Should We Pronounce the Religion-Science Dialogue Dead on Arrival?: A Response to Robert Tapp

What’s the state of public discourse on science and religion today? Frequently the starting points of the disputing parties are so diametrically opposed that rational debate becomes difficult at best. Unbending, frequently dogmatic rhetoric (on both sides!) functions to cut off genuine dialogue at the knees. Thus it’s all the more intriguing when, on rare occasions, real contact and communication occurs.

Robert Tapp recently posted an intelligent response to my column on RD. Three of his claims are particularly provocative and deserve attention. The paraphrases are mine:

Postmodern perspectives are a two-edged sword: they can promote new kinds of dialogue, but they can also collapse into an extreme relativism that is scarcely productive. Fair enough; the danger is real. Saying that science is “just another linguistic system” plays well in humanities departments and at certain Ivy League divinity schools. But it makes about as much contact with real science as astrology does.

Still, major cultural changes are in the air, and they are changing the context for religion-science discourse. Few today want to say that an “-ism,” a philosophical worldview, is foundational to their position — even those for whom (say) materialism or theism actually is a foundational assumption. For many, the “modern” hurdles to dialogue between physics and metaphysics, or between neuroscience and consciousness studies, are hurdles no longer. Our context is postmodern because of this shift in cultural attitudes.

Facile talk of a religion-science dialogue obscures the asymmetry between the two fields. Religion and science are not equals. Although it irritates many people to hear it, the point is well taken. New observations and theories frequently resolve scientific debates; they rarely resolve religious differences. Molecular biologists from around the world agree on 95% of the conclusions of their field. Religious believers from different cultures agree on 5% of their beliefs — at best.

Still, such asymmetries do not spell the end of the “creative mutual interaction” between the two fields (Robert J. Russell). New empirical facts may not directly falsify religious beliefs, but they often motivate radical rethinking of doctrines and jump-start religious imagination. Religion and philosophy do not overturn science, but they have frequently altered background assumptions or played important heuristic roles in scientific research.

True, when religious people write about science they are (usually) not doing science. But the converse is also true: scientific analyses of religious belief and behavior often fail to recognize even basic features of what it is like to be religious.

Umbrella terms such as “religion” are not meaningful or productive; we should dispense with them if possible. Here I disagree. The term religion picks out real similarities across diverse traditions, just as the term science picks out similarities across disciplines.

Today a broad spectrum of religions confronts the broad spectrum of the sciences. The beliefs and the practices of both spectra are in flux. It’s a complex matrix and we simplify it at our peril. Yet recognizing the family resemblances is a first step toward creating the cultural space to talk about them. The real contrasts between the family members will then emerge in due course. Indeed, they are already beginning to emerge through projects such as Global Perspectives on Science and Spirituality.

Of course, if your only commitment is only to being a humanist or naturalist, you may not need the category religion. Perhaps that’s why Robert Tapp is happy to see it go. But for many Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, religious identity is something over and above their interest in (or practice of) science. It’s better to talk openly about these conflicting identities than to sweep them under the rug.

Is genuine science-religion dialogue therefore impossible? Should we give it up? It’s true that such conversations will struggle when, as Tapp writes, “there is no agreement on what constitutes useful evidence.” Agreeing on the evidence and the criteria is hard work. But it’s not impossible. And the cultural consequences of quitting are far worse. When we declare rational discourse impossible, we play right into the hands of extremists on both sides: religious groups who want to abandon science altogether to save their own belief claims, and scientists who want to appoint themselves the only authorities for social policing and political decision making.