Bill Cooke


There have been few more contentious issues than whether there is an in-built state of conflict between science and religion. Ever since the fifth century BCE when Anaxagoras was exiled from Athens for expounding ideas thought to be blasphemous, there has been a dissonance between what people thinking scientifically and people thinking religiously have said about the world. The idea of a conflict between science and religion is relatively recent, however. It first emerged as a serious proposition in the 1860s and 1870s as a result of the disputes then raging between supporters of Darwinism who were, in most cases, secularists or freethinkers, and opponents who, in most cases, were adherents of traditional Christianity. The idea of the conflict first came to public attention in Germany in the 1840s. At this time radical theologians like David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer were rapidly coming to the conclusion that the idea of a reconciliation between Hegelianism and Christianity was an illusion. Strauss’s book The Christian Faith in Its Historical Development and Battle with Modern Science (1840-1) was a drastic criticism of Christian dogma. The English-speaking world had to wait for History of the Conflict between Science and Religion (1873) by J. W. Draper, and the much better History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1876) by Andrew Dickson White. For many decades it was pretty much taken for granted that there was indeed a conflict between science and religion, more or less as Strauss, Draper and White had conceived it. But the idea of a permanent and inevitable conflict was never unanimously held, and over the past thirty years it has been subjected to evermore serious criticism. Recent scholarship has discerned three main schools of thought with respect to the relationship between science and religion. They have been described in terms of compartments, complementarity and conflict.

Science and Religion: Separate Compartments?

Let us start with the weakest argument first. The compartments model has had some influential advocates. For many years they were almost invariably churchmen or religious-motivated scholars, anxious to maintain a no-man’s land between their faith and what science was saying about it. The most notable recent apologist for the compartments thesis, however, was the otherwise staunch defender of evolution Stephen Jay Gould. In his book Rock of Ages (1997) Gould argued that science and religion are, as he put it, non-overlapping magisteria. This claim has a long history, and can be traced back to Medieval theology, which spoke of a ‘double truth’ as a way to reconcile increasingly fragile dogma with new understandings of the world not derived from scripture. Gould endorsed a notion long preferred by religious apologists that science asks the ‘how’ questions while religion asks the ‘why’ questions, and that neither magisteria has any reason to encroach on the territory of the other. In this way, Gould insisted, there is no necessary conflict between science and religion.

The compartments model is wrong, for many reasons. Firstly, it ignores the many specific historical and factual truth claims religions make: Yahweh made a covenant with His chosen people; Jesus rose from the dead; the Qur’an is the inspired word of God as dictated by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Claims of this magnitude clearly trespass against the artificial barrier between ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. And if Jesus rose from the dead or if the Archangel Gabriel did actually dictate the Qur’an, then scientific understandings of the physical universe are comprehensively flawed. These claims are, in short, either true or false, and it is always a mistake to allow their truth or falsity to be judged only by those who have an interest in their preservation. If we are to take the compartments thesis seriously, then only Christians could comment on matters Christian and only scientists could comment on matters scientific. Where this would lead the scientist who is also Christian is left unclear. And in a complex controversy such as abortion, where biological and ethical points are relevant, the compartmentalising breaks down altogether. Issues like abortion, euthanasia, or stem cell research that cross medical and moral boundaries render any cute division of ‘why’ and ‘how absurd. As the Australian philosopher John Passmore noted, ‘why’ questions can be answered in a ‘how’ format. (Passmore, p 8) But if the compartments model can be objected to from a secular perspective, it is equally vulnerable to criticism from a religious perspective, because the notion of compartmentalising things also runs counter to scripture, which maintains that religious authority runs across all merely human boundaries.

What the compartments thesis tends to do is to relinquish to religion a monopoly over all the crucial moral and ethical questions; the ‘why’ questions. Now many people, religious and secular, would be worried by this, both because secular moralists have many valuable things to say, and because religious moralists cannot agree on what they are saying, despite claiming to be speaking on God’s behalf. It is also flawed in principle to set up intellectual no-go areas. In an open society, nothing should be beyond the reach of critical scrutiny. Clearly, then, the notion of religion and science sitting in hermetically sealed compartments is neither credible nor healthy.

Science and Religion: Working Together?

