Science v. Religion or Science and Religion

Remarks delivered at The North Texas Church of Freethought on September 6, 1998

I do not think it would be wrong to say that religion may well have been the first sort of science.

Imagine human beings in a state of nature, a few of them scattered here and there across the face of the earth, before agriculture made it possible to establish cities and before language had made possible the development of cultural ideas and practices into oral traditions. Imagine a time when, really, everyone was homeless and worse than homeless, for they lived in whatever shelter was available or could be crudely fashioned, and they ate and drank whatever they could find, and they feared and ran away, not from the occasional policeman who might tell them to move along, but from wild animals that would tear their flesh, and other natural threats of which we scarcely have any conception of any more. There were not even cardboard boxes to scavenge, or motorists to beg from, or dumpsters from which scraps of food might be recovered. Imagine a time when the wilderness of the planet and the uncontrolled forces of nature were not just inconveniences, or tourist destinations, or something far off and remote to be seen on television during a National Geographic special. Imagine a time when virtually no one thought to admire or appreciate the natural world or its forces, much less protect it from our their own encroaching activities. For human beings in a state of nature, survival would have had to take precedence over all the things that we now take for granted.

Still, even under those circumstances, human beings' brains likely worked very much as they do today. People undoubtedly noticed patterns, recognized similarities, distinguished between opposites, and began to comprehend that causes are followed by their effects. But still the total fund of such knowledge was woefully small, appallingly erratic and incomplete, uncertain, inconstant, unreliable, and, therefore, wretchedly ineffectual. Yet it was all they had, and it is plausible that primitive ideas that discerned natural patterns, resemblances between the physical powers wielded by nature and the rude tools fashioned by humans, elementary observations such as that fire could warm cold things and water could moisten dry things, and, most importantly, an appreciation that cause and effect could be harnessed in useful ways, that all these things could eventually congeal into the beginnings of such practical disciplines as agriculture and architecture as well as the more speculative "sciences" of astrology and various forms of magic.

The written word enjoyed a status at that time which may not have seemed much different from that of space travel and supercomputers today. It was new, it was known only to a few, and it may have seemed that it was the greatest accomplishment of all time, which, of course, it was.

So it should not be difficult to grasp the ease with which our ancestors seem to have accepted the idea of magic spells, incantations, and enchantments. For these, perhaps, seemed only a bit more wondrous that than the fact that if you put a certain part of a plant into the soil at the right time and in the right way, and took care of it in a certain way, you would have food. But then, as now — as modern farmers know all too well — agriculture was still a dicey proposition. Even if you thought you had done everything right, it still might not work. Perhaps you had made some mistake after all. And so it is understandable — laudable, in fact, because it demonstrates a sort of humility — that people often resolved to "have faith" in what was, for them, the functional equivalent of modern science, even in the face of failure and ruin. Likewise, it is understandable that those who could more-or-less reliably make things "work" would enjoy fame, fortune, and power, even while running the risk of severe punishment if they failed in some crucial situation.

If this scenario is largely correct — and it is unlikely that we can ever know for sure if it is correct because psychological states of mind leave little traces behind them — then it may represent the genesis of a struggle that continues today between dogmas and doctrines and innovation and discovery. In the sciences, we like to think that improvement and progress enjoy the upper hand. It is not safe, obviously, to tinker with a 747 while it is carrying passengers at 30,000 feet. Nor is it ethical to suggest to someone that an herb or some other substance prepared in some special way might cure them of cancer or add twenty years to their life. But there are ways to go about testing even the weirdest and most fanciful propositions that have to do with claims about the objective world. Meanwhile, in religious matters it is just as clear that the consideration that often dominates is the fear of irreparable catastrophe if there is even the smallest departure from the established tenets of faith and ritual.

In a discipline even so "hard" and fact-based as modern physics it is possible for people to consider circumstances in which the most basic "laws of nature" might break down or be violated. Indeed, the "laws of nature" are readily admitted by the most insightful of those who ponder them to be human interpretations of observations, albeit well-characterized and studied observations. But, nevertheless, there are always additional observations to be done.

