That there might be an inherent conflict between religion and science was not envisioned until the Renaissance when the two disciplines emerged as distinct entities. Until that time, man, the world, God or the gods, and natural phenomena were all part of natural philosophy. Aristotle could study just about anything from literature to the heavens to amphibians without feeling he had crossed boundaries.
Despite great achievements in mathematics, engineering, philosophy, literature alongside the development of complex theologies no sense of conflict or contradiction existed as all were facets of a whole. Heresies may have proliferated, but they were internal to the religions that proposed or opposed them. There were no feuds between disciplines – among religions, of course. Science in the modern sense either didn’t exist or was a subset of the general world view. The various cosmologies invoked to explain the world contained no disqualifying contradictions and caused no unease.
Christianity and Islam had no problem with inquiry that stayed within the compass of the cross or the crescent. The great scholars of central Asia perpetuated the thinking of the ancient Greeks and transmitted the numeracy of the Indian subcontinent to Europe.
The first scientist in the modern sense was Galileo. There were precursors who realized they were entering new and parlous areas. Copernicus published postmortem. Bruno was burned at the stake. Galileo not only combined both the experimental and theoretical characteristics of modern science, he was oblivious or indifferent to the consequences of his new depiction of reality. That there might be another different, but in a sense valid, reality that continued to exist despite the scientific revolution that followed escaped his notice and, in many ways, still eludes those devoted to science and its method.
Newton was born the year Galileo died. Under his influence science developed into a prodigious force that has continued to expand in power and scope at an ever-increasing pace until it encompassed the world. But initially the sciences did not war with religion. That conflict didn’t really start until Darwin began to dissect humanity’s origin.
The resulting vicious conflict still reverberates today, but at a receding din. Though the population is divided into three camps – the indifferent, the credentialed (though mostly ignorant of science), and the religious usually held in disdain by the second cohort. My purpose is not to repeat the story of the conflict between religion and science as it has been recited so many times before that another recitation would be a waste of electrons. Rather, I hope to show that in reality there never was a conflict despite the clash of ignorant armies on both sides.
Paradoxically, it has been the growth of science that has exposed the intrinsic and indissoluble differences between the two philosophies. Science has become so powerful that it has touched its boundaries of knowledge. It is not approaching the limit of its explanatory powers. Rather, it also is forcing the door of what is not explainable by science. It has fallen victim, at least some of its practitioners have, to scientism.
There are many forms of scientism. One of the commonest examples is forcing a scientific explanation on a problem which requires other disciplines to be considered before even a tentative explanation is feasible. Scientific method, which is supposedly based on rigorous examination of the evidence supporting or refuting a previously formulated hypothesis, is often dashed on the shoals of humanity. Scientists are human and thus subject to our common infirmities of judgement and reason.
A recent and pernicious example of scientism was allowing physicians with almost no residual knowledge beyond their limited area of competence to prescribe society’s reaction to a highly infectious disease. A response that involved almost every facet of human activity and about which the prescribers of our anti infectious efforts were shockingly ignorant. The result was catastrophe. The “scientismists” have still not acknowledged their culpability, flagrant as is now evident to all. None of this takes away from the power of medical science properly applied. It is the error and hubris of some of science’s practitioners, not the discipline, that bears the blame. Too many “scientists” have not learned the rules of science.
Religion, of course, is often guilty of the same category of error as is science. It’s also been at it longer. If you believe you speak for God and have His sanction, there is no limit to the carnage you can conjure in obedience to whatever you think He commands. Religion like any endeavor can be dreadfully misapplied. To the extent that it has or demands temporal power, religion is beyond its frontier.
My argument that religion is central to human existence and moral behavior rest entirely on the assumption that all people need a belief system which rises above the mundane, which is beyond the analysis of science, and which is transcendental. Paradoxically, it is those most inimical to religion and who declare their nonadherence to it in any form, who seem the most religious. Their atheism and florid rejection of religion is faith based. They have substituted bizarre politics to stand in religion’s usual cornice and have assumed a liturgy provided by scientism. I am describing a large group who believe themselves well educated, informed, and rightfully possessing the levers of power and influence who are in truth bad at both science and religion. They are the practitioners of a perverse faith.
A truly religious person is awed by the complexity and intricacy of the universe. He is equally impressed with the best of human accomplishments. He is daily aware of our ignorance of much of what surrounds us. The formal structure into which a religious person inserts his beliefs obviously varies and is beyond my scope here. Sticking to the monotheistic religions, one is faced with a God (the name is obviously dwarfed by the concept) whose nature is beyond human understanding. Morally perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent such a force defeats human analysis.
The religious person confronted with the above and nothing but a puny intellect to comprehend such a power is like a physicist trying to reconcile the intricacies of quantum mechanics. We have free will in the face of omniscience. We suffer plague, war, and mechanized evil under the gaze of an omnipotent power who is morally perfect. How can we reconcile these disturbing realities? Wonder is the residue of religion.
From our strange vantage point is a universe beyond comprehension; it takes a very limited imagination and intellect to think it conjured itself out of nothing. The Darwinian divide, alluded to above, continues, seemingly without resolution or end. Evolution in some form or other seems a reasonable scientific hypothesis. But as it now rests, there are so many missing pieces that it still confuses its auditors. Religion missteps when it sees the study of life as a threat to belief. The more we learn from science the more we need religion.
Science deals with that which is knowable, malleable, interesting, and potentially useful. Religion is the province of the just and compassionate. It tries to smooth and becalm the unruly mysteries of existence. Though many will dispute this assertion, the comforts of religion are firmly in the present. It has no need of magic. Humanity needs solace and wisdom that goes beyond the concrete. We are emotional creatures who need more than the fruit of the tree of knowledge. We have a spirit and soul that no psychologist or neuroscientist will ever locate. Those who see religion as a threat to justice and decency worship at the altar of a false god – an act of self-refutation.
Both science and religion are indispensable to successful human endeavor. They are distinct from one another and should not be seen as competitors for the same arena.
Attempts to remove ethical, aesthetic, metaphysical, and theological speculation from the province of philosophy have failed. The classical principle of the school generally known as Logical Positivism is a case in point: “Any statement or claim which cannot be verified by observation and testing (‘empirical claims’) or by the definition of the terms it contains (‘analytical claims’) is meaningless.” The standard examples of “analytical claims” are the rules of mathematics and such ordinary-language statements as “All bachelors are non-married men.” Any claims that go beyond what is observable, testable, or true by definition may be “meaningful” in the sense of being emotionally compelling, but they add nothing new to existing knowledge because they cannot be verified. Having seemingly disposed of any claims about what is right or wrong, what is good or bad in the arts, and whether God, the Trinity, angels, and devils exist, the Positivists soon found that their principle collapsed internally: the statement “Any claim which cannot be verified by observation and testing or by the definition of its terms is meaningless” is itself neither an empirical nor an analytical claim, and is therefore “meaningless.”