Sunday, February 7, 2010

Is Religion Separable from Science?

It's a matter of entrenched conviction, I suppose, that religion has no place in science, but I wonder how it can be possible that the two be separated. I can see how Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam or any specific religion can be denied any role in scientific theorizing and data gathering, but what I can't see is how religion simpliciter could be excluded without the whole enterprise collapsing.

When we think of religious belief we almost always think of a belief in some sort of supernatural being, but religious beliefs need not be limited to supernatural entities for at least two reasons:

First, the meaning of the word "supernatural" is unclear. Usually it's intended to refer to that which transcends the laws and boundaries of our space-time world, but consider this possibility: Suppose there are other universes besides our own with different laws and even different forms of life, including intelligent life. This is the state of affairs scientists and philosophers who embrace the multiverse hypothesis believe is the case. These universes, and their inhabitants, would fit the definition of supernatural, but would we regard belief in their existence to be a religious belief? If so, should the multiverse hypothesis be excluded from science? Most scientists would say no.

Second, according to one popular text in the philosophy of religion (Reason and Religious Belief, Peterson, et al.) a religion is a "set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around the concept of an Ultimate Reality which inspires worship or total devotion."

Based on this definition, is science itself, or at least scientific naturalism, a religion? The naturalist holds that nature is the ultimate reality and certainly many scientists are totally devoted to it.

In his Myth of Religious Neutrality, philosopher Roy Clouser identifies the crucial belief characteristic of all religions. This is the belief that there is something, some entity, that does not depend upon anything else for it's existence and upon which everything else depends. This is another way of saying that there is something which possesses necessary being. For the Christian this is God, for the materialist it's matter or the laws of nature.

But if this is true then naturalism, materialism, humanism, indeed every form of atheism found among modern scientists, is, in fact, religious, and any attempt to banish religious assumptions and influence from science would be like cutting out a vital organ. It would deprive it of its meaning and possibly entail the dissolution of science altogether. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to practice a meaningful science while somehow leaving one's total devotion to whatever constitutes one's ultimate reality at the door of the lab.

Attempts to exclude religion from science are as futile as attempts to exclude ideology from politics. Religion can no more be isolated from science than it can from morality. Indeed, the demand to banish religion from science is, in reality, an attempt to banish one kind of religion, theism, while privileging materialism and shielding it from all competition.