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Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality
Mike Treder   Mar 25, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Can religion and science co-exist peacefully? Many wish they could. But alas, it isn’t so, for science and religion are not actually two sides of the same coin—as many desperately wish to believe—but they’re entirely different currencies. Where science limits its trade to the natural world, religion traffics in the supernatural, and the two just don’t mix.

Following is a guest article from Tim Dean, author of the Ockham’s Beard blog. Tim is a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, researching the implications of evolution on moral philosophy and exploring the insights that evolution can yield on this strangest of human capacities. Tim is also an award-winning science and technology journalist, former editor of Cosmos and PC Authority magazines. His writing has appeared in New Scientist, Popular Science, Cosmos, G Magazine, PC Authority, The Sydney Morning Herald, on ABC Radio National and numerous other outlets. - M.T.

Note: for the record, I’m not particularly interested in engaging in the great science versus religion debate. For me, the debate is over; it’s a non-starter; an albatross around the neck of reasonable discourse. My hope is that we might one day become unshackled from it, and on that day thousands of able minds might be directed towards more fruitful pursuits. And I’m not particularly interested in trying to bend the will of dogmatic religious folk to my views. Others engage in such pursuits with great vigour such that my contribution is unnecessary. However, I am ever enthusiastic to engage with rational individuals in productive dialogue on where we might venture after the debate has passed into memory. It is to that end that I offer the following post. - T.D.

Can religion and science co-exist peacefully? Many wish they could. But alas, it isn’t so. So says Jerry A. Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, in his review in The New Republic of two books that hope to find some conciliation between religion and science. The review is lengthy, but ably weaved and dense with insightful analysis and observation. Well worth a read.

And it represents another sign that the debate is ready to move on—to the Great Quest of finding a secular morality that can replace religion as our moral and values compass in the modern world. But before I get to that, the review, and why science and religion will never get along:

Coyne is essentially saying the theses promoted by the two books are doomed to failure, for science and religion are not actually two sides of the same coin—as many desperately wish to believe—but they’re entirely different currencies. Where science limits its trade to the natural world, religion traffics in the supernatural, and the two just don’t mix. I entirely agree.

Coyne’s reasons why are diverse and persuasive, and are nicely summed up here by the IEET’s Mike Treder. They boil down to this, from Coyne’s review:

That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Spot on. Still, I’d like to add my own short take on the matter before we move on to secular morality.

The Limits of Why

I’ve heard it said that science and religion are complementary; that one addresses how and the other why, for example; that science is involved in mapping the world of natural things, but religion gives those things meaning and significance; that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” (Einstein, apparently from 1941). But this misrepresents—or ignores—a more fundamental difference between the way science and religion operate. Or it muddies the debate by conveniently redefining words to sidestep the conflict.

In fact, both science and religion are concerned with why the world is the way it is. But there are two basic differences in their approach. First, science is descriptive, and only descriptive. It is concerned with detailing the way the world appears to be, but makes no aspersions to the way the world should be.

Religion, on the other hand, is unapologetically prescriptive. Religion is also descriptive—religious texts are filled with explanations of natural (and supernatural) phenomena—but religion steps beyond science to speak of how the world should be, and how we should behave—thus morality.

This might make it appear as though there’s a window here for religion to go above and beyond science and provide prescriptive advice on how to live our lives—something at which science is not adept, nor concerned. But this approach is denied by the second fundamental difference between science and religion.

Empirical Why

For while they both ask why, the method of science is essentially different from the method of religion. For science will continue to ask why on a particular subject until it can do so no longer. It will explore a subject until it reaches the end of available evidence, the lack of a productive theory or the limits of human understanding. But, pivotally, science doesn’t end there. For there always remains the possibility of new evidence, a new theory or a new interpretation. The Laws of Thermodynamics are laws only until persuasive evidence appears that contradicts them.

The only bounds of science—besides its reluctance to engage in normative issues—is the limits of empiricism itself. For observation itself can only go so far, and there are many things we cannot observe, and will never likely observe. A simple example might be the gaps that exist in the fossil record. No fossils from a particular time period may have been preserved, and there’s no way to go back and reconstruct them. This is not to say this presents a problem for evolutionary theory, as such. But it does mean there might be things we will never know.

There are many other examples, such as what occurs inside a black hole, or what caused the big bang—assuming that our spacetime was created with it—or how it is that a particular pattern of neural activity equates to the phenomenal sensation of red.

But these are not a problem for science. These limits to empiricism simply bound what can be discovered by science. Within these limits, science continues to ask why until it has exhausted every avenue of enquiry. Furthermore, it does so in a self-correcting, self-regulating way. Science is intrinsically sceptical, intrinsically self-critical. It constantly asks whether it might have something wrong, and refrains from making absolute statements in the absence of absolute proof.

Superstitious Why

Religion, on the other hand, asks why only to a point. An arbitrary point. A point beyond which it refuses to go. At this point often a supernatural explanation is invoked, or the matter rests on faith—and its often couched in terms of absolutes.

This approach is not only deeply unscientific, but it’s also deeply flawed when it comes to attempting to understand the world around us. For many complex phenomena—take the weather, for example—are underlain by a relatively small number of interacting parts (relatively, because there may be billions of slightly different cloud shapes, but only a few dozen cloud types). When one understands the nature and interaction between these parts, one is able to better understand—and predict—the complex phenomena on the surface. However, to reveal these parts, we must ask why—and continue to ask why—maybe five, six, seven or more times until the deeply buried system becomes apparent.

Should we arbitrarily draw a line after asking why two or three times and invoke a supernatural explanation—say, the will of a divine entity causes prevailing winds to blow west-to-east in September—we will never dig any deeper than this. And as a result, we will not dig far enough to reveal the underlying system. Furthermore, should we attempt to make predictions about future phenomena using the supernatural explanation, we’ll be lacking in our understanding of the system, and are far more likely to make incorrect predictions.

Weather is one, fairly banal, example. But there are many others. Take embryonic stem cells. Because some religious people arbitrarily classify an embryo as a human being, thus imbuing it with moral significance, they are opposed to the destruction of unwanted embryos for the harvesting of stem cells. Why do they define ‘human’ such? Why not call a zygote human? Or wait until the development of a central nervous system? These questions don’t much register as significant from a religious perspective. Yet they’re crucially important to a scientist. And crucially important to the real-world implications of stem cell science.

The Incompatibility

Ultimately, these approaches are incompatible—at least until religion unshackles itself from its arbitrary restrictions on asking why. Should it do so, it’s vaguely plausible that religion might be compatible with science, if it proclaims nothing that contradicts scientific knowledge, and opens itself to the possibility of being disproved or having its proclamations change as scientific knowledge changes. Peer-reviewed religion.

However, I find this an unlikely vision. I imagine limiting religion like this would be unpalatable to most religious individuals. And it would certainly be incompatible with virtually all religious texts in existence. So, realistically, religion and science will never find conciliation.

Where Now?

But this is not the end of the issue. It’s just the beginning. Remember earlier I mentioned that science is not concerned with the prescriptive? Well, should we agree to reject a religious worldview, and science is not going to provide a prescriptive alternative, from where will we get our values, our moral norms?

Well, that’s where philosophy comes in. In many ways philosophy is like science. It believes in asking why until it’s possible to ask no more. Furthermore, philosophy isn’t bounded by the limits of empiricism. It can continue to ask why the world is the way it is, and crucially, why the world is not the way it’s not, ad infinitum.

I’m by no means suggesting that philosophy is unbounded—it, too, is bounded by the limits of theory and human understanding, as well as the limits of reason itself. But philosophy extends as far as any human endeavour might ever possibly extend.

And, philosophy has no qualms about being prescriptive. In fact, whole branches of philosophy are concerned with discovering the roots of our moral values and directing us towards pursuing their ends—well, not so much since G.E. Moore—but that’s the idea. Philosophy might have been relatively unproductive of late, but it’s still our best tool for the big job ahead.

