The God Debate and the Limits of Reason

By Shkliarevsky, Gennady | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The God Debate and the Limits of Reason


Shkliarevsky, Gennady, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


Metaphors conveying adversity, contention, and rivalry are abundant in the literature on the relationship between science and religion. (1) Words like struggle, warfare, and conflict are common currency. Reductions of the long history of the relationship between science and religion to few well-known episodes that justify this script are numerous. The persecutions of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, controversies over Darwin's theory of evolution, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and more recent clashes over stem cell research, abortion, teaching Creationism, Young Earth and Intelligent Design are widely used references.

By contrast, however, the empirical evidence about the relationship between science and religion points to a reality that is far more complex than the all-too-familiar narrative of conflict. Instances of hostilities are no more common than examples of mutual tolerance and even productive cooperation. An overview of interactions between science and religion reveal an array of various combinations when tensions between individuals, ideas, and institutions have either resulted in conflict or "have been resolved into harmony." (2) Stephen Gaukroger, for example, points to the period in early modern history when Christianity took over, promoted, and set the agenda for natural philosophy that advanced the cause of science in the 17th century. (3)

Although the narrative of warfare between science and religion still remains popular and clashes between science and religion do occur, there is a growing trend among adepts of both science and religion to look for more cooperative ways of engaging each other. As one author has noted, "recent academic writing on the subject [of religion and science] has been devoted primarily to undermining the notion of an inevitable conflict." (4) The proponents of cooperation between science and religion represent a very diverse group with many perspectives and opinions that encompass different modes of interaction that range from complete independence, to mere compatibility, to full integration. For lack of a better choice, I would like to use a descriptive, if somewhat awkward, term "cooperationists" and its derivatives to characterize this group.

The cooperationists include some of the most visible scientific and religious institutions, as well as prominent scientists and church leaders. Among the religious institutions supporting cooperation are the Catholic Church, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to name just a few. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been very passionate advocates of harmony between religion and science. (5)

On the scientific side, supporters of cooperation include such major organizations as National Academies of Sciences and a good number of eminent scientists, including some Nobel laureates. (6) The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), for example, has urged accommodation in one of its most authoritative statements on the subject of evolution and creationism. Alluding to radicals who consider science and religion to be totally incompatible, both on the religious and the scientific side, the statement emphasizes: "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist." (7) Some of the most prestigious scientific publications, including magazines Nature and Science, have prominently featured articles by advocates of cooperation. Finally, there are numerous publications that seek specifically to bring science and religion closer together, such as Zygon, Theology and Science, Science and Christian Belief, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and others.

There is no doubt that support for close relations between science and religion has been gaining momentum. Critics, however, argue that such cooperation, while politically expedient, is intellectually dishonest and unsustainable. A rhetorical question from one of the so-called new atheists Mano Singham reflects the views of many scientists who have critiqued cooperationist: "After all, if we concede without argument that mainstream religious beliefs are compatible with science, how can we argue that witchcraft and astrology are not? …

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