The Problem with the “Conflict Thesis”

By Jeffrey Guhin

The relationship between science and religion is often divided into ideal types.  John Hedley Brook proposed conflict, separation, and interaction (1991: 2-4) while Ian Barbour suggested conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (1997: 77). Stephen Jay Gould developed the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), in which “each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution” (1999: 52-53). In contrast to the new atheists’ belligerent insistence on conflict (e.g. Dawkins 2008; Harris 2008), the vast majority of writings about science and religion tend to fall within these lines of conciliation, whether via separation or some form of amalgamation. Discussions of the conflict thesis often draw a parallel between religious fundamentalists who draw scientific data from religious texts and those practitioners of “scientism,” who develop (not falsifiable) metaphysical and ontological commitments out of falsifiable scientific evidence (Midgley 2002 [1985]; Barbour 1997: 78-84). Yet these groups are not entirely parallel, as the latter certainly acknowledges and seeks to exacerbate the conflict while the former insists that, if understood correctly, there is actually no conflict at all.

Whether this latter group is right is another matter, but surely it is important to point out that, as a native category, the “conflict thesis” simply does not exist in any of the New York City area high schools (two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian, all four of which were creationist) where I did participant-observation for a year and a half. Even the most committed fundamentalist is entirely willing to study photosynthesis using all of the intellectual apparatus of modern-day science “because these claims do not contradict any religious claims” (Evans 2011: 711). The difference is much more ethical than it is epistemological (Evans and Evans 2008; Numbers 2006): as the principal of one of the Evangelical schools told me as she drove me back to the train station, the real problem isn’t science, it’s is the meaningless that naturalism might bring.

While creationists acknowledge a boundary with secularists, for which the theory of evolution is an important marker, they often refuse to acknowledge a boundary between themselves and science.  There is an important distinction here between science and scientists, who many creationists acknowledge disagree with them, for reasons misguided, delusional, satanic, or otherwise.  The famed Muslim creationist Harun Yahya (pen name of Adnan Oktar)—who staff members and administrators at both Muslim schools insisted I read, and whose video was shown in biology classes at one of them—argues that evolution is scientifically false, the result of a “blind superstitious faith.”  This rhetorical move is an incredibly common one, showing up in much of the Christian creationist literature as well: it takes two forms, the first insisting that both evolution and creationism come from certain faith commitments and the second, stronger version, arguing that creationism is actually scientific, while it is evolution that rests upon faith, or even a quasi religion.  In a discussion about a class textbook by Evangelical leader Charles Colson, the senior “Worldview” teacher at one of the schools pointed to the author’s comparison of Carl Sagan’s description of the cosmos and the Christian liturgy (Colson and Pearcey 1999: 53).  Like many other creationists, Colson and Yahya insist that underlying metaphysical commitments explain scientists’ repeated insistence on evolutionary science.  Whether or not evolution does take on religious form for some secularists (Midgley 1985), creationists certainly claim it does.

Part of the problem is definitional.  Brook warns that “it would be artificial to ask about the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as if modern definitions of their provenance had some timeless validity” (1991: 8).  While Brook’s adage extends across time, it should also be remembered across space, as what science and religion mean—and also what they do—vary widely, leading to extremely different understandings of what science and religion mean and how they relate. For some time now, scholars of religion have challenged the classification of religion and its relationship to power (e.g., Asad 1993, Said 1994 [1978], McCutcheon 1997), and conversations in science studies have made parallel moves in the classification of science (i.a. Feyerabend 2010; Fuller 2002).  However, the situations are not entirely analogous.  J.Z. Smith warns that religion is not a “native category” (2009), a position echoed by many of my Evangelical correspondents who told me that it was not some abstract idea called religion, but rather their personal relationships with Jesus that mattered.  Virtually none of my respondents talked about science and religion: they talked, instead, about science and “Biblical Christianity” or science and Islam.  Unlike religion, science is a native category, or at least has become one, and virtually all of my respondents would be comfortable talking about an amorphous category like “science.”

Science educators—including those with whom I worked—often admit that much of what they teach is sort of wrong, not malevolently so, but simply as a matter of necessity (Kuhn 1996:138; Slater 2008). Even if science is defined as more than simply “what scientists do” (Pickering 1992), it is, for most non-professionals, “what scientists say,” or, more accurately, what those people do with what scientists say (Toumey 1996).  The science available to non-specialists is a series of discrete facts that only become relevant inasmuch as they are integrated into narratives and understood in relation to boundaries.

In this sense, non-overlapping magisteria is untenable when religion forms an important part of one’s life.  Because religion is inextricably linked to the “social imaginaries” (Taylor 2007) that give life meaning and direction, new scientific information inevitably interacts with religious beliefs.  More importantly—and extending beyond the religious—anyone who encounters a scientific claim processes this claim through certain moral narratives and boundaries, usually initiating a kind of “motivated reasoning” through which previous moral commitments win out.  In many cases, the basis of these interactions is minimal: few are struck to their moral core by molarity.  Yet other discoveries can provoke a deep emotional response, which only make sense if we understand their basis not in the scientific discoveries themselves but the narratives and boundaries that drive and demarcate social life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s