Science and Religion – handout


By Andy Waldron, Head of Philosophy at Sevenoaks School (used with permission)

With the arrival of modern science in the seventeenth century came a new conception of God. Deists acknowledged the self-sufficiency of the physical universe and viewed God as merely the architect, setting in motion the mechanism but allowing it to run without intervention. The discoveries of science, and the unchanging laws of nature, were in fact seen as evidence of God’s plan. Isaac Newton, who devoted more time to the study of scripture than to the natural sciences, believed that God had revealed himself in the book of Nature as well as the book of Scripture. The notion of the cosmos as a finely tuned machine became the core of the theists’ argument from design and William Paley’s watchmaker analogy. For a time, science and religion co-existed happily as partners in the search for understanding.
The contemporary relationship between science and religion appears very different. The New Atheists are using science to attack the doctrines of faith, and religious voices warn against the advance of science and oppose the teaching of evolution in schools. Since history shows that this hostility is not inevitable, philosophers have wondered about the nature of the two fields. Are they complementary or do they overlap? Are they ultimately concerned with the same questions? And how exactly do they differ?

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

The biologist Stephen Jay Gould adopted the phrase “non-overlapping magisterial” (NOMA) to describe the separate realms of science and religion. Taking his cue from the Vatican’s recent acceptance of evolution as a true account of our physical (but not spiritual) origins, Gould argued for a respectful truce in the conflict between these two areas of study. The conflict is mistaken in that it fails to recognise the independence of the two spheres:

The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry… – Non-Overlapping Magisteria

The argument rests on a particular set of assumptions about the scope of science and religion. For Gould, science is concerned with natural and empirical claims about the physical world. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned with metaphysical claims about immaterial objects. If the physical and the metaphysical were so easily distinguished, then of course the two magisteria would not overlap. But this seems to be wishful thinking. Any move to restrict the realm of facts to science and the realm of values to religion, implies that religion has nothing to say about fact, and science nothing to say about value – and both sides would be uncomfortable with that. Richard Dawkins has explicitly attacked the NOMA thesis:

… the belief that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is dishonest. It founders on the undeniable fact that religions still make claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. – The Great Convergence

Whenever religious apologists make factual claims, they are intruding into the realm of science. This is clearly the case with, for instance, biblical literalists who insist that the Genesis creation story is factually accurate and the earth is only ten thousand years old. Less extreme cases of overlap include claims of miracles and the theory of intelligent design. Scientists have also been known to trespass on religion’s turf: Sam Harris and other ethical naturalists have recently been advocating the use of science to determine moral questions, and the New Atheists have addressed religious issues like resurrection, ascension and life after death. It appears that facts and values are not so separate after all.

A Conflict of World-views

Despite Gould’s polite accommodation of faith as an independent magisterium, science and religion have more commonly been rivals in the search for truth. Over the last few hundred years many religious phenomena have been accounted for by science, and supernatural causes have been explained in natural terms. As the territory occupied by science expands, it seems there is less room for God. This has given rise to the notion of the God of the gaps who exists only as a solution to those questions not yet answered by science. It appears that when religious beliefs compete on the same ground as scientific theories, one of them has to give. Three brief examples will illustrate the point.


Miracles are usually defined in relation to the physical laws they are alleged to transgress: an event is only miraculous if it cannot be explained scientifically. But to claim that miracles happen is to claim that these physical laws can, in fact, be violated. The mechanistic view of the cosmos throws into question the traditional role of God as sustainer of the universe: if the laws of physics have no need of divine intervention, then God is relegated to passive spectator (as the Deists claimed). For some believers, this is unpalatable: miracles are an important element of church doctrine and the immanence of God makes the miraculous possible. Newton himself believed that God occasionally tweaked the settings, prompting Leibniz to quip:

… God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. – Letter, November 1715

The scientific account of the universe is difficult to square with the traditional view of a God who intervenes in the world to perform miracles. Although there is perhaps no logical contradiction here, the two positions imply very different theologies.

The textbook example of conflict between the church and science is the trial of Galileo Galilei. Galileo was a defender of the Copernican theory of heliocentrism, and after demonstrating his telescopic observations to the scholars of Rome was warned that his teachings were considered heresy by the Catholic church. Following the publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems he was summoned before the Holy Office in 1633. The Inquisition found him “vehemently suspect of heresy” and ordered him to recant his theory which, under threat of torture, he did. According to popular legend, after formally denying the theory that the earth moved around the sun, Galileo muttered the rebellious phrase: Eppur si muove – “And yet it moves”. The publication of his books was banned and he was sentenced to house arrest until his death.

It is perhaps too simplistic to see Galileo’s trial as a battle between enlightened science and a benighted church. With hindsight we can recognise that the church was in error to cling to the geocentric view, but at the time the two competing models were much less easy to distinguish. The scientific instruments of astronomy were unsophisticated, the claims of heliocentrism were not fully developed and the existing Ptolemaic system was part of a commitment to Aristotelianism that suffused every aspect of intellectual life. The church was understandably reluctant to embrace such a profound paradigm shift on inconclusive evidence.

