Three Paradigms, Three Questions
Back in high school, I took a class called Science and Religion. In retrospect, this is pretty cool. How many high school students get to take a class that introduces them to the discourse between science and religion? We read a book called When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? In it, Ian G. Barbour described four paradigms of the interaction between science and religion. Those paradigms are: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration.
Personally, I never liked how Barbour divided up the last two paradigms, dialogue and integration. Both of these describe the view that science and religion are not just compatible, but are actually friends which can contribute to each other. I'm pretty sure that Barbour advocates the integration paradigm, and that's why he divided it up that way. But if he had advocated some particular sort of independence paradigm, would he instead have split the independence category into two? Surely, the independence and conflict paradigms are complex and diverse enough that they could also be subdivided.
But never mind Barbour. Honestly, I don't remember the book too well. I just remember the three kinds of paradigms: conflict, independence, and partnership.
So the question is, which of these three paradigms to I ascribe to? But I've come to realize that this question is unclear. When we considered the question in high school, the question was specifically about our religion, Catholicism. If someone came up and said that Young Earth Creationism contradicts science, we would have responded, yeah, but Young Earth Creationism is bad religion. And with that, we would have quickly muddled up the issue with normative concepts like "good" and "bad".
Therefore, let us separate out what could be, what is, and what ought to be. For each of the three questions, I will briefly explain my position. You'll see that I give a different response for each one.
What could be
If we want to know the relationship between science and religion, we first have to define what we mean by science and religion. Science is relatively well defined. We may have lots of discussion about what is and isn't science (the demarcation problem), but that only occurs on the fringes. For most things, we can definitively say it's clearly science or it's clearly not science.
Religion is much more broadly defined. In the category of religion, we must include such disparate things such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Chinese traditional religion, Buddhism, primal-indigenous religions--and that's just going down the list of the most common kinds. Even in the individual groups, you will find much diversity. Clearly, not every religion is all about moral guidelines, though perhaps some are. Not every religion makes statements about how the universe was created, though many do.
Therefore, I think that all the paradigms are, in principle, possible, depending on what kind of religion we're talking here. If the religion is purely about moral attitudes and ritual, then obviously that religion will be independent of science. Science cannot say anything about what should be, because the universe would be the same, unaffected by what we think should be. On the other hand, if the religion requires that we believe that the world is a flat disk resting on the backs of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle, then this religion will obviously be in conflict with science. Because we've looked around, and we're pretty sure the giant elephants aren't there.
Now this is a harder example to imagine, but I believe that the partnership paradigm is also possible. Let's say we have a religion which takes the conclusions of science, puts them through some inscrutable black box of theology, and derives religious rituals from them. Science is contributing to religion, ergo they are partners in a strict sense. This might not be the likeliest of religions, but it seems possible.
One thing I do not think is possible, is for it to go the other way around, for religion to contribute to science. Science is more than just a set of conclusions, it is a set of methods which can be used to justify those conclusions. Religion cannot simply offer some conclusion to science. Then it's not science at all, since it does not have scientific justification. We might say that religion occasionally inspires scientists for whatever obscure reason, but that's pretty much the extent of it.
Basically, everything which is possible is probably true of some religion out there, or at least of part of some religion. But if you asked me which paradigm is dominant, I would say the conflict paradigm is dominant, followed by the independence paradigm.
The most obvious real-life example of science-religion conflict is Biblical Creationism. Biblical Creationism holds that Genesis is an accurate account of the creation of the world. Without going into details, this is complete nonsense from a scientific perspective. What is this if not conflict? A common response is that Creationism is not true religion, or is not good religion, or is on the fringe. This is also nonsense. According to the 2008 Gallup poll, about 44% of the US believes that God created humans in their present form in the last ten thousand years. It would be quite reckless to dismiss such a large segment of the population just because you think they ought not to exist.
But even for the non-Creationists, there are more subtle conflicts going on. For example, many people believe prayer is effective. There's really no reason to think so, no more than there's reason to think that homeopathic medicine could be more effective than water. In the few conditions in which prayer has been scientifically tested with proper protocols, it has proved ineffective. So here we got another conflict, perhaps not as big a deal as Creationism, but nonetheless present and widespread.
And then we could get into fuzzier and more philosophical examples. The virgin birth and resurrection, for example. I would never say that miracles (the physical-law breaking kind) are, in principle, impossible. But they are, by their very nature, extremely unlikely, and there's no way a bit of historical evidence could possibly overcome that. Thus there is at least a weak conflict between science and religion here. And on the even fuzzier end, I could talk about "ways of thinking"... but I won't.
Note that this conflict can exist even when the religions themselves deny it, or when they emphasize other non-conflicting aspects. Most people who believe in the virgin birth don't think it has anything to do with science. But then, a lot of Creationists I've met are totally gung-ho about science too.
That's not to say that the virgin birth and Creationism are completely equivalent. There are different levels of conflict, ranging from harmless to subtly malicious to outrageously absurd. I'd say it goes from "mostly harmless" to "terrible" when religion hampers people's study of science. This puts Francis Collins on the wrong side, since he apparently believes that altruism could not have evolved. But he might make a good NIH president regardless, I don't know.
What ought to be
This question is the easiest for me. There should be no conflict with science at all! Because science is knowledge. It's a good thing. Everyone ought to be on board with science. Therefore, if religion exists, then it ought to be on board with science too.
Note that I am ignoring the scenario in which religion doesn't exist. That would render the whole question of religion's relationship with science moot!
As for whether science and religion should be independent or partners, I suppose I would slightly prefer partnership. Because that would mean that religion is even more on board with science. But there are some major caveats. First of all, this should only be accomplished by a change on the religion side, not on the science side. It may require unrealistic amounts of change beyond recognition. And second of all, science may contribute to religion, but religion may never contribute to science. This is because, as I said before, it is impossible for religion to contribute to science, so we might as well not fool ourselves.
Given these caveats, and the risk of accidental conflict, it would be much more prudent to advocate independence. And they must be actually independent; just pretending doesn't count.
...Of course, I have very little power to change the nature of religion from the outside, so maybe this particular question is moot.
So that sums up my position. I hope that even if my readers disagree on the answers (there's a lot to disagree with), they realize the necessity of splitting it into at least three questions.