Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been alive with a passionate debate about the extent to which science should accommodate religion, leaving it an area in which it has authority - whether it be in respect of truths about morality or truths about a supernatural realm - while denying it authority over empirical claims.
One of the difficulties with all this is that no one has ever distinguished convincingly and sharply between the world of nature and the supposed supernatural realm. After all, if we routinely encountered ancestor spirits that were capable of affecting the world available to us through our senses, and if they behaved in reasonably consistent ways (like human beings and other animals) we would be able to investigate their activities systematically. Their activities would fall into the realm of science, and we might come to think of them as part of "nature". There is no reason why science cannot investigate claims relating to "supernatural" (by commonsense definitions) entities so long as they actually exist, have the power to affect the material world that we can observe, and behave with some consistency.
Over the centuries, science has abandoned explanations that rely on, say, the actions of disembodied intelligences, since those kinds of explanations have been fruitless. But this is not because science is prevented, in principle, from investigating claims about such things if they exist. It has taken this attitude based on its experience of what constitutes a fruitful approach. So-called methodological naturalism - avoiding the use of supernatural hypotheses - is a relatively recent component of the scientific method, resulting from historical experience. It is not that science rules out supernatural things a priori or that it has no capacity to investigate them if it turns out that some do exist.
By now, the reasonable assumption is that such things as ancestor spirits, gods, angels, and demons really do not exist. It is not that they exist in a separate sphere that can be known through religious experience - but is beyond the methods of science. More likely, they don't exist at all.
There is more to be said about this, but I'd like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.
In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.
Gould called his idea "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or "NOMA"; if it is correct, it gives an extremely important sphere of authority in teaching to religious doctrine, religious organisations, and religious leaders, while holding that religion has no role, even in principle, in offering truths about the empirical world (e.g. truths about the age of the Earth, how it came into existence, or where human beings as a species came from). But Gould is wrong on this in every possible way.
First, religions have, historically, claimed authority to tell us about such matters as the age and origin of the Earth, the origin of humanity, and so on. Religions have acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems. It is not part of the concept of religion that it keep out of such matters. Moreover, if a religion's more general claims were true, there is no reason why it should not have authority in this sphere. After all, if a god or angel or similar being has inspired the religion's poets and prophets, or dictated actual text for inclusion in its holy books, the god or angel (or whatever) could easily reveal such facts as the true age of the Earth, the fact that it revolves around the Sun, the fact that it is spherical and rotates on its axis, and the evolutionary origin of human beings. There is no reason in principle why a true religion with genuinely supernatural origins could not have authoritative teachings on all these things.
Religion is not, in its essence or its very concept, confined to matters of morality. One or more religions could have had authority on empirical matters, and a religion still could if a true one came along (its prophet genuinely interacting with a superhuman intelligence). It’s just that, historically, religion has done a poor job when it has offered information about (for example) the age of the Earth or human origins. Empirical investigation, supported by huge amounts of converging evidence, has reached different conclusions.
Supporters of NOMA want to give religion authority over matters of morality while denying that science has any such authority, but again this gets things totally wrong. It is true that science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can religion. The ultimate point of morality, as opposed to the historical origin of morality, is something we decide rather than something we discover, and neither religion nor science can tell us authoritatively what we should decide.
Certainly, the ultimate point of morality cannot be obedience to the will of a god or a group of gods. This would raise the notorious Euthyphro problem: does conduct become morally correct because it is in accordance with a god's commands, or should we obey the god's commands because they track the independent requirements of morality? If the former, we seem to be stuck with the idea that murder and rape are wrong only because of the arbitrary commands of a powerful being (this being could have made murder morally right simply by commanding it). If the latter, then why not find out what the independent requirements of morality actually are, i.e. the requirements that are independent of the god's will?
It may be, however, that a god could be a reliable advice-giver about morality. This makes more conceptual sense.
Before I come to that, however, note again that neither science nor religion can decide what the ultimate point of morality should be. Should it be individual flourishing? social survival? reduction of suffering? some combination? something else? We can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy. When we so do, we can never step entirely out of all our values at once, so there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. "Oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element, as Hume argued in his great Treatise of Human Nature.
However, once we know what we want morality to achieve we are, in practice, at least as likely to get good advice on how to achieve it from science as from religion.
It didn't have to be like this. If prophets were genuinely receiving information from a god, it might have included reliable information on what best conduces to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But the holy books seem no more reliable about that than they are about empirical matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and other such goals). Far from being authoritative, holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to such goals as flourishing or happiness.
At this point I should concede that science is also limited in this realm. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of the advice coming from science may leave something, perhaps much, to be desired. We do not yet have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But science can certainly study this. In principle, it can draw reliable conclusions - at least as reliable as any in the holy books. Science, as it develops, has at least as much, perhaps far more, authority in this area. Unlike the authors of the holy books, science can investigate the issues methodically, discard bad hypotheses, and draw increasingly robust conclusions.
For the moment, however, we must rely to a large degree on such things as historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, our own experience as individuals, and so on. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things. They can also reflect on religious texts from various traditions, of course, since these may contain some wisdom, but no more than on great literature or insightful classics of philosophy. Religion has no special authority in the realm of how we should act and live.
Fortunately, a great deal of our morality is not contentious – we all know (or at least it seems very plausible) that it advances social survival and individual flourishing and reduction of suffering, for example, if children are trained in virtues such as honesty, reasonableness (in the sense of willingness to compromise), kindness, and courage. But where morality is actually contentious - as when we consider such issues as stem-cell research or gay marriage - religion provides a poor guide. It is all too likely to make recommendations that do not conduce to individual flourishing, social survival, reduction of suffering, or any other plausible goal that morality might have.
In short, there is no reason to defer to any specifically or distinctively religious morality. On the contrary, we should emphasise that religion's claims to possess a special moral authority are entirely without merit.
I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.
Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.
However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!
Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I'm convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.
All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.