This has been a burning question of mine for many years: If magic is real, can it be true that rational scientific thought should exclude it? In the course of discussing it, I've realized I need to address my expectations more directly.

This passage is from a post by user Qi Chin as part of the pitch for a WIP steampunk fantasy RPG on the defunct indie-rpgs.com.

I love it even more now, as it summarizes what I'm aiming for better than any words I could write:

The oppositions of the three pillars the world is set up on: Technology, Religion, and Magic. Each part is needed for everyday life to go on, but these three aspects keep opposing each other. Characters either act either as agents of one of the three aspects (mercenary or idealistic) against the other two, or as agents of balance

I cut it off at this point because it then drifts toward emphasizing religion and losing the parallelism.

Anyway, I want to make a world where this makes sense.

There are three (what is the best word?): Science/Technology, Religion, Magic.

Each corresponds to an aspect of how the universe works. Each requires a different mentality and worldview to fully grasp. This is the contradiction: they are, or at least appear, contradictory, yet they are all equally right. And not by being equally wrong: I don't want the story to be anti-science or anti-religion, nor do I want to have to make all characters be wrong.

All three pillars are equally important. But what does religion give? Science is related to technology, magic also lets you manipulate the world, so what can religion grant to devout practitioners that's equally concrete yet doesn't fall under the other two?

I detect a Christian fundamentalist assumption underlying the structure I want, and that raises the question: Can I make a world that maintains this three-pillar structure without the story only making sense to readers with a strongly religious worldview? I want all pillars to be equal within the story; it wouldn't seem right for that equality to only exist if viewed from the perspective of one specific pillar.

Said assumptions that seem fundamentalist:

  • Science and religion are intrinsically opposed. This is most evident with religions that focus on dictating aspects of nature.

  • Religion and magic are intrinsically opposed. Only makes sense with religions that prohibit what they term "magical practices", which naturally excludes any of their own practices. I don't want readers taking a D&D approach: "That's Arcane Magic and that's Divine Magic." All magic must be arcane (whatever exactly that means in this context).

The third side of the triangle may not directly stem from fundamentalism:

  • Science and magic are intrinsically opposed. As seen in my previous question, they do seem to be opposed, in the sense that it's difficult to define a world in which magic can exist and not be subsumed by science. I require them to be opposed in a more straightforward sense. This seems to imply the popular phrase "Science is the religion of our time", a description that often bothers scientists.

But this also seems specifically religious:

  • There can be aspects of the world that appear (or are!) contradictory yet are all true.

So how do I reconcile all this?

I recognize that I can get close to what I describe by appropriate choice of prevalent scientific, religious and magical views, but I was hoping for more. Ideally, there would be some characteristic of this universe that made this conflict more... philosophically justified? than it would be in ours.

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    $\begingroup$ "Science and religion are fundamentally opposed" is kind of cliché, and at the same time unrealistic. Religious people are also willing to study science and use the results. They may not accept all the findings of science, but it's quite difficult to totally reject "science" as a whole. From the scientific side of things, being a scientist doesn't preclude religious belief. Isaac Newton is a good example of someone who was a scientist, occultist, and religious person at the same time, and these aspects intertwined rather than opposing each other. $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    May 17, 2015 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm considering putting a bounty on this, but I hesitate because I don't really understand the system, and because I only sporadically check this site. And I'm not sure what I should do to the question to get the answer(s) I seek. The main problem is that respondents are mostly ignoring the constraints in the body of the question and focusing on the part in the title. Answering "Can people act like this?" is not sufficient. I want "Can there be a (meta)physical difference in this world that makes it more right for people to act like that, with 'right' in both senses of true and good?" $\endgroup$ Jun 8, 2015 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ As long as magic "makes sense" and isn't random, then it isn't in contrast with science. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Aug 17, 2015 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ I do not feel this is enough of an answer, but it may be of some use: Religion could offer two things which are good in their own right, but also support both Magic and Science. At least from a Christian perspective, religion is very much about the Human Will, and learning to control and channel it to good uses. I could foresee this being of some use to Magic in addition to being good in its own right. On the other side, Religion could predispose a culture to have a worldview that is compatible with scientific inquiry, and possibly fuel imagination. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Also, to add to another commentor's statement; Science and Religion aren't intrinsically opposed. What can be opposed are Science and interpretations of religious texts. If you want a better explanation, look into C.S. Lewis & Tolkein's discussions on "True Myths" as well as some things Cardinal Ratzinger has said about the images of the Creation narratives. If I can find good links to those ideas I will post them in another comment. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 13:43

16 Answers 16


Instead of taking the philosophical groups Science, Religion, and Magic and facing them off against each other - frame it about the conflicts between the people within those groups.

Magic vs. Science

If you consider Clarke's Third Law;

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Then science and magic aren't really in opposition. Science may be unable to explain it, but it isn't opposed to it. Magic, like Science, doesn't have emotions. It doesn't care if something else is opposed to it or not.

However, people practising magic - let's call them Mages - very well could feel threatened by the ever-advancing march from the scientific community to explain how things work. I mean, it does take the fun out of things!

Conversely, fans of the scientific method may not understand or appreciate why Mages do amazing fetes with reckless disregard for the minutiae of it.

An interesting angle to consider would be if Scientism was a common philosophical view in your society.

Science vs. Religion

Religion, to a large degree, is instruction on what is - morally - right and wrong and how to behave.

