Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

I’ve recently found pointofinquiry.org, which has a lot of very interesting talks about science and religion, so it got me thinking again.  Some of the more interesting talks are:

First off, I need to point out that I am an atheist as well as a scientist.  Did my learning of science undermine my religion (I was raised Roman Catholic)?  Was I jaded about religion before learning science?  Does science promote atheism?  These are some of the questions one needs to consider with respect to these ideas.  Given my one data point, I can only state a correlation, not a cause-and-effect: that as I got older, and learned more science, I got less religious.  However, I can point out several observations I’ve made about the interplay between religion and science.  I think some of the hard-line atheists, in their own personal zeal, make claims about science that are overreaching and not entirely correct.  I also think that the accommodationist perspective, stating that science is perfectly compatible with religion is also not correct.  Here are my main thoughts.

Science is in conflict with some religions

If you believe that the world is 8000 years old, then you are wrong.  Almost all branches of science, from physics, chemistry, biology and geology, agree that the Earth is billions of years old.  There really is extremely little wiggle room there.  Of course, one can always say that God made the world appear billions of years old, but in fact it really is only 8000 years old.  If you do that, then you could just as easily state that the world was made yesterday.  Further, it is a challenge to think of a reason why this deception would be need to be done.  Finally, from a scientific point of view, it is content-free (CF): it makes no measurable predictions, does not suggest the next measurements to be done, nor is it testable in any way.  Science has demonstrated, historically, that CF statements have always turned out to be the equivalent of nothing.

If your religion depends on insisting that the world is 8000 years old, then science is in direct conflict with it.  Those religions that have put themselves in the cross-hairs of science, by making specific statements about the universe, are making the error of making the religion able to be falsified.  Historically speaking, this is exactly what has always happened with testable religious claims: science shows them to be wrong.  The religion then has two choices

  1. reject science (usually hypocritically at the same time reaping all the benefits of science, such as longer life, better health, and increased technology)
  2. call those statements metaphorical, and remove the testable part of the religion that was rejected by science

Most liberal religious faiths have tended to choose (2).  The Catholic Church, for instance, has a pro-evolutiuon stance and is in-line with science on many things (a departure from historical behavior).  In choice (2), the Genesis creation story is allegorical and not literal, and thus not in conflict with modern biology, especially evolution.  They merely state that God had a hand in the process, perhaps, for example, injecting souls into humans some million years ago.  The conservative religious faiths which believe in the literal Genesis story, with creation in 7 days about 8000 years ago,  try to replace evolution with creationism (in the form of, so-called, intelligent design).  They are just plain wrong.  Further, because they’ve stated that their religions depend on evolution being false, they have thus made it possible for science to demonstrate they are wrong.  They have then created the conflict between their religion and science.

Other religious claims that are testable, and shown to be false, include:

  • faith healing
  • intercessory prayer
  • special creation

Science is not in conflict with some other religions…but with a caveat

There are many scientists who are religious.  Some relatively famous modern ones include Ken Miller, a Catholic biologist from Brown University who testified in the Dover Evolution vs Intelligent Design trial, Francis Collins, the geneticist, and the physicist Freeman Dyson.  In each of these cases, we have to be careful in defining their belief.  Conservative Christians will often point to highly prominent scientists (such as Albert Einsten) who are religious as evidence of no conflict between science and religion.  However none of these people support the anti-science agenda of the conservative Christians, and most believe in a vague, impersonal “God”, such as  “God” representing the mystery in the universe.  A far cry from the person-like entity described in the Bible, but by using the same word (God), these scientists have inadvertently played into the hands of people who would like to misuse the belief for their own purposes.

What is comes down to, as you look at religious scientists (which represent a very small minority), there are two types:

  1. scientists that are in fields far away from the “big-picture” questions (like, say, material science) and can thus maintain two opposite viewpoints at the same time.  People are very good at compartmentalizing their thinking.
  2. scientists who have scientifically untestable religious beliefs.  this includes the “God=universe” belief, or some vague spiritual belief.  Ken Miller falls into this category too…when asked whether Jesus had a Y chromosome (which could test for the virgin birth, for example), he says that he just doesn’t have any data on that.  Even though some of his tests are, in theory, testable they aren’t testable right now and perhaps, practically, never.