The Great Adventure

Which brings me to my conclusion: the greatest philosophical endeavour of this century will be to find a workable, rational, scientifically-compatible moral and values system that doesn’t evoke the supernatural and can serve as a replacement for religion in our society. The Great Quest for a secular morality.

The beginnings of such an endeavour are out there. Indeed, the first phase is well underway. That is the acknowledgment that religion is no longer suitable as a moral compass in the modern world. Religion cannot hope to answer the moral questions that face humanity—gene therapy, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, climate change, overpopulation—with its current method of arbitrarily drawing a line under why after a few steps. Should we continue with religion as our moral compass, we will be doomed to more abhorrent moral proclamations that will only serve to increase the amount of suffering on this planet, and possible even expedite our departure from it.

Yet, phase one has simply replaced religion with a vacuum: atheism. By its very nature, atheism is a negative thesis. It simply states that there are no gods, no supernatural phenomena. But it doesn’t offer an alternative explanation, or an alternative value system in its place.

And it’s not enough to promote libertarianism or existentialism as alternatives. We humans need a moral compass, we need guidance—now more than ever. The world is an astoundingly complex place, and even learning the basic science necessary to have a broad understanding of how the world functions is a life’s achievement. We can’t expect each and every individual to be a lantern unto themselves when it will ultimately lead to each of us clumsily reinventing the wheel or a regression into empty hedonism.

We need a moral compass. We need a source of values. We need guidance and advice on how best to live a good life; how best to find happiness and fulfillment. But we can’t afford to let that advice come from any doctrine that appeals to the supernatural or contradicts our best scientific knowledge.

When might we see a suitable secular philosophy that can serve as our moral compass? I have no idea. But the sooner we acknowledge that atheism isn’t the end, but the beginning of this quest, and the more people we have actively discussing, debating, drafting such a philosophy, the better for all humanity.

Thanks, Tim, for an excellent contribution and for the challenge to think deeply!

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


(“I’ve heard it said that science and technology are complementary” - you mean “science and religion”)—[Corrected; thank you!]

You seem to assume a moral compass can be discovered/created. Starting from that assumption, without seriously considering the implications of failure, seems biased. Alternatively, the moral compass might be profoundly alien and socially dislocating. Consider, for instance, Scott Bakker’s semantic apocalypse.

You mention the issue of stem cells/abortion. Where do you draw the line? As far as I can tell, there is no secular solution to this problem. Say a country starts growing fetuses till 8 months of age before destroying/killing them and harvesting their bodies and brains for tissue. How is this wrong? It feels wrong but you call for a morality that rests on empirical evidence rather than faith.

As I see it, morality is a worryingly unstable phenomena. I know evolution promotes some pro-social predispositions that most of us share, but they only inform our decisions-making with regard to basic human interaction - they don’t extrapolate very far.

Yes I assume a (naturalistic) moral compass can be discovered/created. For if it can be done at all, it can be done by the right kind of philosophy. Consider the alternative - that the supernatural is the foundation of our morality. As we learn more about the natural world, this position will become increasingly untenable, if it’s not entirely untenable at the moment.

As for the Semantic Apocalypse - nice essay, that. However it looks to me like Bakker is just retelling the revelation that consciousness (and free will) are illusory from the perspective of neuroscience. But I don’t think the fact of this illusion undermines the quest for a secular morality in any way.

I’ve already posted something about why free will doesn’t matter ( And I’m even comfortable with the notion that morality might be an illusion - I don’t think it undermines secular morality.

Let me put it another way by quoting that other great philosopher, Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To which I would simply add: “But thinking makes it so.”

On stem cells/abortion, I don’t draw a hard line. I think our best understanding of the natural world indicates there are no hard distinctions to be drawn on such issues. They’re inevitable fuzzzy, vague, grey areas, depending on your preferred nomenclature.

