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.

  • cory

    “They claim that if we ever did have good scientific evidence for a seemingly supernatural phenomenon, then it would by definition become natural.”

    This claim is exactly right, so far as I can tell. Our current usage of the term “supernatural” doesn’t reflect any sort of rigorous definition, it is just a collection of cultural associations. And our culture as basically put into the supernatural box those things which are common beliefs that have no good evidence supporting them.

    Here is an example. In the Renaissance there was a school of thought,called Natural Magic, that tried to explain certain aspects of nature in terms of things like sympathy and antipathy, occult forces, and so forth. Many people were skeptical of if and associated it with superstition. For example, Galileo strongly disagreed with Kepler’s theory, derived form the natural magic school and astrology, that the Moon through hidden forces has causes the rising and falling of the tide. His exact words were that Kepler had “lent his ear and his assent to the moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and such puerilities.” (quoted in A. R. Hall, From Galileo to Newton, 77)

    Now, of course, we know that Kepler was exactly right. So our modern culture regards gravity as natural and astrology as supernatural. Why? Because there is good evidence and a good theory for gravity, but not for astrology. So the claim is that if we found good evidence for a claim that is now put in the supernatural category, we would most likely move it into the natural category. This isn’t playing games with definitions, it is a prediction based on how those categories were formed in the first place.

    Granted, this doesn’t really go against your point that supernatural claims are perfectly testable, in fact, it supports it. But I think that a lot of the confusion over this issue would be cleared up if you gave an explanation of the actual definition of the word “supernatural” and process that created it, rather than treating it as if it were a technical term carefully defined.

  • Nox

    These magisteria do overlap. All the fucking time. Statements about god as an entity or god as a belief would technically fall under the umbrella of theology. Statements about how the Universe works (including statements about proposed creators or rulers of the Universe or their intervention in said universe) enter the jurisdiction of science.

    When we move past discussing god as an entity to discussing god as a human belief, we are entering a different discussion. A discussion of the tendency of humans to believe in gods is a sociological or anthropological discussion. When we move past the assumption that spiritual experiences are caused by interaction with god, neurology and psychology can have much to say on these experiences, what causes them, or even what if anything they mean. Why should we declare all this ground to be under the epistemological rules of theologians? Because they claim the exclusive right to speak on these matters? Theologians claim a lot of stupid shit. That is hardly a functioning measure of truth.

    Theologians do not just discuss the entity they worship. They discuss how this entity interacts with the observable world. And in doing so they make statements about how the observable world works. Aquinas and Augustine weren’t talking about the philosopher’s god. They were talking about the christian god. The one who is officially said to do miracles, issue commandments, condemn/forgive sins, manifest as a miracle performing human born of a virgin 2,000 years ago, sacrifice that human to himself, turn water into wine and wine into blood, rule and micromanage the world based on stated (and theoretically measurable) rules, and endorse the bible and the christian church. Theologians have never hesitated to make pronouncements on matters of hard fact in the course of talking about their ethereal god.

    Theologians make clever use of soft concepts to make their god harder to disprove. But they will invariably abandon the philosopher’s god when they need god to command something for them. They still firmly claim to know the will of this unknowable god.

  • MNb

    “I wonder if maybe Gould meant not to describe religion as it is, but say how it should be.”
    That has always been my take. It comes in handy, because it immediately becomes clear that believers go wrong as soon as they try to say something meaningful about our (material) world based on their belief system(s). Of course believers hardly ever respect the line and thus end up arguing factual nonsense.
    In this interpretation NOMA (and similarly IMN) poses a problem to believers, not to materialists/naturalists or whatever they are called.

    “who cares?”
    I’d say a better question is: “why care about the supernatural?” if can’t get to know anything about it anyway? That includes religion of course.
    The way I see it all belief systems are a weird mixture of natural and supernatural claims.

    “And in doing so they make statements about how the observable world works.”
    Thus, exactly like my interpretation of NOMA predicts, those theologians go wrong, like Augustinus of Hippo was wrong about original sin, Alvin Plantinga tends to write nonsense about evolution and Edward Feser makes a joke of himself defending Aristotelian mechanics.
    It’s not that the magisteria overlap, it’s that theologians defend silly ideas as soon as they cross the line.

  • MNb

    The real problem with NOMA, so it seems to me, is that it suggests leaving ethics to religion. That’s obviously unacceptable for any atheist.

