Laura Weed “It is Time to End the Science vs. Religion Conflict in Philosophy of Religion”

Laura Weed retired this year from the College of Saint Rose, where she spent most of her career as a Professor of Philosophy. She is the editor of Mysticism, Ineffabilty and Silence in Philosophy of Religion Springer Press 2023, author of The Structure of Thinking 2003 Imprint Academic UK. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the classical topics in Philosophy of Religion has been the debate between atheism, understood as a scientific approach to understanding religion, and theism, held as a stand-in for all religions, which are cast in this debate as unscientific, at least, and often as irrational, because unscientific. But during the last few centuries, while this debate has been raging within and without philosophy of religion, both science and the understanding of religion have become more complex, diverse, and comparative. The simple Newtonian atomism of Hume1 and the enlightenment has grown up to become quantum field theory, consciousness studies, neuroscience, and the endocrinology of emotions; and the study of religion has branched out past dualistic theism into Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous religion, cross-cultural studies of ritual and mythology, and studies of intersections of mysticism and neuroscience. I will argue that in the contemporary intellectual environment, the grossly oversimplified ‘atheism vs. theism’ or ‘science vs. religion’ dichotomy represents a mistaken understanding of both science and religion.

First, the traditional debate oversimplifies physics. Isaac Newton understood all of science as interactions of computable force and mass, and philosophers such as David Hume2 and Thomas Hobbes3 thought that all of reality, including humans, could be reduced to a Newtonian set of calculations of interaction between force and mass. The New Atheists, such as Daniel Dennett4 and E.O. Wilson5 are still defending this Newtonian and Hobbesian view of reality, including the reduction of humans and all of our hopes and dreams to mechanical attractions and aversions. Meanwhile, science has moved on. Quantum physicists such as Henry Stapp,6 Paul Davies,7 and Roger Penrose8 are arguing for a view of reality as based on information, rather than the enlightenment’s blind, inert matter. Information is more cognitive than Locke’s ‘matter,’9 is based in mathematics and knowledge, rather than physical substances, and involves such quantum (and Aristotelian)10 notions as directionality and choice. Metaphysically, this more refined physics supports a view of reality that leans in the direction of a panpsychism,11 in which information is the ultimate stuff of reality, which produces both matter and mind, when quantum waves collapse.

Second, the traditional debate oversimplifies the biological sciences, psychology, and the study of emotions. The contemporary study of human consciousness has shown us to be far more than rocks banging into each other or rolling down hills. Holmes Ralston III12 and Terence Deacon13 have shown that DNA is intentional and directional, having needs and values inherent in its existence, and Consciousness Studies is showing the importance of what we think and feel, our qualia and self-organization, and how different that is from the Newtonian dynamics of billiard balls hitting each other. Also, Antonio Damasio14 has shown that even our cognitive ability is deeply emotional, and Lewis, Amini, and Lannon15 have shown how central to our basic capacity to function it is to be well loved and cared for, counter enlightenment individualism.

Third, the atheism vs. theism debate overly limits religion. By focusing exclusively on a few theological debates within the Abrahamic religions, this debate limits discussion to a few topics, i.e. the existence of a transcendent, non-physical deity, the capacity of miracles to cure illnesses, etc. I often found after I taught the Ontological argument,16 there would be a student who would ask “Does this have anything to do with my religion?” To which, of course, the answer is that Anselm is discussing the God of the Philosophers, which may not have anything to do with why anyone practices a religion. Mikel Burley offers an antidote to the ethnocentrism and over-conceptualization of most Western-based—i.e., colonial—approaches to the study of religion by suggesting a Wittgensteinian and anthropological approach to the cross-cultural study of religions.17 He proposes deep description of religious practices, which seeks cross cultural ‘family resemblances’ but does not impose categories of comparison on religions. He also recommends studying stories as well as arguments from compared religious traditions, to allow the religions to express themselves in their own terms.18 Michelle Panchuk and Oludamini Ogunnaike would extend Burley’s comparative approach even further, requiring the inclusion of oppressed voices—often women, for Panchuck—within any given religious tradition and requiring an ethical evaluation of one’s own descriptions to ensure equality and justice, for Ogunnaike. Both Panchuk and Ogunnaike argue that Wittgensteinian neutrality among categories and description is very difficult or impossible to achieve, and is sometimes merely preserving or endorsing an unjust and oppressive status quo.19 Broadening the topics of conversation and description, and rules for discussion in some of these ways would make Philosophy of Religion more fair to the actual practice of religion by actual people. The change in approach might produce a discussion of what religious people think about divinity, and what they think they are doing when they practice religion.

