Science and Religion: Never Shall the Twain Meet?

Today’s New York Times reports that Francisco Ayala, “a biologist and former Roman Catholic priest whose books and speeches offer reassurance that there is no essential contradiction between religious faith and belief in science, particularly the theory of evolution,” has won the $1.5 million Templeton Award given to someone makes “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimensions.”

Dr. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist and a geneticist at the University of California, Irvine, lectures widely on science and religion, emphasizing that they are separate realms and that people come to grief when they attempt to “entangle” them — as, for instance, when scientists assert there is no God or when advocates of creationist theories invoke supernatural intervention to explain evolutionary change.

This sounds quite like Stephen Jay Gould’s contention that religion and science constitute separate realms of “non-overlapping magisteria,” and that each domain should be restricted from from “interfering with the other.”

I have always considered this argument to be the intellectual equivalent of detente, which was a successful strategy for averting nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union, but does not seem like a good way to search for truth.

The entire science versus religion conflict is in some ways fictitious; it is a false dichotomy driven by prominent advocates who take extreme positions.  On the science side, we have people like Richard Dawkins who contend that science and its correlate scientism is the only path to truth.  On the religion side, we have people like Mircea Eliade who contend that religion and its correlate mysticism is the only path to truth.

There is a middle position, which begins with the recognition that “science” — in the strict sense of performing experiments, gathering data, and testing hypotheses using statistics — is but one strand in the larger enterprise of what might loosely be called positivism.  Science, stricto sensu, can make only limited — but important — contributions to the search for truth.

It is the larger enterprise of positivism, which includes contributions from history, philosophy, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc. — that can and should investigate the supernatural-religious.  Simply erecting a wall around religion and declaring it off limits to rational inquiry does nothing to advance our understanding and forecloses the possibility of approaching something approximating truth.

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