Science doesn't really have any moral code - it's amoral(not immoral). There is no good nor evil - there is only nature to observe, study, and understand.

In that sense, Science and Religion aren't explicitly opposed either.

To have opposition between religious people and the scientific community, the prevailing religion needs to have a doctrinal opposition to understanding how God(s)'s universe works. Creation could be seen as sacred and study of it degrades it to a level where mere people can understand it.

The phrase God is a watchmaker definitely should be considered heresy.

On the flip-side, a religion that is a-okay with science may see it as an opportunity to gleam insight into how awesome Creation is, and further evidence that God(s) is worthy of worship.

Religion vs. Magic

Again, opposition comes down to views and beliefs people have about magic. Mages could plausibly hold the view that "Hey, magic exists, why shouldn't we make use of it?" Whereas a religion may say that practice of magic is witchcraft.

Your religion could take a more mild view. Consider the Jedi Religion and The Force - with its respective light- and dark-sides. There are some aspects to magic that are benign or even beneficial, and there are some aspects that people should meddle with.

Compile lists of good-magic and bad-magic, and you'll find lots of differing views and lots of room for large culture-wide opposition.


Can I make a world that maintains this three-pillar structure without the story only making sense to readers with a strongly religious worldview?

Yes, I think so. Each group has its own fundamentalist elements. Be sure to point them out, and contrast them against more moderate views within each group.

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    $\begingroup$ The three stereotypical personality types of magic-users, scientists, and religious followers reminds me a little bit of Freud's idea of the id, ego and Super-ego. $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    May 18, 2015 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ Just pointing out that you can have religious beliefs opposed to science without opposing "watchmaker" views. For example, "God of the gaps". If there are certain gaps in secular scientific knowledge, and your faith is that, in those gaps, there exists the proof of God's existence. Then someone else fills those gaps, and finds something that doesn't fit your view. As for this world... I recognize that I can get close to what I describe by appropriate choice of prevalent scientific, religious and magical views, but I was hoping for more. Ideally, this would be a characteristic of reality. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2015 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ The "Magic vs. Science" doesn't make much sense, actually mages are basically scientists studying magic, in most settings. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Aug 17, 2015 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Euphoric, I can understand why you do think Religion makes claims opposed to Science; but I think it would better to say (and you could agree with): Interpretations and Doctrinal systems can make claims that are opposed to science. I think your view might be stemming from exposure to some fundamentalist Churches which do make such claims- but that isn't intrinsic to Religion itself. Science and Reason can purify Religion of superstition; and Religion can give meaning and ethics to science. I think it is very possible to make a world where all 3 are in harmony- if they are properly defined. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2015 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ I never claimed that religion is the only thing people get morals from. I made the claim that a large portion of a religion is the moral code it supplies. And I did not say to the exclusion of other sources. $\endgroup$
    – user6511
    Dec 14, 2015 at 2:13

But what does religion give? Science is related to technology, magic also lets you manipulate the world, so what can religion grant to devout practitioners that's equally concrete yet doesn't fall under the other two?

Traditionally, religion has offered many things that can't be obtained through science or magic (at least, the sort of "magic" that people have actually believed in in real life; fictional magic is a bit different).

Community: religion is usually an element of a community rather than a single individual. Community elements of religion may involve: enforcing social mores, helping members of the community in need, uniting the community against an external hostile force. Science also involves a community, but I feel like scientific communities are not usually quite so tightly bound as religious ones can be. And magic, on the other hand, seems more likely to be a personal or at least secretive endeavor.

Moral Code: religion often is associated with a moral or ethical framework that may motivate the adherent to self-improvement, or to serving an ideal such as "helping others" or "breaking free of the ties of the world." Science and magic are both more mechanical, providing means to achieve results (the "how"), but not providing a value system by which to decide "what" to do. (By the way, I'm not saying that scientists or magic-users lack morality. Of course, they have their own moral systems. In real life, scientists and people who believe in magic can formulate systems of ethics based on multiple sources, including philosophy and religion. In your world, apparently no scientists or magic-users are religious(?), so their codified systems of ethics would have to be based on non-religious philosophy.)

Miracles: a "miracle" is a bit different from magic. As I said earlier, magic is generally a fairly well-defined "process" for using mystic powers to achieve some result. The magic-user says an incantation, or brews a potion. A miracle, on the other hand, can't be forced. It is the result of intervention by a higher power. A follower of a religion may pray for miracles, but can't demand one. (There is of course an exception: the standard rites, blessings or sacraments that may be associated with religious clergy are generally formulaic and have predictable results, but at the same time are not considered "magic".)

  • $\begingroup$ Good catch on the community angle. I neglected that entirely in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – user6511
    May 17, 2015 at 23:30

From your comment:

Answering "Can people act like this?" is not sufficient. I want "Can there be a (meta)physical difference in this world that makes it more right for people to act like that, with 'right' in both senses of true and good?"

This actually lends itself very well to a very simple explanation.

Science vs. Magic

For the most part, the world behaves exactly like our own world does. This allows the scientific method to be applied (to most things), which allows for true science, as well as the trappings of science that you were probably referring to - like inventors, steam power, and labcoats.

Magic, however, cosmologically rejects investigation. Magic that starts to become "understood" doesn't just cease to be magic, it ceases to work at all. This makes mages very paranoid and causes them to at the very least avoid or hide from scientists, and in some cases outright kill them. Mages who trifle with such things as the "scientific method" are hunted by their peers, because they're literally endangering all magic.

