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Credit: Jesus and Mo

I am really amazed by some of the rubbish theologians and philosophers of religion think they can get away with when talking about science.

The Guardian article Religion answers the factual questions science neglects is just one recent example. It’s written by Keith Ward, a professorial research fellow in the philosophy of religion at Heythrop College, London. With these qualifications I would have expected something much better.

He loosely bases his arguments on Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) (see my post Overlapping Magisteria? for a brief description of NOMA). Ward claims:

“Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact — Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould’s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.”

Here are some points

1: Religion intrudes into the domain of science

Yes, we know that religion often intrudes into the domain of science – and it does cause problems. I guess a point for Ward being honest – but what’s this about scientists not usually dealing with some statements of fact!

Gould described the different domains this way (Gould’s quotes are from his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life):

’Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of  “human purposes, meaning and values” — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.’

Ward obviously rejects that. He wishes to claim for religion the factual character of reality and their explanation. Facts about what happened 2000 years ago in the above quote. But he also claims for religion facts such as the origin of the universe (or as he puts it the claim “that the cosmos exists because it is created by a god with a purpose”). Other religionists make similar claims – eg. the origin of life, the origin of humanity, life after death, etc. And many of their proponents are extremely hostile to humanity’s use of science to investigate such areas.

Where is Ward coming from? Is he really  unaware of the research being done by cosmologists, etc? How can he have got the idea that science neglects such “factual questions?” Scientists certainly don’t think so.

And Ward also appears to promote the naive argument that historical science is impossible – an argument constantly used by creationists who wish to deny the facts of evolutionary science:

“A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.”

Surely the influence of “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” has been an obstacle to determining historical truths. And surely it is the application of scientific techniques and processes which help to overcome the effects of such subjectivity.

2: Religion assumes to exclusively  cover religion and values

Of course Ward is not going to give up this claim for religion. I have yet to meet a religious believer who will.

But it’s worth considering what Gould meant by “religion” when he initially described his NOMA concept. He wrote:

’I will accept both Huxley’s view and the etymology of the word itself — and construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.’

Clearly he had a far more general picture of who has responsibility for the domains of “human purposes, meaning and values.” He saw this as the responsibility of everyone – non-religious as well as religious. Atheists and humanists as well as theists.

Unfortunately Gould should have recognised how his use of “religious” would be distorted – but perhaps not. My impression from reading his book is that he persistently uses “religion” in the more usual narrow sense everywhere else after this definition. Pity he even used the word.

But I guess we can’t blame theologians and philosophers of religion for wishing to continue with the narrow definition and thereby falsely claim morals and values as exclusively their domain.

3: Naive argument by analogy

I thought theologians had hit rock bottom with the tea kettle argument by John Haught that we can approach questions of reality at different levels (see The video! and Q&A added to ’The Video’ for the debate with Jerry Coyne where Haught uses this analogy). That we can say the water in a tea kettle is boiling because at one level the movement of molecules of water. But at other levels the explanation may be that someone wishes to make a pot of tea, etc. Apparently science talks about moving molecules and religion about intentions regarding one’s afternoon beverage.

In attempting to ring-fence some issues of reality for religion, and deny a role for science, Ward says that these are:

“factual claims in which scientific investigators are not, as such, interested. Scientific facts are, of course, relevant to many religious claims. But not all facts are scientific facts — the claim that I was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper, but it is a hard fact. So it is with the miracles of Jesus, with the creation of the cosmos and with its end. “

Now, granted that Ward “was in Oxford last night, unseen by anyone, will occur in no scientific paper.” It’s of little interest to humanity. But it could become a real issue.

What if he found it necessary to establish an alibi which placed him in Oxford, rather than London where one of his associates, who he was known to dislike, had been murdered. Would he insist that his location was not a “scientific fact,” that science was useless for establishing his alibi? Would he instead insist in court that his presence was as well established as “the miracles of Jesus” and pull in some priest off the street to swear his presence in Oxford on the bible – without any factual confirming evidence?

Or would he rely on people who he interacted with on the night to provide their evidence, submit train tickets for his trips there and back, hotel records of his stay, etc. Maybe in an even more difficult situation he would rely on the evidence of forensic scientists who were able to identify DNA he left in Oxford, analyse soil samples trapped in his shoes, etc.

He may wish to claim in a newspaper article that “Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.” But in a real situation influencing his future I am sure he would place his confidence in the science to establish the history of his visit to Oxford.

4: Moral questions – arguing by default

I suppose it’s inevitable he would drag this out. Everyone agrees that we don’t rely exclusively on science to determine if something is “right” or “wrong.” But the old argument by default that this should be left to religion no longer washes in this day and age. We have seen too many examples of religious motives leading to the wrong moral decisions.

Also, as pointed out above, even in Gould’s initial definition of NOMA he clearly used a far wider definition of “religion”. The fact that religionists misappropriate Gould’s arguments to apply to their restricted “religion” is hardly surprising. Theologians and philosophers of religion are hardly known for proving real and reasoned arguments for their claims, why bother with this one?

But most people in democratic, pluralist societies like ours, are no longer taken in. They do not see any reason why supernatural arguments should be used for justifying moral claims – and some very good reasons why they shouldn’t be. They also reject the conservative old style religious concept of command ethics. Today people like to internalise their sense of morality, to be autonomous moral agents, be capable of thinking for themselves on these issues. And they like to consider the real facts surrounding moral questions.

Even on moral questions science can be a great help.

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