So a secular morality might have to take that into account. It might have some rules with inbuilt fuzziness and flexibility. If you’re concerned that might mean we make some practical moral errors - well, we probably will. But again, consider the alternative. Is a supernatural morality going to lead to *less* errors? At least a secular morality can revise itself, update itself according to new facts about the world and can continue to improve to minimise errors. That would all be built in.

I am (or at least aspire to being) peer-reviewed religious, I’m not alone, and (for what it’s worth) I’m confident such persons are not going away any time soon.

One problem is that some of us may actually prefer something like existentialism or libertarianism, or deny that we (as individuals) want or need a moral compass. We may even find something objectionable in the term “empty hedonism” - a lot of contestable assumptions lurk behind that phrase, and it can’t just be used uncontroversially.

Another problem is that the naturalistic justifications for a secular morality may be plural. Even if we can agree what they are, we may weight them differently ... and there may be no way to settle the issue definitively. I suspect that that is, in fact, the situation we face, and that morality will always be contested to some extent even by people who are maximally well-informed and who make no mistakes of reasoning. We are unlikely ever to develop a moral code that everyone who is not a psychopath will sign up to.

On the other hand, I see no reason why well-informed and rational people may not come to A LOT of agreement. I.e., much of the disagreement is probably traceable to disagreements about empirical, religious, metaphysical, etc., issues, rather than about, say, whether pain and suffering are desirable. It’s just that I see reasons why moral agreement won’t be complete and the “true” morality may be something indeterminate (at least at the margins).

Finally, I wonder whether these problems are as great as all that sounds. In practice, children have to be socialised into certain virtues. Though some of these are controversial (is chastity a virtue or a vice? what about a certain degree of pride?), some are not (no one seriously claims that honesty is a bad thing or tries to socialise children to be dishonest). In practice, parents are virtue theorists, and this more or less works. Almost all of us prefer kindness to cruelty, honesty to dishonesty, loyalty to treachery, and so on, and we agree pretty much on which is which. Most of our day-to-day moral judgments involve a folk virtue theory that is contested at the margins but is relatively uncontroversial for the more central cases.

Good discussion, and well said.

Perhaps the non-supernatural moral guide you’re looking for is already contained in the Jefferson Bible (and many other places, like Nietzsche’s body of work—though the issue of “workability” is certainly problematic there)?

Regardless, what I’m most struck by in your article is the ease with which the concepts “religion” and “science” are employed—as though they are universally understood. I’m tempted to complicate the meanings of those terms further. Particularly absent from the discussion is the issue of interpretation.

The Bible need not be dogmatic (and by most interpretations, it isn’t), nor do all the supernatural issues need to be interpreted as such (ie, the resurrection). This issue of interpretation is central to the idea of all religions, and would most certainly be at issue in any new reformulation you wish for.

@Russel Blackford: I think we’re actually in broad agreement. The points you raise are all pertinent and will all need to be addressed by a secular morality.

First off - and perhaps I should have made this more clear in my rant - I fully expect to see *multiple* secular moralities, some differing on their cardinal values, some differing on implementation on how to fulfill them.

Some may end up being libertarian, some existentialist, some hedonist, although I have serious doubts about all three and their ability to replace religion and increase wellbeing. But that would be part of the discussion in trying to create secular morality/ies.

And I agree that the naturalistic justifications will likely vary. In fact, I’m proposing such an idea, called Moral Diversity, as part of my PhD thesis. It’s based on findings by Jon Haidt and others that moral intuitions differ amongst self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives in the US. And I think there could be a game theory explanation of this phenomenon which, if correct, suggests an evolved diversity in moral sentiments across humanity. If this is true, then secular morality will have to accommodate that rather than just appeal to one side (Marx versus Rand, for example).

Finally, I think the problem is great. I agree that most people subscribe to similar values, but the way they employ them differs greatly. In-group attributions, for example, can mean the difference between helping or harming someone. Then there’s the natural facts that need to plug in to our values - such as the definition of a ‘human’ before birth. These problems are huge.

