Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion

The previous articles in this series discussed the attitudes towards religious diversity in New Zealand, a personal perspective of what atheism means and why it should not be separated from other beliefs when human rights are considered. This article deals with the issue of conflicts between science and religion which often arise when we consider the relationship between atheism and theism.

Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Some people claim science and religion deal with different spheres of knowledge; they each have their own role and therefore can coexist peacefully. And indeed they do, often within the same person. Many scientists have a personal religion and many (perhaps most) religious people accept scientific knowledge. Sometimes this is because the religious beliefs are no longer those old ones which conflicted with scientific knowledge. But many people are able to hold concurrent beliefs which are not consistent. The physicist Stephen Weinberg mentions meeting an oil man who believed in creation of the earth 6000 years ago. At the same time he held scientific beliefs about the far greater age of the earth which enabled him to explore for and discover oil![1] I think this is possible because of the emotional commitment that many people have to one or another belief, particularly a religious belief.

Intrusion into each others’ spheres

However, any apparent peaceful coexistence cannot be permanent because there is no lasting agreement on spheres of influence. There are some obvious examples of the science/religion conflict today.

On the one hand, some religious believers take their beliefs into the scientific sphere. They make powerful and well financed political challenges to reliable scientific knowledge such as evolution or the age of the earth. They try to replace scientifically obtained knowledge with a “revealed” knowledge, thereby undermining the scientific method itself. Around the world today some religious groups demand incorporation of unscientific creationist myths into national science education curricula.
On the other hand humanity does not restrict its investigations (Fig. 4). Today evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists are investigating human values and morals, often claimed by religions as its sphere of influence. Neuroscientists are making exciting new discoveries about human consciousness. One could say that humanity is trying to understand the human “soul”. In its investigation of the fundamental nature of reality science is even asking the “why” questions – questions which are sometimes claimed to be in the exclusively religious domain.

I think it unavoidable that this challenge between science and religion will continue because of the nature of these two systems. Inherent in science is the concept of a reality existing independently of our consciousness. A reality capable of interaction and therefore with an internal logic which, in principle, can be perceived and understood. This means that we can study everything; the so-called “supernatural” is just that which we don’t yet understand.

While religion continues to make claims about the cosmos, consciousness and human nature it puts these in the realm of science and inevitably exposes them to the possibilities of investigation. These claims cannot be “ring-fenced” or “walled-off”. Similarly, investigation of the evolutionary, social and neurological basis of values, morality and ethics brings science into areas actively debated by all of society. This requires open-mindedness, humility and a respectful attitude towards less scientifically informed sections of society.

We just have to accept this ideological conflict and have the debate, because, of course the debate will continue. And we know that it is possible to do this politely and with respect. After all, this goes on all the time within science between adherents of different views and that is how we make progress. If this debate is honest it can only benefit both sides in developing their ideas as no real living knowledge is static. The continuing discussion between western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists, led by the Dalai Lama,[2] are an example of what this debate can achieve.

Treading on toes – religious sensibility

The sensitivity to criticism of belief is a key issue for prospects of cooperation between people of different ethnicity and belief. Rudeness undermines cooperation but lack of debate and criticism is a false cooperation and limits progress. I think that religious believers often take offence at any criticism of their ideas. As Richard Dawkins says, most people assume that “religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect.”[3] Religion receives a privilege not granted to other beliefs such as those of politics, sport, science or atheism. And this attitude towards criticism of religion is common among the non-religious as well as the religious.[4]

Debate and criticism are essential ingredients to the search for knowledge which is more important then the offence some religious people may take from this knowledge. Charles Darwin held off publication of On the Origin of Species for many years because he knew it would offend religious people[5] and recent correspondence also reveals religious pressure on his publishers to prevent publication.[6] But, benefits from evolution theory have been far more important to humanity than the offence taken by some religious people.

In Part IV I discuss atheist attitudes towards, values, morality and spirituality and the prospects for common action by theists and non-theists.

1: See presentation at Beyond Belief 2006 Conference
2: See, for example Daniel Goleman (2004): Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
3: Richard Dawkins (2006): The God Delusion
4: See for example an atheist review of The God Delusion (NZ Listener, Vol 207 No 3485, 2007:No doubt by David Larsen)
5: Charles Darwin (1859): On the origin of Species, Introduction.
6: Times Online, April 25, 2007

Related Articles:
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Common values, common action?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

One response to “Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


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