Saturday, 21 July 2007

Science, religion & spirituality are complementary

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*


Despite their inevitable conflicts – Science, religion and New Age spirituality are essentially compatible and complementary activities

Bruce G Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 433-436.


Until recently it seemed that the continued expansion of scientific ways of thinking was destined to render religion extinct and spirituality unfeasible. But the example of the United States disproves this, since America is the most successful scientific nation of this era, church-going remains strong and New Age spiritualities are thriving. Therefore, despite the obvious conflicts; science, religion and spirituality are essentially compatible. Future science will continue to win territory from religion since its validation procedures are more objective and reliable. However, churches can survive and grow by dropping those aspects of doctrine which clash with science, and expanding their social functions. The fast-growing US ‘mega-church’ movement shows the way – since these organizations are minimally dogmatic but instead provide a family-orientated and morally-cohesive social milieu. Like organized religion, New Age spirituality comes into conflict with science when it makes incredible or bizarre factual claims. However, in practice modern spirituality is based on subjective evaluations which do not clash with the procedures of science. Indeed, the reliance upon individual, emotion-based evaluations (e.g., ‘my truth’, ‘whatever works for you’) renders New Age spirituality ‘science-proof’, and has enabled it to expand massively in an age of science. Science, religion and spirituality perform different functions in the modern world, and their relationship is therefore one of mutual-dependence. Borderline disputes will inevitably occur, but as part of a broader context of complementarity. Science, ‘social’ churches and New Age spirituality all have a bright future.



Until recently it seemed that the continued expansion of scientific ways of thinking was going to render religion extinct and spirituality unfeasible. But the example of the United States disproves this. America is, by a large margin, the most successful scientific nation of this era; yet church-going remains strong and New Age spiritualities (such as Zen, alternative healing, horoscopes, belief in ghosts and UFOs, etc.) have been thriving since the 1960s. Apparently – and despite the obvious conflicts between them – science, religion and spirituality are essentially compatible, probably even mutually-reinforcing.

Science and religion

Science was originally a part of theology, and controlled by the Church. Conflicts between science and religion date back at least to the trial of Galileo [1], after which science gradually separated to become a distinct social system with its own practices and procedures [2].

Since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of species there have been periodic ‘Evolution Wars’ between biology and religion. Most recently some US churches have come into conflict by their advocacy of ‘Intelligent Design’ as an alternative explanation for biological evolution by natural selection [3]. There is also a strong church-based lobby against medical research involving the human genome or human embryos.

However, the idea of Intelligent Design – which is agnostic concerning the causes of biological complexity – itself represents a religious retreat from Creationism which explicitly ascribes complexity to divine causes. Over time, science will decisively win the evolution wars, and human evolution will become generally regarded as a matter for biology, rather than religion. This outcome is almost certain because natural selection is the core theory in biology (“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” as Dobzhansky stated [4]); and biology (including medical science) is currently the dominant science in the most powerful societies.

Science will surely continue to take territory from religion since its validation procedures [2], although slow, are more objective and reliable – hence more universal. For example, medical considerations will progressively displace religious objections to human genetic engineering and the clinical exploitation of human embryos. In other words health will trump theology because health benefits are more urgent and tangible and there is a stronger social consensus on what constitutes good health than on the boundaries of the morally-permissible.

But natural selection is not a trivial matter for religion. In the first place, natural selection renders many creation myths un-necessary. More fundamentally, the increasingly detailed account of the evolution of the human brain and behaviour seems to allow little scope for a cosmic purpose for humankind, or a relationship with the divine. Many current systems of theology cannot internalize the validity of natural selection without fatal damage to the coherence of their belief systems. However, future churches must (somehow) devise theological systems which do not depend on the falsity of natural selection. Religious beliefs which contradict modern science will need to be downplayed, de-emphasized, and eventually dropped.

This is already happening. Church membership in the USA (albeit not in European countries with established churches) is expanding [5]. This example demonstrates that those Christian churches are thriving which best avoid head-on conflicts with science while retaining social engagement through a powerful but simple theology with a smaller explanatory scope. Modern churches survive and grow mainly on the basis of performing valuable social functions. Freed from the need to enforce a detailed and specific faith upon their congregation, minimally-doctrinaire churches can increasingly focus upon satisfying the hunger for social cohesion based on a moral community, by providing a widening range of social amenities and activities. This has been the pattern in the rapidly growing, family-oriented ‘mega-church’ movement in the USA, where social provision includes clubs, entertainments, catering, child care and schooling; and where complex and controversial dogmas are eschewed [6]. In the church of the future, proper behaviour will count for more than prescribed belief.

Science and New Age spirituality

Spirituality can be conceptualized as the psychological function of religion, which – for many people in modern societies – has become separated from the social function of religion that continues in the organized churches. Nowadays, even regular church-goers probably find much of their spiritual sustenance outside of the context of institutional religion and of their own specific denomination, selecting what they find most personally valuable from the vast choice of material on offer in books, magazines, television, the internet and other mass media.

The conflict between science and spirituality is lower profile than that between science and churches, but nonetheless this hostility has been sustained for more than 200 years since the beginnings of the ‘romantic movement’ in Germany and Britain. Spiritual people often find science profoundly alienating in its theories and potentially catastrophic in its actions. Reciprocally, scientists often regard New Age spirituality [7] (including alternative healing systems [8]) as ludicrously un-scientific at best and dangerously irrational at their extreme.