@Joseph K.

The Jefferson Bible is fascinating, but I’d ask this: if one were to construct a moral system without supernatural content, why limit oneself to the words of one man spoken two millennia past? Why not employ our best scientific knowledge as well? Or our best philosophical knowledge? The words of Jesus and many other wise figures through history can be sources of inspiration, but they, alone, will not be sufficient for this programme.

And I appreciate there are different conceptions of religion and science. I also appreciate that some support a notion of religion without dogma or the supernatural - but that is a minority view, and one I feel is the antithesis of the personal god promoted by the main theistic religious traditions.

Besides, even a bible stripped of the supernatural would only be a part of the quest to develop a new moral system, for it lacks many of the insights provided by science that would be crucial in making the moral system compatible with the natural world.

That said, a ‘secular’ morality could feasibly be compatible with a pantheism of sorts.

Also, Russell, on the topic of hedonism etc, my recent review of Clive Hamilton’s Freedom Paradox might clarify my views.

Don’t we already have a secular morality in the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and all subsequent amendments?

On a basic level there is little reason to regard the US Constitution as something wholly different from the Bible (or other ‘sacred’ texts)—all are documents aimed at structuring society with particular moral aims in sight. The main difference being the times in which they were written and the contemporary (scientific) frames of reference that come along with that difference.

I’m certainly aware of differences between moral law and judicial law, but I’d like to hear someone articulate why the US constitution doesn’t fit your programme for a secular morality? Is it, by chance, that you’d like something more workable, readable, and accessible?

Visit my blog: Intersections

There is a gulf of difference between the US Constitution and the kind of secular morality(ies) I’m talking about.

First, as you mention, is the difference between moral and judicial. Laws can never be intrinsically moral, for laws are contingent and it must always be morally permissible to break an immoral law.

Second, the Constitution sets the boundaries for how a state is to be governed. To some extent this is informed by the values of the state, but it doesn’t become a part of the values themselves.

Also, the Constitution - or other legal documents - don’t serve as a moral system in themselves; they don’t inform the individual on how to live a good life. In the Declaration of Independence it explicitly talks of “the pursuit of happiness” but doesn’t inform *how* this is to be achieved. That’s quite deliberate.

Finally, the Constitution et al are mediated by politicians and lawyers. I think that point makes itself…

As for the UDHR, that is also not a moral system in its own right, although it’s informed by liberal moral values.

It explicitly limits the laws of a nation to allow for an individual’s morality, which is left open:

Article 29, clause 2:

“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

The kind of secular morality I’m talking about is a fully fledged moral system, covering what’s permissible and impermissible, but also serving the role that religion has played in society for millennia.

It would have shared customs and traditions; it would bring people together as a community; it would perform charity work; it would encourage people to give of themselves to their community and those in need; it would educate people in how to live a good life and how to get through difficult times (eg, divorces and deaths in the family are a major cause for non-religious individuals to turn to religion); it would inspire awe in the natural world etc.

That’s how I envisage it, although I leave open many other interpretations of the specifics. But it must be as psychologically fulfilling as religion - just without the supernatural bits. Constitutions and Declarations just can’t swing that.

This is mainly to say that I’m looking forward to further discussion with Tim, though I’ll have a bit more to say than that.

My own recently completed PhD thesis ended up being very much a defence of Millian liberalism in public policy relating to new technologies. But an earlier draft developed a concept of what I called “naturalistic moral pluralism”. The whole thesis was getting far too ambitious, and I eventually dropped this, but I’ve written about it a bit over on my blog and have done quite a lot of relevant research, and would still like to write a book about it some time.

I’ve discussed the idea


and here

... but would now express it slightly differently.

It’s meant to be consistent with JL Mackie’s error theory of meta-ethics in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong ... and is inspired partly by the much-neglected (but IMO brilliant) second half of that book.

