When Religion Steps on Science's Turf
The Alleged Separation Between the Two Is Not So Tidy
by Richard Dawkins
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.
A cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people confronted
with long-established religions (though, significantly, not in the face of younger
traditions such as Scientology or the Moonies). S. J. Gould, commenting in his Natural
History column on the pope's attitude to evolution, is representative of a dominant strain
of conciliatory thought, among believers and nonbelievers alike: "Science and
religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains ...
I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat [my
Well, what are these two distinctly different domains, these "Nonoverlapping
Magisteria" that should snuggle up together in a respectful and loving concordat?
Gould again: "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of
(fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions
of moral meaning and value."
Who Owns Morals?
Would that it were that tidy. In a moment I'll look at what the pope actually says
about evolution, and then at other claims of his church, to see if they really are so
neatly distinct from the domain of science. First though, a brief aside on the claim that
religion has some special expertise to offer us on moral questions. This is often blithely
accepted even by the nonreligious, presumably in the course of a civilized "bending
over backwards" to concede the best point your opponent has to offer - however weak
that best point may be.
The question, "What is right and what is wrong?" is a genuinely difficult
question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori
moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue
scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs,
and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must
come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from
religion - meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.
Unfortunately, the hope that religion might provide a bedrock, from which our otherwise
sand-based morals can be derived, is a forlorn one. In practice, no civilized person uses
Scripture as ultimate authority for moral reasoning. Instead, we pick and choose the nice
bits of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount) and blithely ignore the nasty bits (like
the obligation to stone adulteresses, execute apostates, and punish the grandchildren of
offenders). The God of the Old Testament himself, with his pitilessly vengeful jealousy,
his racism, sexism, and terrifying bloodlust, will not be adopted as a literal role model
by anybody you or I would wish to know. Yes, of course it is unfair to judge the
customs of an earlier era by the enlightened standards of our own. But that is precisely
my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source of ultimate moral conviction
that overrides Scripture when it suits us.
That alternative source seems to be some kind of liberal consensus of decency and
natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of
secular reformists. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like bedrock. But in practice we,
including the religious among us, give it higher priority than Scripture. In practice we
more or less ignore Scripture, quoting it when it supports our liberal consensus, quietly
forgetting it when it doesn't. And wherever that liberal consensus comes from, it is
available to all of us, whether we are religious or not.
Similarly, great religious teachers like Jesus or Gautama Buddha may inspire us, by
their good example, to adopt their personal moral convictions. But again we pick and
choose among religious leaders, avoiding the bad examples of Jim Jones or Charles Manson,
and we may choose good secular role models such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Nelson Mandela.
Traditions too, however anciently followed, may be good or bad, and we use our secular
judgment of decency and natural justice to decide which ones to follow, which to give up.
Religion on Science's Turf
But that discussion of moral values was a digression. I now turn to my main topic of
evolution and whether the pope lives up to the ideal of keeping off the scientific grass.
His "Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences" begins with
some casuistical doubletalk designed to reconcile what John Paul II is about to say with
the previous, more equivocal pronouncements of Pius XII, whose acceptance of evolution was
comparatively grudging and reluctant. Then the pope comes to the harder task of
reconciling scientific evidence with "revelation."
Revelation teaches us that [man] was created in the image and likeness of God. ... if
the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is
immediately created by God ... Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance
with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of
living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth
about man. ... With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological
difference, an ontological leap, one could say.
To do the pope credit, at this point he recognizes the essential contradiction between
the two positions he is attempting to reconcile: "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?"
Never fear. As so often in the past, obscurantism comes to the rescue:
Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible
to reconcile two points of view which would seen 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, which nevertheless can discover at the
experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the
In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened
and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage. (When? A million years ago?
Two million years ago? Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between
"archaic" Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?) The sudden
injection is necessary, of course, otherwise there would be no distinction upon which to
base Catholic morality, which is speciesist to the core. You can kill adult animals for
meat, but abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.
Catholicism's "net" is not limited to moral considerations, if only because
Catholic morals have scientific implications. Catholic morality demands the presence of a
great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. Such a gulf
is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. The sudden injection of an immortal soul in the
timeline is an anti-evolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.
More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that
religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A
universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different
kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific
difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
The same is true of many of the major doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The
Virgin Birth, the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus,
the survival of our own souls after death: these are all claims of a clearly scientific
nature. Either Jesus had a corporeal father or he didn't. This is not a question of
"values" or "morals"; it is a question of sober fact. We may not have
the evidence to answer it, but it is a scientific question, nevertheless. You may be sure
that, if any evidence supporting the claim were discovered, the Vatican would not be
reticent in promoting it.
Either Mary's body decayed when she died, or it was physically removed from this planet
to Heaven. The official Roman Catholic doctrine of Assumption, promulgated as recently as
1950, implies that Heaven has a physical location and exists in the domain of physical
reality - how else could the physical body of a woman go there? I am not, here, saying
that the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin is necessarily false (although of course
I think it is). I am simply rebutting the claim that it is outside the domain of science.
On the contrary, the Assumption of the Virgin is transparently a scientific theory. So is
the theory that our souls survive bodily death, and so are all stories of angelic
visitations, Marian manifestations, and miracles of all types.
There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all
religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and
the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell
congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their
popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same
stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and
therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least,
religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both
ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably
ready to let them.
I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against
fundamentalist creationism. It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under
the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe. Even so, given a choice between
honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous
doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer.
Richard Dawkins, one of the world's
leading evolutionary biologists, is Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of
Science at Oxford University and Senior Editor of Free Inquiry.