But no such deviations are tolerable for those who contemplate the single, absolute, immutable, and unquestionable nature of any of several hundred different gods whose desires are made known through revelation. For their purposes, experience is something to be fitted into what they already know, not something from which they can learn something new.

It is nevertheless significant that the practical purpose of religion has dwindled to that of being occupied primarily with the aspects of human life that remain largely out of our control by other means. The priests no longer devise our calendar. They do not gather medicinal plants and compound them into medications. They no longer predict — often wrongly — the who, what, where, how, and when of inclement weather, health dangers, threats, and national and international threats to the order and peace. Or, when they do, they do so in ways that do not pretend to offer real information, or in such an obscure manner that its practical significance is nil. That is why the modern religious leaders seldom if ever plot strategy with the rulers and generals. Rather, they are reduced to exhorting the subjects and citizens and consoling the frightened and shell-shocked conscripts. These days, in short, the experts in superstition almost always confine themselves to problems that remain outside of the power of science to understand and to easily control, including problems that almost certainly were never anything but imaginary.

The way in which this remarkable transformation happened and is continuing to happen is only now beginning to be appreciated. This is because, as the proverb goes, "The winners write the history books." To be sure, the supremacy of facts and reason is far from assured. But on the scale of history the tide has been turning these last few hundred years. And it will help a great deal if there begins to be a wider understanding of just how science and religion came to occupy their respective positions.

There is a extraordinary book published in 1896, now in print again thanks to Prometheus Books, by a historian named Andrew Dickson White. It is entitled A History Of The Warfare Of Science With Theology In Christendom. With the aid of the financial resources of his friend Ezra Cornell, White had helped to found the Ivy League Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which took its first students in 1867. White was the school's first President, serving until 1885. It was White's insistence that Cornell University not be under the control of any religious sect, which was virtually unheard of in that day. The opposition that it provoked, including charges that he was an atheist and an infidel, led him to crusade for the independence of academic inquiry from the churches. The History book was the eventual result of lectures and articles that White composed to defend his position. [I highly recommend this book!]

Robert Ingersoll was a contemporary of Andrew White and almost certainly knew of White's work and had read his writings. Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses very likely came straight from a book that appeared in 1826 by Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, in South Africa, that White discusses in his History. Indeed, it is quickly apparent that the trailblazers in the debunking of the literal truth of much of the Bible were the intellectual forebears of our modern-day "liberal" believers. Except that, unfortunately, the "liberal" churches seem to have forgotten their heritage and no longer understand why they are not biblical-inerrantist fundamentalist sects. Believe it or not, people like Colenso and other clerics of the last century were seriously concerned about the many biblical errors, absurdities, and contradictions, though they somehow clung to the metaphysics of their religious faith. Perhaps the modern-day "liberal" churches, including even that of the Roman Catholic Pope who admits that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," are afraid for their flocks to appreciate the recent history of their own religions. Perhaps they are afraid of what might happen if the sheep find out that their shepherds realized some time ago that the threat of the wolf was illusory at best.

For example, even the elementary fact that there are two different creation accounts in the Bible is a well-kept secret. But this fact has been accounted for by Christian theology — and perhaps technically still is — as far back as Augustine. Supposedly, the universe and everything in it was created in 6 days and God rested on the seventh, remember? Yet we also know that Archbishop Usher fixed the exact day and time of the creation of the world as October 23rd, 4004 BCE, at 9 o'clock in the morning. So what happened to the six days? Again, it seems to be a well-kept secret that in addition to having to reconcile faith alone as well as works for salvation, and Jesus being fully human and yet fully God, not to mention three Gods in one, it was long considered an article of Christian faith that God created everything instantaneously in six days. Indeed, even to bring up these difficulties is now considered an "attack" on Christianity when once they were considered mysteries for the faithful to prove their mettle in believing!

