The short answer is that there is no objective conflict here: the domain of the testable, and the concept of the sacred, need not intersect at all, let alone conflict, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested in his idea of non-overlapping magisteria. But this obscures the evidence of our experience which shows that there are indeed battlegrounds over which ideological wars are being fought, especially in the context of the teaching of evolutionary theories versus traditional creation stories.
I want to argue that this conflict can be understood as a difference of opinion as to what should be considered sacred, and thus should be resolved as a question of freedom of belief.
Now many atheists (and indeed, many agnostics) baulk at the idea that they have a concept of the sacred, since this term has become viewed as the exclusive domain of religion, and people whose beliefs lie somewhere in the non-religious spectrum do not have a religious identity to draw against. But put aside the implication that “sacred” sometimes implies a deity or divine aspect, and consider that one of the meanings of this term is “secured against violation or infringement by reverence or a sense of right”, as in a “sacred oath”.
Is it not the case that many scientists lean towards believing that truth is sacred, in the sense I have outlined here? A matter for respect, something that should not be violated or infringed? If this is not the case, why is it so offensive to certain people within the scientific community that there are cultures who base their view of the world upon (say) predicating the text of the Bible as truth? (Ignoring for the purpose of this discussion the criticisms of both Charles Taylor and myself that this is a form of idolatry, and thus essentially incompatible with Christianity). Surely the cause of this indignation is something like the idea that scientific truth is sacred, and that basing truth on something other than observation is an offence of some kind.
Nietzsche saw clearly this quasi-religious quality that can creep into the scientific endeavour, noting that it was “a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests”, and connecting this back to Plato's belief “that God is the truth, that truth is divine”. In his view, the expulsion of God from the sciences (“the death of God” in Nietzsche's memorable term) did not mean the termination of a sense of the sacred attached to the notion of truth. Thus, whatever violates the currently popular conclusions rendered by scientists risks becoming a sacrilege, an affront, something offensive that must be opposed.
Part of the fear that some narrow-minded Christians have concerning atheism comes from a difficulty in understanding that living without a concept of the divine in the form of a deity does not necessarily entail an abandonment of the sacred. A great many non-theists (of whom Einstein has been prominent example) hold to a naturalistic pantheism in which “the Earth is sacred, and the universe divine”. Interpreted in theistic terms, this means that God is immanent in nature – but this need not exclude a transcendent God. To think ill of someone for preferring an immanent concept of the sacred is as profoundly bigoted as to think less of someone for having faith in transcendence.
It is a profoundly personal matter what each of us considers sacred, and it is inappropriate for the State or the scientific community to interfere in this freedom. The human rights agreed to at the end of World War II encoded this freedom of belief, which begins in its modern conception with the right of parents to choose how their children will be educated. But the foundation of this liberty of conscience goes back far earlier – to the Maurya Empire of ancient India in the 3rd century BC and the Charter of Medina drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 622 AD. We think of human rights as secular, but as Taylor has demonstrated, they emerged through the process of the reform of Christianity, shaped by influences from other religious traditions. That their staunchest defenders in the modern world are quite often non-religious demonstrates another sense in which there are things considered sacred, with or without an explicit sense of the divine.
The apparent clash between science and the sacred seems quite different when we think of it in terms of disputes over what should be considered sacred, for it is comparatively clear in our modern world that each individual must decide this for themselves. The Intelligent Design furore becomes a dispute between competing claims of sacrosanctity, one based on observationally-derived beliefs, the other upon tradition. Either will become a problem when demanding that its formulation of the sacred must necessarily overrule all other conceptions.
The opening image is Walking the Path of Spirit Again, another fractal artwork by Vitor, whose blog can be found here. Vitor kindly gave me permission to use his art here on Only a Game.