Saturday, January 10, 2009

Science versus Religion: Battle or Partnership?

How do you view people whose beliefs differ from yours? Is it a war, a friendly disagreement, an uncomfortable standoff, or a collaboration? Do you just ignore them? Do you actively try to convert them to your point of view?

Jennifer Wilding of Consensus, wrote an excellent summary of the five primary ways that religion and science interact, and I believe by extension, it also illustrates how religions interact with each other. It's an excellent summary that all thinking people should read and ponder. Wilding was writing to summarize the findings of a Kansas City Forums panel, which identified these five styles of interaction:
Warfare Model. Science and religion are incompatible, only one can be true.

Separate Realms Model. Science is about the physical world, and religion is about the spiritual/moral world, and there is no conflict since there is little overlap.

Accommodation Model. Religion is deepened through the discoveries of science.

Engagement Model. Science and religion are equal partners, each asking questions that enlighten and improve the other.

Theistic Science. Largely promoted by Creation Science advocates, this claims that science is mostly right, but that occasional miracles and divine intervention are possible.
(I highly recommend the original article (link above) for a more thorough treatment of these ideas.)

Which one am I? I had a surprisingly hard time answering this question. I seem to be spread about between the first three.

The Warfare Model appeals to me because in an absolute sense, it must be true. On any specific question about physical facts, there can only be one right answer. If religion claims one thing, and science proves another, well, religion is just wrong.

On the other hand, the Separate Realms Model seems to me to be orthogonal with the Warfare Model: If the realms really are separate, then the idea of "warfare" is moot. As an analogy, consider the word "justice." It's not a physical concept, subject to experimentation, proof, or disproof. It's a human concept, in a separate "realm" from science. So, in that sense, I guess I could accept that there are separate realms. On the other hand, I find that science is pretty good at explaining things, which leaves the "religion realm" pretty much empty.

The Accommodation Model is an interesting historical development. The Roman Catholic Church is the prime example of this: They are strong supporters of science, particularly astronomy and evolution. Their version of the Accommodation Model is, roughly, that science asks "how?" and religion asks "why?" Any time there is a conflict, science wins. In the end, the Accommodation Model seems to be to be a hybrid between the Warfare and Separate Realms models: Only one (religion or science) can be right; religion can't possibly refute a plain fact demonstrated by science, so religion is only left with its Separate Realm, which doesn't leave it much.

The Engagement Model doesn't impress me. I'm sure there are plenty of religious scholars who have valuable contributions to make, based on their extensive studies of history, ethics and morality. But if they'd devoted that same energy to a secular study of these same topics, their contributions would be so much more meaningful. Ethics based on false premises, especially those that ignore or deny humankind's animal origins and primitive instincts, are counterproductive.

That leaves, of course, Theistic Science, which is a complete nonstarter.

So I guess that means I'm in the Warfare Model camp. Which is odd, because I don't see it as a war. If I'd been in Jennifer Wilding's shoes (the author), I'd have called it the Incompatible Realms Model or Irreconcilable Realms Model, something less bloody. My goal is more of an educational campaign; the word "war" conjures up too many visions of battle and blood. That's not what Atheism is about.


  1. Thanks for this link, it is an interesting dilemma to ponder. I would subscribe to a conglomeration of the Separate Realms and Engagement Models... I agree that Ethics which disregards our primitive behavioral instincts is bound to fail, but there's one more reason why they should be more engaged! The only problem I have with "separate" is that I believe these two realms are deeply intertwined and necessary to each other, which is why I feel it necessary to have some sort of engagement between them. Perhaps it would be called the Codependent Realm Model.

    I'm glad that you see the possibility of the Separate Realm Model as orthogonal to the Warfare Model because I think even if it is labeled less threateningly it promotes a self-fulfilling egoism on both sides that will inevitably fail at extracting any value out of any definite relationships between the two. There is a danger in assuming that any one thing is the ultimate truth.

  2. Sometimes it seems that I am the only atheist in the world who does not support the Conflict Thesis/Warfare Model.

    I wrote a little about my position on the relationship between science and religion here:

    The way I see it, there is a conflict, but it is not so much a conflict of science and religion as a conflict that has to do with what we want science to be -- a Handmaiden, as religious people tend to use it as, or a Sibling, as nonbelievers tend to use it as.

    "The Warfare Model appeals to me because in an absolute sense, it must be true. On any specific question about physical facts, there can only be one right answer. If religion claims one thing, and science proves another, well, religion is just wrong."

    Well, that would be true for a particular religion, but not necessarily to others. For every religion that conflicts with a particular point in science, you have another religion that is perfectly okay with it, and yet the former religion may be perfectly okay with everything else in science. It seems to me that the degree of conflict between science and a particular religion really depends on the tenets of that religion. And we should not pretend that one religious tenet is intrinsically more real than another -- a religious tenet is basically a suspension of disbelief. Philosophy has failed to show that there are "objective religious tenets" in the same sense that we have scientific knowledge (and yet I would argue that if we ever did find things that we might at first call "objective religious tenets," they would actually be part of scientific knowledge). For this reason, I think that the Warfare Model is conceding too much to the religion side of things because it suggests that its tenets reflect reality on par with scientific knowledge.

    So, the way I see it, saying that there is a war between science and religion is like saying that there is a war between science and Star Wars, science and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

  3. Millsley - Thanks for your comments. Although I understand your position, as an atheist I can't agree. The idea that science and religion are "intertwined" is purely an artifact of history. As humanity moves forward and sheds the superstitions from our past, the intertwining will unravel.

  4. Ian,


    "... saying that there is a war between science and religion is like saying that there is a war between science and Star Wars, science and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

    You put it more bluntly than I did, but I suspect it captures the same thing I was trying to say.

  5. When I suggest that science and religion may be intertwined I am thinking more along the lines of what Adolph Bastian, Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell's work suggests that these prehistoric mythical and archetypal themes have some bearing on human psychological development (and religion today is only a modern expansion upon these themes). I think science will find great difficulty in understanding the greater depths of human awareness without a more than cursory glance at its consciousness exploring predecessor. By its very nature it would have had a stronger grasp on the reality of consciousness with far less metaphor than the average brain relies upon today, and a much weaker grasp on the realities of matter which we know quite a bit about today.

    You put it well when you said this intertwining will unravel, and that's exactly what it's supposed to do. But in this mental metaphor it is important that the farther back we go the closer they were. We can shed the superstition without shedding the reality it attempted to represent, and it might be easier to unravel if we fix some of the knots!


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