Science and Religion – What the Religious Get Wrong

In my previous post I pointed out that debates and science and religion are often fruitless because both sides argue straw men. They invent positions for the other side (or either quote mine them or cherry pick the most straw position) and then argue against it.

Thinking and reading about this was prompted by reading a book belonging to my sister on the topic. The thesis was basically this: Modern physics (cosmology in particular) makes use of hypotheses that are non-empirical – that couldn’t be evidenced even in principle (like multiple universes, say), therefore the naive idea that science is about evidence is old fashioned, and therefore so is the idea that religion’s lack of empirical evidence somehow puts it at odds with science.

There are other approaches, I use this purely as an example.

By and large what religious compatibility-advocates fail to deal with is this:

Is there anything in your religion — anything whatsoever — that if true, would have any observable effect on the world?

If there is, then it really doesn’t matter whether non-empiricism is a valid tool in hypothesis construction, or whether faith is the most important thing, or anything else. If there is then your religion comes into the realm of things we can go and find and look at. So why waste time arguing whether science is compatible with religion? Let’s go look.

And before you say that the effects are subtle, so they couldn’t be observed, let’s discus what the effects might be. Let’s start with “here’s what effects there are, how do we look for them?” rather than the blanket “there are effect, but they can’t be seen”, which just presumes failure. We can detect stuff, even if it is very subtle, even if purely psychological. Even if it were supernatural, as long as it had some direct or indirect effect on the world. Anything that has an effect, we can go look at – so let’s start there. Because if that effect is real then all the arguments are moot.

If there isn’t then… Well that’s cool. But let’s be clear, exactly, what we’re saying. That the content of your religion has no effect, no discernible effect on the world. If that’s what you mean, it’s fine then to talk about non-empiricism: that’s allowed then. You’re right, there is no conflict in that case.

If you claim your religion has some discernible effect on people or things, then science and your religion are compatible if those effects are real.

If you claim your religion has no discernible effects on people or things, then the issue of a conflict between science and religion goes away.

Any argument that doesn’t take seriously existing empirical claims (explicit or implicit) within religion should not be taken seriously. Note I am not making any claims about what religions do or do not claim. I am merely making the observation that, by and large, religious writers on science avoid facing this question honestly. And surely if you are claiming that two fields are compatible, the first question to ask is whether they can ever overlap, and if so whether they would agree.



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4 responses to “Science and Religion – What the Religious Get Wrong

  1. I absolutely agree. That is a great approach — stay focused on empirical claims (if any) then move on.

  2. Ooops, forgot to follow. So I might as well leave you with something:

    I enjoy Cris’ blog and you may too. That post touches a bit on science and you may enjoy his suggestions — I did.

  3. Ian

    Thanks for the tip on Cris’s blog. I love tht article. Sorry for responding tardily.

  4. You are welcome. I thought you’d enjoy it. Unfortunately, he broke the site and can’t get his “follow comments by email” function to work which makes the site hard to use and follow. Such great material but a crippled site — if you could offer to fix it for him, I think he’d be ecstatic.

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