Science and Religion: Chalk and Cheese

Nicholas  Spicer

It is no use arguing that science proves religion wrong, or vice versa. They inhabit quite different spheres and share no common ground for comparison – chalk and cheese!

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There is something badly wrong about the debate between science and religion. It is a debate – argument is a better word – between beliefs, and one set of the believers thinks it needs to attack belief! Notice how often Richard Dawkins refers in his writing to his belief. He believes, of course, in science, or scientific method. He says ‘Do not believe in something you cannot substantiate scientifically and repeatedly.’

This belief opposes itself to the other, the correlate of belief in the scientific method, that I will call the imaginal method, thinking of l’imaginaire of Durand, Corbin and others. The method underpins and supports religious experience just as the scientific method underpins and supports scientific experience. Each method makes sense of the experience of its adherents. Some, like Polkinghorne, Einstein and Davies, find no contradiction and are both religious and scientific believers.

They manage this, not by closing their eyes to absurdity, but by opening them to the clarity of this truth: Chalk cannot be compared with Cheese. The scientific writer Stephen Jay Gould calls the fields examined by science and by religion, the fields of study appropriate to each, magisteries. Each magistery, each area of mastership has authority in its own field. But it can claim no authority in another magistery – or does so at the risk of sounding ridiculous and ignorant. If the cheesemaker pronounces chalk, dry, tasteless, and unripe; if the farmer says the Cheshire cheese will never sweeten the loam or fertilize fine turf, they are both right. And we recognise that they are both ignorant.

The magistery of science tells us vast and important truths about huge areas of our world and experience. But it has almost nothing to tell us about the visionary, religious and imagined world and experience. We might recall those Puritans who stole consecrated hosts from the Roman Catholic churches and said ‘Look, this is the Body of Christ. I bit it and it didn’t bleed!’ Good science, but in the wrong magistry! Creationists, however sophisticated their wrangling, are making the same kind of mistake. Kant called it a category error. Dinosaurs belong to one magistry; the Flood to  another.

The kind of scientists that say the Bible isn’t scientific are right, as the cheesemaker is right. The kind of religious believers who say scientists don’t take account of God are right, as the farmer is right. The statements are, in Chomsky’s phrase ‘true but trivial’. In between, those that say that photons are really angels – or vice versa – have not a foot in each camp, but stand outside the Pale of either magistry.

What I am seeking to do here is to deny both religious believers and scientific believers the right to extend their magistery over all experience: to arrogate all other beliefs under their belief. This is illiberal, and the beginning of a road that ends in Inquisition, Stalinism, and Terrorism.

(The two magisteries equate of course, to outerness and innerness –RR)

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All readers are welcome to use this material for what ever purposes they may have. When doing so, please attribute authorship to Ralph Rowbottom.

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