Science, Religion and the Quest for Secular Morality

Published by timdean on

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.

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 Mike Treder of the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies. 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 underlaid 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 religion 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 disproven 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 as 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 acknowledgement 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 fulfilment. 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.


James Gray · 25th March 2009 at 7:45 pm

First, I am not convinced that science refuses to be prescriptive. Medical science and psychology both decide what is normal and abnormal with the assumption that abnormal is bad. Perhaps this is bad science or something, but it happens. Sociology is even more notorious with topics like “social problems.”

Worse, Anthropologists really do write about moral relativism and how it should be embraced. This isn’t about being morally neutral, it’s about denying morality.

Second, why hasn’t this quest finished yet? Do philosophers really need to keep doing this or does it simply need to be popularized?

Tim Dean · 25th March 2009 at 8:37 pm

Hi James.

First of all, all the disciplines you mention are not a part of the core sciences. And sociology and anthropology are not sciences at all, they’re humanities, and they aren’t bound to the scientific method.

But, psychology and medicine are still branches of science, none the less. And I agree that both are, to some degree, prescriptive. However, they are only prescriptive as far as the society in which they operate provides them with values – they don’t derive values from within their discipline themselves. Think of it in G.E. Moore’s terms – they provide the ‘is’, but society provides the ‘ought’.

For example, norms in psychology are defined in reference to averages across populations, not prescriptively by psychologists themselves. (Although this is a hugely problematic area for psychology – possibly because it both wants to be a science, yet can’t avoid being prescriptive in some ways).

Medicine is similar. Medicine takes as an assumption – as you state – that health is ‘good’, and then goes about trying to attain that ideal in its patients. Even then, it explicitly refrains from imposing values on patients, such as with blood transfusions or abortion.

However, for both, the society in which they operate could declare different values, and medicine and psychology would be obliged to follow.

Tim Dean · 25th March 2009 at 8:56 pm

Ooh. Missed your second question. Why isn’t this quest finished? I think for several reasons.

First, it’s only in the last century or so that religion has eroded to the point where we can speak openly about a post-religious world. Even then, the US is a huge stumbling block in terms of public opinion – it’s like 16th Century Europe over there in terms of religious fervour. But there’s enough of an acknowledgment that religion is not the way of the future for thinkers to start working on a secular morality.

Also, I believe that philosophy has been desperately distracted in terms of moral philosophy over the past 100 years, thanks to Moore and others. As a philosopher yourself, you’ll know the stuff I’m referring to, although you might disagree that metaethics, ethical realism, cognitivism, debates about naturalism etc are a distraction, but I strongly believe they are.

It’s only when we abandon the notion that ethical statements are truth-apt that we’ll extract ourselves from this quagmire of dodgy metaphysics and epistemology and actually get on with good old fashioned moral philosophy – advising people on how to live a good life.

I also feel that new fields, such as evolutionary ethics (see my button at the top of the page) offer a possible way forward – and some of the tools that could help the quest for a secular morality succeed.

Finally, I think it hasn’t been popularised enough. Many people are too distracted with atheism to realise it’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning. We can’t rest leaving a vacuum where religion used to be. I believe that could end up being even more damaging than leaving religion be.

Christopher · 26th March 2009 at 1:52 am

(“I’ve heard it said that science and technology are complementary” – you mean “science and religion”)

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.

Tim Dean · 26th March 2009 at 10:21 am

(”I’ve heard it said that science and technology are complementary” – you mean “science and religion” – Fixed! Thanks for pointing that out.)

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.

James Gray · 26th March 2009 at 11:08 am

Another worry is that medical science will decide something is healthy precisely because it reinforces various moral values. How do we know what exactly a healthy person should be like? The word “normal” for “good health” already dismisses the notion that there can be an abundance of health. I don’t have very good examples to give at this time unfortunately.

Paul · 15th December 2009 at 5:45 am

While I know that mysticism lies at the heart of most religions, might it not be rationally justified? Thinking of Buddhism and especially of Nagarjuna, there really are arguments that the world itself is irreducibly mysterious to merely rational and logically coherent cognition, but not beyond the bounds of human cognition itself. In my reading of Buddhist literature, it seems to me that it is entirely possible for there to be a school or two of Buddhism that is naturalistic and skeptical. It also seems to me, although I am not at all familiar with most of his writings, that the Dalai Lama has hinted that he thinks that is the future path that Buddhism and Buddhists should take, although of course because of his position he cannot unequivocally say so without being hard-hearted. I am not sure if this helps you at all, but I myself am very interested in finding a “religion” that does not contradict or come into too much conflict with natural science. However, I am searching for it because I really love the feeling of elevation, as Haidt calls it, that comes with religion. Also, I would love to have the coherence between my personality, behaviors, and my own personal narrative that often comes along with religious adherence. As Haidt I think argued in his book the Happiness Hypothesis, such coherence is essential to a life well lived. He rather studiously avoids giving prescriptions about how people are to achieve that, especially secular people. So good luck, but I think that the first thing that you must do if you want to find such a thing is to find a purpose or cause worth committing one’s entire life to, and then work out the rest from there.

Tim Dean · 15th December 2009 at 9:13 am

Hi Paul. I’m very sympathetic to a Nagarjuna view of metaphysics. But how that translates in to a ‘religion substitute’ for modern times, I’m not so sure. But I agree that if something non-supernatural, normative and ‘elevating’ emerged, many of us would sign up.

After reading the Happiness Hypothesis, I’m now confident we have the scientific understanding to build a normative framework directed towards living a good life, but as you mention, we need to make it psychologically appealing – and, I’d add, base it on a solid enough foundation of moral philosophy. Still work to do yet.

steph · 16th October 2010 at 6:32 am

I don’t agree with your analysis of religion. Religious texts are prescriptive and descriptive but you ignore the fact that many religious people demonstrate doubt and while they ‘believe’ they are in fact agnostic about beliefs. And naturally only fundamentalists read miracle stories etc literally maintain ancient prescriptive moral instruction to be valid in our time too. What science provides no replacement for, ie God, people of faiths still ‘believe’ in God, agnostically.

steph · 16th October 2010 at 6:40 am

I do recommend Paul Cliteur’s book ‘The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism’ – an important contribution to the discussion in this context.

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