A much more hopeful approach to the question of the conflict between science and religion is known as the complementarity model. This approach has become quite influential, even fashionable, over the past decade. This is not due entirely to the strengths of the complementarity thesis, however. It has as much to do with the substantial sums of money the John Templeton Foundation has available to fund research which demonstrates complementarity between science and religion. John Templeton is a devout Tennessee-born Presbyterian and the Foundation he founded in 1987 boasts assets of 1.1 billion US dollars and had 60 million dollars available for grants to research conducive to its vision in 2006 alone. Each year it offers the Templeton Prize of over a million dollars to a scholar who is prepared to see no conflict between religion and science. The Foundation has supported Intelligent Design campaigns and is able to tempt scientists to its events, so long as they jump through its hoops. The Templeton Foundation is a tremendous boon to theistically-inclined scientists or more straight-forwardly anti-science scholars who want to publish in this area. So whatever power the complementarity thesis has is due at least in part to the huge pool of American money bank-rolling it.

Complementarity has been defended mainly by religious apologists who work from the premise of the spiritual authority of religion, by which they usually mean their own religion. They are sometimes prepared to see a conflict between science and other religions, though not with their own. Complementarity thesis has several aspects to it. Some have argued that science and religion have a common ancestor in magic. Others have said that science was born out of religion. Still others have argued that it is meaningless to oppose ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (complete with scare quotes) as if they are discrete entities. On few occasions have they also noticed that this argument is more destructive of the compartments thesis than of the conflict thesis.

Most supporters of the complementarity thesis hold relatively advanced views about their religion. Among Christians, for example, most are willing to concede that the Bible is not a source of literal truth from God about how the universe works and what His plans for us are. They are content to see the Bible not as literal scripture but as beautiful tales which can illuminate one’s spiritual path; as allegories and myths which can enlighten and stimulate. And as such, they can perform a similar function to science in the sense of both being truth-gathering mechanisms by which to understand the world.

An example of this approach is the Catholic theologian John F. Haught who, in God after Darwin (2000), made some dramatic concessions. In a massive purge, Haught abandoned all conventional constructs of God as taught in most churches and seminaries. He acknowledged that pre-Darwinian conceptions of God are no longer credible, likening them to Sunday School theism (Haught, ix) ‘A religiously adequate understanding of God,’ Haught continued, ‘not only tolerates but also requires the adventurous extension of cosmic frontiers implied in evolutionary science.’ (Haught, x) Then, in the manner of Teilhard de Chardin, he went on to refashion a God-idea so far removed and above all evolutionary processes as to be little more than an abstraction. Haught is not on his own. A great deal of liberal religious thought is on a similar trajectory. Holmes Rolston, to take one example, had probably not been near an evangelical church in a while when he said, as part of an argument for the compatibility of religion and science that neither of them arrive at certainties. (Rolston, p 28) And John Brooke, in one of the best arguments against a simplistic understanding of the conflict thesis, nonetheless expressed his impatience with creationists and ‘militant secularists’ who ‘still like to dwell’ on old science versus religion antagonisms. (Brooke, 281-2) It is a weakness of the compatibility thesis, then, that it requires people to be more accommodating and willing to see scripture in allegorical terms than is actually the case.

While the intentions of the compatibilists is in many ways admirable, their claims are seriously compromised by the weight of scripture which demands it be taken as literal truth. ‘Whatever I am now commanding you, you must keep and observe, adding nothing to it, taking nothing away.’ (Deuteronomy 12:32): ‘If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.’ (John 15:6): ‘I, Allah, am the Seer. These are the verses of the Book that makes manifest. Surely We have revealed it – an Arabic Qur’an – that you may understand.’ (Joseph 12:1-2, Qur’an) It is true that scripture can be found to support other claims. Desperate indeed is the cause that scripture does not support, given the right interpretation. But these passages exist, and are more specific than the passages used by compatibilists to support their argument. The problem the religious liberals have always had is; how to justify humanizing their scriptures when the scriptures themselves give clear injunctions to do no such thing. Fundamentalists, for all their narrowness of spirit and intellectual poverty, are at least consistent with the spirit of their scriptures in this respect. And, in all likelihood, their’s is the voice of the future. Most attempts at religious syncretism have come and gone. ‘Without any commonly understood philosophical vocabulary, the traditional religions of humankind can now survive only as fundamentalisms–which is what they have largely become.’ (Cupitt, p 123) This can only mean greater levels of conflict between science and religion in the future.

Science and Religion: In Conflict?