But shouldn’t science stay out of religious issues?  Don’t they speak about different things?

Stephen J. Gould (the great) used to refer to “non-overlapping magisteria” when speaking about science and religion.  Freeman Dyson refers to science and religion as “two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here.”  I have already touched on part of the problem with this: where religion is testable, it has been shown to be false. All that is left are the untestable parts.  To me, this content-free religion is the same as not believing in anything.  Perhaps it gives someone comfort to believe in a vague, impersonal spirit “out there”, but I dislike using the word “God” when referring to the mystery and wonder of the universe itself. Using this word communicates something very different to different people, and implies something that I believe is unwarranted.

Richard Dawkins, in one of the point of inquiry interviews, shows that this non-overlapping magisteria is really a farce.  He puts it this way…imagine if, at some point, we uncover archeological evidence with some molecular biology that gave you evidence for, say, the virgin birth of Jesus.  Do you think that the Christian religions in the world would say, “Oh no!  Non-overlaping magisteria!  We can’t use science to speak about religious issues!”.  Of course not!  They’d be screaming it from every church.  It’s only because there is no evidence for any religious claims that we posit the non-overlap of religion and science.

So, in a nut-shell, where religion and science meet, religion either directly agrees with science (in which case it is redundant) or it is wrong.  Most of the testable religious claims have been shown to be wrong.  Where they don’t meet, religion is content-free.  If someone decides to find comfort in that, then that is their issue, and science can’t really speak to it.  I just don’t find any value in it.

Religious vs Scientific Thinking

At its core, however, religious thinking and scientific thinking are nearly opposites.  Religious thinking relies on anecdotes, statements from authority, faith without evidence, and mistakes of causation from correlation.  Each of these mistakes arise from common human failings of reason and perception, for which the scientific methods have been developed to avoid.  To do proper science one does not rely on anecdotes or authority, other than nature as the final arbiter.  Evidence is everything, and certain knowledge is never achieved in science (as opposed to religion).  So it is no wonder that the more scientific you are, the less appeal religion tends to have.  But it also makes you less susceptible to the various guises of pseudoscience and less susceptible to being hoodwinked by cranks and quacks.

It is my opinion, then, that the best remedy for religion is simply to teach as much science as possible and let the religion problem work itself out as a result.  I don’t think that the in-your-face strategies of the new atheists, such as Dawkins, are particularly effective at reducing religion.  It has a purpose for rallying the troops, bringing closeted atheists out, so I wouldn’t dissuade him from this approach if he feels that that is the primary outcome he wants.  I also don’t think we should compromise and say there is no conflict between science and religion, which leads to pandering for political reasons with the truth as a casualty.  There are fundamental conflicts between many religions and science, and those should be pointed out even if it is uncomfortable for those believers.  Science isn’t in the business of making people feel comfortable with their beliefs.  Thats the role of religion.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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9 Responses to Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

  1. scottk says:

    This is a great post, Brian. I agree with your last point about teaching as much science as possible, but I think that would ideally be paired with little or no religious instruction, aside from in a “comparative religions” sense. The reason for this is, which Dawkins has pointed out, is that religion actively undermines the scientific enterprise by teaching children that blind faith is a virtue. It seems like a great disservice to children to say “believe in the virgin birth because this ancient book says it happened” on Sunday, then on Monday teach that theories must be supported by data, etc.

    On Einstein being religious: I think the best collection of quotes and letter excerpts that make his nonreligious position extremely clear are in Hitchens' “The Portable Atheist,” which is definitely worth checking out.

    Oh, and not that it matters for the points you raised, but the famous add-up-the-begats age of the Earth given by Ussher is about 6000 years, not 8000.

  2. Kyle says:

    I am a friend of a few of your former students and you commented on a picture that I was tagged in and now through the wonders of Facebook and the internet I am now multiple pages deep into your bog (which I find interesting and that it contains more religious content than I was expecting).

    I don't know if you can even read these posts (or if you will) but I just have a general question for you. You are clearly anti-religion but would consider someone to be a “bad” or “lesser” person because they believe in religion?

  3. bblais says:

    Hello Kyle, Yes I do read these comments, and encourage more. It gets me motivated to write more (I realize that my blog has been languishing for a few months…hope to fix that soon).

