Wednesday, May 15, 2013


In the final chapter of The Social Conquest of the Earth, E. O. Wilson doesn't have much good to say about organized religions. He calls them "stultifying and divisive." This from a good ole ex-Baptist boy from Southern Alabama. In particular, he says bluntly: "The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religions is irreconcilable."

In so saying, he stands in opposition to his long-time nemesis and fellow Harvard professor, the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote of science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria," each with its own domain of knowing and instruments of discovery and discourse.

Are science and religion irreconcilable? It depends on what one means by "science" and "religion."

If by science one means that body of knowledge of reality that has been or can be empirically verified, then it's hard to see how science can rule out such supposed supernatural interventions as the Virgin Birth or Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There's no form of time travel that would let us go back to the time in question and perform the medical examinations necessary to confirm or refute the supposed miracles. If someone chooses to believe these things, as many millions do, there is no way science can prove them wrong.

In this sense, Gould is right. What we have are two non-overlapping ways of knowing: revelation vs. empiricism, tradition vs. skepticism, one-off miracles vs. reproducibility. Can one hold to both ways of knowing at once? Well, yes, I suppose so, and many do, even a few highly successful scientists. But it surely must take some measure of cognitive dissonance.

No miracle has ever been confirmed empirically to the satisfaction of unbiased observers. The supposed miracles of organized religions are as various as the religions themselves, and the vast majority of believers accept the miracles of the religion they were born into and reject the rest. And let us not forget the fact that, for better or worse, modern civilization -- democracy, equality, technology, medicine, Enlightenment philosophical principles -- all followed from the application of the scientific way of knowing.

Not to mention the apparent hubris of those who claim access to the mind of the creator of billions of galaxies.

All of which suggests that Wilson is right too: If simplicity, consistency, and humility of mind are the criteria, science and traditional religions are indeed irreconcilable.