It is often imagined, by partisans of both science and religion, that those two domains are in rivalry for providing the "best" explanations of the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. If there is a valid scientific explanation for, say, the origin of life on Earth, then any religious understanding of the topic is rendered superfluous. The consequence is that many people who appreciate the accomplishments of science conceive religion to be merely an impediment to scientific progress, while numerous religious folk feel compelled to reject the possibility of scientific explanations in some realm that they see as intimately tied to their beliefs.
The idea behind this supposed conflict is that "God" serves as a kind of default causal mechanism invoked to explain anything not yet understood scientifically. Thus, if current science has no explanation for the existence of living creatures, then that is seen -- superstitiously, according to one camp, or faithfully, according to the other -- as evidence that there is still "room" for God in our world view. And, if scientific advances should conquer that problem, then it is hoped or feared that the territory plausibly claimed by religion will be reduced by just the area now newly occupied by science.
I suggest that both sides in this battle are profoundly mistaken about the relation of religious and scientific "explanations," in that those two modes of human understanding are categorically differentiated from each other, to the extant that "explanation" does not even mean the same thing in one mode as it does in the other.
I will attempt to clarify my contention through illustration. Consider the (highly improbable) case of a society lacking even the most rudimentary scientific explanations of anything whatsoever. Everything that happens is seen as merely a brute fact, accepted as just an instance of "the way things are." That complete absence of scientific thinking leaves entirely undetermined the religious attitude of that society: the members might view these simply given conditions as representing an entirely arbitrary state of affairs that just happens to be what faces them, or as resulting from the design/will/intention/self-expression of some divine power at their source.
Now, let's imagine these people hit upon the notion of natural regularities that govern the course of what previously seemed to be totally contingent, particular goings-on in the world. Perhaps they recognize that not only did that apple and that rock and that stick fall to the earth when dropped, but that that there is a general tendency for any heavy object to do so. Of what relevance is the emergence of this first glimmering of scientific awareness to making a choice between the two fundamental religious attitudes described above? None at all, I contend: It is true that the choice has been shifted to a different level, but its essence is unaltered. Now, the question is whether the general law that heavy things will fall towards the earth when unencumbered just happens to be the way things are, or does it arise in accordance with some greater order perceived as "sacred" in nature.
If you have grasped the irrelevance of scientific progress to the central religious issue in this primitive case, it should be obvious that, however far science travels beyond that first baby step, its findings cannot possibly substitute for religious understanding or adjudicate between the primary and opposed answers to the question of God.
This post is, of course, an extended statement of a view I have expressed less fully in a few earlier posts on this blog, for instance, in noting that Zeus was not a really piss-poor attempt at a scientific explanation of thunder, but a poetic representation of the sense of awe and the presence of a greater power that one can experience when faced with an intense thunderstorm.
Nothing in the above musings is intended to convince a sceptic that his negative conclusion on the "God issue" is mistaken. Rather, I have tried to show that the issue cannot be resolved by scientific progress, since both positions regarding it are compatible with any and all scientific findings. I hope I have opened the minds of at least a few of the many atheists whom I respect and admire to the possibility that religious faith does not represent an attempt to ignore the findings of science or a rejection of rational inquiry, but is, instead, a different conception of the essential character of the stage upon which science and reason play their parts, a conception that cannot be dismissed by quoting the lines that those actors speak.
A SIDE NOTE: In discussing what constitutes an explanation, it is interesting to note that one of the most esteemed achievements in the entire history of science, Newton's theory of gravity, did not actually provide any explanation of gravity at all, at least not in a scientific sense. In lieu of offering an answer as to why an apple fell to the earth, he presented a quantitative law giving the rate at which it did so, a substitution for which he was roundly criticized by the followers of Descartes, who accused him of regressing to the "occult" and unscientific form of natural philosophy prevalent in the Middle Ages. However, Newton did have a personal preference for explaining why gravity operated as it did: he suggested that Spirit pervades the realm of matter, and imbues all material objects with mutual attraction. Ouch!