Magic is only taught through apprenticeships, because every mage is a little bit different and the act of learning magic well enough to write a textbook about it or teach it to a classroom would destroy it, or at least destroy the parts the mage intended to teach.

Magic and Religion

Once again, since Magic is the thing that we can most easily change, I'll assume religion works similarly to our world and change magic to make them opposed.

In addition to being impossible to understand, Magic is inherently evil, or thought to be so. Have some calamities in history been caused by mages who got too powerful or too greedy, though in some (true or not) conventional wisdom about how magic inevitably corrupts the user to great ambition and selfishness, and you've a recipe for any sensible religion (or secular authority) to ban its practice.

Science and Religion

In the real world, there are religious people who are also scientists. While science - that is, the scientific method and the philosophy that has grown up around it - does reject blind faith (through concepts like Burden of Proof and Occum's Razor), this divide isn't as deep as the two that involve magic. That might be fine. If it's not, you need an unambiguous statement from the religious powers-that-be (either God(s) or mortal heads of churches) that the world is meant to be appreciated, but not examined.


The proposed situation requires three distinct spheres, none fully comprehended – in either sense of the word – by the others, individually or in tandem. For the sake of argument, let’s presume that “science/technology” resembles its correlate in our world. The question, then, is how to construct the other two poles.


As noted elsewhere on this site, the common, vague set of presuppositions most people in the West ascribe to the category “religion” are extremely problematic. They do not effectively describe most religious phenomena in human history, and they take as normative a set of Christian theological notions, largely arising from the Protestant Reformation. The result is that all “religions” are presumed to be Protestantism in funny hats.

If you want to begin with the assumption that “religion” is a genuine, legitimate phenomenon in the world, and it is not entirely dependent on such Judeo-Christian notions as “faith,” then you have a phenomenon that can be studied scientifically but which cannot be falsified. This is extremely important. To whatever extent “religion” makes falsifiable claims, they must be presumed incidental to what the system provides its adherents. As Émile Durkheim put it, “No human institution can rest on error or falsehood, or it could not endure.”

The core principle, I suggest, is that “religion” is a phenomenon that binds together social groups and causes them to adhere to and obey abstractions rather than individual desires. Ordinarily, these abstractions are projected into the metaphysical or super/supra-natural. Within a fantasy context, it makes little intrinsic difference, since demonstrable supernatural effects can be analyzed from a scientific perspective, drawing them into the realm of the putatively natural (though see below, on magic).

What science cannot do is to demonstrate that the abstract, metaphysical claims of religious adherents are simply true or untrue. They are not reducible in this way.

To take an obvious example: does the American Flag represent the United States and the people who consider themselves Americans? That’s not in itself an answerable question. What do you mean by “represent”? And yet it is precisely without such refinements that the flag gets so hotly contested (flag-burning amendments, etc.). Insofar as the abstraction functions within the socio-religious context, it does so at an immediate, doxic level. Example: are American flag stamps patriotic? Lots of people think so, including the US Postal System, but they do in fact violate several articles of US law regarding flags and their display. Does that matter? In what sense “matter”?

Some will object that this is patriotism, not religion, thereby demonstrating that they’ve missed the point, but let’s allow it for the moment. Consider Lynch v. Donnelly, the “Pawtucket Crèche Case” (see Wikipedia or whatever for references). In essence, the city placed a “holiday display,” including a “holy family crèche,” on public land. The city said that they did this to bring people together in a positive spirit and prompt them to spend money at the mall. The Supreme Court ruled that this display was not religious, because it was really about money, and therefore secular.

But in what sense is money or economics intrinsically secular? If people gather annually and are compelled to use money to designate a complex system of obligations (e.g., “think of the homeless at this time of year, please give”—should we not think of them at other times? Why the obligation only in this season?), and if infinite TV specials and whatnot insist that money is not what’s really at stake in all the monetary exchanges, then isn’t money the underlying material symbol of the holiday spirit in the US?

Returning briefly to the tripartite division in question, we can see here that a scientific study (such as Durkheim’s) of a religious system is perfectly possible, but it in no sense comprehends, much less explains or explains away that system. It offers a translation from one system of knowledge to another.


As a rule, terms cognate with the Latinate “magic” (magia, etc.) function largely to designate minority, small-scale, or despised ritual phenomena. At the same time, magia commonly designates the study and manipulation of phenomena outside natural-philosophical expectation.

For example, in the high Middle Ages, the study and use of occult (hidden, infra- or supra-natural) powers was divided into natural magic and demonic magic. Natural magic examined real, identifiable phenomena whose mechanisms, though occult, occurred without the intervention of intelligences. For example: magnetism, sympathetic resonance, astrological influence. Demonic magic concerned phenomena whose causes lay within the power of intelligent, non-human beings (demons, devils, elementals, angels, etc.).

From this perspective, focusing on the “natural,” we can further divide phenomena into those whose mechanisms are knowable but as yet unknown, and those whose mechanisms are intrinsically unknowable because exterior to nature. To understand this, you must recall that “nature” in the Middle Ages meant the sublunary sphere, the world beneath the moon. All powers superior to this, from the moon to the stars and on to the empyrean, simply could not be interpreted fully, because they were not subject to natural law.

