Visualising the relationship between science and religion – by Iain Palin

This note forms the basis of a session in my “Science and Religion” course as presented at Bahá’í residentials.  The session is very consultative as we examine models that will address the relationship – I shall mention some of the outcomes at the end.

In his book Rocks of Ages (1999) the paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould set out what he described as “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to … the supposed conflict between science and religion.” He defines the term magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” and described the NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) principle in which  “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).”
In Gould’s view, “Science and religion do not glower at each other… [but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering” and “NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism” and that it is “a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria.”
In that same year, the National Academy of Sciences in the US adopted a similar stance. Its publication ‘Science and Creationism’ stated that “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.”
At first sight, NOMA is an appealing concept, a positive way of avoiding friction between the claims of religion and the claims of science (provided these are kept within their proper magisteria). But can they be so easily separated? Does it really boil down to a “sharks and tigers don’t fight” scenario?
Richard Dawkins has criticized the NOMA principle on the grounds that religion does not, and cannot, steer clear of the material scientific matters that Gould considers outside religion’s scope. Dawkins argues that “[a] universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. […] Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”.
I think Dawkins is more in line with Bahá’í beliefs. We do accept the occasional irruption of the religious into the physical world – when it happens we call it a miracle – and we also accept that prayer can bring results in this world without violation of physical laws and not just through positive empowerment of the person praying. (How? That’s a subject for another article.)
So how to visualise the relationship, if indeed we can visualise it in simple terms? At this point, the group starts to play with diagrams – the science box fully inside the religion box (traditional religion?), science and religion as a Venn diagram with some overlap (acknowledging Dawkins’ objection but not really showing unity) and more. On the last occasion, I presented this course a science-trained participant came up with the best idea so far: a 3D model shaped like a thick coin, with the edge marked Truth and with faces marked Science and Religion. It would be interesting to hear the ideas of others.

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