The religion and science dialogue: Nothing new, nothing to see either.
An op-ed from the other side.
Recently, an article appeared covering a “new” idea in theology. That some seminaries were going to be hoping to put an end to the war between religion and science. I have to say, the article was great. Well reported, and fairly even handed.
However, it became clear that what was being discussed wasn’t new at all. Theologians have been discussing science for years. Historically speaking, Cambridge and its older brother, Oxford (the institution of my doctoral degree) required all professors to be unmarried religious men and theology was taught along with science. Even today these universities are religiously affiliated and you can study with the world’s greatest physicists on Monday after going to one of the hundreds of Anglican churches that are in and around the universities. But it is greater than that as well, few know that Darwin, the anti-theologian for many, was seminary trained and spent most of his life trying to reconcile his theory of evolution with creationist religious beliefs. Newton was engaged as well; some have noted that he wrote more about religious beliefs than he did physics.
So, can “science and religion” programs put an end to the war between religion and science?
I have to say, no. These lines of thought are centuries old and have gone nowhere. Well, in the sciences they’ve largely gone away. Take a look at major academic conference proceedings such as that of the American Academy of Religion. Their meetings have tons of talks and panels about how to reconcile religion and science. Now go to the proceedings of an engineering or physics conference, you can choose. If you find more than a single panel on religion and science, post a link in the comments. If you find a panel on religion and science convened by a scientist without religious commitments, I’ll probably have to buy you a beer.
These “religion and science” programs reflect a theological bias. Although, that seems reasonable given that these programs appear in theology schools, not so much physics departments. Let me explain:
Science is an epistemological system that attempts to uncover falsifiable truths about our universe by investigating the natural relationships and causes between different parts of that universe. That is to say, it investigates the natural world.
Theology, posits that there are entities that are, by definition and their nature, “super-natural”. In this case, super-like the root “meta” in metaphysics- denotes that their purview is above the natural world. Just as the philosophical school of meta-physics posits itself to be “above” physics.
This is why religion will always be able to make a number of key claims:
1- that god exists
God’s existence cannot be proven nor rejected by science. This is a subtle claim because it means that god, as a super-natural entity cannot be scientifically said to be real. Science simply does not have the tools to measure god in any way. Not to mention, how do you define (or operationalize) god for a scientific study? Are you defining god as the Judeo-Christian God? The Hindu God… which Hindu God? Buddha? Or are you defining it as some “ground of all being” ala Tillich and the army of contemporary theologians who have abstracted god out of any meaningful role in the lives of most individuals?
This also means that science cannot disprove god either. Just as science cannot prove god, it cannot disprove god. How could a hypothesis be formulated in a scientific paradigm that would allow for us to say that something patently does not exist in our universe if we are using a system that can only measure natural things, when god is — again by definition — a supernatural thing? Science and religion are epistemologically speaking, incompatible when it comes to settling the “god” issue. It is also why the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are so incredibly misguided. They have often made claims in the past that science disproves religion. No, it doesn’t. Science just has no evidence of god.
2- that god is [______].
Religion has a secret weapon, the “god in the gap theory”. Since science is a slow moving way of knowing the world that requires measurement and precision and more often than not, it generates more questions than it answers, there will always be something that science won’t be able to tell us. These gaps can be filled with god. Take for example the famous quote by Pope Francis in 2014: “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of Creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”
This is an easy philosophical move. You take something science can’t explain, like why evolution happens (i.e. the mechanism of protein recombination) or why the “spark of life” happened. Science hasn’t settled these issues. So, until further notice, religious authorities can say god did it. This line of reasoning has been famous since someone created the bumper sticker “god spoke and ‘bang’ it happened!”. You take something science doesn’t know and you add god to the cause and there you have it, religion and science work…. until they don’t.
One of the reasons science and religion are often said to be at war is because religion is based around a set of beliefs. These beliefs become our identities. So if you believe X and some scientist comes and says, no X is wrong, its actually Y, this is basically an attack on your beliefs. My previous research has shown that this sort of attack on beliefs can lead to extreme reactions (see my article in PrimeMind from earlier this year). Religious beliefs are immutable, unchangeable, and need no rationale (although we often give them rationales). Scientific knowledge is changeable and requires a rationale. Religions can make literally any claim because they’re not bound by the rules of the natural world where as science is bound by the ability to repeatable measure some phenomena and falsify claims about that phenomena. So when young-earth creationists say that the world is only X number of years old, and scientists say, no its Y number of years old, it creates a problem for the religious individual. However, if a religious person says, you know meditation is for you and the scientist goes, runs some studies, and says, actually yes, meditation does appear to be good for you then they can live in peace.
The issue with the dialogue between theology and science is that it is like a political dialogue between republicans and democrats on the internet. The theologians aren’t interested in progress; they’re interested in being proven right. If programs like this exist at seminaries, all the power to them. Seminarians are going to be powerful leaders in the world and they should be well versed in as much information as possible. For that reason, I commend seminaries that do this (such as the theology department I currently work for- yes, my office is in the School of Theology at Boston University, did you see that coming?). However, the theologians need to admit what the limitations of this dialogue are. Given the epistemological rules of theology and science in an ideal world, theologians can and will say what they want; scientists will say what they can. When scientists show something that theology disagrees with then they will have to have a “dialogue” where theology will say “but but but…” and science will keep moving on. There really isn’t a dialogue between religion and science, it’s a monologue driven by theologians. I think we’ll all be better off to admit the limitations of theology and science and admit that science generates reliable knowledge about our world. Theology provides answers about the supernatural world.
Personally, this separation and distinction is fine for me. I think religion can be a beautiful thing. I also think science is fascinating. Physics is what allows our planes to fly. Engineering is what allows me to post this on the internet. Chemistry is what allows me to keep my food cold in a fridge. But religion is what we will all turn to in the most dire of times of need when we have conflicts and questions that science fails to answer. It will always be that case, but we shouldn’t act like these two fields of knowledge are compatible or equal.