Posted by: salamandercandy | May 29, 2006

Science and Religion: Mapping the Magisteria

I recently led a discussion for my Unitarian Universalist group on the interaction of science and religion. While preparing, I realized that most points of view on this topic can be summarized by their position along two axes. Click below to figure out where you, or your favorite philosopher, stand on the map…

One popular position is explained by Stephen Jay Gould in his book, “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.” Science and religion, argues Gould, are magisteria (domains of knowledge) that do not overlap at all. Science studies how the world is, and religion studies how the world should be: questions of ethics, meaning, and morality. Apparent conflicts between science and religion stem from trying to answer a question in the wrong magisterium. Religion isn’t supposed to tell us if the Earth revolves around the sun, or whether we share an ancestor with chimps… that’s the job of science. Likewise, science can’t tell us what is right and what is wrong; I’ve heard the argument that “science tells us” a zygote should have the full rights of a human being since it has unique DNA, but this argument commits the fallacy of using the wrong magisterium. The position of non-overlapping magisteria is popular with many religious leaders, including Catholics, Jews, and Buddhists, as well as many religious scientists; they are at peace with the discoveries of science and do not see them as a threat to their faith. Gould does not spend much time on concepts like God, souls, heaven, and hell, but presumably these can be considered to be outside the realm of science also since they are undetectable with the scientific method. Even historical miracles like parthenogenesis in mammals, if defined as violations of the physical laws we can study today, might be outside the realm of science, although this is probably more controversial.

Gould’s position can be seen as one end of a continuum, with the other end representing a full overlap of science and religion. At this other end, science and religion are seen as both investigating the same kinds of truth, and when they conflict, either science is right or else religion is. At this end, there is another, perpendicular axis. At one extreme is the view that when science and religion conflict, science is always right, and at the other end is the view that religion always trumps science. All of this is represented below. Science is green, since green is the color of the natural world observed through science. Religion is purple, the color of royalty, representing that which we value and look up to. Gould’s position is represented by the red dot at the righthand point, where the science circle and the religion circle touch but do not overlap. On the left, science and religion completely overlap, and this can occur in different ways along the vertical axis: from science completely taking over religion (top), to an equal sharing of the magisteria (middle), to religion dominating science (bottom).

Science and Religion.bmp

The brown dot represents the position of the fundamentalists, who believe first and foremost what their religion tells them is true, and if science contradicts it, they discard the science. Many of them do this hypocritically, though, and claim to be in full compliance with science. The scientific evidence, they assert, actually points to a Creator if examined objectively. Of course, this is nonsense. Science neither supports nor refutes the existence of God, although it certainly does refute many traditional religious teachings (about the age and shape of the Earth, for example). Thus, the creationists are actually covering the green with the purple, not the other way around. Not only fundamentalist Christians fall into this corner; it’s the location of anyone who forces science to yield to their religious beliefs, be they New Age mystics, pagans, fundamentalist Muslims, or just superstitious people.

The blue dot represents the positions of Connie Barlow, Ursula Goodenough, and others. They want to ground religion in the truths about the universe that science has revealed. Religion should not ignore science, it should celebrate it. The epic evolutionary story, the complex ecological relationships we maintain with other species, the beautiful mechanical workings of molecules… these should be the basis of our religious stories, from which we derive our morals, our humility, our sense of awe, and our feeling of connection with something greater than ourselves.

My own position varies as I develop spiritually. As a high school teacher, I felt I had to take a position near the red dot, at least publicly. I didn’t want to spend time in the classroom discussing religion, and the easiest way to do that was to assert that science and religion are not in conflict, and move on. And, truly, they don’t have to overlap, and I have no quarrel with someone who wants to keep their religion separate from their science. But, personally, I find that position feels sterile, and I prefer to be closer to the blue dot. I am more spiritually inspired by things that I know really exist, than by things which, while technically outside the dominion of scientific proof, often seem unlikely. I want to base my spirituality on the real natural world, even if I grant my fellow humans the right to do otherwise. I admit that ethics decisions ultimately fall into the realm of religion, not science, but to make choices we draw so much from our scientific knowledge that it seems misleading to construct an impenetrable line between science and morality. However, I am not so far in the upper left corner as some people are. I see faith, for example, as a religious concept which is also important in science: scientists must have faith in the honesty of other researchers, their own senses, their equipment, etc. They cannot justify these leaps of faith with their scientific findings; rather, their belief must stem from outside the magisterium. Thus, humanity needs both religion and science.

But that’s just me. Where do you stand on the map?



  1. Very interesting. I especially liked that you pointed out the space between your public and personal position, since I find myself negotiating a similar distance — I’ve little desire to shut down or shut up the numerous mystics in my circles (and, as it happens, my two closest friends at my church are both more mystically inclined than not), but, well, my Unitarian Jihad name is Sister Blowtorch of Pragmatic Idealism…

  2. Regarding your last few sentences…what is the definition of faith? I see the examples you gave as being very different than faith in any particular religion’s god. For instance, I wouldn’t call faith in other scientists “faith” since it is based on experience and steretyping. You know what other scientists have been through to gain their various credentials, you know many scientists yourself, you know what kind of scrutiny these other scientists are under when publishing findings. Presumably, this all leads you to believe that, even if you do not know the quality of this particular scientist’s character, there are reasons to at least give the benefit of the doubt, absent more evidence. Faith, though, really seems to be accepting something absent any direct OR indirect evidence to support it. In fact, demanding evidence may be seen as heretical. In fact, sometimes faith requires that you believe even in the face of direct or indirect contradictory evidence. For instance, most of us nowadays would regard the idea of a talking, burning bush with much skepticism, much less would we automatically believe what the bush tells us. Yet, in the Abrahamic religions, it is expected. now, if you knew a scientist who had done something unethical, which is direct evidence, I would bet that you and many others in the community would treat him with more skepticism than other colleagues, rather than continuing to have faith in him.

  3. I’m not sure how exactly I would define faith, Penni, but I guess I essentailly mean believing in something without statistically significant evidence at the alpha=0.05 level, or something like that. I don’t think most religious people embrace their faith in the absence of any evidence. They base their beliefs on what they are told by people they highly respect, and on personal experiences and observations. It’s not conclusive evidence, but it’s the same kind of evidence on which I base my belief in many scientific findings. Science has produced stories even more incredible than flaming vegetation with the power of speech… just look at quantum physics, for example. I have not personally seen evidence supporting these scientific stories, but I generally believe them because I trust the process of science.

  4. Your diagram makes this controversial topic clear and easy to understand. I am inclined toward the blue dot perspective also, but grounding religion ‘only’ in the truths about the universe seems a bit sterile to me. Instead, I prefer to ground religion and science in the Logos, or the structure that makes analytical truth possible. Taking this approach allows the significance of human experience to shine through. For instance, in his book, The Nature of Physical Reality, Margenau elaborates on what the theoretic component of our experience entails when he says, “…that we come to knowledge of our experience in two ways—through the mental states of prepositional attitudes and sensation.” He then lumps these attitudes and sensation together in what he calls our P-plane experience—a combination of immediate experience with its significance (science is only part of what this significance entails). In this way we come to “know” the same thing in two different ways, through sensed qualia and through the significance that we attach to this sensed qualia. For Margenau, there are four levels of P-plane significance. Language, with its lexical, syntactical, and contextual designations represents the first level. The second level, science, raises P-plane significance by connecting P-plane experience with the propositional aspects of our cognitive experience via what Margenau calls rules of correspondence—the sensed aspect of what may be inferred or deduced from theoretical postulates. On the third and fourth level of P-plane experience, significance deals with ethical behavior and existential meaning. Here the cognitive connection to P-plane experience does not entail the rigor of analysis that describes the scientific method. But, according to Margenau, this lack of rigor does not impose a lesser degree of significance.

    Ultimately, however, grounding religion and science in this Logos implies that a kind of God presence resides in my temporal present as an all-knowing self-awareness, but I rarely (if ever) experience self-awareness this way. Instead, I experience my own beliefs, concerns, and intentions; I experience my past and my future in terms of my own thoughts, words, and deeds. Thus (and this is a really huge thus), when the meaning of this state of affairs becomes clear, responsibilities shift from my own personal relationship to myself, to the more daunting relationship of ‘my relationship’ to God’s self-awareness, i.e. my God relationship. This may sound strange, but there is a common analogue to this relationship, an analogue to my personal relationship with God through self-consciousness, –and it is expressed in Gestalt figure/ground images.

    In the common Gestalt representation of ‘faces’ and ‘vase,’ whether you see two faces or a vase depends on which part of the drawing you see as a figure and which part as background. Although the drawing allows you to switch back and forth between two ways of organizing perception, you can’t perceive the reversible drawing both ways at the same time. This figure/ground relationship, by analogy, is what is behind my personal relationship with God through self-consciousness. Thanks for the opportunity to post.

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