Take a look at this article by Tom Clark at Naturalism.org; it’s about the misguided notion that in some areas faith can give us genuine answers to questions before which science is impotent. This is the NOMA (“nonoverlapping magisteria”) refrain that we hear constantly from organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Are there “ways of knowing” that are not only unique to faith, but provide real answers about the nature of the universe? I have long thought that this notion is completely misguided, a conclusion reached in the article. A snippet:
A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural. Some recent statements about the relationship of science and religion make this point:
Science is recognized internationally as the best way to find out about the natural world. But the natural world is not the only thing that human beings ask questions about…[M]ost people believe that there is a universe or world or something beyond or other than the material one, which is populated by gods, spirits, ancestors, or other non-material beings. Science doesn’t tell us anything about this world; this transcendent world is the provenance of religion. – Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, p. 47, original emphasis.
Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes. – National Science Teachers Association, in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science p. 124
At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science. . . . Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral. – National Academy of Science, also in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, p. 58
These statements suggest that faith-based religions, or more broadly, non-empirically based worldviews, might have domains of epistemic competence, for instance in knowing about the supernatural, paranormal or astrological. This in turn suggests that there might be reliable and objective understandings of these domains, lending support to the idea they actually exist. In the last quote above, the National Academy of Science (NAS) contrasts religious and scientific ways of knowing, and says science can’t pronounce on the nature and existence of the supernatural. This implies that religious ways of knowing can, and might be authoritative in confirming its existence the way science is when describing nature. But this is exactly what should not be conceded. By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist.
Note that Eugenie Scott’s quote (she’s director of the National Center for Science Education) clearly implies — if not states outright — that religion is able to tell us something true about the transcendent world. Really? What is that? Can it settle the question of whether Jesus or Mohammed was the real prophet? (Note that the Qur’an states flatly that anyone believing Jesus to be the divine prophet will burn in hell for eternity.) The “claims” of all major faiths are in direct conflict, so what are the “truths” they tell us?
Thanks for Tom Clark and Ophelia Benson for calling this to my attention. And be sure to bookmark Ophelia’s site, Butterflies and Wheels.