Some science and religion stuff – and why not?

Science and religion are often perceived to exist in a permanent state of conflict. This is not actually the case: many scientists are religious, and religion as primary vocation would seem to represent no impediment to scientific advance (the fundamentals of genetics were first elucidated by a monk). A harmonious understanding usually prevails because players generally adhere to the accepted concerns of these two ‘ways of knowing’: science as the means of investigating the natural world; religion as guide to man’s place in it and the living of a moral life. The agnostic scientist Stephen Jay Gould refuted the humanistic-scientific cultural antagonism and appealed to a working dichotomy of science and religion as the ‘Principle of NOMA’ (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), advocating mutual respect between separate domains of knowledge and teaching:

‘I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict.’

On first read, one may be inclined to agree with this statement: science seeks a fuller factual understanding of the universe; religion postulates moral, ethical and spiritual explanations. Providing each sticks firmly to its respective patch, Gould argued, problems should not arise; moreover, drawing on both as NOMA brings wisdom. To some, however, this utopian scenario is unrealisable. It shouldn’t be assumed that human scientists (religious or otherwise) are somehow culturally immune to questions and assertions about ultimate causes, the existence of God, and an afterlife. Consequently, overlap is inevitable, indeed advocated by the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, who considers the different ways of understanding the universe equally valid, as each serves its own purpose depending on the questions being asked. This seemingly accords with Gould’s NOMA principle. However, when these domains overlap on questions of man’s origin and destiny, conflict inevitably arises, not because their statements are incommensurable, but because they are (to some) discordantly incompatible.

Despite its influence – the US National Academy of Sciences adopted an official NOMA-like stance in relation to religion – Gould’s proposition is flawed, and challenged by both atheists and theists. Richard Dawkins, who considers science as the only necessary means of explanation, deems Gould as having made over-arching effort to appease religion. Bryan Appleyard, a Christian whose stance is anti-science, considers it idle to deny that science and religion are absolutely and irresolvably conflicting views. Astrophysicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, points to the mutual influence that argues for kenotic unification of science and religion, and criticises NOMA as a ‘false truce’. ‘Ultimately knowledge is one because God, the ground of all that is, is One.’ NOMA is violated when a domain attempts either: displacement; convergence; or, adoption of the other towards its own ends. Such disputes are often political in nature, influenced by partisan or selfish interests, creating tension and controversy.


‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’
(Theodosius Dobzhansky)

In 1831, having rejected a career in the church, the 22 year old Charles Darwin accepted an invitation to join a scientific and surveying expedition in HMS Beagle. Five years later, the Beagle returned home with the seeds for a scientific revolution sown in the notes and mind of the young naturalist. However, it was to be another 23 years before the theory of evolution by means of natural selection was presented to the world. Several factors combined to effect this significant delay: recurring illness; the demands of a large family (he had ten children); the task of constructing his evidential case; and other research commitments, necessary in order to establish the scientific reputation required to give his ideas kudos. Moreover, he was apprehensive of the provocative implications of his theory.

Published in 1859, On the Origin of Species arrived in a climate already comfortable with the notion of evolution; the controversy concerned Darwin’s theoretical mechanism. Even though it wasn’t until 1871 that Darwin elaborated on man’s simian ancestry, natural selection removed the need for divine teleology in the emergence of man. Objectors feared the undermining of religion as a basis for moral codes. This perceived threat to social order is apparent in the political machinations of the ensuing debate.

The argumentation sparked by Darwin had its first prominent public airing the following year, at the Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). Notorious as a victory for T. H. Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, over Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, its subsequent depiction in scientific folklore as a triumph for reason over superstition and dogma was probably spin-doctored by the anticlerical Huxley, who despised the unpopular Wilberforce. However, although Huxley did speak to advocate Darwin’s mechanism, it was another Darwin supporter, Joseph Hooker, who ended the exchange with the stronger riposte. Huxley wilfully distorted his account of the event to conform to the climate of conflict between science and religion that developed in the subsequent decades.

This late 19th century conflict found fertile ground in America. Biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer espoused a social misinterpretation of Darwinism, readily assimilated as justification for a competitive individualist philosophy at odds with a fundamentalist commitment to Biblical morality. In the 1920’s (concomitant with the burgeoning US eugenic movement) the evolution conflict became official: legislative suppression of the teaching of evolution as contrary to the Biblical account of creation was enacted in some States, thanks to the legal and political nous of William Jennings Bryan. A populist orator and campaigner for liberal reform, Bryan was driven, not by a concern with evolution itself, to which he was ambivalent and tolerant, but by a genuine desire to preserve the moral good. He was appalled by social-Darwinist excuses for oppression and exploitation of the socially disadvantaged, and for Germany’s justification for World War I. Such an acknowledgement of man’s resort to the baseness of wild animals, from which Darwin proposed he was descended, fuelled Bryan’s ‘anti-evolution’ campaign. And in pious America this allying of Darwinism with immorality had a sympathetic ready-made audience. Nevertheless, constitutional separation of church and state tended to ensure easy defeat for the Bryan-inspired bills. In Tennessee, however, the passing of the 1925 Butler Act went unchallenged, laying the ground for another ‘battle’ between science and religion.

….The Scopes Trial

John Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered to stand trial in an engineered test case that provided various opportunities: for Dayton, where Scopes had contravened the Act; for Bryan, as prosecutor to boost his campaign and effect his legacy; and for Scopes’s defender, Clarence Darrow, to venture the argument against educational censorship. An agnostic, Darrow’s position on social justice was similar to Bryan’s. However, scientific misappropriation of Darwinism promoting a social preference for determinism provides fodder for defence lawyers, who thus have a vested interest in its furtherance. Scopes’s guilt was not in doubt and he was found guilty and fined – incorrectly, a technicality that quashed the conviction, and foiled Darrow’s real aim to test the constitutionality of the law through appeal in a higher court. Thus, Scopes’s portrayal as ‘monkey trial’ martyr in another legendary victory for science is a misconception. The Butler Act was not repealed until 1967.

While parallels can be drawn between the positions of Wilberforce and Bryan, i.e. Christians guarding against a perceived threat to morality, Darrow and Huxley’s stances are more complicated. Whilst both were anti-dogmatism and perhaps self-serving, Huxley was a pro-evolution, anticlerical scientist, whose belligerence possibly complicated and stoked the debate; Darrow was an impassioned advocate for enlightened free expression for all, but who lost the opportunity he foresaw when taking Scopes’s case, although his anti-censorship speech at the trial is powerfully relevant today.

Bryan’s political legacy of resurgent creationism (‘creation science’) was defeated in the US Supreme Court in June 1987, 62 years after the Scopes Trial. However, creationists of all hues have since adopted another guise – Intelligent Design (ID), a movement instigated by a born-again Christian lawyer, Philip Johnson, aiming for ‘equal time’ in school science classrooms, as a ‘wedge’ attack on materialism. The design argument is not new, being the latest incarnation of that ventured by the Reverend William Paley in his 1802 publication, Natural Theology, to which Darwin subsequently provided refutation. The ID movement employs a political strategy – the generation of media publicity, which portrays and promotes a controversy that gives undue credibility to ID as a valid alternative scientific explanation. Despite gathering popular support, sufficient to sway adoption by some schools, ID (hence, creationism again) was defeated in court in 2005, in Dover, Pennsylvania. However, it continues to gain ground.


