Science and Religion (formerly "Science and the Meaning of Nature")

 Over the past two centuries, science has gradually emerged as the central authoritative source of knowledge about the world and about human nature, taking the place of religion in that role.  Yet its worldview is radically different than that of religion; where religion sees man as the center and purpose of existence, the consensus among scientists is that human existence is a mere accident in one tiny corner of the universe and is without cosmic significance or purpose.  Recently, the "New Atheists" have launched an all-out attack on religion, arguing that it is a primitive and outmoded belief system, and that science represents the new and complete understanding of the world.

    The purpose of this class is to consider this argument and the challenges to it.  We will look at responses to the New Atheism from the perspective of religion, arguing that religion is a valid mode of understanding the world and is not contradictory to but complementary to science.  Furthermore, a small but significant minority of scientists have challenged the orthodox view of science from within, arguing that science demonstrates that there is a special place for humanity in the universe, and that  conscious beings like us might play an essential role in the world and even be its goal or purpose.  In this class we look at this debate as well as the broader question of the respective roles of science and religion, in order to ask the question: is the world a cold, dark, meaningless, purposeless accident, or is there some higher purpose at work?

Textbooks: there are no required textbooks in this class.

ASSIGNMENTS:    Two in-class examinations 40%
                                  Two essays 60%

ATTENDANCE POLICY: Regular and on-time attendance is required. Those students who miss a substantial number of classes may be asked to do make-up work.

BLACKBOARD CLASS SITE:   class materials such as powerpoint slides, handouts, and other materials will be posted on the Blackboard class site. 


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FIRST ESSAY will be due Wed. Oct. 28: questions to be handed out 10/14


The first assignment: you must complete the Academic Integrity Quiz, available on Blackboard. It consists of nine true/false questions.  Everyone must complete this quiz with a perfect score at the beginning of this class.  For a review of the basic principles of academic integrity, see


Current reading assignments:


1. Plato, Phaedo (excerpt)


2. Copernican Revolution: Reading:


3. Plato on the unreliability of the senses ("Phaedo"): here


4. Gould on NOMA: Reading:

5. New Atheist Readings:

Sam Harris, "Selling Out Science" (find via

Steven Weinberg, "Is There A Designer Universe":

6. Gary Gutting, "Pascal's Wager 2.0", on New York Times site, Opinionator Section (

  -- an argument for the validity of faith, even without clear and compelling evidence


7. Jerry Coyne on Free Will: or do a Bing search on Jerry Coyne and free will (Coyne also wrote a similar article in USA Today in 2012; you can read that one too, or both!).


8. Sociobiology:










1)  Introduction: The Battle Between Science and Religion

Are science and religion incompatible or complementary? 

READING: Plato, Phaedo (excerpt): Socrates' explanation of his dissatisfaction with the new way of thinking (4th century BCE).

      Questions: What does Socrates find to be lacking in the new scientific worldview?

2) The Rise of Science in Ancient Greece and Modern Europe

Where did science come from and how did it develop?  Why did the Scientific Revolution occur only in Western Europe?

Case study: the Copernican Revolution and the Galileo Affair.




 3) The Invention of Science: What is Science?

It turns out to be extremely difficult to define 'science' and to say just what differentiates it from other kinds of knowledge, including religion.  Is there such a thing as the "Scientific Method"?  Is there such a thing as 'science,' considered as a wholly distinct body of reasoning or knowledge?

Required reading: Plato on the unreliability of the senses ("Phaedo"): here

Optional Reading: Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy


4) The Positivist Theory of Religion and its Critics

Positivist Theory of Religion:  religion is primitive science; it has the same aims as science (observing, explaining, predicting the world), but just does it badly.

  Science is a complete substitute for religion.

Objection to Positivism:  the primary purpose of religion is not describing the world, but prescribing rules of behavior (ritual and ethical).

Science in contrast is not in the business of prescribing moral values.

Stephen Jay Gould's theory of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA): science and religion are not in conflict. Each has separate areas of expertise.  Science is concerned with facts, religion with values.


Optional: read Dawkins, The God Delusion, 77-85 (Dawkins' response to Gould


5)  New Atheism and the Critique of Religion

A new assault on religion has come to be called the New Atheism, and takes the form of militant attacks on religion by such writers as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  What are their arguments, and are they successful?

Reading: Sam Harris, "Selling Out Science,"

Steven Weinberg, "Is There A Designer Universe":

Optional:   Richard Dawkins, "Why There Is Almost Certainly No God":


6) The Evolutionary Paradox and the Consolation Theory of Religion

The evolutionary paradox: if, as New Atheism claims, religion is not only delusional but harmful (as well as extremely costly), how could it have evolved?  (Read Dawkins, God Delusion, pages 190-1).

The Consolation Theory of Religion: religion evolved to provide comfort and consolation to people.

Reading: Richard Dawkins, "What Use Is Religion,":




7) The Evidence and Arguments for Religion

What are the best arguments for religion:

 1. Argument from Religious Experience

 2. Design Argument

       a. human behavior

       b. Cosmic Design: The Cosmic Fine Tuning Argument: evidence of design and purpose in the universe?

                             Reading: Dawkins, , plus   Optional: God Delusion, pp. 169-180

                             Recommended video: Neil Tyson, "Stupid Design"


 3. Moral Argument: the fact of moral objectivity

 4. Argument from Mathematics: is mathematics objectively true?


7) The Arguments for Atheism:


      1. The Success Argument: does the success of science prove that religion is false?

      2. The Causal Closure Argument: does science allow for any non-physical causal influences?


8) The Metaphysics of Science

Science consists not merely of a method, but a metaphysics as well, though it is rarely discussed let alone defended.  It has been called "materialism cum dualism": a combination of a materialist view with Cartesian dualism.  However, it faces serious challenges.  A consideration of the reductionist versus holist paradigm as well.

OPTIONAL Reading: Hilary Putnam, "Three Kinds of Scientific Realism,"  (Note: this is a challenging though not a long article; you are encouraged to read it.  The basic idea is that Putnam argues against materialism, and against the idea of a metaphysical truth of the way things are "out there" totally independent of us).

9) The Crisis of Science in the 20th Century

Are we at the end of the Age of Science?  Has reason run up against its limits?  The 20th century was a turning point in the Age of Science, though this has not been widely recognized.  We look at revolutionary new discoveries in logic, mathematics, and physics and their implications for the idea of a complete understanding of the world.

Reading: Hawking, "Godel and the End of Physics":

Video: Double Slit Experiment

10) The Problem of Free Will

Are human beings entirely determined in their behaviors, or do we have free will?

Reading: 1) Jerry Coyne:

                2) Richard Dawkins, Let's All Stop Beating Basil's Car



Evolution and Ethics

Can science explain morality?  If it does so, what happens to the status of morality?

Reading: EO Wilson, "The Biological Basis of Morality" (NOTE: read both parts 1 & 2):

Creation versus Evolution

The most sensational and media-driven form of this debate is that between the Creationists and the Darwinists over the teaching of revolution in the public schools. 

Reading: McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982):