Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mind the Gaps

I have long argued that a belief in organic evolution was not incompatible with a belief in God or some other metaphysical belief. My support for this was Stephen Jay Gould's argument for "Non-Overlapping Magisteria:"

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

However, the more I have thought about the idea that science and religion are trying to answer totally different questions, the more I realize that Gould is talking about something different than what most people think of as religion. How much different would religion look if, as Gould suggests, it were limited to questions of meaning and value?

For one thing, there would be no miracles, or at least not as miracles are currently regarded. It is a tenet of most believers' faith that God answers prayers not only through inner peace and inspiration, but also through actual intervention in the physical world. If God were to intervene in that way, science would be able to detect his presence. The problem with actual, physical miracles is that they are not normative, but rather descriptive. The believer is claiming that an event was brought about by divine intervention. That is a testable claim.

The way to get around this dilemma would be to posit that God does not actually intervene in the physical world, but rather, being omniscient, had the foreknowledge to plant the seed of the miracle in the foundations of the universe. While this is a perfectly reasonable way of reformulating the idea of miracles, it calls into question the necessity of prayer. Why should the believer ask for divine favor when the die has been cast already? While one can argue that it is to show faith and penitence, that is a much different view of prayer than most adhere to.

While a totally non-descriptive religion is possible, I wonder if the idea of a God who does not perform miracles would be attractive to most believers. Cordoning off religion to the realm of ethics, rather than its former position of being priest, lawyer, scholar and king is disconcerting. Fundamentalism is attractive to many because the idea of shared authority does not provide the surety that they need in their lives. Can religion survive as one voice among many? Time will tell, I guess . . . .

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