We can now look at the third of the major theories about the relationship between religion and science: the conflict model. What it lacks in generous American funding it makes up for in strength of argument. But before outlining that argument, it is important to recognise the several strands within the conflict thesis, which is considerably more nuanced and aware of complexities than it is given credit for. Many critics of the conflict thesis are content to pick holes in the arguments of Draper and White and consider their job done. Others produce lists of scientists of a Christian persuasion, assuming that this proves there can be no conflict. All this is accompanied by frequent resort to the word ‘reductionist’ in a very disapproving way. As already noted, one of the better arguments against the conflict thesis is that diverse phenomena like science and religion get moulded into discrete entities that can oppose each other. This is a very good point but it need not be detrimental to a conflict thesis. It would mean that the idea of a conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ would need to be hedged with more shades of grey than sometimes has been the case.

With that in mind, when ‘religion’ is spoken of here, what is meant is doctrinally-motivated monotheism. This would include conservative Roman Catholicism and Islam as well as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism. It is true that some notions influential in the Asian traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism – reincarnation in particular – are problematic from a scientific perspective. But one can cast doubt on these teachings without facing the charge of denigrating Scripture, insulting the Founder, or straying into territory one has to right to enter. One could specifically and loudly denounce reincarnation without the quality or sincerity of one’s Hindu or Buddhist commitment coming into question. For our purposes, that is the crucial difference between the Asian traditions and the Western religions. So, for the purposes of this essay, ‘religion’ means conservative Roman Catholicism and Islam and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism.

With this important caveat in place, we can proceed to give an outline of the main positions of contemporary conflict scholarship. Some are content to clarify the basic differences in approach between science and religion, without necessarily postulating that this inevitably means the two shall conflict. Others are more willing to take that next step. The core proposition to which they all return, however, is that science and religion operate in different ways and value different things. But this does not mean that they can be seen as non-overlapping magisteria. The problem – and why there has been conflict –

is that they do overlap. Very often religion and science may well operate in different intellectual zones, and sometimes they may work along complementary trajectories. But it is inevitable that their paths should cross every now and then, and equally inevitable that, on occasions those crossings will be marred by misunderstanding, leading on to conflict. Susan Haack, a leading philosopher of science, has itemized the essential differences between science and religion as:

Take a moment to appreciate just how fundamental these differences are. Haack chose not to elaborate on the consequences of differences as basic as these, but it is clear that easy co-operation is not going to be likely when two schemes of understanding diverge so fundamentally. Neither is it surprising that there have been periodic clashes between institutions largely made up of people with a religious outlook and those whose approach is more scientific in nature.

It is not appreciated as widely as it should be that the conflict model is notable for taking religious truth-claims seriously. It actually shows religion more respect to take its truth-claims at face value and then consider their consequences. If religious truth claims are merely allegories, as many supporters of the complementarity thesis argue, then it is true that there is no real conflict. But if religions make claims, drawn from supernaturalism or revelation, about the world, and to which we are required to give assent, then there is room for conflict with the scientific understanding of the world. And it is an essential feature of religion that such claims should be made. Certainly, Pope Alexander III was taking science seriously in 1163 when he forbade the study of physics or the laws of the world to all clerics. So did the opponents of Galileo and Darwin, right down to contemporary creationists and apologists for ‘intelligent design’.

What Exactly is ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’?

We need at this stage to specify what we mean by science, as we have done with religion. Science, no less than religion, is difficult to define simply and straightforwardly, and no definition stands unchallenged. However, the American scientist E. O. Wilson defined science as ‘the organised, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge about the world into testable laws and principles.’ (Consilience, p 57) What makes scientific ideas especially useful is that they are produced without reference to our social context. Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system, but is a combination of operations. The word science derives from the Latin noun scientia, which in turn derives from the verb scire, or ‘to know.’ Unlike religion, there are no forbidden zones in science; all things, and all people are open to question, and it is this inbuilt error-detection machinery that makes science so valuable. Philosophy, at its best, works in the same way.

The British embryologist Lewis Wolpert has outlined these five criteria for a subject to qualify as a science:

This is fundamentally different to the way religions operate. A religion derives its authority from the power of testimony, that is, one person’s assertion being accepted by another person, and so on. That original assertion is often then backed up with a body of writings which acquire the authority of being scripture. Faith then becomes a significant means by which the core assertions are accepted. And faith, remember, is ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ (Hebrews 11:1) Pope Leo XIII added to this when he declared faith to be ‘an act of the intellect made under the sway of the will.’ (Lamentabili, 1907) Faith, understood in this way, cannot operate in a scientific context.

