John Shook

It was a great love-hate story, a truly grand narrative. Science and Religion, ever entangled yet estranged, always going in opposite directions yet returning to collide again and again. Somehow they just can’t stay away from each other. They have had a long history going on this way, and the drama won’t end any time soon.

Like any bickering couple, each has its own version of the story. The way Religion tells it, Science got inspired by Religion to study the laws of God’s creation. Science bravely ventured to study all those detailed plans for the material world, set down In the Beginning by God. Religion was so encouraging and supportive. Whenever Science would get frustrated—unable to explain curvilinear motion with only simple math or becoming mystified by the human body—the soothing voice of Religion’s reassurance was always there. “Don’t worry about such things, dear Science,” Religion was quick to say, “because God alone could have knowledge of that.” As Science grew more confident of its explanatory powers, tracking the heavens with laws of gravity and motion and combining elements to make new chemicals, Religion proudly boasted of Science’s talent. Telling anyone who would listen, Religion lauded Science’s ability to trace the design of the Creator’s hand and to explain how God made the world solely for humanity’s happy convenience. “What a team we are!” Religion would say, over and over again.

Science can’t resist telling the story a little differently, of course. Sure, Religion was supportive, but there was always that patronizing tone. Just because Religion was older, why did Religion’s wisdom always have to have the last word? What about those arbitrary rules against opening human cadavers and the way Religion would hush Science to silence about the age of the world? According to Science, the relationship grew stormy in a fight over evolution and humanity’s descent from early primates. And Psychology’s account of intelligence as entirely natural really got Religion upset over the dismissal of the soul.

As far as breakups go, you’d have to admit that it’s been pretty terrible. Religion and Science have been fighting over everything. They can’t even agree on what they are fighting about, which is a bad sign. Religion keeps trying to offer olive branches of peace, which is cute, but there are always strings attached. “Admit that you’ve got limitations,” Religion says to Science, “so that we can have our teamwork again.” Science just gets more irritated at the way Religion demands from it an admission of ignorance about first and last things. Why can’t Science someday figure out where our universe came from and what its destiny is? And it is just ridiculous the way Religion keeps insisting that only its own verdicts on morality must carry any weight. Religion thinks that the fight is about the proper terms of compromise, so that once it is reached they can be partners again. Science is done with compromise, really, and is trying to be completely independent.

Science does seem ready to strike off on its own. The hopes for reconciliation have never been so dim. Maybe revenge is too strong a word, but this new business of scientifically explaining Religion seems a little vindictive. Religion never tried to explain Science, after all. And the way that Science encourages Atheism seems to Religion rude and uncivil, even if they are having a breakup. For Atheism to say such terrible things about Religion . . . you know they couldn’t all be true. As if only Religion caused persecution and wars—you can’t distort history like that! Religion only gets defensive and accuses Science of shameless nihilism and amorality. All that public noise, arguing where everyone can hear. It’s shocking, really.

Does Atheism’s way of defending Science’s side of the story help? Exaggerations abound. Like the version where atheism says that Religion is simply ignorance, taking utterly invented tales for certain truths and barbaric tribal ways for wholesome ethics. Religion says that it must be more than that for it to have retained such strong allegiance even as humanity began to grow up. Even if Religion shouldn’t have the final say about reality or morality anymore, is Atheism right to insist that Religion must be quarantined and eliminated? Would Atheism finish a war that Religion started?

The reader can turn to Matt Flamm’s article, which cautions that “strong believers” should beware their own excesses, lest they become too much like their enemy. If Atheism requires intolerance of Religion, then Atheism had better be ready to have its own motivations questioned as well, if this truly must be a fight to the finish. On the other hand, if war should be used only as a last resort, are fair compromises available? A compromise is not really fair if it requires a compromise of either side’s essential principles. As Ronald Giere points out in his article on some scientists and their faiths, compromises with Science usually end up only compromising Science. A sufficiently unnatural God can be credited with all manner of miraculous acts without contradicting science, it is true. However, those scientists who admire divine interventions into nature—interventions lacking any reasoned basis (beyond conformity to the scientist’s own prior faith)—only betray the very rationality at the heart of Science. Science must remain true to reason and to the integrity of nature.

Compromises are never easy. Perhaps a third party, a helpful mediator, is needed here. My own article recommends that philosophical adjudications must be heard, too. Whether Science should replace Religion is not a judgment that can be passed by Science. Science can account for the way that Religion operates in human brains, but the fact that Religion is incorporated within nature is separated by a big logical gap from the correct judgment that Religion should be eliminated from culture. Making culture more intelligent is the hard work of thoughtful people using reasoned persuasion, not militant force. As philosophers have long said, you can’t increase reasonableness using unreasonable means. The beautiful relationship between Science and Religion may be over, but humanity’s relationship with reason must remain secure.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.

It was a great love-hate story, a truly grand narrative. Science and Religion, ever entangled yet estranged, always going in opposite directions yet returning to collide again and again. Somehow they just can’t stay away from each other. They have had a long history going on this way, and the drama won’t end any time …

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