Redefining religion

Previously: Evolution, original sin, and the problem of evil

To sum up: making religion science-friendly isn’t just a matter of giving a non-literal interpretation to the first few chapters of Genesis. Conflicts between religion and science may pop up where believers least expect them–such as when abandoning a literal Adam and Eve means abandoning original sin. Or when neuroscience creates problems for widely held views on the soul and afterlife.

In some cases, like prayer, believers might be able to say, “though, by the ordinary standards of science, this belief is false, but we’re going to ignore the ordinary standards of science and believe on faith.” But when they say that, they’ll have to deal with scientists occasionally failing to give their beliefs such special treatment, and dismissing them as false.

Not surprisingly, many believers would like to have some way to say the scientists are wrong. A common approach is to say that science is actually incapable of saying anything about their religious beliefs–in effect, that science is powerless to tell us about the Emperor’s clothes.

There are various arguments for this claim, often not clearly spelled out. Sometimes, they involve applying the mathematical definition of “proof” to things that aren’t math, a mistake I’ve already discussed. Other times, they involve trying to redefine “religion” to make the problems go away.

A famous example of this is Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magesteria or NOMA. Gould writes, “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.” Dawkins deals with Gould’s views in The God Delusion, and I think he gets the issue exactly right: on the one hand, there’s no reason to cede morals and values to religion. On the other hand, religion doesn’t limit itself to morals and values; it often makes factual claims.

I’ll have a lot to say about the first problem in a later chapter. For now, let’s focus on the second. At one point in the essay I’ve just quoted, Gould notices that a statement made by Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) made in 1950 which seems to say what I’ve said about original sin, that original sin requires that all humans ever must have been descended from Adam and Eve (again, with the obvious exception of Adam and Eve). Gould says that if Pius really meant this, he was out of line, he was saying something religion can’t say.

I agree with Gould that Pius was wrong, but I can’t see how Gould could deny that Pius’ views were religious views. I wonder if maybe Gould meant not to describe religion as it is, but say how it should be. If so, Gould’s NOMA wouldn’t mean the conflict between science and religion never existed, it would just be a suggestion on how to end it.

These days, few explicitly defend Gould’s NOMA, but some end up defending something very similar and calling it “methodological naturalism.” Methodological naturalism is supposed to be the idea that science should only deal in naturalistic explanations. Interpreted one way, this is sensible: throughout the history of science, supernatural explanations have consistently been replaced by naturalistic explanations. Never, not once, have we ever turned up good scientific evidence for a supernatural explanation.

Given this past experience, it’s reasonable to assume the explanations for things we don’t yet understand will be naturalistic. In my view, this is an assumption that we might theoretically have to change if we ever got enough evidence for a supernatural claim, but it’s a reasonable working assumption.

However, methodological naturalism is sometimes interpreted as saying that science is unable to say anything positive or negative, about religious claims. This interpretation of methodological naturalism has been called “intrinsic methodological naturalism” or “IMN” for short. This runs into the same problem NOMA runs into if you take NOMA as trying to describe religion and science. It certainly seems like science can disprove some religious doctrines, as I’ve already shown.

Given this, why accept IMN? Some philosophers have tried to defend it as a matter of definition. They claim that if we ever did have good scientific evidence for a seemingly supernatural phenomenon, then it would by definition become natural. This is just redefining “natural” and “supernatural” in ways that are at odds with how the words are normally used, at which point my response is “who cares?” Redefining “natural” and “supernatural” doesn’t change the fact that science can in principle tell us about the supernatural in a perfectly ordinary sense of “supernatural.”

Another argument for IMN is that supernatural claims are inherently untestable. For example, if you say God created the Earth not more than 10,000 years ago, but planted a whole lot of misleading evidence that the Earth is much older, just to test our faith, that’s not a claim you can really test.

The problem with this argument is that just because some supernatural claims are untestable does not mean all are. Conversely, a perfectly naturalistic claim can be impossible to test. Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, for example have famously been accused of being untestable. And as I’ve indicated before, scientific tests don’t generally have to rule out possibilities like “maybe a superbeing has gone to great lengths to fool us.”

So there isn’t any good way to avoid the conclusion that some religious doctrines have been disproven by science. Obviously, this helps explain why so many religious believers are hostile to science, or at least the parts of science that conflict with their religious beliefs. Maybe it’s not the most important cause of hostility to science, but it’s an important one.

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