What’s left of religion once science’s finished with it?
In general terms the question has to be understood as one of whether religious claims and scientific claims come into conflict. A number of assumptions play a significant role here. The most basic one is that both science and religion make claims. What is more, in the case of science, the claims that it makes change and develop over time, coming to include new kinds of claims about domains that science previously had nothing to say about. It is this property of science that makes it particularly difficult for religion to find some domain in which its claims might be thought to be safe from scientific examination. The problem is made even worse when we consider that science is nothing more than simply what we normally do to understand the world but, just, made more methodologically self-aware, thorough and structured both socially and conceptually. What a biochemist does is in no essential terms different from what a detective does. So, really the question is not one of a possible conflict between the claims made by science and by religion but one of a conflict between the claims made by religion and what is revealed by rational enquiry of any sort. To avoid a conflict it would, therefore, have to be the case that religion makes claims that either can not be investigated rationally or that, if investigated, will necessarily be found to be correct.
The second of these possibilities looks highly implausible due to historical evidence. In the case of religion, various religions make various claims and even individual religions make different claims at different times. Much the same is true of rational enquiry. Given such variation it seems impossible to avoid disagreement between religious and rational claims, if the two concern the same kinds of issues – much as it would be impossible to avoid having two clocks that run at different speeds tell different times. This leaves the possibility that, given enough time, religion and intellectual or empirical enquiry will lead to the same conclusions. However, in so far as there is any evidence for a growing agreement between religion and enquiry it is, I would claim, only due to religion giving up those of its claims that most strikingly conflict with what has been discovered.
So, is it the case that religion is only making claims that are not open to enquiry? I think it is very clear that this has not been the case historically. Still, we can investigate the question of what sort of religion we would have if it did seek not to make claims that would be open to rational enquiry. The essential assumption which would have to be made to give this alternative even prima facie plausibility is that there are claims which can not be investigated and thus found to be false. The problem is that such claims would have to not only not be open to being tested by experiment but of being investigated even by methods such as conceptual analysis. Any kind of enquiry, empirical or intellectual-philosophical, might end up showing religious claims to be incorrect. Of course, philosophical enquiry, as I have previously mentioned, is open to constant obstruction by the invention of ad hoc modifications aimed at forestalling the falsification of the religious claims. However, even in that case, if one assumes that one is dealing with a reasonable person, the weight of the ad hoc modifications will in the end bring down the claims being defended. So, to avoid possible conflict religious claims must be utterly uninvestigable. Adding “uninvestigable… by reason”, although it might seem appropriate and capable of granting refuge to religion, is really a false move as reason need not be understood here as anything more than merely the ability of cognise and that is essential to all investigation, even the most mystical – assuming there are any such effective methods of investigation. To argue that there are any claims which are totally uninvestigable yet meaningful is an extraordinarily strong claim to make. One possible area where such a view might be thought to have been held is that of ethics. However, this view unsupportable for two basic reasons. First of all, if it were true it would mean that meaningful discussion of ethics would be impossible – discussing different ethical views would be like comparing personal tastes – hardly the basis for any ethical position claiming to be objective. Secondly, ethics has been investigated since the beginnings of human culture, be it through the philosophy of Plato or the plays of Sophocles, and is now even being opened up to scientific investigation through investigations of the evolutionary-biological roots of ethics.
All this adds up to the conclusion that were religion to attempt to avoid any possible conflict with science it would have to forego all of its claims only leaving behind a faint ethereal glow. The case can be made particularly clearly with the example of Christianity.
Most modern Christians are willing to allow that the story of Adam and Eve is just that – a story. They are willing to allow that science is correct when it finds that the universe is around 18 billion years old and that the human species evolved from an ape ancestor it shares with the Chimpanzee. To allow this much is only to allow the results of our finest investigations of the world we live in and, as such, uncontroversial assuming that one is rational and informed. However, most Christians do not recognise that allowing this much makes nonsense of their basic religious beliefs. The problem is that, if Adam and Eve never existed and, therefore, never ate any apples, the original sin never took place and Christ’s death on the cross could in no way redeem us from it – a notion which, of course, is both profoundly immoral and ludicrous in itself. Given the capacity Christian apologists have shown over the centuries to invent post hoc ways of dealing with intellectual progress it should be no surprise that various ways of side-stepping this problem have been invented. However, most Christians do not deal with them by juggling theological and scientific concepts but, merely, by using the human capacity for doublethought, to use Orwell’s apt term. At one time they think that evolution is true at another that Christ redeemed us from original sin. And, normally, never the twain meet. Indeed, it is thanks to this all too human capacity to think inconsistent thoughts that religion and science do not normally conflict for most people. The public figures, be they scientists or theists or both, who insist religion and science are compatible are, in effect, motivating people to continue to doublethink. The fundamentalists who reject science because they recognise it conflicts with religion are being more intellectually honest in this respect.