In many understandings, such phenomena as magnetism manifested celestial (moon through stars) power within the sublunary. As such, their causes could not be codified or understood properly within any scientific system. Their study and manipulation was therefore intrinsically magical.

You may say, however, that this simply divides “science” arbitrarily into two sectors. This is not entirely the case. If we postulate that a range of phenomena are caused by suprahuman intelligences—gods, angels, etc.—then scientific study may not be useful. Each phenomenon of this kind would be unique, dependent on the intelligence in question, responding to the investigator’s own spiritual qualities. One could never reduce the variables and factors sufficiently to develop controlled experiments that could yield worthwhile results. (They’d work, but they’d give only negative results.) So their study, while theoretically possible from a scientific perspective would be irrelevant and pointless.

Religion and Magic

There will likely be some conflict between these, insofar as magical study seeks to manipulate the powers that undergird human reality. At the same time, this conflict is not intrinsic. From a common early modern (late Renaissance) perspective, the serious magician cannot achieve any higher knowledge of celestial intelligences without their approval, and as they are of the angelic orders, that approval is a kind of divine sanction. In other words, magic only proceeds effectively if the magician fully submits to the deepest personal sanctity.

This is not to say that his work will put him in a strong religious position institutionally, only that he need not be a pariah. Similarly, there is no particular reason that priests or whatever should find him especially threatening—nor that they should take much interest in his results, since after all they have nothing to do with how anyone but he can or should live.

By this construction, these systems certainly overlap, but at a practical level they need have little to do with one another.


There are many other possibilities. I sketch this rough western-European system because (a) I know a lot about it, and (b) it’s easy to research. But it should give you some ideas for how to develop your own system.

The crucial point, as I see it, is to recognize that these three spheres do not intrinsically have much to do with one another. So long as you maintain that at a logical level, you can readily invent all kinds of conflicts and twisted alliances made at the human level. In other words, the vast complexities necessarily arising as these many institutions and groups and individuals come together have nothing to do with what must happen, and everything to do with ordinary human politics and so on.


These three are different ways to manipulate the world.

They each are a tradeoff between the power of the effect vs certainty of the result.

Science is repeatable if you conduct the same experiment thousands of times it will always to the same thing. But Science is constrained by the laws of entropy conservation of mass and energy and the laws of causality. Very reliable but the least powerful.

Magic is a bit more temperamental. The mind set of the user matters and it is a bit more chaotic, 9 times out of 10 the same spell will do the same thing but there are some odd ones. Magic can break through some of the limits on science, teleporting breaking conservation of momentum, and causality fireballs violating conservation of energy and so on. But magic in turn has limits you can't raise the dead you can't move continents and so on. Magic is stronger but not quite as reliable.

Religion is talking to / negotiating with a higher being. It is very hard to predict what will happen. Asking for the same thing might result in a different result every time. But the results can be awe inspiring, the dead rise the sun stops in the sky, and planets come into existence, there is no known limit. Religion is the least predictable since you are talking to a wise being rather than invoking rules, but it can have the most powerful results.

Each of the three fields will have their own ways of trying to improve repeatability and power but these are the starting points.


In the cartoon "Gargoyles", one of the characters makes a very profound statement to his employer (a Tony Stark-like fellow) who is about to come under attack by Oberon, the King of Fairies.

"Energy is energy," he says, "No matter if it was created by magic or technology."

Obviously, you can't create or destroy energy, but this is a cartoon. Even so, the point the character was making rang true for me. Now, beginning with that premise, we can define terms:

  • Science: Science is a process. Observe, hypothesize, experiment, analyze.
  • Technology: The use of science in the physical world to harness the energy around us, from the simple machines (wedges, levers) to the most complex.
  • Magic: The use of science in the metaphysical world to harness the energy around us, from the simplest spells to the most complex.

What does this leave us with? Magic and tech are truly two sides of the same coin; magic may seem to have some complexities, but really, this is why they have schools dedicated to the subject. Not everyone can be a wizard just like not everyone can be an engineer.

Now, religion is more interesting. You're not manipulating any energy. You're not even holding a device (chainsaw!) or enchanted artifact (Dreadblade of Eternal Fire!), you're holding a thing that represents an idea. In a world where people can use such things, it would be difficult to gather followers unless you can do something about them.

By allowing your priests to invoke your power (assuming you have any), they can draw energy from you to do whatever it is they need. Since you're a deity, you can extend that to whomever you like, really, but concentrating it with the people that have dedicated their lives to you is typically a good idea. Unless you feel like monitoring everything constantly, you can set up certain restrictions on how your powers can be used.

These would be my guidelines for a world with all three.


The best technique you can use is to recognize that the world is not homogenous, and the three pillars are not just standing idle trying to prove things. They are actively trying to change the world such that they eradicate that which is not easily explained by their approach.

Accordingly, if there is a region which is heavily dominated by religion, it will seek to craft the world in a way which is best understood by religion. It will make sure that it is hard to bring deep magic or deep science into its hallowed corridors.

The same goes for both science and magic. Any force powerful enough to claim to be a pillar of a world is going to be shaping the environment to make its way of thinking more powerful.

There will be contradictions. These contradictions will occur far from the centers of any of the three pillars, in the murky realm between it all. All approaches will treat those contradictions with disdain (for they make sense in no mindset). Ignorance of these details balloons into expenditures of effort to deal with the consequences of that ignorance.

