Religion 101

Some observers suspect that, as science continues to advance, it may eventually succeed in eclipsing religion altogether. According to this perspective, both religion and science are essentially all about explaining or accounting for various mysteries of existence; if and as science’s answers to such mysteries continuously prove superior to those offered by religion, then religion may eventually wither away to nothingness, once and for all displaced by science’s superior explanatory power.

Others, however, have reason to doubt that science, nor matter how advanced it may become, can ever render religion obsolete, or irrelevant, or passé. Why? Because, in their view, science and religion, when properly understood, can in fact never actually challenge or genuinely contradict each other. And that is so because, according to this view, religion and science simply operate in two fundamentally different areas of inquiry — in two completely different “back yards.” As such, religion and science address and provide answers to altogether different, and non-overlapping, categories of mysteries.

Put simply, science deals exclusively in empirical (observable, detectable, testable) matters, whereas religion trades primarily in non-empirical (non-observable, non-detectable, non-testable) matters. Religious entities or spiritual concepts such as God, the sacred or holy, the soul, the afterlife, or even “the meaning of life” are inherently non-empirical matters; as such, they are simply not amenable to empirical examination or experiment. Science, being a strictly empirical method of investigation, is therefore inherently unable to detect or test such religious or spiritual matters.

Consequently, science can never in principle have anything to say, one way or another, regarding such non-empirical matters as God, the soul, or the afterlife. Science thus can neither confirm nor deny, affirm nor debunk, “prove” nor “disprove,” the reality or otherwise of such things — ever. When it comes to matters of religious or spiritual truths, science must always and forever simply keep mum, since science lacks even the tools to investigate such inherently non-empirical matters, much less issue pronouncements upon their objective veracity or validity.

Likewise, the primary focus of religion (and spirituality) lies most squarely upon precisely such non-empirical realities and verities as God, the soul, and the afterlife. Religion specializes in those very things which, being non-empirical, are in principle forever beyond the investigative and confirmatory (or disconfirmatory) reach of empirical science.

So long as both religion and science each sticks to what it does best, to its own properly delineated areas of inquiry, then any possibility of genuine conflict or dispute would seem to be ruled out. So long, in other words, and science and religion each stay within their own “back yards,” as it were, then how can they possibly ever conflict with each other?

If science deals only with the empirical, and if religion deals only with the non-empirical, then insofar as the empirical and the non-empirical are two completely different and non-overlapping spheres (or areas of inquiry), then surely neither science nor religion can really have much to say about the other.

If so, then why is it that we do, in fact, see instances of conflict (or at least of seeming conflict) between science and religion?

Some have suggested that perhaps such instances arise only if, or when, either science or religion ventures beyond the confines of its own “back yard” or proper area of inquiry, and inappropriately or illegitimately trespasses onto the property (or into the “back yard”) of the other.

For instance, if science started issuing claims about the existence or non-existence of God, critics of science might then rightfully point out that science has thereby exceeded the limits or boundaries of its own competence, offering opinions on non-empirical matters which (by definition, and in principle) lie beyond the empirical boundaries of science.

But what happens if, or when, religion goes beyond its own area of specialization or expertise in purely non-empirical or strictly “spiritual” matters, and starts offering opinions or making claims regarding empirical (observable, detectable, testable) — matters which are perfectly and squarely within the particular boundaries and special expertise of empirical science to investigate and assess?

(To be continued, in Part Three.)