Resolving the demarcation problem in religion and science

Lots of people want to separate religion and science into separate spheres, thereby eliminating conflict between the two. But those efforts at demarcation seem theoretically naive. They always wind their way back to the idea that religion and science can be metaphysically independent, which they can’t, even though in practical life, everyday people separate religion and science all the damn time–they accomplish this not in the realm of metaphysical discourse about what science and religion “really are” but in the lived reality of simply acting in ways appropriate to their environments.

The alleged conflict of religion and science was announced in the 19th century, but scholars in the 20th spent considerable time presenting alternative visions. Back in 1927, Robert Merton took Max Weber’s theory about Protestantism and capitalism and transformed it into a theory of Protestantism and science. Subsequent scholars quickly pointed out the obvious fact that lots of the key people in the Scientific Revolution were Catholic, so there’s nothing particularly special about Protestant Christianity that made European science possible. Even more subsequent scholars have heaped onto the pile plenty of evidence about the scientific and technical accomplishments of non-Christians, indicating that there’s nothing particularly special about Christianity more broadly that makes for a scientific ethos.

This stunning hydra was made for my paper by JR of Vanguard Tattoos in Nyack, NY

In the middle of the 20th century, American scientists and theologians eagerly sought to reconcile science and Christianity (there’s an excellent book by James Gilbert on this). Among these, the work of Ian Barbour in the latter half of the century was seminal. Barbour is known for his fourfold typology: religion and science can be (1) in conflict, (2) independent, (3) in dialogue, (4) integrated into one worldview. As Cantor and Kenny point out, there is a clear moral hierarchy in this and as most everyone has pointed out, the world is simply more complex than can be captured in the typology (you can see my own argument that religion, science, and technology are better seen as three heads of a hydra in the journal Zygon). In any case, the borders of Barbour’s typology are often porous to the point of being absent. But my interest here is demarcation: the idea that religion and science can be independent of one another.

The most famous version of the independence model is Stephen Jay Gould‘s theory of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Supposedly, science holds purview over the empirical world and religion provides morality. Well, the problems here are legion. Of course religious people make all kinds of theologically-inspired claims about the natural world (not least of which have to do with the origins of the universe), and they don’t intend to stop. But scientists also make many claims about morality, particularly within the domain of evolutionary biology. NOMA is impractical at best, and most likely just irrelevant.

Inherent both to the conflict thesis and independence models is an excessive emphasis upon the Word (and hence we see a certain influence of Protestant Christianity in the study of science and religion, even if it wasn’t particularly noteworthy in the actual development of science). Scholars and commentators almost exclusively focus on theories and beliefs and scriptures rather than the actual practices of people. Well, it’s not very hard to find conflict between scientific theories and religious scriptures if you’re trying to figure out how the world was made or why there are stars or how people came to be or a whole host of other kinds of things.

But do people actually worry about that in their actual lives? Some do. For some, it’s a tenet of their faith that they must actively resist scientific theories. But in such cases we should examine their actions, not their beliefs. I’ll leave that for another conversation. For now, I’m more interested in how the majority of real, actual, living people manage to separate their religious and scientific understandings. In Temples of Modernity (my overpriced, and therefore completely unread book), one of the things I describe (which is not new to me, though maybe I add some extra detail) is how Indian scientists describe their work as “siloed” or “compartmentalized” from their religious lives. Well and good. But non-Indians do this also, as do non-scientists.

To solve how people accomplish this, we have to look beyond dogmas and theories and scriptural interpretation. Because the people don’t compartmentalize science and religion by delving ever deeper into the scriptures that scholars fancy. Ordinarily, people do so just by living their lives. Erving Goffman, in his amazing Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, argues that our identity (which includes things we believe) changes based on what we’re doing at any given moment. There’s no time in a blog post to go into the whole argument–maybe your library will get you a copy of my book so you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy it–but this is directly relevant to how people might go about their lives, even when they hold irreconcilable beliefs about science and religion. Those beliefs are not immutable. They are subject to change based on context. And so someone might believe something about divine intervention while praying (especially in a temple of some kind) but still believe in the efficacy of vaccines while taking kids to the doctor’s office.

People resolve the problem quite regularly. It’s the metaphysicians who can’t seem to do it.

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