Now, as for the smaller question, of what does religion bring, if one wishes to avoid directly empowering religion with being "right" (as in "they picked the right deity"), one power they have is the power of tradition. Religions are astonishingly good at developing individuals whose mindsets are deeply rooted in ancestral beliefs. This can be even more so than the effects of magic (though magic does love family blood lines). Let this be their power. The religious institutions would naturally have great gestalt powers forming from looking at the religion as a whole. A religious warrior can fight with a fury unmatched by science or magic because he or she knows there is an afterlife. From a gestalt perspective, the common core shared by all those of that religion is the part of value, so losing a body is just that... a body. Magic and science place more value on the individual, so the loss faced by a single individual is much greater.


One possibility is that this society exists within the context of much more powerful neighbors (going with the magic-is-science angle). These neighbors are unwilling to share technology explicitly (hence, the scientists have to work hard), but will do so under some conditions (hence, magic is the result of using powerful artifacts provided by the outsiders). Under some conditions, the neighbors will intercede directly; but they are powerful and vain and like to play god, so require tribute and offerings (religion is the way this society requests divine aid).

The scientists believe that society needs to be self-sufficient, and thus is always pressing to advance native knowledge. The mages believe that the way forward is allying with the outsiders to make leaps and bounds increases in power. The priests need neither science nor artifacts to achieve their goals, since they can simply invoke divine powers to do all the heavy lifting for them (some of the time).

The neighbors themselves are stratified into many camps. The non-interventionists believe that all creatures must earn their own fate, and thus stay out of the affairs of the more primitive society (but look admiringly on the scientists). The traders recognize that the primitives will advance eventually anyway, so positioning themselves in favorable trades will gain them the upper hand. The aristocracy is bored and has no real obligations. Playing god comes naturally to them and plays on their vainglorious narcissism. They must let the primitives suffer from time to time, to maximize their need for the "divine". But they personally intercede at critical moments to ensure that the faithful are justified in their prayers and praises.

The balance of the primitives may reflect the balance of the advanced, or could be totally independent of it. For instance, the non-interventionists may be the most politically powerful, but simply not care about the actions of the other factions. Or, the advanced factions could all be vying for control, and using the primitives as their proxy.


Easiest way to reconcile the issues is to start from clean board and focus what you actually want. While magic is not relevant in the real world all conflicts between religion and science that I have seen are based on ignorance of facts on the part of the person who sees the conflict. Ignorance of facts here does not mean ignorance of science. A surprising number of devoutly religious people do not really understand the religion they follow and, oddly enough, many atheists insist on baseless beliefs about religions. Even more odd is that those baseless beliefs are usually based on statements and opinions of people the atheists otherwise think of as idiots. So it is good to ignore most things you know about religion versus science from the beginning. Although Bahá'í might be a useful reference.

I'll give my own suggestion below. Note that it reads much like some sort of an utopia. This is more or less inevitable for rough outlines of drastically different societies. You'll have to insert your own issues and conflicts based on the needs of the story.

Religion could be mapped to normative control. And in fact that is the main social purpose of religion. Basically the religion would serve as a guideline for determining what behaviour is socially acceptable and what is not. Clergy would work as organizers, teachers and interpreters of moral code.

Note that moral codes do NOT deal with good and evil, they deal with social norms. The two should always be connected as closely as possible, with the ethics informing the moral code and its interpretation, but forgetting the distinction leads to direction of influence inverting. Which is a problem since social norms are affected by current politics and cultural prejudices. Thus inversion invariably results in the persecution and even murder of minorities being considered "good". And persecution and rejection of opinions your social group disapproves of. Which is not really compatible with the premise, so the people of the setting should be well aware of the distinction.

Science actually studies ethics, generally with more objectivity than religion can, so questions of ethics would probably be dealt with science. Actually applying them to matters of morality would be a matter of religion.

Religion also upholds traditions and rites promoting social cohesion.

Science would deal with remunerative control. Basically, economics, production, commerce, employment would be planned, controlled and developed based on science. This would include matters of ecology, health, transportation, and other issues that directly affect economy. Regulations and their interpretations would be experimented or simulated, the effects would be observed and analyzed, and finally changes that would improve achieving the goals intended would be implemented, others not.

What those goals should be would be a matter of social norms and actually fall under the direction of religion. This would give science and religion a stable and mutually beneficial two way interaction.

Science is also vital for education and collecting information all decision making relies on.

Magic would deal with coercive control. Violations of the moral code and economic regulations would be investigated and prevented with magic. With mind affecting magic offenders could be reformed with much higher success rate than prison sentences or fines can provide. Matters of internal and external security would also be dealt with magic.

Magicians would naturally be subject to moral code and regulations as normal. And obviously be part of the society and economy in general. They'd have wages and equipment built with science. Deal with moral dilemma by turning to religion and possibly their confessor. Combined with the role of magic in enforcing proper function of science and religion this should give a relatively stable three way interaction.


It's interesting that you explicitly group science and technology, as most (all?) real-world fundamentalist believers have no trouble using all the technology they please while denouncing the methods and ''beliefs" that make it possible.

By keeping the terms and ideas explicitly linked, perhaps through language, it will be clear that you can't use the fruits of science without some form of acceptance of science.

In another recent Answer, I suggested that if physical law were teleological, an attempt to understand physics would be more like psychology or politics. It would have more in common with Madison Avenue than Mathematics.

