Religion’s Truce with Science Can’t Hold

Apollo-moon-landings-007Julian Baggini in Comment is Free from a month ago (with responses by many, including Keith Ward, Jerry Coyne, Jim P. Houston, Ophelia Benson, Jean Kazez, and Russell Blackford):

One of the most tedious recurring questions in the public debate about faith has been “is religion compatible with science?” Why won't it just go away?

I'm convinced that one reason is that the standard affirmative answer is sophisticated enough to persuade those willing to be persuaded, but fishy enough for those less sure to keep sniffing away at it. That defence is that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.

The biologist Stephen Jay Gould made just this kind of move when he argued that science and religion have non-overlapping magisteria (noma). In Rock of Ages, Gould wrote that science deals with “the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.” In short, science is empirical, religion is ethical.

A version of this strategy was also adopted by the physicist John Polkinghorne and the mathematician Nicholas Beale in their book, Questions of Truth. As they put it: “Science is concerned with the question, How? – By what process do things happen? Theology is concerned with the question, Why? – Is there a meaning and purpose behind what is happening?”

It sounds like a clear enough distinction, but maintaining it proves to be very difficult indeed. Many “why” questions are really “how” questions in disguise.