Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion

Much of the supposed conflict between science and religion may well be imaginary, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any conflict.

How then should this conflict be characterised?

Gregory Bateson once noted the distinction in playful animals between the nip (playful) and the bite (serious). It’s clear that animals, including ourselves, can tell the difference, but how? How do they (we) make the transition between ‘this is play’ and ‘is this play?’?
Bateson famously summed up his observation of monkeys at the San Francisco zoo as follows:

“the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (p.180).

This has a great deal to tell us about the science and religion debate.

At the first level we can see, I think, that the conflict is over whether or not this is play. My view is that religion is fundamentally ludic. It has more in common with a game than with a non-game; it has more in common with fiction than with non-fiction; it is normative before it is descriptive. But the whole point of games is that you have to take them seriously. Imagine playing Monopoly with someone who kept stopping to ask whether the money was real. It would quickly become tedious. I would argue that the religion camp maintains that the money is real because that’s what you do when you’re playing a game, and that too often the science camp points out that it’s only printed on one side, because it hasn’t worked out yet (after how many centuries?) that it’s a game. Now the science camp is not to be blamed for this, because the religion camp plays so well that it always seems to be deadly serious. In fact, though, religionists are stuck in a bind because the first rule of make believe is that you don’t acknowledge it’s make-believe. You could no more expect them to acknowledge that God isn’t ‘real’ than you could expect David Beckham to concede that playing football is pointless.
To take it back to Bateman’s monkeys, for the religionists the nip has to be said to denote the bite in order for play to be possible. The God believed in has to be said to be a real God. But for the science camp there’s no such distinction. Anything that isn’t actually a bite just isn’t a bite. Everything is either serious or it is nothing.

So the science camp can’t start playing, while the religion camp can’t even accept that it is playing. And both of them are rather stuck in these roles.

An alternative would be for both sides to acknowledge the game and enjoy it.

This is where we come to the second level of analysis and my further claim that actually, all this is tacitly understood. The argument can therefore be said to exist for the sake of argumentation. It is the form that matters (“we’re having a long-running argument that sits at the heart of our culture”) not so much the content (God exists/ does not exist; religion is true/false etc.). The point is to be sociable by engaging in playful discourse.

So those atheists who want to keep the argument going are actually behaving just as playfully as those religionists who want to keep the God game going. Just as the religionists can’t acknowledge they’re playing, the scientist atheists can’t acknowledge it either: they claim to be entirely in earnest, whereas it’s obvious to everyone else that in arguing against God’s existence they are having a ball.

Bateson, Gregory. (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: Chicago University Press.(Original work published in 1972)

Now read:
How to do belief-free science

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3 thoughts on “Nipping and Biting: Characterising the Conflict between Science and Religion

  1. i’m supposed to write a seminar paper on the conflict between science and religion and have been checking things out on the net. i find articles on the subject repeating themselves and not offering anything new every time you open a new site. and just as i was about to give up i read this one. it made me laugh with delight! similar thoughts crossed my mind more than once!

  2. This is brilliant, thank you! I was looking for Bateson’s comment for an assignment I am writing about the nature of play but then I found this. As a (playful) and liberal Christian who is devoting their next 4 years to studying playing, this article perfectly expresses thoughts I’ve had over the last few years but have never been able to properly express! 🙂

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