About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

New post at Talking Philosophy ... and some summary thoughts right here

Back to that topic that won't go away - religion and science. Are they compatible? Whatever that means. Once again, there is no reasonable way that you can completely insulate the factual claims made by religion from the knowledge that we gain from empirical investigation (whether or not we use the word "science" to cover the entirety of empirical investigation ... none of this turns on the semantic point about what we mean by a particualr word). Accordingly, many religious leaders and organisations will thin out their factual claims to avoid conflicts with what we know about the world through empirical investigation. Where religion fails to do that, it usually ends up being stuck with those conflicts.

It didn't have to be like that. A thousand years ago, say, it might have turned out that one religion is correct in all its claims. In that case, scientists and whoever else is doing empirical investigation would have found themselves confirming (but perhaps finding more detail about) what was already known through religious "ways of knowing", such as visions and mystical experiences.

That, however is not the world we find ourselves in, and in those circumstances, it is glib and at best misleading to say, "Religion and science are compatible."

To be sure, there are various ways that religion can avoid empirical refutation. For one, it can thin out its factual claims. For another, it can introduce various ad hoc moves (e.g. claiming that the earth was created only 6000 years ago but in a pre-aged state with "fossils" of creatures that never actually existed). For yet another, it can deny ordinary canons of reason as far as necessary to deny inconvenient truths about the world. There are doubtless others. In the first chapter of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (which you can read online for free), I acknowledge that these resources are available to the religious, and I have never claimed that I can disprove the existence of supernatural beings once and for all to the satisfaction of all comers.

But to describe the situation as one of compatibility between religion and science is more a political choice than a natural choice of words that conveys the reality. The reality is that empirical investigation of the world, including investigation using the techniques distinctive of science, has put great pressure on religion to date, and it continues to do so. It has caused new problems for religion and worsened old ones. More generally, it has undermined the credibility of distinctive religious "ways of knowing".

As with so many things, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to demonstrate the falsity of religious claims to all comers, irrespective of their starting positions. Some believers will find themselves in walled gardens of beliefs, insulated from the reality by taking steps that others of us regard with incredulity and view as unreasonable. Other believers will find that what they are forced to believe if they are to maintain consistency is just too absurd for continuing belief.

People who are not believers, and do not start with a special trust in religious ways of knowing or a strong intuitive acceptance of religious doctrine, may find themselves even less willing to become religious when they see the intellectual cost.

This is situation has its complexities. I prefer to hammer the point that it is glib and misleading to say, simply, "Religion and science are compatible," rather to make my own simple announcement, "Religion and science are incompatible." The latter is, I think, closer to the truth, but it needs to be spelled out what it really means.

All that said, the record of empirical investigation over the past few hundred years has been one of putting pressure on religion, forcing retreats, undermining doctrines and theological systems, making it more difficult to be a believer, making it easier to be an intellectually comfortable and satisfied non-believer. Against that backdrop, glib claims about the compatibility of science and religion are absurd ... and transparently political when they come from science organisations.

Okay, the above is a summary of where I stand on this issue. The piece at Talking Philosophy is rather different, but it will probably make more sense in the context of this summary. So you might want to read both.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Although I'd prefer to say that supernaturalism is incompatible with naturalism.

This is both a broader claim - as it includes other belief systems with non-natural ontologies such as mysticism, Tarot, astrology etc - and it's more specific about what it is in religion that clashes with science.

For religion - conceived as a shared belief system with cultural practices and traditions geared to build community and give people a sense of belonging etc - can be naturalist or supernaturalist. But it's only the latter that are incompatible with a naturalist, rational, empirical worldview.

And, in fact, I think naturalists should think seriously about building traditions, cultural norms, moral teachings etc to replace those from religion that are presently tainted by supernaturalism.