I Need a Better Science/Religion Venn Diagram (my post from Catholic site Strange Notions)

I was very kindly asked a few months ago to publish a piece for the new Catholic discussion site Strange Notions. I was allowed to respond to any piece I liked, so I picked Jimmy Akin’s piece about Creation and scientific explanations for the Big Bang. It is reprinted in full here, and I would love your comments, but it’s also worth checking out the original piece with the same title so that you can see all 419 comments at Strange Notions. There were some very interesting arguments over there :).


Jimmy Akin’s piece warning Catholics not to put too much stock in any given scientific explanation of the Big Bang is very interesting. For most atheists, the first and perhaps only question about religious claims is, “How do you know?” It is a request for evidence only satisfiable within the epistemological framework of modern rationality, which in a case like this means scientific, empirical findings.

Empirical Religion?

Religious people have a number of philosophical responses to such a request. They may claim that they share standards of evidence with their atheist interlocutor, and that the science is simply on the religious side. This is frequently the purview of creationists, who are often very well informed about the intricacies of radioactive dating and the weaknesses of paleontology. That’s a dangerous business, though, since a rationalist epistemological framework demands that one is only as sure of a result as the evidence allows, and that one be willing to change one’s mind if the evidence doesn’t turn out as expected. As far as I have been led to believe, such a way of thinking is not particularly compatible with sincere religious faith.

In addition, this approach comes off to atheists as intellectually dishonest. There is something crass about claiming that there is a religious realm of knowledge entirely distinct from empiricism which truth can be found and yet that all empirical evidence lines up distinctly and without exception in your favor as well. It’s similar to political partisans whose interpretation of the Constitution just happens to line up extraordinarily well with their beliefs about ideal public policy. Mike Adams, in his recent piece on Mormonism, criticizes Mormonism both for its inconsistency with the Holy Bible and for its inconsistency with archeological fact (implying, of course, that his religious beliefs were perfectly consistent with both, and that both are legitimate avenues to truth). To claim both standards of truth at once is mildly suspicious.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

But only mildly, because in fact this difficulty is trivially simple to dispose of. Many, many people have thought of the solution before. If you have two standards of truth that you’d like to keep intact, never let them answer the same questions. From here we get Stephen Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria and who knows how many religious folks’ conception of the same idea, and, all within the same intellectual tradition, Jimmy Akin.

If Akin successfully makes his point, and no one thinks that the Bible makes scientific claims, then there’s never any conflict, no double-truth. Science answers the what and religion answers the why, as a common saying goes.

But it can’t be that simple. It can’t be, because Christianity does answer certain empirical questions. For instance: Did Jesus really live? Did he really die and resurrect 3 days later? My understanding is, if the answer to these questions is no, then Christianity is a false religion.

A Hierarchy of Sureness

So what are we to make of Akin’s argument? When Leah Libresco converted from atheism to Catholicism, every atheist I knew seemed to be asking what evidence she had seen that had convinced her. What did she know that we didn’t?

But that was the wrong approach. The reason, as far as I remember, that Leah Libresco converted is that she was more sure of objective moral facts than she was of the empirical evidence against God. That’s the key. She was more sure of her morality than of her epistemology. So she backslid and changed her epistemology. This is rare, but within her system, it makes perfect sense.

Akin is not merely more sure of God and Catholicism than of science. He is infinitely more sure. As he says,

Losing scientific support from the Big Bang would not disprove the existence of God. It wouldn’t even disprove the Kalaam cosmological argument. It would just mean that the premise in question would have to be supported some other way.

If it were to turn out that the Big Bang was not the beginning of the physical universe then this argument in apologetics would have to be revised.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though. Apologetics, like the physical sciences, is subject to revision based on the evidence available at the time.”

There is simply no evidence that will change his mind about God.

Given this hierarchy of sureness, this theology, this epistemology, Akin’s piece is exactly right. In fact, what I find most interesting about it is that it resonates in part with the Less Wrong style of looking at the world. Everything adds up to normality, say the rationalists, and everything that is true is already the case, so we must let the evidence push us towards truth and keep ourselves unattached to beliefs we may not want. And so the theists say, everything adds up to God, and God is true, and God is the case. Any scientific truth will lead to God and no scientific finding can overturn God. Thus, theists may be light as a leaf regarding scientific truth, and let the evidence take them where it may. To imbue a model, whether the Big Bang Theory or Creationism, with religious truth, is to chain God’s truth status to that of a changeable fact. This is theologically unacceptable and argumentatively ill-advised.

Perhaps we are now saved from the horns of contradiction. To be that much more sure of religion than of empirical truth makes religion a trump card; any time there’s an overlap between religious epistemology and empirical epistemology, religion wins the trick. Apparent contradictions can be dissolved by a total faith in God and God’s truth.

What would that mean?

If this model is accurate, then I am tempted to say that we should throw our hands up and decide that Wittgenstein was right all along. The world consists perhaps less of people who have different predictions about what the world looks like, and more of people who have different orientations to the world, who take different axiomatic truths as obvious, who orient themselves to the world in different but individually unjustifiable ways. This takes us back, in some ways, to the general tradition that gave us non-overlapping magisteria. People just evaluate truth differently and there’s no objective way to decide which is best, at least from among the most reasonable options. There’s simply no discussion about the fundamental points to be had. The apparent contradiction disappears because the standards of truth are different.

But this just doesn’t hold up. Many religious people I know wouldn’t want the “out” that the first option provides; they are willing to make empirical claims and believe in them wholeheartedly. And Akin, as I argued above, does believe that the Bible requires making the empirical claim that Jesus lived as is recounted in the Gospels, died and was literally, empirically, resurrected. The intersection is inevitable. But no scientific fact will change his mind about the bible or God; his Bayesian priors for both are 1. This gives us the same contradiction and potential for intellectual dishonesty as above. If you agree on science as an epistemology, and you hold empirical facts to be true, you no longer get to retreat to Non-Overlapping Magisteria or anything similar.


The other option religious people and atheists and agnostics have is to agree on standards of truth so that they can engage within the same framework. After all, questions like who the Problem of Evil is more of a problem for, while fascinating, don’t answer the fundamental question; they are no one’s (or almost no one’s) True Rejection to either atheism or Catholicism.

But it is blatantly obvious that Catholics and atheists don’t have the same standards for truth, and to pretend to for the sake of dialogue would be a farce.

So we have a problem.

Atheist argumentation may have its flaws, but it is generally consistent on its epistemology: reason and empiricism. Perhaps the Catholic response is well documented in the literature, and I am simply insufficiently familiar with it. But as I currently see it, the onus is on Catholics to give a more thorough account of exactly how the epistemologies of faith, reason and empiricism interlock, what predictions they make, and which beliefs they feel are fundamental, versus which they would be willing, in the final analysis, to relinquish to the cleansing fire of truth.

I think Akin provides a useful and thought provoking model of how to deal with science and religion. But it is not enough.


It turns out that I may have overstated Mr. Akin’s position. He was saying that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t weakened if the Big Bang Theory turns out to be false, as the universe would likely simply have an earlier (or perhaps later) starting position. That may well be true, and I encourage anyone interested to read through Luke Muelhauser’s excellent and painstaking work on the subject.  But this challenge, of sorts, was not just for Jimmy Akin and the Big Bang, it was and is for all believers in a system that both includes the supernatural and makes empirical claims.

Keep an eye out here and on Strange Notions for my upcoming StrangeNotions piece on whether atheism is a religion!

8 thoughts on “I Need a Better Science/Religion Venn Diagram (my post from Catholic site Strange Notions)

  1. Alex Songe says:

    Great work here, but I wonder if there are some slightly other approaches here to get out of the kind of “Presuppositionalism Lite” of working with very strong Bayesian priors/axioms, and that’s through questioning what makes a properly unloaded kind of axiom or prior. The reason this is important is for evangelism in most theologies, and for the system of moral accountability for one’s choice to receive Christ’s sacrifice. The axioms simply can’t be based on historical accidents if there is any hope of convincing someone to take that leap of faith. Without the validity of that leap, and particularly when the witness of Christians is so weak at times (by their own standards, their own hypocrisy in general in divorce rates, etc), how is the decision to follow Christ a function of free will in the most minimal sense if we’ve got to go with Wittgenstein here. Are we all just playing roulette, and can one reasonably say that this is a valid test for God to ask humans to pass?

    I think what I’m saying boils down to this: if the believer is justified in not having to question one’s priors, how can one ask the same of anyone else? The consequences of that are far-reaching theologically, and I really wonder how many people realize that.

    • Maura says:

      As a believer, I do NOT think the believer is justified in not having to question her priors. We must do this.

      The claim that “there is simply no evidence that would change [Jimmy Akin’s] mind about God” is not really true, but I think I see where it is coming from.

      Part of the problem, I think, is that for the believer, once you begin to believe in God, it’s no longer a matter of intellectual assent to some truth claim (eg. God exists. Jesus is God. etc.). It was that to begin with–but as soon as you believe (as Leah Libresco over at Patheos came to believe) that the truth somehow “loves” you, then your relationship to it changes.

      What you start to see with many Christians is an inability or unwillingness to question certain fundamental “priors,” as you (Alex) put it — not because they are being intellectually dishonest, but because they are being faithful. Truth, for the believer, is no longer a fact but a person.

      And just as, when you have decided to trust a human person (like in friendship or marriage), you will, quite rationally, continue to do so until you are given very good reason not to, the believer will continue to trust the truth (God) given a good reason not to.

      I would guess that this “evidence” or “good reason not to” would be if the body of Jesus were discovered, or new evidence about the Gospels showed that they were written by liars. Neither of these things is very likely.

      But then again, it is not very likely that any “evidence” of the empirical sort would convince atheists or agnostics to change their minds, either.

  2. This is an excellent post, and my answer would be that Christianity, or at least Catholicism, does have an empirical epistemology. As you rightly point out, it makes an empirical claim about the life, death and resurrection of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth–and is *based* on this empirical claim (1 Cor 15:14).

    And Christians do in fact frequently appeal to empirical claims. Witness for example the work of the historical scholar (and Anglican bishop) N.T. Wright on the Resurrection.

    A Christian would have to say, therefore, that evidence of the non-resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would change his mind.

    In the Catholic worldview, this makes sense for two reasons. First, because Catholic Tradition stresses the idea that God has a rational mind and has endowed men with a rational nature, and that this rational nature is a means to understanding God. Second, because Catholics view the doctrine of the Incarnation–that God became man–as central to their religion. If God became man, then He became, in a sense, “subject” to human categories. He became rooted in history, even as He transcends it.

    I think the point many Christians, and Catholics, make, is not that empiricism cannot disprove the Christian faith (although they would argue that empiricism cannot disprove *theism*, which I would agree with, at least thus far), but simply that those with a merely empirical epistemology think empiricism proves too much. The Big Bang does not “solve” the question of the prime mover. “How did the Universe come about?” “Big Bang!” “Okay, but what caused the Big Bang?” The point being that even if we find out what happened “before” the Big Bang we would still be in the same place: looking for an uncaused cause for existence.

    And even if empirical investigation could solve the question of *how* we came about, which looks very remote, it looks even more remote that it could ever solve the question of *why*. A perfect empiricist would respond that that’s not an empirical question, and a theist would respond “Exactly.”

    Christianity makes an empirical claim, but these other points about empirical epistemology are still worth making.

    (I will leave the question about why Catholics take literally claims about the Resurrection but not the stuff in Genesis as an exercise in the reader. Note: it’s not brainwashing.)

    • Chana says:

      Thank you so much for your response!

      So you say that Catholics do in fact believe that the resurrection of Jesus is an empirical fact. On what basis do they make that claim? Do they believe because the Bible says so, and so their priors dictate that they expect historians and archeologists to find the evidence there? Or do they accept the historical and archeological basis and note that it happens to accord with the Bible’s teachings? (Well, not happens, of course, but I hope you know what I mean).

      I gratefully accept your claim about what Catholics say about the limitations of empiricism, and as my caveat in the post noted, it’s certainly the case that the disproof of any particular opening for God’s intervention in the empirical world is not a disproof of God’s intervention in general (though each disproof makes it less likely in a Bayesian way). However, we are back in the trap; if theism is not subject to empirical constraints of evidence of support, if theism cannot be disproven by evidence, then on what basis do Christians make empirical claims regarding God and his nature?

      Or is is that you are saying that God’s existence is not itself an empirical question, so that we can simply reason our way to *a* God, but the Christian God requires the empirical truth of Jesus’ resurrection? That would be very interesting. The Aristotelian prime mover argument gets us god, Jesus gets us this god. What do you think? Am I just refiguring out what every Sunday school child knows by heart?

      • “God’s existence is not itself an empirical question, so that we can simply reason our way to *a* God, but the Christian God requires the empirical truth of Jesus’ resurrection? (…) The Aristotelian prime mover argument gets us god, Jesus gets us this god.” Yes, that’s it.

        From the point of view of history, the claim for the resurrection of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is based on the same thing as many other historical claims, i.e. eyewitness accounts. Some time around 30 AD, a bunch of Palestinian Jews started going around telling everyone they knew that a semi-famous preacher had risen from the dead and was not only the Messiah of the Jewish people but the Son of the one God. An arresting thing to do, given that this was not something their religion had prepared them for, and that saying so put their lives in danger. This and many other things (for the purposes of this discussion, it’s not necessary to get into it) suggest that the simplest explanation for this startling phenomenon–that the reason why the Apostles said the Resurrection happened is because it did–is the correct one. Is this dispositive evidence? No. But it’s evidence.

        Now, that’s not the same thing as saying that’s the reason why any individual Christian believes in God–we all have a number of reasons for believing. But I am a rationalist, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t believe if I did not find the evidence compelling, even though it is not my only reason for believing.

        “if theism cannot be disproven by evidence, then on what basis do Christians make empirical claims regarding God and his nature?” Well, it depends on the claim, because I’m not sure what claim counts as “empirical” or not. The Catholic answer would be that some claims come from reason, and others from divine revelation. The prime mover argument, for example, would be a claim from reason, although I’m not sure it qualifies as an “empirical” claim. Claims from Divine Revelation ultimately point back to the person of Jesus–they are believed because (to simplify) Jesus either said or implied it. Which, again, points back to the empirical claim about his Resurrection. If he did rise from the dead, things Jesus said about the nature of God matter a great deal. If he didn’t, then not so much. (Note that in Catholicism “Divine Revelation” is not just the Bible but also what the Church calls Tradition.)

        As several apologists have put it, the central question of Christianity is “Is Jesus who he says he is?” According to the credible historical accounts we have, the historical person Yeshua of Nazareth claimed to be God, and he performed miracles and signs and rose from the dead. If those things are true, he would be, to say the least, an important source to consult on the nature of God. 😉

        So the claim about, say, the Trinity–that God is one in three Persons–is probably not a claim that can be proved disproved empirically, but it is, in a sense, rooted in an empirical claim, which is the life of Jesus Christ, from which the concept of the Trinity was derived/revealed.

      • (Here’s the quickest overview of the historical argument from NT Wright. Obvs a 2 minute YouTube clip isn’t the same thing as his 1000 page tome. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0Dc01HVlaM )

  3. sdb says:

    “…the onus is on Catholics to give a more thorough account of exactly how the epistemologies of faith, reason and empiricism interlock, what predictions they make, and which beliefs they feel are fundamental, versus which they would be willing, in the final analysis, to relinquish to the cleansing fire of truth.”

    Bas van Fraassen’s “the empirical stance” is worth taking a look at on this issue if you haven’t already.

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