Why Science and Religion Must Conflict

March 2, 2002
Stanford University Veritas Forum

Dallas has the privilege of presenting two talks at a March 2002 Veritas Forum held at Stanford University:

● Nietzsche vs. Jesus Christ: Who Holds the True Path?
● Why Science and Religion Must Conflict

Responding to Stephen Jay Gould’s 1999 publication of Rocks of Ages, Dallas explores the relationship between science and faith. Contrary to Gould’s theory that science and faith represent non-overlapping magisteria, Willard argues that science and faith both deal with human life, but they try to explain it in light of different considerations. Because of this, science and faith will experience some tension, though not insurmountable.


For reference:

1. Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is the view, advocated by Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the "nets" over which they have "a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority," and the two domains do not overlap. He suggests, with examples, that "NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism" and that it is "a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria." In his book Rocks of Ages (1999), Gould put forward what he described as "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to ... the supposed conflict between science and religion."

2. The fact–value distinction is a fundamental epistemological distinction described between:

  1. 'Statements of fact' ('positive' or 'descriptive statements'), based upon reason and physical observation, and which are examined via the empirical method.
  2. 'Statements of value' ('normative' or 'prescriptive statements'), which encompass ethics and aesthetics, and are studied via axiology.

This barrier between 'fact' and 'value' implies it is impossible to derive ethical claims from factual arguments, or to defend the former using the latter.

The fact–value distinction is closely related to, and derived from, the is–ought problem in moral philosophy, characterized by David Hume (1711–1776). The terms are often used interchangeably, though philosophical discourse concerning the is–ought problem does not usually encompass aesthetics.


Why Science and Religion Must Conflict

Dallas delivers a compelling exploration into the inherent tension between scientific inquiry and religious belief. He discusses the profound implications of this conflict for understanding human existence, drawing on historical, philosophical, and personal anecdotes to illuminate the deep interconnections and stark differences that define the relationship between science and religion.

Why Science and Religion Must Conflict


  • Introduction to the Conflict: Dallas opens by addressing the historical debate between science and religion, spurred by Stephen Jay Gould's work. He questions Gould's approach to segregating the two fields into non-overlapping magisteria, suggesting that such separation might oversimplify the complexities of their interaction.
  • Essence of the Conflict: Dallas argues that both science and religion strive to understand human life, albeit from contrasting perspectives—science through natural phenomena and religion through spiritual and moral frameworks. This fundamental difference in approach leads to inherent conflicts.
  • Naturalism and Its Limits: Dallas critiques the philosophical stance of naturalism, which asserts that natural laws and processes can explain everything. He suggests that this view overlooks the aspects of reality that transcend empirical science, like morality and consciousness.
  • Gould's Stance on Science and Religion: He discusses Gould's book, highlighting the assertion that science and religion should operate in completely separate domains, with science handling facts and religion dealing with values and meanings.
  • Misconceptions of Scientific Authority: Dallas challenges the idea that science has the ultimate authority over facts, arguing that this view undermines the validity of religious experiences and existential truths that science cannot empirically validate.
  • Religion's Unique Contributions: He asserts that religion provides crucial insights into human purpose, ethics, and values—areas where science, by its nature, does not offer complete answers.
  • Importance of Moral Development: Dallas underscores the need for moral development to keep pace with scientific advancement, suggesting that increased knowledge should be accompanied by enhanced ethical responsibilities.
  • Role of Religion in Modern Society: He reflects on the evolving role of religion in a world increasingly dominated by scientific and technological advances, pondering whether religion might eventually be deemed unnecessary if it cannot coexist with scientific understanding.
  • Potential for Integration: Despite the conflicts, Dallas hints at a potential integration where science and religion could collaboratively enrich human understanding, provided both fields are approached with humility and a willingness to accept their respective limitations.
  • Closing Thoughts on Conflict and Coexistence: Dallas concludes by emphasizing that while science and religion often conflict, they each hold the potential to contribute uniquely to the broader tapestry of human knowledge and experience, advocating for a dialogue that respects both domains.