That Old Religion vs. Science Dichotomy

That Old Religion vs. Science Dichotomy November 8, 2011

Keith Ward thinks clearly and writes clearly, and this piece is a good example:

Julian Baggini raises the question of whether religion and science are compatible. But, as he implies, that question is too generally phrased to be helpful. We need to ask if particular religious and scientific claims conflict, or whether they are mutually supportive or not. Some are and some are not, and it would be silly to say that all religious claims conflict with all scientific claims, or that they do not.

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….

I do not see why Baggini says that religions “smuggle in” agency explanations where they do not belong (for instance, claiming that the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose). That seems to be a perfectly acceptable factual claim that no known scientific technique can answer. The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God. That does not mean that such questions are meaningless, or that there are not both rational and silly ways of answering them.

Claims that the cosmos is created do not “trespass onto” scientific territory. They 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. The interesting question is not whether religion is compatible with science, but whether there are important factual questions – and some important non-factual questions, too, such as moral ones – with which the physical sciences do not usually deal. The answer seems pretty obvious, without trying to manufacture sharp and artificial distinctions between “hows” and “whys”.

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  • Superb. Thanks, Scot.

  • Tim

    In response to this post I would say that the term “fast” is being played fast and loose here. Facts usually refer to something objectively verifiable. Example, “the Earth is round” is a fact. Now, there are “claims.” An example of a claim is, “Chicago has the best skyline in the country.” Or, “My religion is true.” Or, “I’ve experienced Nirvana.” Or, “I’ve experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” None of these are objectively verifiable. And there is no real way to determine which of competing claims are more likley to be true in anything approaching an impartial or methodologically sound basis. So they are not facts. They are claims.

    So, “the universe is created by God” is not a fact. However, the statement, “the Bible claims the universe is created by God” is a fact.

    So let’s be clear about language here and how the term “fact” applies and does not apply to truth claims.

  • Tim

    …1st sentence should read “fact”, not “fast”

  • Andy H

    Actually, Tim, I think you’ve missed an important point (truth claim?) that Keith Ward was making. There are facts which are not objectively verifiable. As he says, “I was in Oxford last night” is not objectively verifiable (at least, not by you or me) but it is, to his certain knowledge, a fact. Similarly, just because you and I (or science, for that matter) cannot verify the statement that “the universe is created by God” does not mean that it isn’t a fact. I suspect God is happy that He can objectively verify it.

  • Trav

    The question is, does the distinction Tim has mentioned impact on Ward’s broad point?

  • phil_style


    interesting distinction you make that ” there is no real way to determine which of competing claims are more likley to be true in anything approaching an impartial or methodologically sound basis. So they are not facts”

    Does that mean if something cannot be objectively verified, yet it is real, it is not factual? Let’s say another universe. We have (as yet) absolutely no way of knowing if other universes exists, all claims to certainty on this matter CANNOT be treated as facts, yet we know that at least some claims on the matter MUST be factual, at least from a logical point of view. For example:
    1. There are no other universes;
    2. There is at least one other universe.

    One of the two above claims IS fact (don’t ask me which one though!). Yet neither is objectively verifiable…

  • Tim


    Real and Fact are not synonymous. There are plenty of things that are real that we do not now know, so they are not yet “facts”. “Facts” are a type of knowledge pertaining to reality. They are not themselves reality.

  • Tim


    “I was in Oxford last night” is not objectively verifiable.”

    I disagree. The validity pertaining to one’s recollection of events can be objectively verified over time.

    Let me illustrate. Suppose Scot says he had a long chat last night with Peter Enns. Now, is it possible he dreamed it? Maybe. But overall I think we’ve had it demonstrated that Scot’s mental faculties are working as they should, he doesn’t seem to be prone to hallucinations or wild bouts of fantastical thinking difficult to separate from reality or anything like that. So we feel comfortable assigning a status of “fact” to that truth claim.

    Now, let’s say a patient with Schizophrenia says they had a call last night with the President. And let’s further say that they believe this, truly believe this with just as much sincerity and conviction that Scot believes he spoke with Peter Enns (in this hypothetical scenario). Now, would we assign a status of “fact” to this claim? No.

    While we may never be able to experience the subjective reality that is Scot’s or our Schizophrenic patient’s inner existence, the objective evidence does compel us to accept the first claim as factual but dismiss the second claim as not.