Nevertheless, Galileo’s trial represents a confrontation between two types of evidence: the empirical data of science and the testimony of scripture. A number of biblical passages imply a geocentric view of the universe:

… the world also is established, that it cannot be moved. – Psalm 93.1

Given that the Ptolemaic and Copernican theories at the time explained the empirical data with more or less equal success, the authority of the Bible was invoked as the deciding factor in Galileo’s conviction. A willingness to privilege certain types of evidence over others – in this case, the authority of scripture over empirical data – is the distinguishing characteristic of many religious disagreements with scientific theory. Science, of course, does not recognise the authority of any scripture.

The final example of conflict is the stubborn refusal of some believers to accept the theory of evolution. The defence of creationism, mostly in the USA, has now taken the form of the advocacy of intelligent design, a creationist theory that purports to be scientific (the Pennsylvania District Court ruled in 2005 that intelligent design is not a scientific theory and therefore cannot be taught as an alternative to evolution). Given the provisional nature of all scientific theories, however overwhelming the evidence, it might be argued that the current account of evolution by natural selection is merely a working hypothesis, a best explanation of the data. Therefore alternative hypotheses – if they offer an explanation of the same data – should not be dismissed. However most scientists agree that intelligent design does not have anything like the equivalent explanatory power of its scientific counterpart, and relies instead upon unsubstantiated supernatural claims.

Religious accounts of creation can be understood in many different ways. Few if any practising scientists will read Genesis as a factual account; but as myth, metaphor or allegory it still has great value. The complicated nature of religious language means that literal or historical interpretations of such cosmogonies may be missing the point. If understood in a non-literal way, then the biblical account of the creation is not incompatible with geological and evolutionary theory. In fact, many (including the Catholic church) are happy to allow natural selection as God’s preferred mechanism for the evolution of species. In this area at least, science and religion are not incompatible.


So what is at stake in these battles? The conflict is not so much over the data as over the interpretation of that data, and interpretation is the product of other assumptions, other paradigms. Believers who refuse the mechanistic picture of the universe offered by science are advocating a different sort of God to the one imagined by the Deists; by arresting Galileo, the church was defending the authority of scripture; and the supporters of intelligent design are promoting a particular concept of human dignity and significance that they feel is undermined by Darwin’s account. The battle between religion and science is less a disagreement over facts than a conflict of world-views.

Of course the religious world-view is based on faith, whereas science depends upon empirical evidence. But this distinction is not so easy to maintain. Religion has its own evidence: scriptures and historical claims; rational arguments for the existence of god; long-standing popular consensus. And much scientific thinking rests on hardly more solid ground: claims about elementary particles and dark matter, the Big Bang or the interpretation of the fossil record involve a good deal of speculation and faith.

Faith and Fact

The physicist Paul Davies has claimed recently that the natural sciences are built on faith as much as fact, and in this respect are far more similar to religion than scientists like to think. His argument resembles the cosmological argument in that he questions the origin of the governing physical laws of the universe and declares that a willingness to accept their existence without justification is, in the end, an act of faith.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. – Taking Science on Faith

Davies recalls Isaac Newton’s scientific faith in a divinely ordered universe, a perspective that has received a lot of attention recently due to the apparent fine-tuning displayed by the basic forces which enables life to exist. This gives Davies’ position a curiously theological flavour. Unsurprisingly his claims have attracted fierce criticism from scientists. The most common objection is that Davies’ analogy – between religious faith in God or scripture, and scientific “faith” in a consistent universe – is a poor one. The scientific method proceeds by prediction and experiment, and while prediction may be a form of faith (belief without evidence) it also allows for evidence that might prove it wrong. The scientific faith in predictable physical laws is based upon empirical evidence – but if this hypothesis is ever falsified, then the hypothesis will change. Scientists replying to Davies have insisted that they embrace unpredictability and unresolved questions: the search for new explanations is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Religious faith, on the other hand, has a much more tenuous relationship to evidence and tends to the dogmatic: evidence that undermines doctrine is dismissed or ignored. Unlike scientific theory, dogma doesn’t change.

Nevertheless, some modern thinkers are inclined to agree with Davies that science and religion are not so different. Alvin Plantinga has maintained that the scientific world-view, or naturalism, performs the same “cognitive function” as religion:

There is that range of deep human questions to which a religion typically provides an answer: what is the fundamental nature of the universe: for example, is it mind first, or matter (non-mind) first? What is most real and basic in it, and what kinds of entities does it display? What is the place of human beings in the universe, and what is their relation to the rest of the world? Are there prospects for life after death? Is there such a thing as sin, or some analogue of sin? If so, what are the prospects of combating or overcoming it? Where must we look to improve the human condition? Is there such a thing as a summum bonum, a highest good for human beings, and if so what is it?

Of course, the way these questions are phrased and the methods employed to resolve them will differ fundamentally, and the scientific refusal to court any supernatural explanation will ensure different and often incompatible answers. But it seems clear that religion and science are operating to a large degree in the same arena.


The anti-religious arguments of the New Atheists are directed mostly at a lingering medievalism that upholds a literal interpretation of scripture and cedes authority to the church in all matters. But this is not a fair characterisation of the subtlety of most religious thought. We should distinguish between these forms of religious knowledge and recognise that while fundamentalist claims are simply wrong, the value of more reflective religious thought is less easily determined.







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