science to a natural or empirical realm, while religion deals with a “supernatural” realm that scientists cannot observe. There is no reason for our critiques of these positions to be unmindful of the resources available to theologians or to religious philosophers. Indeed, I think that we can be perfectly mindful of all this, while showing how science really does, at the practical and historical level, pose a threat to religion.

I realise that this post is more a position statement than a substantive argument for anti-accommodationism. As mentioned above, a lot of the substantive argument will be brought together in 50 Great Myths About Atheism. Meanwhile, anti-accommodationist arguments often involve actually looking at the detail of accommodationist claims, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory that science and theology are non-overlapping areas of teaching authority: if they ever come into conflict, it is because at least one has impermissibly intruded on the other’s territory. I’ve set out the case here, for example, as to why this is well-meaning nonsense.