Assertions made in a scientific context are open to criticism, and can be altered or rejected if found to be flawed. Assertions made in a religious context, however, if they acquire doctrinal status, also acquire immunity from criticism. Having acquired this status, it becomes problematic, even dangerous, to question or challenge its presumptions. This is not how science works. No claim is beyond question and no book, no matter how authoritative, is beyond challenge.

If we turn our attention from the contrasting methods of science and religion to their core presuppositions, we find another minefield of potential conflict. The British physicist Simon Altmann speaks about certain normative principles which have a ‘greater generality than physical laws and which are so named because they organise scientific discourse.’ Some theories can become entrenched, as he puts it, in scientific practice because of the multilayered connections and corroborations between it and supporting and neighbouring theories. ‘It is only by knitting a tight mesh of interrelated and entrenched concepts that entrenchment as a process requires legitimacy.’ (Altmann, p 158) These mutually supporting theories, what are called laws of nature, are the positive outcomes of certain normative principles, which describe the way nature works. Altmann considers lists five main normative principles:

Each of these normative principles gives rise to a host of deeply entrenched and mutually supporting physical laws. The overall effect is, in Altmann’s words, a mesh of interwoven principles, laws and properties which, as a whole, constitute our scientific understanding of the world. And, as Altmann makes clear, the general direction of this mesh of interweaving and mutually reinforcing knowledge is that the idea of a God is, not so much in conflict with it, as irrelevant to it. As Laplace famously remarked to Napoleon regarding God, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.”

But nothing is so fatal to the idea of God than being irrelevant, and that condition has given rise to the periodic outbursts of open conflict that we have seen over the centuries, from Galileo to Intelligent Design. Each of these periods of conflict arose because certain defenders of religious doctrine at the time have perceived their doctrine to be under threat by the new scientific understanding of how things work. And it is important to note that in each case they have been right; their doctrine has been under direct and serious challenge by the new scientific understanding.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim that nature can be explained teleologically and that nature is not intelligible solely in naturalistic, scientific terms. It is inevitable that, at various times, these fundamental differences will manifest themselves in the form of open conflict. The Galileo saga, and the long struggle among conservative Christians to accommodate Darwinism cannot be understood unless one thinks in terms of conflict. The Catholic and humanist attitudes to abortion, homosexuality, celibacy and stem cell research also have their bedrock in the different ways science and religion look at the world and at our place in it.

It is apparent, then, that at this abstract theoretical level, science and religion are rival outlooks on the world with competing core propositions, divergent mechanisms of understanding and contrasting lines of authority. At this point it would be worthwhile to look briefly at the quintessential religious sources: the scriptures. What do they say? As is well known, the Hebrew Bible (what gets called the ‘Old Testament’) is a pre-scientific set of documents. It was taken for granted that the sun and all the firmament of heaven revolved around the only thing of any importance: the earth. The universe was tiny by modern standards and God could intervene it its operations at will, as when He stopped the sun in its tracks so as to allow Joshua more time to complete his massacre of the Amorites (Joshua 10: 10-12). This same passage, which assumes the earth is fixed and non-rotating, was used against Galileo, to prove the heretical nature of his assertions. These, and many other passages, all demonstrate an understanding of the workings of nature and the wider universe entirely at odds with what is now known. The gap between that pre-scientific understanding and what is now known is the gap that has given rise to the conflict between science and religion.

Both Testaments of the Bible carry several warnings about the risks posed by ‘worldly knowledge’, of which science is an obvious example. We are exhorted to lean not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) and to keep away from what is falsely called knowledge (I Timothy 6:20). God, we are told has shown us the folly of earthly wisdom (I Corinthians 1:20) These are not random passages taken out of context, but are central planks of the Christian message: that we are incapable of working things out for ourselves, and that attempting to do so is unnecessary anyway, given the imminent arrival of the Judgment Day.

Muslim apologists are proud of what they claim are pro-science passages in the Qur’an, as well as prophecies of scientific advances and natural laws. But, as with most prophecies, the language is sufficiently florid to permit several interpretations. But even if we grant that the Qur’an says these things, it has done little to develop a scientific mindset through Muslim culture. This asymmetry was best illustrated in 1993 when Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, the supreme cleric of Saudi Arabia, declared that the world is flat and that anyone disagreeing with this proposition is therefore denying the Qur’an and should be punished.

