Can science and religion coexist in harmony?
A favorite phrase of sophisticated theologians™ is – science tells us how and religion tells us why. But it is not only theologians who claim that there can be no conflict between properly understood science and religion because they deal with different questions. Many scientists, and not only religious ones, support this view as well.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, who worked as a Palenontologist at Harvard University and was one of the most famous and widely read popular science writers of the last century, is probably the most well known advocate for a harmonious coexistence between science and religion.
Gould coined the term “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) to refer to his position that science and religion have legitimate authority, but for different and non-overlapping domains of inquiry .
He was certainly not unaware of the ongoing culture war over the teaching of evolution in public schools that has plagued the US for almost nine decades now. Quite the opposite – in 1981, he was an expert witness in the famous McLean vs. Arkansas trial , in which judge William Overton ruled that creationism is “simply not science” and teaching it in public schools would be a violation of the establishment clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion) . But despite being at the forefront of the culture war over the teaching of evolution, Gould was certain that science and religion could and should coexist in harmony.
Gould´s position can be summarized in three key points:
- Both science and religion have a legitimate magisterium (i.e. a teaching authority)
- The cause for the conflict between creationism and evolution is biblical literalism, which is a recent phenomenon and limited to the fringes of american protestantism.
- The magisteria of science and religion are non-overlapping. The domain of science is the natural world – what it is made of and how it works. The domains of Religion on the other hand are the search for proper moral values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.
I´ll address each of these points in the remainder of this post.
Do both science and religion have legitimate magisteria?
The magisterium of science is the natural world, what it is made of and how it works. That science has a legitimate authority in this domain is an obvious and undeniable truth – just think about the technology you are using in your everyday life.
For religion however, it is not that obvious. According to Gould, the magisterium of religion is the search for proper moral values and the spiritual meaning of our lives . Does religion really have a legitimate authority when it comes to these issues?
It should be obvious that not all religions can have legitimate authority on these issues because they make irreconcilable claims. I don´t know of a single religious claim that is not contradicted by other religious claims. Religions cannot reach a consensus on how many gods exist, what the nature of these god(s) is, what these god(s) want from us, what happens to us when we die, what the meaning of our lives is and so on.
And we don´t even have to compare the claims of different religions with each other to find these disagreements. Christians managed to read so many wildly different and irreconcilable claims out of the same set of documents that there are now ~38,000 different Christian denominations.
I´ve had Christians telling me that I can get a ticket to heaven despite being an atheist because I will still have a chance to accept christ after I die. Others told me that I will be tortured for all eternity in hell or that I will only suffer for some time in hell depending on how sinful I was or that my soul will be annihilated and I will cease to exist after I die.
All of these Christians were certain that they are right and that the bible supports their view while the Christians who disagree with them are obviously wrong. Why can´t Christians reach a consensus on such a fundamental religious question after centuries of debate?
I think it is because religion has no method to evaluate truth claims. Science has it´s fair share of controversies of course (in fact, controversy is a hallmark of science), but unlike religion, science has a method to resolve these controversies.
Consider the example of prions (infections proteins) – prions were postulated as the causative agent of scrapie, a fatal neurodegenerative disease affecting sheep and goats. When Stanley Prusiner published the hypothesis that this disease is caused by prions and not by a virus, it was considered to be a very extraordinary claim (rightfully so) and was met with fierce opposition by most of his peers. However, Prusiner eventually managed to convince the entire field that he was right.Together with his colleagues, he designed experiments to isolate the natural forms of the respective prion and to study the pathogenesis of prion diseases in mouse models. Fifteen years after the initial publication of his extremely controversial hypothesis, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology / medicine.
The history of scientific progress is full of such examples, but I am not aware of a single example where a religious claim was elevated from a fringe position to a consensus in a similar manner.
When scientists disagree – they design experiments and test hypotheses until they reach a consensus. When Christians disagree – they start their own denomination.
To get back to the original question – how can religion, any religion, claim to speak with authority on any issue without having a method to evaluate truth claims? If a deity exists and revealed religious truths to humans – how can we distinguish real prophets from people who are simply deluded or lying?
I don´t think that religion has a legitimate magisterium and I challenge a reader who disagrees to provide an answer for these two questions. But, for the sake of the argument, let us assume that religion does have a legitimate magisterium and examine the two remaining points of Gould´s NOMA position.
Is biblical literalism really a fringe position and a recent phenomenon?
If “biblical literalism” refers to the position that the Bible, is literally true in all its teachings, then I would agree that this certainly is a fringe position. But this is misleading, because most young-earth creationists do believe that the bible authors did occasionally use metaphors and allegories – they just don´t believe that the stories of Adam & Eve, Noah´s flood and the tower of Babel are metaphors. If we define “biblical literalism” as believing in the literal truth of bible stories that are not obviously intended as allegory or metaphor, even when they contradict well established scientific theories, it is certainly not a fringe position, at least not in the US where 40-50% of adult citizens believe the claims of young earth creationism.
This raises the question of whether the story of Adam & Eve for example is obviously metaphorical / allegorical or not. Many Christians, especially Catholics, do believe that – some are even offended by the idea that the stories in genesis might ever have been understood as literal truths. To quote prominent Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan (in response to Jerry Coyne pointing out that there is no evidence that the story of the garden of eden was always understood as a metaphor in the Catholic tradition):
There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn´t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable.