Basically, the idea is that there is a naturalistic explanation of how we come to have morality. There are also naturalistic reasons why beings like us, given our actual capacities, values, and situations, might give some endorsement, upon rational reflection, to the moral systems we encounter (and why we would have to construct the institution of morality if we didn’t already have it).

However, those reasons are pluralistic in something like the way I described above.  They depend on a variety of values that most of us actually share, but for which rational justification eventually runs out. Those values include but are not necessarily limited to:

1. The value of avoiding or ameliorating suffering.
2. The value of collective peace and security.
3. The value of leading flourishing lives in a non-moralised sense that includes being able to enjoy such goods as love from others.

Different people will put different relative weights on these things and will also weigh them differently compared to other values that don’t so obviously underpin morality (such as the value of competitive success) - not to mention values that do seem to underpin some actual moralities but which many of us reject, such as the value of “purity” of some kind.

Accordingly, it can’t be guaranteed that we can ever be compelled by reason to reach complete agreement, though it’s likely that we will reach a lot of agreement with fellow human beings if we are all sufficiently well-informed.

However, people who weigh different values differently, or who may even put almost no weight on some values that others weigh heavily (or vice versa), may not be making any intellectual error.

Furthermore, we cannot say that a psychopath or a man-eating Martian is making any intellectual error in not acting in accordance with something in the ball-park of typical human morality.

Still, morality isn’t just arbitrary. We can be confident that there will be much resemblance between the moral systems of various human societies and even more resemblance between the moral standards of most individuals in the same society. Almost all of us will have good reasons to uphold much of the morality of the people around us - it has a point, judged against our own values.

This allows for slippage at the margins, and indeed for legitimate proposals to alter existing socially-approved moral norms.

Where Tim disagreed with me was in saying that the problem is great, where my earlier post was kind of playing it down. The first thing I’d like to say is that I think that the problem is inevitable. The only way I can see to reduce it is to try to reach agreement on as many non-moral propositions as possible, but even that will leave some differences in the most fundamental relevant values.

How great will the problem be among very rational and well-informed people? I must say that I remain quite optimistic. Even now, with enormous amounts of empirical, metaphysical, religious, etc., disagreement, we mostly get by very well from day to day. In fact, modern cities are very safe places for the majority of people. Most of the people we encounter are, at least most of the time, honest, kind, and non-violent.

But maybe I’d agree with Tim if he could clarify the sense in which he thinks the problem is “great”. I can certainly think of limited, yet important, senses in which that’s true. E.g. there are specific issues of disagreement that currently seem intractable, and while these may not have much effect on the day-to-day life of a coddled middle-class person like me, they certainly do have effects elsewhere. E.g., an issue such as the moral acceptability of abortion seems intractable for practical purposes. Moreover, if Haidt is correct, we can expect to see people with different clusters of ultimate values (or weightings of values) sometimes diverging systematically on a whole range of issues. Furthermore, reason seems almost powerless to resolve their differences.

When I said in my earlier comment that the problem is not as great as all that sounds, I had in mind something more mundane. E.g., if I walk around the corner and buy a cake, the person behind the counter, regardless of her religion, political persuasion, etc., will probably take the same attitude to the transaction as I do. It won’t even cross her mind to think of a way to use force or fraud to get my money while keeping the cake. Most of us, most of the time, in most of our transactions, have no trouble operating with the same morality as the people we are transacting with.

But there is still plenty of room for intractable disagreements, not only over abortion but also many other things, such as sexual mores, enhancement technologies, etc.

“Where science limits its trade to the natural world, religion traffics in the supernatural, and the two just don’t mix.”

In a way I have to agree, but in another way, I think that Sir Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Sir Isaac Newton,
Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, and Louis Pasteur would disagree.  I guess it depends on exactly what is meant by “mix.”

Buddhism is a perfect example of a religion that “mixes” just fine with science.

See this article:

When the writer(s) above discuss “religion,” I get the impression they mean literalist followers of the abrahammic faiths—a very small group of religious followers indeed.

Visit my blog: Intersections

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