Scientific and religious claims

This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while, and since I have not done much blogging outside of the reading through the Bible theme, and I’ve been lax on that in the last week, here’s the post


Stephen J. Gould came up with an interesting, but not very good idea, and somehow it caught on. The idea that religion and science are completely different domains and therefore no conflicts should occur. The only time conflicts occur between science and religion is when one invades the other’s domain. The idea was called NOMA, for non-overlapping magisteria.

This idea has come under much criticism from both religious (read Christian) fundamentalism and the New Atheist movement. This is not surprising, Young Earth Creationists believe the origin of the universe is something the Bible is correct about, while New Atheists see evolution as very good evidence against theism. The New Atheist movement feels that religion should be studied like any other naturalistic phenomena, which religious people (not only fundamentalists) are likely to object to.

This is an objection that many New Atheists argue is unjustified, but it probably isn’t. All religious people believe there is something supernatural about the source of their religion, so if you can’t see why they’d object, they probably aren’t the problem.

Basically, if something is supernatural then you wouldn’t expect natural methods of enquiry to adequately explain it, so what Dawkins and Dennett and so on are saying is that we should do everything on their terms, and accept their results, but they’d be very upset if religious people said enquiry should be done entirely on theistic terms. If they do object to doing stuff on theists terms, they should accept that theists will be obstructive about doing things on atheist terms.

So is COMA then the best option?

COMA would be applying completely overlapping magisteria, which is essentially what many Atheists demand, that all things about religion, even the supernatural stuff should be potentially provable or examinable by scientific (naturalistic) enquiry. This is obviously just pushing NOMA to the extreme opposite option, which isn’t the only option, but seems to be the all or nothing approach of many atheists.

Let’s just examine this carefully. If you can’t prove, say, the existence of God via scientific method, then one may say, God doesn’t exist. If you could prove God via scientific means, then whatever you proved wouldn’t be supernatural, and therefore wouldn’t be God, and you’d have proved God didn’t exist. So it’s not surprising that this approach would be unacceptable to religious people, yet atheists battle to see the problem. If your method can’t possibly falsify your belief, then the problem is your method, not those who disagree with you.

Dawkins complains that if DNA was found that reportedly belonged to Jesus and it was conclusively proven that no father was involved, then religious people would not apply NOMA, but would use that as proof of the virgin birth. He is right, but why should religious people either accept NOMA or COMA? Why should religious people accept that science can examine every religious question, or no religious questions.

So what about POMA?

If we accept that science can have views about the natural world, but can only examine the supernatural impacts on the natural world, without really being able to say much about the actual supernatural world. Of course, this would be the best way if there were supernatural aspects to the universe. But the atheist might actually say that this is doing it on theists terms, and why should they do that? This is a good question, since partially overlapping magisteria would lead to religion being able to make certain claims about the natural, while science would need to stay out of the supernatural, this would be the appearance anyway. This would hardly be fair to the atheists, so they would have cause to object. The solution would be to say that certain discoveries in science would be evidence against supernatural claims, but it’s unlikely that both sides will agree on what kind of discoveries would be acceptable here.

I feel that either end of the scale, non or completely overlapping magisteria are just extremes and should be avoided, so the debate shouldn’t be over NOMA at all, but over how much overlapping is good enough (not for each side) but for good quality enquiry.

What are your thoughts? What kind of a model would you support? How would you arrange boundaries?


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