So, what if some physical law is like our real universe, understandable through clear rules that operate at the most fundamental level of the constituents; and some rules that are teleological. Perhaps some lost civilization or alien über-technology, back doors into the simulation, feral AI nanotechnology, aliens that watch them like a telenovella and do interfere (essentially making the ideas of Greek gods real), or other excuse for making the teleological stuff exist "on top" of the essential fundamental physics could be explained to the reader, but would not be understood by the characters.

The basic premise of science that rules are defined at the most fundamental level, are simple, and absolute would not be held as an inviolate principle even by the followers of scientific method, because some things act like human-scale concepts and whims are at play.

Careful experiments might get messed up through magical interference (nanobots contaminate everything; the "gods" just want to mess with you) so the absoluteness and confidence might be iffy as well.

A mage who successfully controls or predicts some aspects of reality will work with squishy concepts at the scale of humans and tied with human perceptions. it will be like our economist not like the science camp's physics.

So why can't they co-exist? As I pointed out, even the hard core scientist will admit the limitations of his field, as part of the mindset of the science camp. Maybe they suspect that the teleological stuff is built on top of the fundamental and don't appreciate the size of the gulf to bridge them, and feel that the messy stuff will yield to clear rules with enough data and better math. Maybe they compete for funding and market share.

Ah, what if they interfere? Like I mentioned above, experiments get messed up by magic influences. Nanobots in the reagents and glassware get activated if "magic" is used nearby. The same would hold for commercial applications. So, your electronics would go haywire if brought into a household where all the appliances and comforts were based on magic. A household would be strictly one or the other, beyond the most robust physical "simple machines".

The magic camp could be criticized for its lack of reliability and applications that it doesn't handle well, especially in the emerging Industrial Revolution. Towns set up around (steam based) mining operations will have strict rules to keep out any magical interference.

Embracing one fully means giving up the other completely.

Now what about religion? In your scenario it needs to correspond to some aspect of how the universe works. How does that translate into a way of predicting outcomes and providing increased prosperity and comfort?

To make it approachable to readers other than (this culture's) fundamentalist, it needs to depart from the normal meaning of religion as opposed to evidence-based reasoning and positions that can't change with better understanding. I'd suggest making it completely different from Abrahamic religions in our world, so it won't be seen as being something to appeal to the real-world religious.

It does follow that the teleological "magic" rules which can be exploited must have some kind of Agency associated with them. It needs a backing intelligence to handle the human-scale and human-perception concepts. A camp could exist that addresses the intelligences directly and explicitly, rather than as a set of rules to exploit.

In that world, it might not be so clear that teleological rules require agency and backing intelligence. Perhaps the human perception just matches the real underlying universe-backed concepts, as they naturally would.

So what would this camp do that conflicts with the Mages? We need to assume that it clearly works and this is acknowledged by all camps. If the R camp addresses the Agents directly maybe they are opposed to M's "technology" from exploiting the rules directly. Use of M devices in an R household would interfere with the natural balance they are trying for, to let the gods like them personally and care for them by arranging things to turn out well for them.

R people have a complex magical environment around them that is messed up by directed specific use magic, and the unreliable and iffy M applications are certain to go wrong when in an R environment.

R people need to avoid S technology too because R works when people are not taking direct control over aspects of reality, beyond a certain (historical) level. Their lifestyle would be rather different. But they are "successful" in being prosperous, healthy, and happy. Maybe they are against the other two camps encroaching on more of the natural environment and their homes in the wilderness. And the gods take care of them, right? So someone encroaching on their territory in order to mine the land, change it to farmland, or whatever, will run into troubles. In the modernizing world that trouble might amount to both S and M devices not working so well for them, and bad luck caused by M influences. That means that a steam-tech enterprise encroaching on them is doomed. R people might also push the other way, where the whole R society pushes others out or stops them from taking on something new that the R people think is wrong.

All three pillars are equally important. But what does religion give? Science is related to technology, magic also lets you manipulate the world, so what can religion grant to devout practitioners that's equally concrete yet doesn't fall under the other two?

I think it's still not clear, so let me elaborate by choosing a more specific scenario. Let's say that the distributed AI of the nanotechnology is supposed to "take care" of the whole of the environment including the primitive tribes of sentient beings that lived there, at the time they were deployed by benevolent aliens to prevent the planet's demise by natural means like a "great dying" due to something or another.

Using M directly messes up the overall system, and when such use is respected and allowed does prevent the overall system from doing its normal job. People have taken direct control over their environment as civilization progressed, and the overall nature-keeping system is overridden and broken everywhere people started doing large-scale things and as they learned to be heavy-handed and direct M to their own personal small-scale goals.

The R folks want to keep things the old way, and find benefits that "civilized" people have lost. They live in simple huts but tolerate the weather magically without having to explicitly control the environment in their hut. They hunt and gather, always finding enough and never facing hardship. They don't get sick, and find disease and pain to be the sickness of the city-builders and proof of the correctness of their ways.

Educated people who have returned to then R lifestyle find it boring and miss more explicit comforts, so they have turned to an explicit worshipful philosophy and apply themselves to artistic endeavors. All the good music and paintings come from the R, and people go on retreats to them (sometimes to stay for good).

  • $\begingroup$ What's with the downvote? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 8, 2016 at 17:44

Things religion could contribute that science and Magic could not:

1) a moral system. Science can only tell you how things work, but not if they're moral or not. Or as Hegel puts it, you can't derive an "ought" from an "is".

You could make the Science people (and the Magic people) use their technology / powers to do something that the religious people would find morally abhorrent. Then, religious people would be distrustful of everything Science and Magic may offer, for they would think of Science and Magic as paths to immorality.

2) Connection with a higher being / god. This is the purpose of religion. The word comes from Latin religare (to reconnect). Maybe humankind may have sinned against the gods and so lost their favor. The only way to reconnect with them is through religious practice.

Now Science and Magic may be forms that your humankind has found to live in a godless world and survive on their own, without resorting to higher supernatural beings. But since Science and Magic try to harness mankind's own potential, without relying on gods, then there would be no way that Science and Magic could unlock the god's power.

This means that the gods must be above the scope of scientific experimentation (ie they must be non-physical and unbound by natural laws). Also, they must be personal beings (i.e. not just some kind of impersonal force or energy to permeate the universe) to answer prayers and do miracles.

By doing so, these gods would only answer prayers if they saw it fit, so they couldn't be manipulated by the Religious people. So religious people wouldn't have the gods at their disposal as a kind of freak show to convert the Science and Magic peoples. Only people with faith and that adhered to The Religion would be able to reconnect with the gods and be able to talk with them in order to get prayers answered.

Mind you, this doesn't mean the gods would be real. Just that the perspective of the religious people regarding reality would be so.

3) Regarding Science and Magic, they both may harness powers dormant on the forces of Nature. But they would be opposed as the scientific method is to some kinds of practices based on empyricism (it works and I don't know why). See the difference between Western Medicine (based on scientific method) and practices like Accupuncture (based on empyricism).

  • $\begingroup$ Religion cannot tell you if things are moral. Religion just makes stuff up about what is moral. There is no ethics behind it. The ethics of religion is just "If says so in the books/texts, or the religious authorities say it, then it is good". But these authorities are people. And the books and texts are written by people. If these morals came from god(s), then we could find that out and maybe even discuss the matter with this god. Then it would not be religion, then it would be an open discourse. But religion is no source of morals or ethics because religion gets all of that from people. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Nov 25, 2016 at 10:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Religion just makes stuff up about what is moral". As a religious person I think this statement is a petitio principii. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 10:40
  • $\begingroup$ If a god created a world, then that god created the moral order of the world. The gods' opinion on Good and Evil is the True opinion, and should be the moral code. Now, I said that It is irrelevant whether those gods exists or not. All it matters is if that Religious people can derive a moral code from their belief in gods. Which they can. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ Also, for this to work, the gods should be embodiments of moral virtues. So they should not be like ancient pagan gods, able to indulge in immoral behavior. Imagine a God of Justice, which is the embodiment of justice. By definition this god would only will just things. So if you went against his will, you would be unjust, by definition. So you could model a moral code regarding Justice by learning from the teachings of said god. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ What if the devil made the world? Nothing in the presumtion that a supernatural persona made the world makes it reasonable to assume that this persona is actually good and that following this persona's wishes are good morals. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Nov 25, 2016 at 10:50

I see your three pillars and I can see how you can make them work without leaning too heavily on one thing or another.

The First thing is to take it as a given that the three pillars are the corners of a contiuum. The hard core are going to be closer to one pillar or another, Fundamentalists on all sides are going to be inclined to reject the other 2 pillars.

So lets look at what each Pillar represents:

Religion is Faith. Things happen because God wills it. Things fail to happen because God wills it. Most folks will understand that science and magic have their place, but your fundamentalists around this pillar view these as a Denial of God. After all, miracles happen, right?

Science is Logic: We can breakdown and understand everything. We can get results by consistently applying the same set of conditions. The Fundamentalists around this pillar will claim there is no room for Faith or Magic, or that they are irrelevant. Miracles are just a series of highly improbable events.

Magic is Intuition: An application of mental will, and stuff happens. You don't have to consistently fill in all the dots to get a feel for how things will play out. You bring in the variables by feel, account for the chaos of the universe based on experience. In a way, there is a blend of the other two here, you have to have faith that the magic should work, and there are semi-consistent steps to take for a desired result, but those steps can vary by individual. Our will and intellect make things happen. Fundamentalists here are going to say Chaos is far more powerful than limits imposed by science, and our will is as powerful as that of any god.

All three of these can be combined in various ways. Magic could be studied by the scientific method. Miracles can be wrought with magic, and Science can be used for examining God's works.

It sounds like a foundation for an interesting setting


They are always mutually exclusive

  • Science: Stuff happens, and I know how it works

  • Magic: Stuff happens, and I do not know how it works

  • Religion: Stuff does not happen, but I know how it works anyway

  • Chaos: Stuff does not happen, and I do not know why

These things are mutually exclusive.

Once you have figured out how magic works, it is no longer magic but science.

Once you have figured out why religious stuff does not work, it is no longer religion but science.

Once religious stuff to work and you do not know why, it is not longer religion but magic.

Once you lose the knowledge as to why scientific stuff works, it is not science but magic.

Once scientific or magic stuff stops happening, but you think it will happen anyway if you just keep at it, it is no longer science or magic, but religion.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Love this one! Today is Setting Orange, the 51st day of Bureaucracy in the YOLD 3183 $\endgroup$
    – docwebhead
    Sep 27, 2017 at 17:41

First to answer your question you got to define magic, science, and Religion in relation to each other. To summarize with out going in to detail, science: is a command; magic: is a art form: Religion is a request or a negotiations.

science: is a command. If your using science or technology you know that if you do a certain thing your going to get a certain result. It is the most reliable of the 3, but also the least powerful.  Not matter how powerful it is science is still bound by natural laws, but magic and religion are not.

Magic is the middle ground between the two. Not as powerful as religion or but yet more reliable, with the opposite relation ship to science.  
The main different of between magic and science is magic depends on the spiritual, mental and emotional state of the magic user. If a science will work the same no mater who is doing the experiment. But I magic user doing a spell right after witnessing the death of his family may get a different result then if he had been performing the spell a week earlier. 

This makes magic less reliable then science because the result can change if the person change, and there is no 100% guaranty that one magic user will get the same results as another.

Religion: first you have to differentiate between religion and magic. Here is a simple rule, if you a spell it's magic, if a god, saint, spirit, dose a spell for you then it religion. Religion depends on your own power and/or knowledge. In Religion your not do any of work so you could use magic that you could never hope to preform on your own. Even if you have no magic power or knowledge you can still ask a god, saint, spirit or even a demon for help get a spell that only the most power magic user could preform usually.
Religion is more powerful but less reliable because unlike science or magic it relies on the action of someone other then you to work. You can do all the right things and have the right spiritual and mental state, but it is meaningless unless your benefactor answers your request. And just because ( he, she, it) answers your request doesn't mean ( he, she, it) will answer in the way you want or expect.

How to answer your questions :

Question one:"Can I make a world that maintains this three-pillar structure without the story only making sense to readers with a strongly religious worldview?"

  Can you tell a story about the dangers of environmental abuse that can be understood and enjoyed by people without a strongly environmental worldview?"  Of course you can, as long as you make a clear to the read the difference between magic and religion and you will be fine. 

Question 2: "All three pillars are equally important. But what does religion give?"

If you need something that will work ever time every day regardless of who is using it you need science. If your in a crises that you can't solve without some deus ex machina then you need religion. If you need something between these to then you need magic. Also remember what resource a person has available to them might effect which they choose to use. A invention cost money and magic user may require money for his serves. But depending on your religion your god (or gods) may also require a price but probably something less economical and more personal. This may make the prime choice for the economic disenfranchised.

What do you think of my answer. Or confused at all. comment below and let me know.

So how do I reconcile all this?: I will answer this in three parts.

1 magic vs religion. The leading Religious people our subspecies of magical power that doesn't coming from ( God, or gods) since wizards and witches can do the miraculous without conforming to the religious morality there fear that this power will corrupt them. It's natural form to suppress magic and encourage divine channeling.

  1. science vs religion. Scientist don't understand their religious neighbors and think that their both creepy and insane. They try their best to keep this "insanity" from spreading.

magic vs science. The magic elite don't want their authority challenged by a group of peasants with modern weapons.


If all three of these things work, and they all work for different reasons, then they will all attract different types of people.

Tech This works like it does in reality. You figure out the reproducible principles and laws of reality and utilize them in invention. This will attract logical thinkers.

Magic This appears to work via madness. Its users are reality warpers and their power comes from them and works the way the mage thinks it works (and no mage knows or understands this point). This may attract egotistic and ambitious people. Given the inconsistent and individualistic approaches to magic used by the mages, using scientific methods to examine the magic is fruitless.

Faith The practitioners of faith ask and an unknown force gives. When a member prays and hopes an outside force acts to aid them. The religion is based around this unknown entity. No-one really knows anything about the unknown force or has any means of testing it. Nothing happens to the person praying and they cant feel any power in themselves. If they pray for someone to be healed and they are healed, it is an unknown third party that is doing the healing.

This way all three pillars work and feel very different. The kind of people who go to join each of these groups are going to have very different outlooks and perspectives. Once you localize it to your story and think through some scenarios, rifts and grievances can emerge from their interactions.


So you want all three to be valid but no one recognizes that fact and each branch tries to invalidate the other two? Maybe you can use the "we all came from the same place" trope to explain it. In the past god/gods/aliens/something else? Granted or created us with the ability to maintain an organized intelligence or "spirit" after death. But in order to maintain your spiritual self after death requires certain rituals or beliefs that allowed your mental organization to remain intact.

The past society was also able to communicate with "spirits". This caused a rapid increase in scientific advancement and general increase in quality of corporeal life.

Then dramatic event occurred where massive knowledge was lost, not only scientific but historical. In addition, knowledge or ability to communicate with spirits was lost.

This creates a rift where people take only certain aspects of the previous society and try to make sense of the world through those limited views.

Science has lost most or all of the previous advances and basically starts over and without the communication with spirits it advances slowly.

Religion has snippets of how the old society was and how the god/alien/something allowed an afterlife. They also maintain some of the necessary steps for maintaining the spirit without really knowing how or why or even if they really do work.

Magic has maintained some of the advanced science from the previous society that works on some of the principles of the spirit world, but the practitioners only know the way to trigger these "spells" and don't know how they fundamentally work.

In this way all are valid in that they are parts of the previous whole and any conflict arises from centuries of being separated where new theories are created to explain their origins that are off the mark and invalidate the other aspects.


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