In 1996, Pope John Paul II announced that the Vatican accepted evolution as a theory of science compatible with creation, but retained spiritual claim on the emergence of mind (or soul) as an immaterial entity. To realists such as Dawkins, this gesture signifies neither conciliation nor convergence; evolution has long been accepted by science – as a fact! Rather it demonstrates the Cartesian inertia of the Catholic Church. Many scientists dispute this dualism, believing that the supernatural does not exist. However, this is a philosophical consideration and not a scientific one; if religion concerns problems that cannot be validated empirically, then they are considered outside the realm of science (as per NOMA). Nevertheless, insisting that ensoulment is theistic exception to evolutionary naturalism amounts to the same argument as Intelligent Design – the intrusion of the supernatural into the natural. Attempt to merge religion and science is not just a transgression of discursive boundaries; it is pseudoscience, untouchable by negative evidence. ‘God’ replaces that which we don’t understand. The problem is that it is often prominent scientists who commit this fallacy.

Theodosius Dobzhansky was an evolutionary biologist and Orthodox Christian, admired by Gould. However, Dobzhansky’s proposed synthesis of ‘evolutionary creationism’ is a not unusual contravention of NOMA. Attempts to marry science and religion lead to problematic thinking, such as the application of Biblical metaphor to scientific findings. On 26 June 2000, Christian geneticist Francis Collins, Director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, announced the completion of the first draft of the human genome, at the White House with President Clinton. Both described DNA as the ‘language of God’. Although it is useful and harmless to refer to DNA as a ‘code’, when scientists and commentators describe the sequencing of the human genome as ‘decoding the book of life’, we are given the impression that DNA is a text authored by God, with science as pontifically qualified to read it. This populist transgressing of discursive boundaries, a political ploy to promote public interest and acceptance, is highly misleading scientifically and prone to backfiring. It provides ammunition for the Intelligent Design argument, and walks straight into the ‘playing God’ accusation in declaring it can now decipher and manipulate a divine code. It is not the domain of science to make teleological statements without evidence. Such pronouncements from religious scientists are thus not science, they are religion. This distinction has become blurred, however, in cosmology.

….The anthropic principle

The complexity of life on earth that inspired Paley’s design argument is accounted for by Darwinian natural selection. However, Paley was also a mathematician who cited the laws of gravitation as further evidence of design. And the laws of physics is a level at which the Darwinian argument cannot apply, so the case for design carries more weight – and it is astronomers and physicists who have made it. The Anthropic Principle, first ventured by Brandon Carter in 1974, considers the universe finely-tuned, such that it made possible the precise conditions for emergence of the material upon which evolution could act. This precise interplay of ‘anthropic coincidences’ has inevitably led to conscious human life. This is a circular argument: the fact that we, as conscious beings, are here to observe the universe means it could not have been any other way, otherwise the universe would be unobservable. As we consider the universe as existing because we observe it, then this is tantamount to saying if it could not be observed, it would not exist. This then restores man to an Aristotelian-like view of the universe as existing solely to bring forth human life, a compelling religious view that has emerged from science (as opposed to being added on to it, as in the examples discussed above). As such, it seemingly represents convergent synthesis: a syncretism rubbished by Gould as it contravenes NOMA. Inevitably, however, this concept is controversial. Physicist Victor Stenger regards it as just another design argument that, though highly appealing to (religious) lay people, is not sufficient as a scientific argument, which considers only the natural.


The evolutionary and cosmological debates illustrate the mutual perviousness of science and religion. While concordant with Polkinghorne’s position that religion incorporates the secular knowledge of science, the effects can be both progressive and regressive. For example, Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches favour a ban on human embryo experiments, supposedly on the grounds that ensoulment of life occurs at fertilisation, which accords the early embryo full moral status. This stance, however, represents a doctrinal shift in response to increased understanding of embryology and developmental biology, and not updated knowledge of the process of ensoulment. It can be interpreted as a defensive position adopted to prevent the gathering of further empirical knowledge on the biology of the early embryo that would further undermine the doctrine. Religion operates indirectly, usually through influence on governments, which appeal to religious sensitivities in order to secure votes. The outcome is involvement in a secular issue by minority theological lobby groups, affecting scientific funding and education policies, and hindering progression of scientific research. It will be interesting to see if the Catholic Church continues to condone the rhythm method as the only acceptable form of birth control, even though it is considered likely to lead to more embryo deaths than other contraceptive methods.

….Evidence for God?

The Catholic Church is adept at adjusting its principles on science when its needs suit. In 2006, it was announced that a recategorisation of miracles was to be implemented at Lourdes, the shrine in southwest France, where, it is claimed Catholics have been miraculously cured of serious illnesses. Acknowledging advances in medical science, healings were to be assigned as ‘unexpected’, ‘confirmed’, or ‘exceptional’. This move addresses several problems, chiefly the decline in the number of miracles in recent years, but also a reaction to competition from other churches in France. The church here is adopting science for its own needs – an increase in the number of miracles. Conversely, science is ignored when it doesn’t accord with what the church wants its followers to believe: the Shroud of Turin is still considered genuine, despite being scientifically proven by carbon-14 dating to be only around 700 years old.

Dawkins considers miracles, in their violation of the laws of nature, blatant intrusion into scientific discourse. Religious faith does not justify any argument that the grounds for that faith – revelation, miracles – should not be subjected to scientific investigation. Contravention of known scientific laws in effect questions the validity of current scientific paradigm theories; as such, science is obligated to question them. Does religion view such inquiry as a threat? Or should it accept it on the grounds that either way it wins: if a miracle cannot be verified scientifically, then religion is satisfied that a supernatural event occurred; if it can be proven natural, then religion can say, ‘Told you so’, even though it would be compelled to then relegate the particular act below the status of miracle. However, defining miracles is difficult; many events considered divine intervention do not break scientific laws. A scientific explanation for a miracle does not reconcile science and belief. It comes down to whether belief in what causes it to happen is miraculous. But, how can divine intervention be tested? Can theology be made science?

Attempts to test the efficacy of prayer are not new. John Tyndall, an X club (take care if you Google this) colleague of Huxley and Spencer, and who as President of the BAAS made a controversial and misinterpreted materialistic attack on religion at its 1874 meeting, had investigated its effects. A number of studies have been conducted in recent years; for example, an apparently rigorously controlled scientific experiment, involving three large groups of patients undergoing the same cardiac surgical procedure. Recovery of one group was prayed for over a three-year period by multi-faith prayer groups; the second (control) group was not. Patients were unaware to which group they were assigned, unlike the third (placebo) group, which was informed it would be prayed for.

The outcome of such ‘experiments’ sometimes find mild benefit, but usually conclude that intercessionary prayer has no effect on prognosis. But the conclusion that this is negative evidence for God is, of course, unacceptable, theologically – and scientifically. It is bad enough for biology and psychology conducting experiments on living subjects, due to the impossibility of absolute controls. Prayer ‘experiments’ are essentially uncontrollable and flawed from the off. But, can science investigate why humans are religious? And if so, would this be theologically acceptable?

The evolution of religious belief

Sigmund Freud, through his studies on the effects of the unconscious on conscious behaviour, considered religious belief the illusory manifestation of wish-fulfilment. Freud lived and worked in the science vs. religion climate of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and was considered to have explained away religion as mere psychological defence against the forces of nature. However, Freud’s theory of religion as ‘universal obsessional neurosis’ was subsequently rejected by both science and theology, and his psychoanalysis deemed pseudoscientific. Examining the relationship between religiosity and obsessionality is extremely complex, and data is limited and contradictory, a deficiency acknowledged by Freud. However, most empirical studies have not considered samples of the strongly religious, which may yet support Freud’s theory. Evolutionary biology and neurobiology are now investigating religion as a biological phenomenon. Is it our natural tendency to be religious?

Religion is difficult to study in normal populations, presumably because it represents an outcome of normal brain tendencies in the vast majority of people. In which case, we must assume it has not disadvantageously encumbered our evolution, otherwise it (hence humans) would have been selected out by nature. Sociological studies suggest that religion is associated with normal psychology in the vast majority of practitioners: actively religious people are happier, live longer, suffer fewer physical and mental illnesses, and recover faster from medical interventions (Marx’s ‘opium of the people’), thus contradicting Freud’s view that belief in God is mentally unhealthy.

However, elevated religiosity has been noted in clinical populations since antiquity. Religion (along with language, technology, music and art) evolved with modern humans and is found in all human cultures. This evolution is linked to neurochemical activation; specifically an expansion of dopaminergic systems, which mediate extrapersonal brain functions such as dreams and hallucinations, and are biased towards upper space (‘heaven’) and extended time (‘eternity’). These functions are highly activated in mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy and related disorders, which are all associated with heightened religiosity, religious experience and/or practices. Thus, behavioural phenomena that reflect a predominance of extrapersonal brain activity indicate a common neural substrate. The most consistent neurochemical change associated with all of these behaviours is the elevation of dopamine, which is consistent with hallucinations, and ‘spiritual acceptance’. Further, a genetic component is suggested by high correlation with increased copy number repeat of the dopamine D4 receptor gene.

Evolution of mind (or soul), not as a separate Cartesian immaterial entity, but as a system or organisation within the brain, is thus associated with the expansion of the brain. This theory of mind accounts for interaction with other minds, levels of ‘intentionality’ that equip humans with beliefs about the intentions of other minds. Higher levels are specific to modern humans and are associated with the emergence of religion and the evolutionary advantage of communal cohesion. The beliefs, practices and experiences characteristic of religions conform to Dawkins’s concept of cultural replicators – ‘memes’ – that spread, virus-like, with effects both beneficial and malefic.

Morality and ethics

Gould’s NOMA suggests science should steer clear of morals as the province of religion. However, evidence indicates that, far from alleviating social problems of morality, religion may actually exacerbate them.

The USA, the most ‘advanced’ country in the world, is the most professedly Christian, and also the least Christian in its behaviour. As it lurches further towards fundamentalist Christian attitudes, rates of murder, suicide, violent crime and sexual promiscuity continue to increase. Highly secular societies, such as France, Japan and Scandinavia, exemplify relatively good moral behaviour, and are far less violent than the United States. Such a strong association, drawn from social scientific evaluation of multiple surveys, suggests the ineffectuality of religion on our moral condition. The view that religion gives life meaning or moral guidance is thus questionable.

However, should science remain amoral? T.H. Huxley argued that human morality cannot base itself upon Darwinism. However, evolution of humans depended on cooperation, which Huxley’s grandson, Julian, argued can serve as a model for morality. Dawkins agrees with the former: humans must fight against their Darwinian nature, and not advocate science as the true successor to religion as a source of moral precepts and values. Dawkins is, however, scathing on religion’s claim as moral guide; by implication, therefore, man must also resist his tendency to be religious. Rather, Dawkins advocates a secular liberal consensus based on decency and natural justice, including rationality in deciding on the applications of scientific findings. It is not just scientists who endorse this view. Theologian Richard Holloway concurs that morality doesn’t need God to be valid; a secular ethic without privilege to any particular community is more democratic, bringing benefit to all. Philosopher Paul Kurtz advocates a scientifically-informed rational basis for the separation of religion and ethics. Allowing religion the dictate on ethics can be harmful: The Vatican’s implicit endorsement of risking exposure to HIV by disapproving the use of condoms is unethical doctrine.


The perceived conflict between modern science and religion is often wrongly assumed to be situated at the empirical level. But the disputation of scientifically-derived knowledge, such as heliocentrism, the age of the earth, and evolution, is not the issue, merely the symptom of tension at a deeper level. Philosopher Seth Holtzman argues that this tension arises from differences in respective worldviews. Modern western culture is dominated by serving materialistic needs, and so requires knowledge and understanding of nature in order to control and manipulate it for its own ends. In this naturalistic worldview, meaningful reality is that which can only be empirically-determined. Religion, however, operates from a humanistic worldview, serving humanistic needs, even though it spawned this secular upstart – science. However, whereas the humanistic worldview can incorporate the accepted factual claims of science, the naturalistic worldview has become less concerned with humanistic requirements.

Holtzman, therefore, proposes a revised humanistic worldview, a synthesis that recategorises science as humanistic, rendering it more compatible with religion by employing the strategies that religion uses to accommodate scientific knowledge. But, this contra-NOMA syncretism already occurs: e.g., Dobzhansky’s Pierre Teilhard de Chardin-inspired evolutionary creationism; or, cosmology’s Anthropic Principle. Any attitude that attributes divine causality without evidence is making a non-scientific leap of faith. Although religions do generally try and adapt to changing circumstances, including scientific advance, the possibility that evolution may account for the cultural manifestations of a big brain is uncomfortable for many, because it potentially explains away religion and soul. Freud may have been closer to the truth than he is given credit for. However, this need not detract from faith (at least not for the faithful). If science can provide a biological explanation for religion, believers might counter with, “So what!” After all, what would be the point of God creating man lacking such capacity? Evidence for the nature of belief in God would seem to satisfy both sides of this argument.

‘Competition’ between science and religion implies a conscious effort to usurp the alternative way of knowing; however, it is less a competition over knowledge, and more a struggle for the ground of cultural authority. Conflict arises when worldview is threatened. Religion here resists scientific naturalism by positioning itself in the role of keeping the morality of science ‘in check’, but is more concerned with the further undermining of religious faith and erosion of its cultural hegemony. Hence, the opposition to Darwinism today, manifest by the attempts of literalists to ban or dilute the teaching of evolution. And The Vatican’s updating of the seven deadly sins amounts largely to a sideswipe at the science beast. Consequently, schisms arise, which, although healthy in keeping religions alive and progressive, generate offshoots pathogenic to both science and religion.

A humanistic science, perhaps defined by incorporation of a democratically-arrived secular ethic, is complicated by the rise in fundamentalism. Unlike in the US, constitutional separation of Church and State does not exist in the UK, where creationism is legally intruding into some classrooms. Creationism is not just a Christian ideal; it appeals to fundamentalists of other faiths. It is not inconceivable, in the current political and religious climate, that creationism may become protected under ‘Incitement to Religious Hatred’ legislation, making it illegal to offend creationists.

The political issue of freedom of expression remains at the heart of this debate. The science-religion dichotomy is not the preserve of great minds such as those discussed in this piece. Science and religion impinge upon the lives of every citizen, whether scientist or not, whether religious or not. Moreover, we pay for them. Hence, any arising tension, frequently and often misleadingly played out in the media, affects everybody. As such, every citizen has the right to question and criticise either or both. Consequently, offence is inevitable. But that is what freedom of expression permits. We should never endorse or condone the kind of hysteria heaped upon novels, cartoons, films, plays, etc. And neither should offence constitute justification for hindrance to researching religion, a feature of the natural world and, as such, appropriate subject matter for science.

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One response to “Some science and religion stuff – and why not?

  1. When Is God-Science Discussable Scientifically
    Re “God and Evolution Can Co-Exist, Scientist Insists”
    – Is there/what is, in the quoted article, a definition of the article’s “god” ?
    – Specifically, is the article’s “god” defined as a human artifact, or not ?
    If “god” is defined/understood to be a human artifact – regardless of reasons, purposes, implications, consequences – the subject “god-science” is scientifically discussable.
    If “god” is not defined/understood to be a human artifact, its concept is a human virtual reality artifact experienced only through sensory stimuli, and “god-science” is not scientifically discussable. Furthermore, in this case preoccupation with this subject within a scientific frameworks contributes to corrosion and corruption of science and scientism by manifesting or implying acceptance of virtual reality as reality.
    “Evolutionary Biology Of Culture And Religion”
    Dov Henis
    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)—?cq=1
    Life’s Manifest


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