A Skin-Deep Territory Distinction

This post is my first in a dialogue with Scott Roche about whether or not science and religion are truly competing for the same intellectual and spiritual space in the world. Read Scott’s opening post here.

Twitter is a mischievous little meme. On that innocent network yesterday, I noticed fellow podcast novelist, and fabulous debate opponent Scott Roche say of science and religion: “the two are examining different things.”

Naturally, being unable to keep my mouth shut on religion, sex, or politics (this is, by the by, why I never stay long on the east coast – I have to leave quickly before I’m shot for violating public decency laws), I retorted immediately saying: “Science and religion can not meaningfully be said to be examining different things.” Hello, fundamental conflict (and, consequently, hellooooo blog content)!

On Scott’s blog he wondered whether we were operating on different definitions of religion, so was kind enough to define religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices” that, in his estimation, addresses only things that do not belong in the natural world. In other words, religion deals with spirits, gods, angels, demons, and any other supernatural beings which may or may not exist, and its purpose is to put us in touch with whatever we believe about the supernatural.

Science, he goes on to argue, deals with that which exists in the natural world and is (at least in theory) measurable. It is the method by which we divine how one thing is related to another.

Scott’s division of labor between science and religion seems to me to accurately reflect how most people think about the issue, and even on the basis of this postulated Non-Overlapping Magesteria (pace Stephen J. Gould).* History does not reflect this view – it is actually a relatively recent definition arising form the intellectual ferment of the late nineteenth century – so on the face of it I find it suspicious. Frankly, it looks to me like an epistemic** dodge than a genuine description of historical reality – but I’ll leave that aside for now, simply because one of the realities of history is that words do change definitions. I may get back to the history of science and religion in a later post, but for now, I’ll stick to the current situation, and whether or not it matches the definitions Scott proposes.

Sticking strictly to the current state of the world, I think Scott’s argument fails in two important respects.

First, in a practical respect, religion currently serves a number of functions that have only a tangential relationship to the supernatural. It propounds a theory of human nature, and it provides a cosmogony (a set of metaphysical beliefs about things within the universe such as the ultimate nature of reality, the origin and destiny of life, the universe, and everything, the construction of consciousness). It also serves as a platform from which to make pronouncements about morality, relationships, and human flourishing. On every one of these points, religions differ among themselves as to the nature of their claims and functions, but most religions are concerned with most of these areas, and some religions concern themselves with all of them.

Taking them in no particular order, the fields of knowledge and understanding which religion currently claims authority are now well within the purview of the following sciences:

Human Nature Neurology, experimental psychology, evolutionary biology
Consciousness Neurology, zoology, computer science
Ult. Nat. o/Reality Particle physics and related disciplines, chaos theory
Origin of Universe Particle physics, astrophysics, chaos theory, chemistry
Origin of Life Biochemistry, organic chemistry, electrodynamics, chaos theory
End of Earth Geology, Astrophysics
End of Universe Astrophysics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics
Morality et.al. Physiology, neurology, psychology, socio/anthropology, biochemistry, economics, evolutionary psychology, memetics

On every score, scientific research confirms some points of religious dogma and contradicts other areas, forcing religions to adapt by either synchronizing or radicalizing on any given point (which, by the by, is why theologians exist – to cope with the discrepancy between received doctrine and contemporary reality).

Continuing in the practical vein for a moment, religion also provides social cohesion and cultural continuity for a large number of people on this planet, including a dependable power structure. On these final two practical points, as well as on issues of morality, religion’s focus is very much on the things of this world (and, often, on securing and/or maintaining power – sometimes political, sometimes military, sometimes interpersonal, and sometimes cultural – in this world). The hegemonic ambitions, large and small, are justified by appeal to the supernatural, but are always, in practice, concerned with controlling the behavior of beings in the temporal world.

Second, on a basic philosophical level, if a supernatural world actually has an intercourse (either perpetual and ever present, as in Hinduism, or incidental and historical as in the monotheisms), then it is at least in principle accessible to natural science at the point of intercourse, and therefore science and religion are both aiming once again for the same territory.

Thus, in both the practical and the philosophical cases, religion and science are very much fighting over the same territory. The nature of this conflict is missed by religious liberals, who have inherited the syncretic mindset and tend to read their scriptures with modern cosmopolitan glasses that retrojects their late, quasi-deistic conception of God back onto times with a far more definite and robust theology. Nonetheless, push hard enough and in the right place, and you’ll find the points at which even liberal religion is on the defensive in the face of scientific inquiry. Need it be this way? That’s a topic for a future blog post, but I can tell you it has not always been this way. Once upon a time in the west, the natural sciences were seen as the handmaiden of theology rather than the other way around.

So, to wrap up, I’m confident in standing by my tweet which opened this conversation. Although religions can (and often do) preserve wisdom worth paying attention to, and often raise questions worth investigating, they are in almost no sense concerned with different things. Now, it may be possible to create a religion that is completely immune to territorial impingement from science forever, but it would not then be legitimate to argue that religion as a phenomenon was free from such a conflict.

Besides, I daresay that a religion which made no claims about reality, made no demands on its patrons, promised no rewards (temporal, eternal, or existential), and said nothing substantive about human nature would maintain a hold on parishioners for very long. Don’t believe me? Look at the thin attendance of liberal protestant churches compared to moderate and conservative ones.

Back to you, Scott!

*magisteria meaning “area of authority”
**epistemic meaning “having to do with one’s theory of knowledge” – in this case, an epistemic dodge is redefining what one means by “knowledge” in order to get around a problem with what one considers “true”

3 Responses to “A Skin-Deep Territory Distinction”


  1. Spiritual Tramp » If I Had a Hammer

    [...] Sawyer answered my opening volley in our debate on science and religion in a post titled A Skin-Deep Territory Distinction. He makes some good points regarding areas where science and religion touch, overlap and even (as [...]

  2. Spiritual Tramp » Science vs. Religion

    [...] His response. blog comments powered by Disqus var disqus_url = ‘http://www.spiritualtramp.com/blog/2010/01/science-vs-religion/ ‘; var disqus_container_id = ‘disqus_thread’; var facebookXdReceiverPath = ‘http://www.spiritualtramp.com/blog/wp-content/plugins/disqus-comment-system/xd_receiver.htm’; var DsqLocal = { ‘trackbacks’: [ { 'author_name': 'Spiritual Tramp » If I Had a Hammer', 'author_url': 'http://www.spiritualtramp.com/blog/2010/02/if-i-had-a-hammer/', 'date': '02/01/2010 09:32 AM', 'excerpt': '[...] Sawyer answered my opening volley in our debate on science and religion in a post titled A Skin-Deep Territory …’, ‘type’: ‘pingback’ } ], ‘trackback_url’: ‘http://www.spiritualtramp.com/blog/2010/01/science-vs-religion/trackback/’ }; « Dos and Don’ts If I Had a Hammer » [...]

  3. sidfaiwu

    “Now, it may be possible to create a religion that is completely immune to territorial impingement from science forever…”

    Deism!

    But…

    “…a religion which made no claims about reality, made no demands on its patrons, promised no rewards (temporal, eternal, or existential), and said nothing substantive about human nature would maintain a hold on parishioners for very long.”

    Deism.

    P.S. I know that some forms of deism make definite claims about cosmology, but they are always careful about adjusting it to match current scientific knowledge.