Gould argues similarly that a literal understanding of Genesis has no basis in Christian tradition and is rather a recent phenomenon associated with the emergence of Christian fundamentalism in the US:
Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history …
…but creationism based on biblical literalism makes little sense in either Catholicism or Judaism for neither religion maintains any extensive tradition for reading the Bible as literal truth rather than illuminating literature, based partly on metaphor and allegory (essential components of all good writing) and demanding interpretation for proper understanding.
I think that this view, that the stories in genesis were always understood as metaphors or allegories until the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the 19th century, is wrong, and that it is quite easy to show that it is wrong.
Christians, especially Catholics, who try to argue that literal readings of Genesis have no basis in Christian tradition frequently point to one of the early church fathers, Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine wrote a commentary on the literal interpretation of Genesis in the fifth century, which includes the following two popular quotes:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”
But the credibility of scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering someting in scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge he has aquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives or declarations.
Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation.
It is certainly true that early church fathers like Augustine did advise caution for literal interpretations of genesis. When these interpretations contradict secular knowledge – then our interpretations of these texts must be wrong.
But does this mean that the stories of Adam & Eve, Noah´s flood, the tower of Babel and so on were always understood in a metaphorical sense until Christian fundamentalism arrived on the scene? The answer is a resounding no – even Augustine himself, the poster child for metaphorical interpretations of Genesis in early Christian history did believe in the literal truth of all of these stories  as did other early church fathers like Tertullian and Chrysostome .
Augustine´s main concern regarding literal interpretations of the Bible might have been Christians talking nonsense about the shape of the earth. An educated pagan contemporary of Augustine would have known that the earth is not flat and would have laughed at a Christian claiming otherwise (based on verses like Isaiah 40:22 for example) just as we laugh today at people who believe the earth is only 6000 years old.
History clearly shows that the Genesis stories which young-earth creationists believe to be literally true are not obvious metaphors. Quite the contrary, these stories were believed by Christians to be literally true until the very moment where science showed that these stories could not possibly be literally true.
And Gould should have known that. In fact, he gives one of the best examples for this in his expert testimony in the McLean vs. Arkansas trial on the teaching of creationism in public schools – the literal truth of a worldwide flood as described in Genesis. Christians did believe that this story is historical until advances in our understanding of Geology unambigiously showed that such a flood could not have happened.
To quote from Gould´s expert testimony:
That proposition [that Noah´s flood explains the geological column – AS] was extensively tested throughout the 1820’s and falsified, because scientists, including Buckland, who came to deny his previous assertion, found that all the strata that they assumed were the same age and a product of a single flood, were in many cases superposed, and, therefore, represented many different episodes.
Now, we know today that they, in fact, represent the remains of glacial ages, not floods, and that there were several ice ages.
Indeed, in 1831, the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, then president of the Geological Society of London, read in his presidential address, his recantation of the flood theory. And I’d like to read it, because to my mind it’s one of the most beautiful statements ever written by a scientist to express the true nature of science as a tentative and correctable set of principles. Adam Sedgwick, in the 1831 address, first of all, writes that the theory is falsified, and says, “There is, I think, one great negative conclusion now incontestably established, namely, that the vast masses diluvial gravel” — That’s the name they gave to this strata they were trying to attribute to the flood — “scattered almost over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and transitory period.”
Then he makes what is one of my favorite statements in the history of science. He writes, “Having been myself a believer, and to the best of my power, a propagator of what I now regard as a philosophic heresy, and having more than once been quoted for opinions I do not now maintain, I think it right as one of my last acts before I quit this chair” — that is the chair of the Geological Society of London — “thus publicly to read my recantation. We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the Diluvian theory” — that was the flood theory — “and referred all our old superficial gravel to the actions of Mosaic flood.
History clearly shows that stories like the one of Noah´s flood are not obvious metaphors. Before Geology showed that a global flood never happened, a literal interpretation of Noah´s flood was mainstream Christian belief.
The transition from mainstream belief in the literal truth of a global flood towards a metaphorical interpretation is reflected in various editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica. The first edition (1768-1771) uncritically accepts the literal truth of the Genesis account of a worldwide flood, but by 1853, the 8th edition already reports: “The insuperable difficulties connected with the belief that all other existing species of animals were provided for in the ark are obviated by adopting the suggestion of Bishop Stillingfleet, approved by Matthew Poole…and others, that the Deluge did not extend beyond the region of the Earth then inhabited”. The 9th edition published in 1875 presented the story of Noah´s flood without further comment and made no attempt to reconcile it with science .
Comparable cases can be made for the story of Adam & Eve and the tower of Babel – a literal interpretation seems to be the obvious one for these stories just until science shows that this cannot possibly be true. American fundamentalists in the 19th century did not start interpreting Genesis in a sense that had no basis in Christian tradition. There are obvious conflicts between traditional interpretations of Genesis and science – pretending that these interpretations are a recent phenomenon is historical revisionism, and Gould should have known that.
In the next post, to conclude this article, I will talk about whether there really is an overlap or not – Andy Schüler.
- McLean v. Arkansas
- List of Christian denominations
- Polling Report
- The Daily Beast
- Augustine of Hippo, The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 1, chapter 19
- Augustine of Hippo, The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 2, chapter 9
- Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books XII, XIII and XV
- Berry, Robert James (2003). God’s book of works: the nature and theology of nature. London: T & T Clark.
- Wikipedia: Historicity of Noah’s Ark