The major source of clashes between science and spirituality arises from claims which purport to be factual but are scientifically incredible. The dilemma is that in the short-term a modicum of science (or pseudo-science) may serve to increase the status of New Age practitioners, and perhaps to persuade clients of the validity of their activities. Yet in the longer term the attempt to subordinate science to spirituality will lead to a conflict which science will win.

For example, contemporary alternative healing is a variable mixture of science and spirituality [8]. But this seems contradictory hence unstable, and probably these incompatible elements will sooner or later separate-out. For example, alternative medical professionals in well-established systems – such as homeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathy and acupuncture – have often undergone biological and medical training. However, the attempts to explain and justify these therapies in biological terms usually strike informed scientists as unconvincing. And at the further fringes of New Age healing – using crystals, colours, Feng Shui, etc., to promote healing – the scientific rationale for these activities may become ludicrous.

However, over time, the ‘science’ will probably be discarded and subjective psychology will take centre stage. In practice, alternative therapies are not based on objective knowledge such as science, but on subjective and emotional evaluations. New Age spirituality in general is essentially about inducing a positive psychological state [7]. Diagnosing and treating diseases according to a biomedical framework has very little to do with the subjective benefits of ‘healing’ therapies [9].

The lack of scientific validation should not be interpreted as implying that New Age spirituality is either invalid or worthless. Rather, the value and effectiveness of spiritual practices are properly judged by each individual for themselves with reference to their own subjective state [7] and [8]. This is emphasized by phrases such as ‘my truth’ or ‘whatever works for you’ – which indicate that the validation of New Age beliefs is essentially psychological. Hence modern spirituality may be based on explicitly fictional material such as Star Wars [10], Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. Indeed, reliance upon idiosyncratic evaluations is precisely what characterizes modern spirituality and renders it ‘science-proof’. It is therefore no coincidence that New Age spirituality has been able to expand rapidly in the age of science.

This implies that alternative medicine will survive and grow by dropping its scientific pretensions, and becoming candidly fictive, symbolic, metaphorical and fantasy-based [8]. This process is already well advanced in other aspects of New Age spirituality. Some influential authors and texts have turned-out to be of dubious provenance. For instance, the ‘don Juan’ books of Carlos Castaneda were supposed to be accounts of scholarly fieldwork, but these claims are now believed to be fraudulent, and the books should be considered as novels [11]. Nonetheless, these fictions began the modern fascination with shamanism, practices which people all around the world have found spiritually valuable. Modern ‘pagan’ spiritualities are also a recent creation [12].

So, New Age spirituality is indeed irrational, just as scientists allege, because it is built upon emotional validations which are personal. Such idiosyncratic evaluations make New Age thinking inappropriate (indeed dangerous) when applied to matters such as science, technology, law or economics. New Age spirituality is a smorgasbord of mass media stimuli designed to manipulate subjective emotional states, and of lifestyle choices which are expressive of these psychological conditions. Seemingly, such a spiritual practice affords a highly appropriate basis for matters concerned with personal fulfilment and meaning in life – where Joseph Campbell’s exhortation to ‘follow your Bliss’ is perhaps the only truly ‘rational’ guidance [10].


The relationship between science, religion and spirituality is exactly what we would expect in modernizing societies; in which functions are increasingly specialized and separate, so they are all able simultaneously to grow in complexity, efficiency and effectiveness [13]. Although science continues to expand its scope, it is based around progressively narrower truth evaluations and therefore leaves-out many social and individual functions – aesthetic, economic, legal and so on. Science also leaves-out those religious functions which are well-served by ‘social’ churches and personal spiritualities. Therefore, science will never take-over the whole of human life.

Indeed, as science becomes increasingly professionalized it probably provides less social support and personal satisfaction than it once did: for most scientists, science has become less of a ‘vocation’ and more ‘just a job’. Modern scientists, as individuals, arguably have more to gain from church membership and personal spirituality than scientists did in the past.

The situation of science, religion and spirituality is best considered as one of mutual dependence: each system performing a vital but distinct role which is valuable either to society or to individuals [13]. Borderline disputes will inevitably occur, as they do between all social systems: after all, science frequently clashes with politics, economics and the mass media. But such conflicts should be seen as part of a broader context of compatibility and complementarity; and science, social churches and New Age spirituality all have a bright future.


[1] J. Bronowski, The ascent of man, BBC, London (1973).

[2] D.L. Hull, Science as a process, Chicago University Press, Chicago (1988).

[3] Wikipedia. Intelligent design, ; 2006 [accessed 6.04.2006].

[4] Dobzhansky T. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher 35:125–29.

[5] The Economist. Therapy of the masses, ; November 6 2003 [accessed 6.04.2006].

[6] The Economist. Churches as businesses. ; December 20 2005 [accessed 6.04.2006].

[7] P. Heelas, The New Age movement, Blackwell, Oxford (1996).

[8] B.G. Charlton, Why medical hypotheses does not publish papers from the field of alternative healing, Med Hypotheses 63 (2004), pp. 557–559. SummaryPlus | Full Text + Links | PDF (219 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[9] B.G. Charlton, Randomized trials in alternative/complementary medicine, QJM 95 (2002), pp. 643–645. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus

[10] J. Campbell and B. Moyers, The power of myth, Doubleday, New York (1988).

[11] D.C. Noel, The soul of shamanism, Continuum, New York (1999).

[12] R. Hutton, The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles, Blackwell, Oxford (1993).

[13] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK (2003).