Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

In his book Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), in which science covers the empirical realm of fact and theory, while religion addresses questions of morality and meaning. According to Gould, there should be no inherent conflict between science and religion due to their mutual exclusivity. This view has been controversial because (among other things) 1) the moral authority of religion is invariably dependent on supernatural claims, and 2) science can inform ethics and morality.

In a recently published study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, authors Jesse Preston and Nicholas Epley demonstrate that when religion and science compete with each other for explanatory space, they also compete for value, in a sort of zero-sum game.

Although science and religion do not always conflict, a frequent source of tension concerns the competition for explanatory space. Religion and science offer different explanations for a wide array of phenomena, including some of the most fundamental human issues (e.g. intelligent design vs. natural selection). This direct opposition may cause the value of religion and science to become inversely related when these explanations are brought into mind. In the present research we investigate whether the evaluation of science and religion may be automatically opposed, such that increasing the perceived value of one as an explanatory system diminished automatic positive evaluations of the other.

In one experiment, participants read passages describing scientific theories involving cosmology (the “Big Bang Theory”) and abiogenesis (the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis”).  Each passage was concluded either with a strong statement, asserting that the theory best accounts for known observations, or a weak statement, claiming that the theory does not account for other data and raises more questions than it answers.  In the strong condition, significantly more respondents showed a positive attitude toward science when compared to God, whereas in the weak condition (where the explanatory value of the scientific theory was called into question), attitudes toward God were more favorable than science. In the other experiment, a reciprocal relationship was found when God was used as a strong explanation, with automatic evaluations of science diminished as evaluations of God were enhanced.

These data suggest that using scientific theories as ultimate explanation can serve as an automatic threat to religious beliefs, and vice versa. Perhaps more important, these findings also indicate that explanatory weakness in one belief system can bolster automatic evaluations of the other. These automatic oppositions emerged despite making no explicit mention of the potentially opposing belief system or to the possible conflict between science and religion.

Although it is somewhat obvious that the “God of the Gaps” is invoked where coherent and understandable scientific explanations do not exist, this study reinforces the idea that NOMA lacks practical applicability. Nature abhors a vacuum, and people seem to have an innate need to fill “explanatory space” with either science or religion. In light of these data, the best strategy with which to see reason and science prevail over irrrational religious belief may lie not in continually attacking  the incredulity of religious explanations, but to ensure that scientific advances are clearly and simply communicated, and that public confidence in the scientific endeavor is increased. As the authors note, “enhancing the apparent explanatory power of scientific explanations may automatically decrease positive evaluations of religion.”

A tip of the hat to The Situationist.

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4 January 2009

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