So, what happens if or when religion ventures beyond its own purely non-empirical (or strictly “spiritual”) backyard, and starts making claims regarding empirical (detectable, testable) matters?
Such claims would fall properly within the purview of empirical science, which possesses the tools and the expertise to investigate and assess such claims. Any such empirical claims as religion may venture to make are, therefore, subject to scientific scrutiny — and to scientific verification or otherwise.
This means that, so long as religion limits itself to insights or assertions regarding such inherently non-empirical matters as the reality or nature of God or the Divine, of the soul, or of the afterlife (or to such non-empirical abstractions as the meaning of life or the ultimate purpose of existence), it remains safe from empirical scientific criticism.
However, should religion make assertions or claims about empirical reality, it then opens the door to the possibility of being proven wrong. This can and does happen, such as when religion has made claims about the earth being flat (and covered by a domelike firmament), or about the earth being the center of the universe (with sun, moon, planets, and stars all rotating around its terrestrial/cosmic axis).
Many today would say that much the same sort of thing is once again playing out now. Within certain theologically conservative contemporary religious quarters, specific claims and assertions — scientifically testable ones — are being made about such empirical matters as the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the age of humanity.
For instance, Young Earth Creationists (or YECs) claim, on the basis of scriptural (religious) evidence, that all of creation is no more than six to ten thousand (6,000 to 10,000) years old.
By contrast, mountains of converging empirical evidence from a broad spectrum of scientific fields and sub-disciplines paints a very different picture, according to which the universe is nearly 14 billion (13,770,000,000) years old, the earth itself about 4.5 billion years old, life on earth dates back about 3.5 billion or so years, and primitive humans first appeared a little over 2 million years ago (modern humans being only perhaps 200,000 years old).
Notwithstanding creationist claims to the contrary, the empirical evidence in favor of this scientific consensus regarding the age of the cosmos and of life on earth is overwhelming (literally over 99.9% of scientists working in relevant fields accept the factual reality of evolution). And so here, it would seem, we have a clear-cut case of a genuine disagreement or conflict between science and religion.
Notice, however, that such a conflict or disagreement arose only when religion ventured beyond its own sphere, into the realm of empirical claims and assertions. Had it refrained from doing so, instead restricting its claims to non-empirical realities (the soul, the Divine, the meaning of existence, etc.), then its claims would have remained impervious from the empirical challenges of science.
Some see this as a weakening or a diminution of religion, conveniently limiting its sphere of expertise to areas which are forever safe from scientific criticism. Others see this not as an attack or criticism of religion, but instead as a fundamentally corrective insight into the perfectly legitimate and natural limits of religion’s proper domain or real expertise.
After all, just because the objects or focuses of religion (God or the Divine, the soul, the afterlife, etc.) are non-empirical and therefore beyond the scope of empirical science to discover or study, does not necessarily also mean that they do not exist, or are irrelevant; it simply means that they are not — and cannot be — subjects of empirical scientific study.
If, most fundamentally, religion and science are “apples and oranges,” then how can they ever truly conflict — unless a wayward apple tries (illegitimately) to be, or to function like, an orange?
(To be continued, in Part Four.)