Conflicts & agreements between science and religion

From the 1920s onward, the scientific study of religion became lessconcerned with grand unifying narratives, and focused more onparticular religious traditions and beliefs. Anthropologists, such asEdward Evans-Pritchard (1937/1965) and Bronislaw Malinowski(1925/1992) no longer relied exclusively on second-hand reports(usually of poor quality and from distorted sources), but engaged inserious fieldwork. Their ethnographies indicated that culturalevolutionism was mistaken and that religious beliefs were more diversethan was previously assumed. They argued that religious beliefs werenot the result of ignorance of naturalistic mechanisms; for instance,Evans-Pritchard noted that the Azande were well aware that housescould collapse because termites ate away at their foundations, butthey still appealed to witchcraft to explain why a particular househad collapsed. More recently, Cristine Legare et al. (2012) found thatpeople in various cultures straightforwardly combine supernatural andnatural explanations, for instance, South Africans are aware AIDS iscaused by a virus, but some also believe that the viral infection isultimately caused by a witch.

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This section looks at the conflicts between the truth claims of science and religion

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Natural philosophers, such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, RobertHooke, and Robert Boyle, sometimes appealed to supernatural agents intheir natural philosophy (which we now call “science”).Still, overall there was a tendency to favor naturalistic explanationsin natural philosophy. This preference for naturalistic causes mayhave been encouraged by past successes of naturalistic explanations,leading authors such as Paul Draper (2005) to argue that the successof methodological naturalism could be evidence for ontologicalnaturalism. Explicit methodological naturalism arose in thenineteenth century with the X-club, a lobby group for theprofessionalization of science founded in 1864 by Thomas Huxley andfriends, which aimed to promote a science that would be free fromreligious dogmas. The X-club may have been in part motivated by thedesire to remove competition by amateur-clergymen scientists in thefield of science, and thus to open up the field to full-timeprofessionals (Garwood 2008).

Overview: Where science and religion conflict

Because “science” and “religion” defydefinition, discussing the relationship between science (in general)and religion (in general) may be meaningless. For example, Kelly Clark(2014) argues that we can only sensibly inquire into the relationshipbetween a widely accepted claim of science (such as quantum mechanicsor findings in neuroscience) and a specific claim of a particularreligion (such as Islamic understandings of divine providence orBuddhist views of the no-self).

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Scientific findings and theories relevant to human origins come from arange of disciplines, in particular geology, paleoanthropology (thestudy of ancestral hominins, using fossils and other evidence),archaeology, and evolutionary biology. These findings challengetraditional religious accounts of humanity, including the specialcreation of humanity, the imago Dei, the historical Adam andEve, and original sin.

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Wilkins and Griffiths (2013) hold that the epistemic premise cansometimes be resisted: evolutionary processes do track truth, forinstance, in the case of commonsense beliefs and, by extension,scientific beliefs. However, they hold that this move does not workfor religious and moral beliefs, because such beliefs are assumed notto be the result of truth-tracking cognitive processes. Some authors(e.g., McCauley 2011) indeed think there is a large difference betweenthe cognitive processes involved in science and in religion, but moreempirical work has to be done on this front.

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Another conclusion that the new laws-based physics suggested was thatthe universe was able to run smoothly without requiring an interveningGod. The increasingly deterministic understanding of the universe,ruled by deterministic causal laws as, for example, outlined byPierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), seemed to leave no room forspecial divine action, which is a key element of the traditionalChristian doctrine of creation. Newton resisted interpretations likethese in an addendum to the Principia in 1713: theplanets’ motions could be explained by laws of gravity, but thepositions of their orbits, and the positions of the stars—farenough apart so as not to influence each othergravitationally—required a divine explanation (Schliesser 2012).Alston (1989) argued, contra authors such as Polkinghorne (1998), thatmechanistic, pre-twentieth century physics is compatible with divineaction and divine free will. Assuming a completely deterministic worldand divine omniscience, God could set up initial conditions and thelaws of nature in such a way as to bring God’s plans about. Insuch a mechanistic world, every event is an indirect divine act.