Former Dominican priest, Francisco Ayala was announced this week as the winner of the £1 million 2010 Templeton Prize. An evolutionary biologist and geneticist, Ayala was awarded the prize for supporting the notion that there is no contradiction between science and religion.
Interviewed by New Scientist, Ayala claims that science and religion are "two windows through which we look at the world. Religion deals with our relationship with our creator, with each other, the meaning and purpose of life, and moral values; science deals with the make-up of matter, expansion of galaxies, evolution of organisms. They deal with different ways of knowing. I feel that science is compatible with religious faith in a personal, omnipotent and benevolent God."
Writing in The Guardian, Mark Vernon places Ayala's position close to that of Stephen Jay Gould, who argued, as follows, that science and religion are 'non-overlapping magisteria':
"The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives."
If religion confined itself to making a bundle of metaphysical and ethical claims, then it could indeed be claimed that there is no overlap with the empirical domain of science. Unfortunately, however, the world's major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, have historically been supported by bundles of empirical claims about man's place in the universe, which have been falsified by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and the Darwinian revolution in biology. The claim that science and religion possess non-overlapping domains is therefore demonstrably false.
The majority of religious adherents in the world, believe that the universe was created by a supernatural being called 'God', that God answers prayers and performs miracles, and that humans have immaterial souls which survive death. Most Christians, in particular, believe that there was a man called Jesus, who was the 'son of God', and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, these Christians will celebrate their belief that this man was resurrected from the dead. Belief in such purported miracles amounts to a belief in the occurrence of certain empirical events, which are impossible according to science.
Ayala claims that "religion and science are not properly understood by some people, Christians particularly." Ayala's claim that science and religion are not in contradiction, therefore depends upon the proposition that religion is not actually what the majority of religious people in the world believe it to be.
By stripping religion of its empirical content, Ayala and Gould are engaging in a high re-definition of what religion is. In other words, they are implicitly attempting to re-define the term 'religion', so that it applies to a narrower range of beliefs. This more narrowly defined bundle of metaphysical and moral beliefs, might well be consistent with scientific belief, but this can only be achieved by changing the original and commonly understood meaning of the word 'religion'.
The second component of the philosophy espoused by Ayala and Gould is that religion has a legitimate role in ethics and morality. This, however, is as much of a logical fallacy as the notion that ethics and morality can be derived from science; one cannot derive ethical claims from metaphysical claims about the existence of supernatural deities, any more than they can be derived from claims about Darwinian evolution. As pointed out by philosopher Adolf Grunbaum in The Poverty of Theistic Morality, this fallacy was exposed by Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro:
Is the conduct approved by the gods right ("pious"), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.
For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept.