Overlapping Magisteria

by Sherry F. Colb

It has in the recent past become common knowledge that religion and science occupy complementary zones. Science tells us what “is,” while religion tells us what we “ought” to do about it. Science is thus factual, while religion is normative. And where religion describes facts, those facts are unknown and unknowable by science. The belief that someone will go to heaven after she dies is factual, but we will never have any evidence that will either prove or disprove the attested fact. So far as science can tell, everyone who has died is gone and unable to tell us where they are, for good or ill. Their whereabouts are thus fair game for the religious imagination. With religion telling us only “oughts” and unknowable “ises," one could come to the conclusion that the world of scientifically knowable facts falls outside the scope of religion. One would, however, be mistaken in drawing that conclusion.

Religion has always been more ambitious than the above picture suggests. When you read the Bible, you learn about factually specific events that the Book claims took place. For instance, the New Testament sets out the claim that the “Pharisees” (religious Jews) were responsible for the Romans' decision to crucify Jesus. For example, in John 5:18, we learn that the Jewish leaders tried to kill Jesus because he performed some of his works on the Sabbath. Likewise, in Matthew 12:14 we read that "the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus." Later (Matthew 27:25), the same Gospel has the Jews saying that the blood of Jesus is upon them and their descendants. These factual claims helped inspire pogroms (murder sprees) against Jews for centuries. Then, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) released nostra aetate, which absolved the contemporary Jewish community of any complicity in the killing of Christ, but some hardliners—perhaps even including one or more sitting Supreme Court Justices—have resisted this Jew-friendly move.

The Bible—specifically, the book of Exodus—also tells us that Jews were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years. That claim is clearly factual and subject to investigation. Archeologists have searched high and low but found no evidence of a substantial population of Jews who were enslaved to the Egyptians. Oops. I suspect Passover seders will continue nonetheless, but we do have a factual dispute here.

Astronomy was another area of religious/scientific conflict. People long believed, as a matter of religious faith, that the Earth was the center of the universe and the sun therefore revolved around the Earth. Why would religion dictate such a belief? It actually makes sense. If God created the Earth and entrusted the humans here with a holy covenant including rules and regulations, it would stand to reason that the Earth—where these special creatures live—would be at the center of everything. It seems far less appropriate for God to ignore billions of planets, stars, and galaxies to rule over just one group on one planet that rotates around one star. Galileo learned the had way that using science to disprove religious dogma can be hazardous to your health.

To some extent, the power of empiricism has successfully pushed back against many religiously grounded factual beliefs. For this reason, many of us—at least in the U.S. and most other developed countries—have viewed religion as making far fewer factual claims than it made in earlier eras. However, the happy period of religious retreat in the face of evidence may be coming to a close, as Justice Samuel Alito’s (SA) leaked opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. indicates.

At the beginning of his opinion, SA contrasts the views of those who favor a right to abortion with those who oppose it. He says that some people believe that without a right to abortion, women lack control over their bodies, adding that other people believe fervently that abortion takes the life of an innocent unborn child. This contrast is quite telling.

Women who must remain pregnant and birth children against their will simply DO lack control over their own bodies. It is not a matter of belief or viewpoint, anymore than it would be a matter of viewpoint to say that forcing men to endure a bad case of the flu for nine months would deny men control over their bodies. SA demotes what are plain facts to opinion or perspective. Women’s experience becomes something less than real.

It gets worse, though. SA next makes his statement about how some people believe "fervently" (as if that adverb does anything but terrify the fact-based community) that from conception on, an innocent unborn baby exists. Well, sorry SA, but the words “baby” and “child” have widely accepted meanings in the English language, and fervent belief won’t change that meaning.

To say some people believe that a zygote is a baby is like saying that some people believe the sun revolves around the Earth. Those people are wrong. As commonly understood, the word “baby” does not include a zygote. But perhaps when SA credits the belief that a zygote is a baby, he means that it is an entity with a God-given soul. If so, then he should say so explicitly. Even in this time when our Supreme Court has all but written the Establishment Clause out of the First Amendment, it would look pretty unconstitutional to allow those who believe in ensoulment to have the authority to impose that belief on their less religious neighbors. Therefore, SA instead substitutes the religious definition of a baby for the dictionary definition, which, at the very least, involves sufficient development to permit the entity to experience sensations like cold, warm, discomfort, and pleasure.

Strikingly, SA places the one-celled-baby perspective on the same plane as the forced-pregnancy-denies-women-agency perspective. By doing so, SA treats as similar an undeniable fact about forced pregnancy with a false factual claim about what a baby is. Stated differently, SA’s drawing of this equivalence constitutes a lie about a zygote being a baby. It is a lie just like geocentrism is a lie, just like the young Earth “theory” is a lie,  just like ancient Jews (rather than the Romans) having the power to crucify Jesus is a lie.

It may seem harsh to call a religious factual claim a lie, but in reality, it treats religious assertions of fact with the same respect we give to secular assertions of fact, instead of extending a patronizing “it’s nonsense but you’re entitled to your beliefs” attitude.

Religions make many factual claims. In the past, those claims were grand and slammed directly into factual knowledge ascertained via science. For a shorter and more recent period of time, religion in developed countries like the U.S. retreated to make mostly unfalsifiable factual claims that were therefore unthreatening to Americans who require evidence to reach a factual conclusion. Gone were the days when SA’s hero Sir Matthew Hale could sentence women to death for performing witchcraft, a physically impossible crime.

But SA is bringing Hale back for more than the conclusion that abortion is a great crime. He is telling us that people who believe as a matter of religious faith in the false claim that a zygote is a baby can put other people in prison for acting as though a zygote is not a baby—notwithstanding that a zygote is really not a baby. 

When our criminal law can rest on lies, it is important to know that religion has propagated those lies. Because someday the truth will prevail, and in the meantime, I would discourage secular readers from saying—as we have all been conscientious about saying—that we respect the view that a zygote is an innocent “unborn” baby. There is no reason to respect a lie, even when it is religious in nature.