I’ve previously written against NOMA, Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that “science” and “religion” are completely compatible because they represent two incommensurable domains of inquiry. But there’s at least as much of a problem with the other extreme, the view of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins that the two are completely incompatible because “science” refutes “religion.” (Few seriously assert incompatibility in the other direction, to reject science. Creationists, for example, typically proclaim their acceptance of science except where it conflicts with the Bible – thus the popularity of intelligent design, sold as a scientific theory.) Both of these views, to my mind, are almost painful in their oversimplification of the matter. There is incompatibility between certain parts of each domain. Many beliefs called “religious” are perfectly compatible with the evidence from controlled hypothesis testing; many aren’t. In the “scientific” domain, the only views I can think of that are incompatible with all “religious” belief are those which involve scientism: the belief that the only valid forms of knowing are based on the practice of science. (It’s worth stating repeatedly that this belief cannot possibly itself be based on the practice of science, and is therefore self-refuting.)
New Atheists often don’t want to admit this point. When they accept common-sense views at odds with their exultation of science as the only true way of knowing, they do it by equivocating on their definition of “science.” One finds the point in a recent exchange on P.Z. Myers’s blog. Responding to Larry Moran, Myers attacks what he calls:
the bizarre claim that “No scientist that is also a decent human being subjects all her/his beliefs to scientific scrutiny.” I think otherwise. There is a naive notion implicit in that statement that scientific scrutiny is somehow different from critical, rational examination. I’d argue the other way: no decent human being should live an unexamined life.
“Critical, rational examination,” eh? If that’s all science is, then every theologian is a scientist par excellence. I don’t think that’s a claim the New Atheists want to be making. Rather, the “science” they are defending is a) completely empirical, and b) based on the controlled experimental testing of hypotheses. So John Pieret responds to Myers by saying:
Really? What tests did you do on yourself to see if you love your wife and children? Hormone testing, eegs, what? Thinking about things is not “science” per se. Science is empiric investigation. Nor is the question whether “love” can be scientifically investigated, the question is whether individual scientists do it before they decide who they love.