It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the conflict between religion and science. What the cleric says is entirely refuted by science, but he claims a religious scripture written a millennium and a half ago as the more reliable authority. Even worse, he then threatens coercion against those who would challenge his view. Science does not operate in this way.

At this point many people will become impatient and insist that such thinking reflects outmoded ideas about what the Bible or the Qur’an meant and how it should be understood. These objections do not help. Religious liberals may insist, sometimes with good scholarship to back them up, that the Bible ‘didn’t mean’ this or ‘really meant’ that, but, as with our Saudi example, it has done little to alter public perception.

Here is where the notion of demotheology is useful. Demotheology is a term which denotes the theology not of the erudite scholars and elites, but of the average believer. Demotheology may be incoherent, intolerant and simply banal, but it is the working theology of the general churchgoer, and exerts a much more widespread influence than the nuanced erudition of privileged theologians.

When we consider the demotheology of science and religion, it is clear there is a conflict. General perceptions within average Christian churchgoers is that there was a real conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church, just as there still is between the supporters of evolution by natural selection and creationists, and in the stem cell debate. The ongoing influence of demotheology also helps explain why the pallid abstractions of John Haught or Holmes Rolston, for all their intellectual sincerity, will never resonate with the general believer.

For the non-academic Bible reader, the words are taken at face value, with little or no allowance made for the textual subtleties and confusions. And read in this way, their religion makes a series of truth-claims about the world that are in direct competition with scientific understandings. For those who choose to take the fundamentalist or conservative approach to interpreting scripture, conflict is the inevitable result. So we can see that the conflict thesis is sound, both theoretically – whether from a scientific or a religious perspective – and sociologically, from the perspective of public perceptions.

What the ‘Conflict’ between Science and Religion is Really About

Finally, it is worth spending a little time in outlining what is meant by ‘conflict’. We tend to think of the more dramatic crises, such as the Galileo affair or the ongoing hostility to Darwinism. But in most cases, when we speak of a conflict between science and religion, what is actually meant is a dissonance, a philosophical incompatibility between their core insights. Many people will carry on with their lives entirely unaware of the existence of this incompatibility. The core insight of science, from a human point of view, is that human beings are not the centre of the universe. Rather, we are one species on one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy, in–for all we know–one universe among others. However significant we may be to the running and well-being of Planet Earth, we are irrelevant to the cosmos. By progressively revealing our true place in the universe, science has helped us realise the dangers of our anthropocentric conceit. We are still coming to terms with the psychological consequences of this drastic shift in perceptions.

Religion, by stark contrast, tells us that the creator of the entire universe is deeply interested in our welfare; everything from our health and well-being to whether we can find a car park. Men are made in the image of God Himself, so we are told. And take care to note that it is only men who enjoy this privilege. Men are second only to God in a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, all focused on our needs and wishes. And after our death, we are of such importance that there is a place set aside for our immortal soul to rattle around forever. William James understood this motivation when he said this of religion:

The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short is a monumental chapter of human egotism. (James, p 491)

In formal language the division is between a natural reading of the universe and a supernatural reading of it. Like it or not, these two readings are not compatible. So what gets called the conflict between science and religion boils down to an ethical dilemma for each of us; a dilemma that is going to have momentous consequences for the twenty-first century. That dilemma revolves around the incompatibility between the natural understanding of the universe, with its consequences of cosmic humility, versus the anthropocentric conceit that supernaturalistic religion permits us. Once again, it is important to recognise what is not being said. It is not that all secularists are right and all religious people are wrong. There are good people in all walks of life and from all persuasions. The claim is that monotheistic religion, because of its supernaturalistic presumptions and conceits, offers little help to anyone wanting to live in a sustainable way. And what is more worrying, some of its tenets provide support for those who want to avoid taking responsibility for living in a more sustainable way. Far from being some remote academic squabble, the conflict between science and religion is the most significant issue of the twenty-first century. It is hoped that the essays in this book will stimulate readers to think clearly about their priorities and rearrange their lives accordingly. The fate of the planet rests on the decision each of us makes.

Bill Cooke is Senior Lecturer at the School of Visual Arts, University of Auckland at Manukau (New Zealand); Asia-Pacific Coordinator, Center of Inquiry; a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion; and author of the Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, and Humanism, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006

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