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    One point that you hit here that I personally want to focus on when I try to write my own stuff is how science may not disprove an unfalsifiable notion of god, it can disprove all sorts of specific religious dogma, which then creates theological nightmares – especially for Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians. The Adam and Eve vs. Original Sin one is one of the most obvious, and it also brings up a point with biblical inerrantists since Paul mentions the reason Christ had to die was because the sin flowed from Adam (Romans 5:12), which makes it problematic for a inerrancy proponent to claim that Genesis was “just a metaphor”.

  • eric

    NOMA always bothered me because it assumes an unserious consideration of religious claims. If you posit some sort of god or other supernatural “thing” that sends messages to human beings, then there is simply no rational argument for saying they couldn’t send messages like “hey guys, E = mc^2.” Now, not all religions have to posit that, but most real religions do. Thus, Gould just ignores where most theological claims supposedly come from. The only way NOMA even makes sense is if we assume religious claims are NOT inspired by some god and treat the science/religion issue merely as two university departments arguing over who gets to teach class x.

    I wonder if maybe Gould meant not to describe religion as it is, but say how it should be.

    I definitely think there’s an aspect of liberal wish-fulfillment in it. “Oh, if only scientists would limit themselves to these things and theologians would limit themselves to these other things, we could all get along.”

    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.

    Its not an assumption at all, its an outcome of basic empiricism. Its a conclusion of induction applied to the history of human explanation of observed phenomena. No one is assuming anything.

    This is somewhat of a quibble, but I think its important to present MN correctly as a conclusion we have historically arrived at, not as an assumption anyone built in to science when it got started. Because if you call it an assumption, some creationist is going to use that to make a po-mo “different ways of knowing” argument. I.e., well, if you start with different assumptions and the same data, you get different theories in conclusion. Answer: no, because MN is not an assumption in the logical, philosophical sense of the word. Its only one in the same vernacular sense that germ theory is assumed or QM is assumed. i.e. Confirmed to such an extent /with such high confidence that retesting it before every experiment would be seen as a complete waste of time.

    Incidentally, I’d never heard of the phrase IMN before this. Chris, do you have any examples of actual scientists who are IMNers as opposed to just MNers? My initial reaction to hearing you describe it is that this is another case of philosophers arguing against a practically empty set, like arguing against atheists who rate a 7 on the Dawkins scale.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    Science finds no divine intent, and thus, He lacks all referents as Creator and so forth, thus affirming ignosticism that He is vacuous as any sort of explanation. That is one of my many findings. And having contradictory, incoherent attributes, He exists no more than a square circle or married bachelor!
    Lamberth’s teleonomic arguments notes that science finds mechanism- causalism- teleonomy- at work in stead of teleology. As the Aquinas – Shelley superfluity in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words notes :’ To suppose that some existence above them [ the descriptions- laws - of Nature, C.-S.K.] is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis to account for what already is accounted for.” Theists would beg the question to claim that that is a metaphysical category mistake!
    Lamberth’s the God of the explanatory gap reflects that. As fellow atheologian, Keith Parsons notes,” Occult power wielded by a transcendent being in an inscrutable manner for unfathomable purposes does not seem to be any kind of good explanation.” Indeed, it’s just the uninformative God did it? It’s high noon for theists in a general manner to tell us how He does it1 By the magic of let it be?
    The Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism tells against Him as an efficient,primary cause, necessary being and sufficient cause: natural causes and explanations themselves are that sufficient reason1
    Lamberth’s the ignostic-Ockham, already noted , shows His vacuity.
    How could a rational person have a relationship with a non-entity, a superfluity?
    Google Lamberth’s naturalistic arguments against God to see more of my own and other arguments and also Skeptic Griggsy!

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    Not only exist IMN but also PMN- provisional methodological naturalism- of Maarten Boudry, which in principle would include the supernatural where there evidence for it. I accept that, but my ignosticism/igtheism/ theological non-cognitivism as noted finds Him vacuous, so for the sake of argument, I follow PMN.
    Do Google Maarten Boudry. He is a leading Dutch naturalist.
    Sorry for the two 1′s instead of two ! in the previous commentary.
    Thank you for this wonderful blog that I do reblog to my blogs.

  • MNb

    Actually Boudry is Belgian, albeit Flemish speaking.


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