Futile conflicts between theists and atheists, often amounting to "we are better than you" confrontations, are common, as one can verify by browsing the Internet. Those who promote such poisonous conflicts are usually neither scientists nor theologians. Is it desirable to end such confrontations? Is it possible to end them? If yes, then how? I have posed this question to many online discussion groups, and here are some of the comments I've received:
1. "I don't mind coexistence with religion, but religious people seriously need to practice religion in their bedrooms only. As soon as you theists cross over the line and try to interfere with my life through politics, law, and lifestyle, then you can go shove it up you know where and expect no mercy from me."
2. "Organized religions are often guilty of trying to convert atheists and non-believers; this is not good. Atheists, calling themselves intellectuals, are not better. They also often try to convert believers."
3. "The focus on belief or non-belief is counterproductive for both sides of the equation. The corrosive element to the rhetoric of some modern atheists is pure arrogance, matched only by that of some theists."
4. "I am opposed to peaceful coexistence [with theists]. One does not halt a boxing match for fear of losing" (1).
My purpose here is to address conceptual conflicts between theists and atheists, avoiding the word "religion. To discuss religion, one would have to address differences between religions, political exploitation of theism and atheism, and much more. Such important topics are certainly worth addressing, but not in a short essay.
In "Bridging Science and Religion: Why It Must Be Done," Robert John Russell says that the path toward a world without aggressive confrontations is in cooperation between theologians and scientists (2). I tend to disagree. Cooperation may or may not develop in the distant future; what should be done first is conceptual separation.
The first step toward mutual respect between theists and atheists should be the recognition that most people on Earth live in two different worlds: material and spiritual. Methods of validation of claims made by theologians specializing in spiritual doctrines are very different from those used by scientists exploring our physical world. God is not a material entity, and attempts to refute God's existence by performing scientific experiments are not appropriate. The same is true for attempts to refute scientific claims, such as the age of the earth, on the basis of disagreements with holy books.
Theology is like mathematics, not science. Mathematicians start with axioms (initially accepted truths) and use logical derivation to justify consecutive claims, called theorems. Once proven, a theorem cannot be rejected, unless a logical error is found in the derivation.
Science is very different. Here, claims are justified, in the final analysis, by experimental observations, not by pure logic. A scientific claim becomes valid after it is confirmed in reproducible experiments. Furthermore, scientific validations are always tentative; scientists know that future experiments might result in rejection, or partial rejection, of what has already been accepted. Scientific truth is not claimed to be eternal.
The methods of validation and refutation used by scientists and theologians are sufficiently different to justify separation rather than cooperation. Separation will allow theists and atheists to rethink and reformulate basic ideas and methodologies. Until this happens, scientists should not participate in debates about the spiritual world, unless they happen to also be theologians. Likewise, theologians should not participate in debates about the material world, unless they happen to also be scientists. Debates about ways to eliminate existing conflicts might last decades, if not centuries. They are likely to be more productive if conducted separately.
I am a scientist, not a theologian (3). As a university student in Poland from 1949 to 1957, I was an aggressive atheist and subsequently became a member of the communist party. I am now a theist, believing in God and attending a synagogue. Missing an earlier introduction to God, I am very different from other theists, and I describe my ideological evolution in my autobiography, which I've posted online (4). Writing it was a moral obligation, to my parents, and to millions of other victims of Stalinism. The victims are dead but I was definitely with them when I was writing. What can be a better confirmation that many of us live in two different worlds, material and spiritual?
The idea that theism and science are two "non-overlapping magisteria" is not original; it was formulated by Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote, "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)" (5). Informal cooperation between the two camps will always exist; many scientists are also theologians and many theologians are also scientists. They will certainly know which methodology of validation is appropriate in each of the two worlds, material and spiritual.
As I stated earlier, holy books contain pronouncements about the physical world. Such pronouncements are rooted in the incorrect beliefs of our ancestors, who lived when faith and science were not yet separate disciplines. The story of creation, the world being created in one week, for example, is no longer taken literally, even by many theologians. A formal unambiguous recognition of this, for example, by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican, would be a tremendously important step toward the elimination of futile debates. Another commenter online opined that "God means something more sophisticated than the old man in the sky, rewarding the good and punishing the bad like a cosmic Santa Claus. It is not what proselytizers tell us, or what tells terrorists to bomb buildings and trains." Yes, political abuse of religion is also one of the important issues to be subsequently addressed.
Commenting on relations between science and mathematics, one person wrote that "science would be a shadow of itself if not for the math, and math wouldn't be anywhere as significant if not for the science." Will theology also become a partner of science, as Russell expects? It is too early to speculate about this. One fact is undeniable: many professional theologians and scientists usually respect each other. And they know which methodology of validation is applicable in each field.
Ludwik Kowalski is professor Emeritus at Montclair University. His evolution, from being an active atheistic student in Poland, to a theist, is described in his on-line autobiography (see reference 4 below).
1) Collected Internet comments, http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo_sci.html
2) Robert John Russel, Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must be Done
3) L. Kowalski's publications: http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/LK_publications.html
4) Ludwik Kowalski, Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality
5) Gould, S. J. (1997). "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Natural History 106 (March): 16-22.