    To your question, I generally reserve the word 'bad' for actions, not beliefs. When the Catholic Church preaches the sins of condom use in AIDS-devastated Africa but hides priest pedophiles from the law, that is bad.

    Am I judgmental towards people who have a religious persuasion, perhaps, but no more so for people who believe in astrology or the effectiveness of power-balance bracelets. They are all examples of poor critical thinking. In some cases, it is because the person has either not thought about it a lot, or has been deceived. After a certain point, there is a self-deception that kicks in that is very difficult to break, because of the resources (intellectual, moral, and otherwise) that the person has sunk into the belief. It is very difficult to admit that you've been wrong, or fooled, or mistaken. Although one should be understanding in these cases, it shouldn't deter you from promoting the correct thinking, the correct information, the correct conclusions.

    There are other cases where someone is deliberately ignoring evidence, slanting or distorting evidence, and lying about it. I have no tolerance for that, but I wouldn't have tolerance in other (non-religious) contexts with the same behavior. For a good example of this from religious people you can look at the Kitzmiller-vs-Dover School Board final judges report.

    So, what do you think?

  4. Kyle says:

    I think that you make very valid points. I totally agree that science and religion are incompatible for the most part and that religion should not be taught in any science classes. I do however believe that it should be taught objectively in history classes. Religion has played (and still does play) a major role in shaping the world we live in today and it is important for other people to have knowledge of religion and understand what they believe (however, it is not the place of the education system to say why they believe).

    I also completely agree with your point of wanting to show people the truth. If you truly believe that their is no higher power and that everybody else is ruining their lives with religion, you should absolutely attempt to promote the truth. However, the same can be said for the other side as well.

    However, in the end I cannot completely agree with you because because I have been corrupted. I do believe in God but our differences go far beyond whether or not we believe in a higher power. What I see as true happiness, what I see as the true meaning of life, what I see as the good and bad aspects of soceity is completely different than yours. I am afraid that in the end you are judging something which you may not completely understand (as am I).

    I'm glad we had this little chat. It is always important to discuss the things that matter the most in life (something which many are afraid to do). All I wish for you is to find true happiness in life and to wish a better life for those around you.

  5. bblais says:

    It's fine to teach religion as culture, there never has been an issue with that. It's the people who take it seriously that are the problem. So, to you Kyle, I have two followup questions for you:

    1) what do you mean by “God”, in the way that you use it?
    2) what evidence do you have to support this belief?

    I guess, as another followup, you state “What I see as true happiness, what I see as the true meaning of life, what I see as the good and bad aspects of soceity is completely different than yours.”

    3) what do you see as true happiness?
    4) what do you see as the good and bad that is *completely* different from what I see?

    I think points 1 and 2 are the first things to answer, and then we can move on to the hard questions. 🙂

  6. Kyle says:

    To be honest, I find your your second sentence to be quite insulting. I have not called atheists “a problem” at all in this discussion, yet you have called people who do “take [religion] seriously” to be a problem. If you really do believe that people who are religious “are a problem” then your fourth question does not need to be answered for your statement has already answered it for you.

    I don't think I can answer questions one and two for a simple reason. My belief comes from personal experiences, experiences that I am unwilling to share on a public blog to a man I have never actually met (sorry).

    As for the second set of questions:
    I believe that true happiness is not attained through wealth, knowledge, prestige, fame, scholastic or athletic accolades (i think you get the point). To me true happiness is only achieved through one simple way, love.

    Regarding the fourth question, I may have been loose in my worlds. I'm sure that we agree on many things but the reason I said completely was this. I find many aspects of modern science to be frivolous. For example, I don't really care how big the universe is. I am not happier because of that knowledge. My life is no better, nor my parents or my future children. While on the other hand, I am sure that you find that to be quite fascinating and of fairly high importance. For me, in the end I don't see how it benefits humanity. I would much rather see that time and intellect spent on pursuing ways to improve global living standards, protect the environment, create a better education system, etc…

    I certainly do not mean to belittle your intelligence (or use of it). From what I have heard through stories is that you are one of the most intelligent professors at the school and I am sure that you are far more intelligent than myself.