Fourth, the science vs. religion debate misunderstands what people claim to know when they claim religious knowledge. Typically, the debate is framed in rationalist or empiricist terms, requiring either deductive proof—of a proposition, of an Anselmian type20—or empirical evidence, such as Aquinas offers in the Cosmological arguments.21 But religious claims to enlightenment often are less direct, and more personal or interpersonal. Personal and interpersonal approaches to knowledge, the first and second-person approaches, have long been dismissed by western science, and in the science vs. religion debate they are often ruled out of court at the outset.22 However, as William James pointed out, religious experience is often both ineffable and noetic,23 and as many religions argue, requires trust and love, completely alien ideas to either rationalist or empiricist approaches to knowledge. Values, too, are deeply personal or interpersonal forms of knowledge, not apparent to scientific ‘facts’.24 For these reasons, the science vs. religion debate has discounted these approaches to knowledge as ‘irrational.’ A religious philosopher could concede the word ‘rational’ to empiricism, rationalism, and propositional knowledge and still argue that humans have non-rational, but not irrational ways to gain knowledge, and that some of these ways of gaining knowledge are ultimately more important than the scientifically authorized routes. For example, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan considers philosophy a Darshana, an intuitive practice, aimed at self-knowledge, through dissolving the walls between the objective and subjective worlds.25 Contemporary theories of perception frequently stress embodied knowledge and kinesthetic self-awareness, such as Andy Clark’s “What reaching teaches”26 and J.J. Gibson’s account of affordances as forms of knowledge.27 Meditation has been shown, through neuroscience, to change the brains of meditators, even to the point at which they value AUB (Newberg and D’Aquili’s Absolute Unitary Being) as more real than ordinary empirical or cognitive experience.28 Francisco Varela has pointed out that consciousness contains several layers of processes that operate at varying speeds, only one of which is the waking processes of cognition and perception. Meditation and sleep access other potentially conscious processes.29 Even studies of rituals and psychedelics are showing potential for possible resources for healing. Buddhists and environmentalists have long spoken of presencing30 to explain the need for humans for touch and social contact with others, including animals and nature.31 Many researchers have begun to explore these ‘means of knowledge’ that have long been acknowledged in religions, although western science has discounted them.

I conclude that it is time to end the science vs. religion debate, and replace those discussions with broader notions of science, of religion, of knowledge, and of philosophy of religion. These debates have been counter-productive, shutting scientifically-minded persons off from spiritual fulfillment and leading religions to defend hopeless positions such as anti-evolutionary and anti-vaccine positions. We still have much to learn, and the traditional way of structuring the debate is preventing the incorporation of many new ways of understanding both science and religion.


1. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. 2nd ed. L.A Selby-Bigg. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1978. See especially, Book 1, Sec. 1.

2. Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, especially Part 3.

3. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley. Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis, IN, 1994, pp. 6-27.

4. See for example, Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. Little Brown Publishing, Boston, MA, 1991.

5. See for example, E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Boston, MA, 1975, 2000.

6. Henry P. Stapp, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics. 2nd ed. Springer Press, Berlin, Germany, 2003, especially Chap.12.

7. Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint. Templeton Foundation Press, Radnor, PA, 2004, especially Chaps. 12 & 13.

8. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 1989, especially Chaps. 6, 7 &10.

9. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1975, pp. 308-311, 313, 498, 542, 623.

10. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon. Random House, NY, 1941, p. 935.

11. See, for example, Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Godehard Brϋntrup & Ludwig Jaskolla. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2017.

12. Holmes Ralston III, A New Environmental Ethics, 2nd ed. Routledge Press, New York, NY, 2020, especially Chaps 4 & 6.

13. Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2012.

14. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens, Harvest Book, Harcourt, Orlando, FL. 1999.

15. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, NY, 2000.

16. Anselm of Canterbury, Prosologion, Chaps. 2-4, reprinted in Medieval Philosophy, 2nd ed. eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997, pp. 157-165.

17. Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020.

18. Burley, 2020.

19. Roundtable discussion of Mikel Burley, A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious and Interdisciplinary. Bloomsbury, London, 2020, in JAAR vol.89 issue 2, June 2021, pp. 721-738.

20. Anselm, Prosologion.

21. St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God” in Summa Theologica Part I, Question 2, Article 3. Christian Classics, Allen Texas, 1981.

22. See for example, Richard Dawkins, “Science discredits Religion”, in Quarterly Review of Biology, vol.72, 1997, pp. 397-399.

23. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Mentor Books, NY, 1958, pp. 318-320.

24. For a claim that facts are value-free, see David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, pp. 457-463.

25. Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, Intellect and Intuition in Shankara’s Philosophy, posted at, downloaded Jan, 2014

26. Andy Clark, “What Reaching Teaches.” in Supersizing the Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2008, pp. 180-187.

27. James Jerome Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Taylor and Francis, New York, NY, 1986, pp. 127-143

28. Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, The Mystical Mind. Fortress Press, Minneaplois, MN, 1999, pp. 177-193.

29. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear, eds. The View from Within, First-person approaches to
the study of consciousness
. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, UK, 1999, especially “Present Time Consciousness” pp. 111-140.

30. Joyce V. Zerwekh, “The Practice of Presencing” Seminars in Oncology Nursing Vol.13 Issue 4, November 1997, pp. 260-262. Elsevier, Science Direct

31. Mark Larrimore, “Learning to do Philosophy of Religion in the Anthropocene.” in The Future of the Philosophy of Religion, eds, M. David Eckel, C. Allen Speight, and Troy DuJardin. Springer Nature, Switzerland, 2021, especially pp. 147-149.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *