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Ms. Payette and Mr. Scheer: Science and religion can – and should – co-exist

Peter McKnight is a former Templeton-Cambridge fellow in science and religion at the University of Cambridge.

My horoscope warned me that I'm likely to offend everyone today, so here goes: Governor-General Julie Payette is wrong. And so are her critics.

In a speech attacking anti-scientific sentiments in society, Ms. Payette riffed on astrology and climate change skeptics and, in the interest of complete self-immolation, tackled religious belief by saying: "We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process."

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As many critics have charged, Ms. Payette's language was impolitic to say the least. Her incredulous "oh my goodness" suggests she's shocked – shocked, I tell you – that anyone might think God had something to do with life. But I'll leave it to others to discuss the proper decorum for a governor-general.

I'd rather discuss science and religion. And on the former subject, I'm not even sure of what science Ms. Payette was referring to. That "random process" business sounds like evolution by natural selection, which, as any biologist can tell you, is as well confirmed as any scientific theory.

Or perhaps she was referencing the origin of life, which is the province of abiogenesis, not natural selection. And as any biologist can also tell you, abiogenesis is not nearly a settled matter.

But here's the rub: As scientists work on abiogenesis or any other scientific theory, they won't appeal to divine intervention – because they can't. Science, as the study of the natural world, permits consideration only of natural causes – causes involving matter, energy and their interaction. Scientists must therefore resist any appeal to supernatural causes, be they God, karma or voodoo.

This approach, known as methodological naturalism, has proven tremendously successful, allowing us to predict and control much of the natural world. But it doesn't mean that supernatural causes don't exist; it only means that science must, by its own choosing, remain silent about the supernatural.

And indeed, many scientists who are faithful to the methodological naturalist approach are also faithful to God, because they recognize that the supernatural lies beyond science, that when science tries to squeeze God out of the equation, it is overstepping its bounds. This, it seems, is Ms. Payette's faux pas: She may know a lot about science, but she evidently doesn't know where science ends.

That's only half the story. Ms. Payette's critics make the same mistake, from the other side. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, for example, spoke of "faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion" and opined that "respect for diversity includes respect for the diversity of religious beliefs."

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Now where to begin with that? How about here: Mr. Scheer is effectively equating respect for people with respect for opinions. That's more than a little ironic coming from a conservative: Remember when the left was rightly ridiculed for promoting exactly this sentiment – "viewpoint discrimination" – which means we must accept all opinions as equal?

But more to the point, if religion is going to use its theories to explain the natural world – to overstep its bounds and compete with science on its own turf – then it ought to be criticized, for criticism is essential to science. Unfortunately, though, if the United States is any example, the prohibition on viewpoint discrimination has taken hold. So we see "religious freedom" laws that demand equal time for evolution and creationism in science classes. After all, these are two opinions about the nature of life, and all opinions are equal, right?

Religious freedom laws are, of course, disastrous for science. But the attempt to compete with science on its own turf, the failure to recognize where religion ends, is also detrimental to religion: It presents an impoverished view of God, one where the divine becomes part of nature rather than something transcendent, something beyond the natural world. And worse, it draws religion away from the big questions that lie beyond science, the moral and metaphysical questions that have preoccupied the religious for millennia.

Rather than engaging in turf wars, as Ms. Payette and Mr. Scheer seem destined to do, perhaps we should consider how science and religion can co-exist and, indeed, complement each other. Science, after all, teaches us about the nature of life, about what we are and how we came to be, while religion teaches us about the nature of living, about who we are and how we ought to behave. And we need both. In their rightful places.

Governor-General Julie Payette takes aim at bad science (The Canadian Press)
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