White also gives a fascinating account of past battles against science that were lost by its superstitious enemies. The "nebular theory" of the origin of the solar system, for example, which we know today as the condensation of the sun and planets from a vast primordial collection of gas and dust, was immediately and roundly denounced by theologians when Kant and Laplace proposed and defended it. Astronomy had been taken over by atheists and infidels, it was insisted. But when improved telescopes showed that some nebulae contained stars, then the theologians claimed that astronomy refuted atheism and proved the truth of Scripture. They even managed to maintain this position for some time, according to White, by insisting that all nebulae already had stars in them if only there were telescopes sufficiently powerful to see them. But spectral analysis eventually dashed their wishful thinking, and so the theologians finally gave up, though not, of course, before declaring victory. In fact, White relates that by the time he was writing, a professor of chemistry had lectured at a prominent church in New York at the conclusion of which an appreciative listener gave thanks for "this perfect demonstration of the exact and literal conformity of the statements given in Holy Scripture with the latest results of science."

Andrew White was a good writer and there are many passages in his History that are both enlightening and enjoyable. His work is well-researched and well-referenced as well. I have been unable to discover so far whether White was, in fact, an Atheist, but here is what he had to say about the effects of scientific progress at the time that he wrote on the basis of religious faith in Western civilization, the Bible:

Thus, from the Assyrian researches as well as from other sources, it has come to be acknowledged by the most eminent scholars at the leading seats of Christian learning that the accounts of creation with which for nearly two thousand years all scientific discoveries have had to be 'reconciled' — the accounts which blocked the way of Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and Laplace — were simply transcribed or evolved from a mass of myths and legends largely derived by the Hebrews from their ancient relations with Chaldea, rewrought in a monotheistic sense, imperfectly welded together, and then thrown into poetic forms in the sacred books which we have inherited.

On one hand, then, we have a the various groups of men devoted to the physical sciences all converging toward the proofs that the universe, as we at present know it, is the result of an evolutionary process — that is, of the gradual working of physical laws upon an early condition of matter; on the other hand, we have other great groups of men devoted to historical, philological, and archaeological science whose researches all converge toward the conclusion that our sacred accounts of creation were the result of an evolution from an early chaos of rude opinion.

The great body of theologians who have so long resisted the conclusions of the men of science have claimed to be fighting especially for 'the truth of Scripture,' and their final answer to the simple conclusions of science regarding the evolution of the material universe has been the cry, 'The Bible is true.' And they are right — though in a sense nobler then they have dreamed. Science, while conquering them, has found in our Scriptures a far nobler truth than that literal historical exactness for which theologians have so long and so vainly contended. More and more as we consider the results of the long struggle in this field we are brought to the conclusion that the inestimable value of the great sacred books of the world is found in their revelation of the steady striving of our race after higher conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations, both in morals and religion. Unfolding and exhibiting this long-continued effort, each of the great sacred books of the world is precious, and all, in the highest sense, our true. Not one of them, indeed, conforms to the measure of what mankind has now reached in historical and scientific truth; to make a claim to such conformity is folly, for it simply exposes those who make it and the books for which it is made to the loss of the their just influence.

That to which the great sacred books of the world conform, and our own most of all, is the evolution of the highest conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations of our race from its childhood through the great turning-points in its history. Herein lies the truth of all bibles, and especially our own. Of vast value they indeed often are as a record of the historical outward fact; recent researches in the East are constantly increasing this value; but it is not for this that we prize them most: they are eminently precious, not as a record of outward fact, but as a mirror of the evolving heart, mind, and soul of man. They are true because they have been developed in accordance with the laws governing the evolution of truth in human history, and because in poem, chronicle, code, legend, myth, apologue, or parable they reflect this development of what is best in the onward march of humanity. To say that they are not true is as if one should say that a flower or a tree or a planet is not true; to scoff at them is to scoff at the law of the universe. In welding together into noble form, whether in the book of Genesis, or in the Psalms, or in the Book of Job, or elsewhere, the great conceptions of men acting under earlier inspiration, whether in Egypt, or Chaldea, or India, or Persia, the compilers of our sacred books have given to humanity a possession ever becoming more and more precious; and modern science, in substituting a new heaven and a new earth for the old — the reign of law for the reign of caprice, and the idea of evolution for that of creation — has added and is steadily adding a new revelation divinely inspired.

No wonder they called him an atheist and an infidel! The rest of the History, which runs to 396 pages not counting the lengthy index, is in a similar vein: celebrating, as Freethinkers do, the best of the human condition regardless of theological considerations, and regardless of whether it is found inside or outside of the Bible. If Ingersoll and White were not cordial acquaintances or even good friends, I should be surprised. Ingersoll, of course, apparently felt freer to be more strident in his views.

Fast-forward to the present-day.

It is easy, of course, to resent the fact that the leading edge of progress within the ranks of superstitious religions has continued to be hardly more substantial than the nonsense against which it hesitantly breaks. It is true that we have Bishop Spong who still cares something for "truth in religion," as it were. And, here and there, we see a priest or other cleric being removed or disciplined for doctrinal infractions or — gasp — tolerating homosexuals. We ought not to be unhappy even for this, though.

It is also quite easy to resent the fact that the purveyors of religious superstition pretend as if all the science they now embrace and even claim as supporting their positions they once fought tooth and nail and insisted could never be compatible with their sacred truths. But, as some of us saw last May at the taping of The McCuistion Show on the supposed scientific evidence for God, even believers are not entirely comfortable with such clumsy attempts to appropriate the tools and works of reason to defend unreason. In any case, we ought not to be unhappy that superstition has lost ground, whether it wants to be admitted by anyone or not. Let people save face, I say. Humiliating them unnecessarily serves no purpose.

Some of us like to think of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould as being "one of us" because he has done much to point out the errors of biblical-inerrantist creationists and to help defend the public schools from their encroachments. He has publicly acknowledged his lack of belief in the supernatural, his comfort with the fact that "nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn't know we were coming, and doesn't give a damn about us." And, yet, in March of last year — 1997 — he wrote an item in his Natural History column in which advocated for what he called a principle of "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," or NOMA, when thinking about science and religion.

It's not a particularly lengthy article. Much of it, though, consists of his trademark digressions of personal anecdote. The backdrop is the aforementioned admission, in October of 1996, by Pope John Paul that evolution is "more than a hypothesis." But here is Gould:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise — science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. ... Perhaps most people really do think that a war exists between science and religion, and that (to cite a particularly newsworthy case) evolution must be intrinsically opposed to Christianity. ... for whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue. ... the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church ... [and that of science] do not overlap [because] the net of science covers the empirical universe: what it is made of (fact) and why it does work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. ... the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. ... evolution lies in a difficult area where the domains press hard against each other."

Gould then quotes Pope John Paul's trying to reconcile the process of the gradual biological evolution of human beings and their peculiar faculties with the Bible's account of an instantaneous creation:

However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.

Gould says that he "happily endorse[s] this turn of events as gospel — literally good news." But then he says of unnamed colleagues that:

To colleagues like me — agnostic scientists who welcome and celebrate the rapprochement, especially the pope's latest statement — they say: 'C'mon, be honest; you know that religion is addle-pated, superstitious, old fashioned b.s.; you're only making these welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic ...' ... such a position fills me with dismay ... [because] NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution.

But Gould goes on to state just what sort of principle he thinks is most important:

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. ... I recognize that such a position [as that of the Atheist] frightens many people, and that a more spiritual view of nature retains broad appeal.

Do you see the problem? Gould is willing to cede a good deal more than the subjective realm of human experience to religion. He wants to pretend that it is possible to make any sort of reasonable statement about souls and gods and the like as if they existed somewhere out there but still, somehow, beyond the reach of science. While the truth is, that any such claims are clearly pseudoscientific in the sense that they assert something about the way that the reality we all share really is. And, once you grant that, all is lost. Gould seems oblivious to the fact that his Jewish ancestors endured wholesale persecution and slaughter, as well as practiced it themselves, on the say-so of "higher insight into moral truth" by means of a "superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution" that is immune from scientific criticism.

