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How and Why

The ancient Babylonians believed solar eclipses were a sign of the anger of the gods. Often, the priests recommended appeasing the gods by sacrificing the king. But Babylonian astronomers recorded the dates and times of eclipses, and discovered a regular pattern. Armed with this knowledge, they were able to predict the date of the next eclipse. The king, realizing what this could mean, temporarily abdicated. A convicted criminal was placed on the throne as a substitute, only to be executed after the eclipse arrived as predicted. The real king could then resume the throne in safety. The king's survival was guaranteed because he sought advice from both his astronomers and his priests.

In modern times science and religion have developed a more strained relationship, but it need not be that way. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described a way forward in a 1997 essay titled Nonoverlapping Magisteria (PDF). He expanded on the idea in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages:

To summarize, with a tad of repetition, the net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe 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).  To cite the old cliche's, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.

For an example of how this might work in practice, let's look at a rainbow.


A scientist could say that a rainbow is formed when water droplets in the sky act as a prism, separating the different wavelengths that make up sunlight, resulting in a multicolored arc of light. A theologian, on the other hand, might say that the rainbow represents God’s promise to Noah never to destroy the earth by flood. The scientist has explained how it works, and the theologian has explained the rainbow's ultimate meaning. These views are not mutually exclusive. Most theologians also accept the scientific account, and some scientists will accept the theological explanation.

The rainbow has other symbolic meanings outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, from Norse mythology, in which a burning rainbow serves as the bridge from the realm of humans to the realm of the gods, to Hindu mythology, in which the rainbow represents the bow of Indra. The rainbow has even been imbued with non-religious symbolism, from a song in the Wizard of Oz movie, in which the rainbow represents the place where dreams come true, to the modern gay pride flag, where each color has its own symbolism.

None of these symbolic meanings are in the realm of fact and hypothesis; they are not challenges to the scientific explanation. None of these meanings can be tested in the laboratory to determine which one best fits the facts. Nevertheless, some scientists may find meaning in one or more of these views, while maintaining scientific rigor in their studies of the natural world.

Problems arise when a religious explanation is used in the realm of science, or a scientific explanation in the realm of religion, e.g. when creationists like Ken Ham press to have their religious views taught in science class, or when "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins insist that we must treat all god-talk as a testable hypothesis.

Can science and religion really play nicely with each other? Can the two be compartmentalized? I'd like to believe this is an elegant solution to the conflict between science and faith, but I suspect there are many hidden traps. Can any religion thrive without making factual claims? Can science be healthy if it avoids moral judgments? I don't think these questions have easy answers. Nevertheless, if we want to break the antipathy between science and religion, Gould's approach might be a good place to start.

Update 4/20: I see that Bible scholar Peter Enns is thinking about this same subject.

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