It’s time to celebrate the conflicts between Religion and Science

About a summer ago I was sitting in on a teacher training when the topic of discussing evolution in the classroom came up. The air was a little tense at its mentioning (demographically, many of the teachers were from the Bible Belt and, as such, would be aware of the controversy), but due to the nature of the curriculum involved, the teachers present tended towards some of the brightest and most passionate science teachers I’ve seen across the state, and thus they all chimed in eagerly.

It’s of little surprise then that their support for teaching evolution was fairly unanimous, but after the initial agreement, a series of heated caveats followed. From the moment religion was brought up, the group offered a series of provisions as to what “evolution” really meant, often with the admitted motivation of making it compatible with both the teachers’ and their students’ religion, and unfortunately also often quite contradictory to current scientific understandings.

And so one asks, are religion and science incompatible?

It’s easy to think so given examples like these, and many of the dubbed “New Atheists” out there argue it strongly (take Jerry Coyne’s USA Today column as a popular example). Meanwhile, the push-back is quite notable, ensuring us that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion. After all, it seems that societies with stronger religious beliefs actually hold more faith in science, and of course we know that many scientists are, in fact, religious.

One philosophy held by some arguing against the conflict is that of “NOMA” or “non-overlapping magisteria.” The idea, in brief, is that there is no conflict between science and religion because science is predominately interested in facts about the natural world, while religion cares more for meanings, values, etc. (two domains that supposedly simply don’t overlap in topic). While this may often be true, the simple example above of evolution in the classroom is enough to warrant  reconsideration. After all, religion often does make claims about the natural world, and sometimes these claims are indeed at conflict with current science.

But then again, “religion” itself is an ever-evolving thing. While Christianity may have once claimed Earth at the center of the universe, it need not hold that any longer, and moreover, individuals’ private beliefs vary.

So how do we make sense of this question?

The answer is that we’re really just asking the wrong question.

Rather than asking whether or not science is in conflict with religion, it’s time we go ahead and accept the fact that sometimes it will be (just as it has in the past– just ask Galileo). Moreover, we generally overlook in these kind of discussions that, even aside from its discourse with religion, science is inherently critical in nature and constantly corrects widely held but incorrect beliefs (“the world is flat,” “illness is causes by bad humors,” etc.). That’s (part of) its job! Our natural assumption then should already be that science is likely to be in conflict with religion, just as it consistently tends to be with our understanding of the world! So to argue that there is no conflict between science and religion is to, in a sense, claim that religious beliefs, in their current state and with all of the inherited social interpretations, are completely perfect in their understanding of the natural world. And wherein a religious individual might wish take to case that this is so about their particular religion and their own interpreations, it most certainly can’t be true of all religions.

So of course there exists conflicts between science and (broadly-brushed) religion! The whole question is a red herring. What we should be far more curious about is what that means, why, where specifically those conflicts exist and in which religions.

And we should celebrate those conflicts.

If we really want to remove the Conflict (capital “C” for its very real existence as a social issue!) between science and religion, I suspect that one of the best things to do would be to stop looking at science and religion as the two different foods on your plate that you don’t want to touch and to start integrating discussion from those two “worlds.” For as long as we treat science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria, we should absolutely expect inconsistencies to arise and stubbornly remain.

Furthermore, if we are earnest truth-seekers we should look at each conflict as a chance to update our knowledge about the world. For the religious, each conflict is a moment to reconsider old interpretations, a chance to refine views and create healthy, consistent convictions. For the skeptic, each conflict is again an opportunity to double-check one’s world-view, and moreover a social phenomenon probably worth the consideration.

And for those of us who fortunately live in societies mature enough to offer freedom of religion and speech, it’s worth beginning the gradual process of exorcising said conflicts as issues of dissonance and embattlement. It’s worth, instead, making these matters of cultural growth. These same issues are, after all, often matters of policy that have an effect on us all (education alone would serve as example enough!). The accord, then, is worth the work where it can be made.

Now before some of the atheistic readers grimace that this is untenable or theistic others consider this unnecessary, it’s worth considering what such a social shift would really mean:

  • Scientists need to take religious claims seriously, even to the extent of addressing those claims with research and dialogue. While many secular scientists out there would likely find this a waste of time, it’s worth the reminder that ~85% of the world is religious (per a 2012 study), and that this overwhelming majority is in fact made of those that shape policy and key decisions world-wide. Science is not just an intellectual endeavor; it is also a social one. And so it’s worth giving more consideration to studies like those of the efficacy of prayer or reincarnation, for instance. Moreover, so long as significant percentages of our population ascribe to such beliefs, it’s worth earnestly addressing religious rebuttals about such studies, even if they seem outlandish to a secular or skeptical scientist. Now this isn’t to say that science can or should address all, or even most, theological questions. BUT it is to say that religion is very much a part of this world, and if we don’t want religious objections to get in the way of science, then at least culturally science can’t just sit on the other side of the fence.
  • We need to learn to see science as a filter that can update religious views to be more consistent with our knowledge, not as something to be defended against. While I accept that central tenets  must exist amongst the myriad of faiths, I’d argue that, in most cases, the competing claims of science could be considered with more flexibility and less resistance. The simple fact is that religion is a hardy thing, and each of the major religions today have survived changing tenets for thousands of years. Religion does get around to updating its ideas and interpretations over time, and I would suggest, especially for the staunch atheists our there, that we encourage this rather than furthering the sense of threat. We need everyone to see that updating one’s views in accordance with the best scientific understanding to-date does not necessarily need to threaten one’s entire belief system (if not, if it were to be so threatening, then how would we ever expect anyone to change their mind?). Accepting evolution or the Big Bang, does not mean one must give up Christianity (or similarly, any other belief), and we have to figure out how to encourage that understanding. The facts themselves are impartial, and need be treated as such. After all, we must have some objective way, beyond our own interpretations, to critique our understandings of what goes on in the natural world. And since, to date, science has been the most successful of such endeavors, we have to encourage seeing it as a way to improve and grow rather than an enemy.
  • Dialogue between religious concerns and scientific findings must be supported– critically, respectfully, and popularly. At some point, religion really should make its way to the dinner table. If we really were to care about social change here, about removing the dissonance between scientific findings and certain religious beliefs, we have to talk about it. We have to hear the concerns without judgement but also be unafraid to fully challenge beliefs that the evidence doesn’t bear out. And we need credible public platforms to popularize this discussion with serious intent. That’s not to say none of this is happening, but rather that I ask for more! More debates, more scientists not afraid to challenge incorrect beliefs, more attention in the press, more in-person dialogue between the secular and the religious, more legitimacy and respect to the platforms willing to take up that critical dialogue, and more of all of this with less fear and higher rigor. It’s not something anyone can do alone, but it is I think a cultural shift we could use.

Now I’ll grant that I’m not above caveats here. First off, I want to be clear that I don’t think taking this stance inhibits the religious from feeling they are right or the atheists from actively arguing against religion. Rather, I’d simply argue that religion is likely to be with us for quite some time, and even if religion were to one day completely go away, we have some serious scientific misconceptions to deal with in the meantime (here, here, and here for the obvious examples). Both sides need to see that there are at least some discussions we should be coming to consensus on before the perhaps more grand (and likely far off, if not utterly improbable) goal of ridding the world of the religious or atheists that each side might possess.

Secondly, I recognize that “celebrating the conflicts” in anything is quite the tall order and perhaps better thought of as symbolic world-play than a specific goal. But even if this issue is covered in quite a bit of mire and difficulty– finding funding and respect as a scientist for investigating religious claims is not so easy, nor is that of removing the sense of threat when beliefs must be changed–even still, the sense of any “war” between science and religion, as well as the head-in-the-sand denial of any conflict, are unhealthy perspectives that need be replaced. It’s time for a realistic approach, but also one that can have positive action.

So if you’re reading this and you care, and especially if you’re in a position of influence to easily effect change, let’s stop worrying about whether religion and science are in conflict. Let’s embrace it, celebrate that fact, and without fear, let it challenge and grow us.

And encourage others to do the same.


2 Responses

  1. Thoughtful essay, but I’ve concluded that the idea of studying religious claims only leads to frustration all around. The Templeton Foundation has funded such studies, including the biggest, most rigorous study of the efficacy of intercessory prayer. It found that the prayed-for group actually had worse outcomes. What does that prove? Not much. First, there’s no way to isolate a set of prayers. Maybe thousands of prayers from ISIS members out weighed the prayers in the study. Second, no one claims that God is obliged to grant prayers. Third, the whole idea of prayer to a Supreme Being is incoherent: If He’s the Supreme Being he knows what he’s doing. How could granting your prayer make things better than what He was planning to do? Conversely, how could his plan have been perfect if granting your prayer makes things better?

    Science depends heavily on a rational world, governed by law and chance. If it’s asked to discern patterns that result from the arbitrary or sentimental choices of a Supreme Being, the results cannot be reliable. Here’s a religious question that Jews might want to pose: Does God favor the Chosen People? Well, the record clearly shows that He does — except when He doesn’t, which from biblical times on has been quite often. So … what does that prove?

    As it happens, science already provides all the data anyone needs to answer the question of whether our world is governed by a morally perfect Supreme Being. That answer is clearly no. You only have to look at natural disasters — tornado strikes, the Christmas tsunami, Ebola, the Zika virus — to see that these do not follow any pattern related to the moral choices or interests of human beings. Instead, they follow meteorological, seismic, and climatological patterns, with an assist from human transport vectors,

    There remains the possibility that a morally obscure or evil god hovers over us, but there’s not a chance in hell, if you’ll pardon the expression, that science can prove or disprove it.

    • Josh says:

      I think there is a more optimistic slant we can still take though without disagreeing with much:

      -Science of course can’t answer all possible religious questions, but it can certainly constrain claims involving interactions with the natural world. For instance, even if theological questions about prayer remain, I would argue we’ve already learned (or validated) some valuable constraints there.

      – Aside from addressing theological constraints, there’s of course the plain science issues that are contentious that need not be anymore (evolution, the big bang, etc). As long as the science sits on the other side of the fence (generally from the secular end), we must imagine it’s hard to identify with from the religious in those cases.

      So back to the thesis, we’re caught in a place where there are, in fact, going to be some conflicts. We have to embrace that on both sides somehow, so it seems we have to take a pragmatic approach, at least even if it’s just in mindset.

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