Even Pope John Paul, in the statement that Gould is only too willing to "happily endorse" as "gospel" truth, relies on the very same arguments that the more simple-minded creationists do. For the latter say that we cannot know that God didn't create the first living organisms atom by atom from "the dust of the earth." This, by virtue of the fact that, after all, no one can go back and prove that it happened by natural processes. Likewise, the Pope is entirely unjustified in claiming that there was a "moment of transition to the spiritual." How does he know? Scientifically, it makes much more sense to suppose that all of the human feelings, ideas, and practices that could be put under the heading of "spiritual" arose in fits and starts, here and there, in flashes of understanding and moments of insight. Anyone who has ever raised children will know what I am talking about since the same remarkable, puzzling, and ambiguous transformation occurs in the process of a human newborn becoming a human person.

This is not to say that there cannot be a rapprochement between science and religion. For there can be "nonoverlapping magisteria." But the nature of the nonoverlap is not the methods used so much as the objects of consideration.

Science is exclusively devoted to the study of the intersubjective — which is to say objective — phenomena of the world that we all more or less share in common. It is not that science cannot disprove souls or gods, after all. It cannot disprove any number of speculative ideas with which we simply have no experience. But, if aliens are among us, or if there are things smaller than quarks, and, indeed, if there are such things as immortal human souls, gods who watch us and answer prayers, angels that protect us, or any other sort of thing which exists independently of our personal, subjective experiences and which interacts with the objective world, it is a legitimate object of scientific study. So the fact remains: if the Pope wants to say that God put souls into some nascent human ancestor and that this magical transition cannot be the object of scientific inquiry, then the same can be said for the supernatural claims of all of the other world's religions. How can the Pope his religion is right and everybody else's is wrong? He can't. Not on any rational basis, anyway.

No, the only way to have nonoverlapping magisteria for science and religion is to recognize the fact that the nature of the nonoverlap between them is not so much a boundary as a discontinuity. And that "moment of transition" is when we go from considering the personal, private, subjective world of human experience to the social, public, and inter-subjective world of objective reality. Facts and reason, in other words, ought to govern our thinking and behavior about the world outside of ourselves. Meanwhile, our hopes, our dreams, our fantasies and related things must remain confined to the world inside of ourselves.

Does that not make sense to anyone?

A rational religion, therefore, will dispense with superstition. That is, it will dispense with all pretense to any expertise, much less ultimate or absolute knowledge, about the nature of the world outside of the individual human consciousness. That is not the proper concern of an authentic religion.

This is not to say that there cannot be any legitimate relationship between science and religion as they are properly understood. But there can be no such relationship while there is any pretense about their respective roles. Facts and reason can inform our hopes and dreams, but they cannot limit them. Scientific progress depends on this being recognized, in fact. Meanwhile, our desires and fears cannot make facts and reason what we wish, no matter how fervently we may wish it otherwise. Spiritual progress depends on this being recognized.

But T.H. Huxley said it long ago, which we heard at the very first service of the North Texas Church of Freethought:

"My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations."

Science exists to help us help us understand the world outside of ourselves and to live together peacefully and effectively in that world. It has done a pretty good job of doing that. Religion exists — or should exist — to help us find satisfaction and happiness in that enterprise. It has not been as successful as science in that task. But, then, it may very well be that religion has the harder job.

You see, it doesn't take religion to tell us that famines and epidemics and nuking the world are harmful things for human beings. Science can tell us that. And science can help a great deal to tell us what we need to do in practical terms to avert those dangers. But it takes religion — real, rational, Freethinking religion, regardless of the myths, symbols, and traditions its followers prefer — to teach us that we don't want to harm others, that we harm ourselves when we harm others, and that the survival and betterment of human beings, beginning with ourselves, is worthwhile because it is what we really want.

That's the idea of the North Texas Church of Freethought and the religion of Freethought that we espouse.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1998 by Dr. Tim Gorski