Leading Horses to Water
Ancient Greeks began the way of
thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call
science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in
an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.
In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are
aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even
nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can
try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you
wish to drink from these waters.
#6 - Do science and religion overlap?
American Heathen: aired: 19 August 2011
Some years ago, I was introduced to the excellent writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould,
a paleontologist who has written extensively about the history and
philosophy of science. Given his chosen field of science, it’s
clear that items of concern to him in his musings were evolutionary
biology and geology. Both of those fields are examples of where
science and religion have very different visions of the processes by
which the natural world has arrived at the present. His
interesting essays over the years ranged far and wide, clearly rooted
in evolutionary biology and geology as the bedrock (a pun intended) of
his scientific perspective. Hence, as I’ll try to explain, I find
his position puzzling.
In the fundamentalist biblical view, the Earth and all its life were
the work of an infinitely powerful deity over the course of seven days
about 6000 years ago. In contradistinction, both geology and
biology have developed evidence overwhelmingly in favor of the
principle known as “deep time” – not a few thousand years after a
week’s work by an omnipotent deity, but billions of years
for natural processes to bring us to the present day from the formation
of the Earth. And of course, cosmology as a science is also
heavily committed to the notion of “deep time” in order for the
Universe as we currently understand it to have arrived at the present
from its beginnings in the Big Bang.
Gould used the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” to escape the
obvious conflict between religion and evolutionary biology with its
associated geological deep time. Magisterium (the singular form
of “magisteria”) is a term that originated to describe the authority of
the catholic church to teach what it considered to be truth.
Thus, in an obvious extension of this definition, science teaches one
sort of truth and religion teaches another. In Gould’s view of
things, these don’t clash because somehow they don’t overlap!
As he explained it,
is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of
the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for
example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of
the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a
belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no
privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls
represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world
cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot
threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally
accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical
value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for
expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency,
care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution
of consciousness imposed upon us.
In my opinion, this is a mistaken point of view. Either one
accepts the biblical story as divine, literal truth of how the world
and everything in it came to be, or one doesn’t. Science may not
be able to “prove”
anything about the existence of souls, but science is not completely
powerless to address such questions as the existence of souls and/or
god, or even the morality
of human behavior. If experiments designed to provide evidence
yield only null results for the existence of something, that itself is
evidence. That is, the absence of positive results is consistent
with the rejection of the god hypothesis. No, it’s not absolute
“proof,” but science never has been about absolute proof anyway!
It’s simply a fallacy to assume that science has nothing to offer
regarding the “big questions” (such as those I mentioned in my piece on
Through the Wormhole).
Science proceeds by testing hypotheses against the evidence. It
offers no insight regarding speculative (untestable) notions, apart
from evaluating the validity of any mathematical logic. Science
works with observations and measurements, so if an idea can offer no
evidence on its behalf (like string theory, for example), it’s indeed
outside of the domain of science. As it turns out, biblical
“explanations” come into direct conflict
with science regarding evolutionary biology, geology, and
cosmology. Wherever believers see science as threatening their
hegemony, they respond with pathetic pseudo-scientific
rationalizations, such as vague notions about how the beauty and
“perfection” of the universe imply a conscious creator, creationism in
its many disguises, and blaming the biblical flood for killing off the
dinosaurs. The so-called evidence supporting these
rationalizations is easily demolished, but such a demolition has no
impact on true believers, who are willfully blind to any rational argument.
If the god hypothesis is no longer needed to explain the origin of
stars or the evolution of life, then a reason for accepting the
existence of this deity must be to fill the gap of explaining who
created the laws of nature!
If, as I believe the evidence shows, the bible is a collection of
stories written by humans without any divine guidance and put together
before science as we now know it ever came to be, that readily explains
the absence of most current scientific knowledge in that “divine”
document. For example, because the bible provides no alternative
to meteorological dynamics – there’s no competing biblical explanation
for tornadoes to serve as a bone of contention with the proposed
explanations using the science of meteorology. No one is
petitioning the their school board to sanction teaching a biblical
alternative to scientific tornadogenesis hypotheses. No one is
threatening to kill severe storm meteorologists for their blasphemous
contradictions with biblical versions of meteorological dynamics.
No one is organizing prayer rallies to show support for some biblical
What bible passages have anything to say about quantum physics?
Relativity? Nonlinear dynamics? Genetics? DNA?
Plate tectonics? The list of scientific topics not appearing in
the bible is long, of course. Its human authors knew nothing of
the sciences to come thousands of years after their writings and,
apparently, the knows-it-all
deity never bothered to mention to those scribes anything about that
science to come so they could record that deity’s opinions about
it! This supposedly immortal, infallibly truthful document looks
a lot like what you’d expect from ancient authors who had only
mystical, pre-scientific “explanations” for the natural world as they
knew it, doesn’t it?
Hence, while I agree with Gould that much of science indeed does not
overlap with religion, which primarily is due to religion’s massive
ignorance about science, there are points where such overlap
exists. He, of all people, as a paleontologist should have been
well aware of that! Stephen Jay Gould was an insightful man and
his essays are interesting and informative, but he flat got it wrong on
the non-overlapping magisteria concept. The magisteria can and do
overlap! And where they do, a rational point of view must result
in the rejection of religion as primitive mythology when compared to
the towering achievements of science in just a few hundred years.
Religion has virtually no answer for its pervasive absence of evidence
– save for the threadbare comfort of “faith”. Basing your
worldview on willful ignorance is more than foolish – it’s a dangerous
thing to do.
is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for
themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is
its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain