The "Science and Religion" page on the National Center for Science Education's website provides a gateway to many pages of interesting resources on the issue. In introducing the theme, the NCSE, in the person of one Peter M. J. Hess, NCSE Faith Project Director, commences as follows:
In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.
Theologians from many traditions hold that science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge. Science asks questions such as "What is it?" "How does it happen?" "By what processes?" In contrast, religion asks questions such as "What is life's meaning?" "What is my purpose?" "Is the world of value?" These are complementary rather than conflicting perspectives.
This section of the website offers resources for exploring religious perspectives on scientific questions and scientific perspectives on topics of interest to various religious groups, as well as resources for anyone interested in engaging with these issues.
Notice that the issue quickly gets extended beyond just evolution and Christianity to more general questions about science and religion.
Notice, too, that the claim that I can "both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice" is attributed to "theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions". The next paragraph attributes to "Theologians from many traditions" the idea that "science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge"; this is the idea that science and religion are so-called "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), although that expression does not appear. The site explicates it by stating that "Science asks questions such as 'What is it?' 'How does it happen?' 'By what processes?' In contrast, religion asks questions such as 'What is life's meaning?' 'What is my purpose?' 'Is the world of value?' These are complementary rather than conflicting perspectives."
It is possible that the entirety of this could be read as being attributed to the "theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions", but the inescapable fact is that the site elaborates on the point in a way that seems to endorse it. As the passage goes on, there are no reminders that it is merely attributing the idea to others. Moreover, the idea is formulated in a way that seems rhetorically attractive, and there is no indication that many scientists, philosophers, and, indeed, theologians reject the idea (and query the distinctions between the two types of questions). Any attempt to argue that the site does not really endorse NOMA, and is merely attributing the idea to various unnamed theologians, etc., would be disingenuous.
Putting this harshly, we have a classic example of pushing a viewpoint, without explicitly endorsing it, by the use of weasel words.
Over the past week, this issue, involving other American science organisations as well as the NCSE, has been debated hotly throughout the blogosphere. It now seems that some people who initially resisted the complaint that the NCSE used weasel words to advocate the total compatibility of science and religion (via the NOMA doctrine) have had second thoughts.
Certainly, Richard Hoppe has, as is apparent from the second of his recent long posts at Panda's Thumb. It's unfortunate that he only realised this only after he'd already fired off an inflammatory post in which attacked the criticisms of the NSCE by Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran, PZ Myers, and myself (complete with some rather nasty comments on the other three; presumably I am not important enough to have merited them, which is perhaps a relief).
Still, Hoppe is to be commended for his willingness to think further and change his mind about the main issue that was in contention.
The NOMA concept is false for at least two reasons:
1. The teachers, texts, and organisations associated with religions have never confined themselves to making "ought" statements or related statements about value, meaning or purpose. Rather, they have put forward factual-sounding statements about the existence of supernatural beings, such as gods, nymphs, demons and ancestral spirits. They have made claims about the dispositions and activities of these beings, and they have described their interactions with humans. In other cases, they have invoked over-arching forces or principles, such as Moira, Karma or the Tao. They have described unseen places, such as Hades, Valhalla, Paradise and Purgatory. They have posited deep components or aspects of the human makeup, such as the soul (associated in the West with the mind), or the Brahminical spiritual self (separate from both mind and body).
Religions have acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems, setting out the place of humanity in the total scheme of things. Any retreat from this is quite recent and quite limited, under pressure from the increasing body of well-corroborated scientific theory about the world and our place in it.
Gould concedes that, at earlier periods "when science did not exist as an explicit enterprise, and when a more unified sense of the nature of things gathered all 'why' questions under the rubric of religion, issues with factual resolutions now placed under the magisterium of science fell under the aegis of an enlarged concept of religion." But this is nonsense. The supposed "enlarged" concept of religion just is religion as we have historically known it. It is Gould who wishes to introduce an artificially narrowed concept of religion - a concept that very few religious believers outside of academic ivory towers are likely to recognise as their own.
2. But more importantly, although religion does attempt to offer answers to questions about moral guidance, purpose, and meaning, the last thing we should be doing is letting it carry out this job without criticism. While religious believers may be convinced that moral claims made by a church, priest or holy book are particularly authoritative, often the opposite is true. In many cases, these claims are unfortunate relics of more ignorant times. Religion can fossilise ancient, irrational and cruel moral viewpoints; we should not be according it any special authority within the "magisterium" of ethical discussion. It is better, in fact, to ignore the dubious claims of religious organisations, leaders, and writings, and to explore these issues through the use of reason - the remit of secular moral philosophy.
Given that such powerful criticisms can be made of the NOMA doctrine, I do object when I see it presented uncritically by bodies that carry the authority of the NCSE.
I should add that the clear-cut distinction between the two supposed "magisteria" does not exist, in any event. One of these is supposed to be about "is" matters and the other about "ought", and it is often claimed that there is a gulf between these. You can't, so it is said, go from an "is" to and "ought". There is a sharp distinction between factual claims about the world and moral claims about how we should act.
However, David Hume, to whom this view is often attributed, actually said something more subtle (and plausible): you can't go from a neutral statement about the world, standing alone, to an ought statement; when you go from "is" statements to "ought" statements, some explanation must be given as to how this was done. According to Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature, this means that statements about the world must be supplemented by reference to our "desires", a word that he used quite broadly. Hume's view is that we are motivated by our beliefs about the world combined with such psychological aspects of our character as what we want, fear, value, and so on. According to Hume, even moral motivation must ultimately be cashed out in some such terms.
If Hume's picture was approximately correct, as I believe it was, there is endless scope for interaction between "is" claims and "ought" claims, even though we cannot be motivated (morally or otherwise) by reason alone, in the absence of our wants, fears, etc. Moreover, there is endless scope for science to investigate what wants, fears, etc., human beings typically have. Hume speculated about human nature from his armchair, based on his personal experience and extensive reading, but we can do a bit better.
Without necessarily buying into a full-blooded kind of evolutionary psychology, such as offered by Tooby and Cosmides, we can accept that we, as Homo sapiens, have an evolved psychological nature, and that it may impose some limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings. Various fields of science (not just evolutionary psychology) can now study human nature, and the outcomes may have implications for how we should try to constrain our own conduct - as may our increasing knowledge of the world that we live in and its exigencies. As we learn more, this can feed back into our moral understanding. Hume believed in moral progress, as understanding increased and civilization developed, and I see no reason to believe he was wrong about this.
Furthermore, the distinction between two kinds of statements - "What is it?" "How does it happen?" "By what processes?" versus "What is life's meaning?" "What is my purpose?" "Is the world of value?" - is simplistic, even taken at face value. It assumes, without evidence, that life itself has a "meaning" (as if it were something like a literary text), that an individual can have a purpose (as if we were bulldozers or computer programs, designed for a task) or that it makes obvious sense to ask, "Is the world of value?" Even if the last question is well-formed, i.e. that it makes sense to ask about the value of the entirety of things, as opposed to that of specific things, it is mysterious how the kinds of entities and forces described by religions can give the world as a whole any particular value.
I don't want to be narrow and pedantic about this. There are doubtless some people who experience life as "meaningless" or "valueless", so the expressions are not totally ... well ... without meaning. But when someone experiences life in that way, it is a psychological condition in which they cease to value much of what they encounter in life. They can lapse into an unpleasant state of anomie. Everything seems weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. But like other psychological conditions, this state of mind can be studied scientifically.
Meanwhile, we can all - by all means - engage in philosophical discussion about the nature of the good life. I simply find it unlikely that religion will have much to say that is genuinely of assistance. Even if this kind of discussion is a separate "magisterium", it does not follow that religion has any authority there.
Really, about the most that can be said in favour of religion as we've known it is that it helps some - yes, perhaps many - people to experience their lives as "meaningful". It offers them a sense of unity with something beyond themselves, when they might not have much else to fall back on. That so many people are stuck in this situation - where they need to have illusions about the world to provide them with a sense of meaning - may well be a reason not to hope that religion will disappear overnight. I'm not enough of a so-called "New Atheist" to wish for that sudden alteration, with all the disruption it would bring. But when we think about the plight of so many individuals who need religion to provide a sense of connection, meaning, and understanding, we should be motivated to work for a world where we can more easily put religion's false answers behind us.
This still leaves a practical question as to what the NCSE should do with the questionable material on its website. One can rationally wish that it had not been placed there in its current form, while also realising that: (1) it may nonetheless be doing some good; and (2) removing it at this stage may create more problems than it solves. I am very aware of both points, and I have no strongly felt or dogmatically-sustained views as to what should be done. Perhaps, for now, it's sufficient that the NCSE folks step back, realise that they were going down a path that was unnecessarily accommodating to religion, make no further moves down that path, and bear these issues in mind next time there is a major review of the material on their site. Perhaps there are some specific things they could do more immediately, but I wouldn't insist on this even if I were in a position to do so.
Nonetheless, constructive criticism is valuable, even when it applies to such cherished organisations as the NCSE. I only ask that it be received in the spirit in which it's intended, and that there be a bit less shooting of messengers next time it happens.