    What I see as good in society:
    Very little anymore, we are more focused on our jobs, houses, achievements, than the thing that really matters, our loved ones. We use technology to alienate ourselves (there are many good purposes too, just not nearly as utilized as the bad ones). I could go on, but again, I think you get the point.

    Sorry I couldn't answer all of your questions but I would rather you think me a complete idiot and a fool than divulge my life story. Lastly, if you really do see me and my faith as “a problem” then I am sorry to say that I wish to end our friendly discussion. I would never attempt to overtly disrespect someone for the sake of a friendly discussion. Enjoy your day!

  7. bblais says:

    (comment in 3 parts…the response was too big… 🙂 )

    “”” On May 26, 2011, at 2:16 PM, Kyle wrote:

    To be honest, I find your your second sentence to be quite insulting. I have not called atheists “a problem” at all in this discussion, yet you have called people who do “take [religion] seriously” to be a problem.
    “””

    there are two responses I want to make to this. first, my main point was that the problems that arise as a result of religion are not due to their being taught as simply cultural constructs, but are because they are taught as truth. that is what I mean by the problem with religion. You already agreed that there are problems with religion, although I would wager we'd disagree on some of the specifics. thus, there is no reason for being insulted. there was perhaps a better way to express it, now that I read it over again. I was thinking about it as two groups of people: those who treat religion as culture and those that treat it as truth, with the latter being where the problems occur. It's not the *people* that are the core problem, it is the belief that is the problem.

    second, even if I had meant it to mean that people themselves who are religious are a problem, one should be able to state this, present evidence, and it shouldn't matter if someone is offended by the claim. the question is whether the claim is *true*, not whether it is offensive. Just to be clear, I am not making this claim. It is primarily the beliefs that are the problem. more on this down below.

    “””
    I don't think I can answer questions one and two for a simple reason. My belief comes from personal experiences, experiences that I am unwilling to share on a public blog to a man I have never actually met (sorry).
    “””

    fine. what I was trying to get at is that specific beliefs matter. if you're a deist, simply believing in a creator that started the universe and has been hands-off ever since, then that is one thing. if you're a creationist, who believes that the God of Abraham created the world literally in 6 days, 6000 years ago, then that is a very different thing. Saying “I believe in God” doesn't say a whole lot…what do you actually believe? Would you call yourself a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, none of the above, etc…?

    “””
    As for the second set of questions:
    I believe that true happiness is not attained through wealth, knowledge, prestige, fame, scholastic or athletic accolades (i think you get the point). To me true happiness is only achieved through one simple way, love.
    “””

    I'd prefer to use the word compassion here, motivated more from the Buddhist traditions, but I agree with the basic idea. There is a value, I believe, it trying to achieve a self-transcendent peace which forms the basis of a compassionate outlook. Like Sam Harris, I don't believe that one needs to believe something on insufficient evidence to achieve this.

  8. bblais says:

    “””
    Regarding the fourth question, I may have been loose in my worlds. I'm sure that we agree on many things but the reason I said completely was this. I find many aspects of modern science to be frivolous. For example, I don't really care how big the universe is. I am not happier because of that knowledge. My life is no better, nor my parents or my future children. While on the other hand, I am sure that you find that to be quite fascinating and of fairly high importance. For me, in the end I don't see how it benefits humanity. I would much rather see that time and intellect spent on pursuing ways to improve global living standards, protect the environment, create a better education system, etc…
    “””

    There are several things I could say about this. People are notoriously horrible at predicting which lines of intellectual pursuits will yield real practical results (i.e. direct benefits to humanity). For example, in the late 1800's there was some work done on some pretty obscure mathematical concepts in wave mechanics. At the time there were very few practical results foreseen from this work, if any. However, it later became the foundation for telecommunications, which arguably makes up the bulk of the global economy today. There are many examples like this. That's why it's always good to have basic research funded well, even if it seems frivolous at the time.

    Knowledge matters, no matter what it is. Your example about how you don't care how big the universe is, for instance. Let's look at a couple of contrasting beliefs, and their consequences to things like protecting the environment, something you state is important. Person A believes that the world was created specifically for humans, 6000 years ago, and that this creator is making sure things are going along well for his followers (i.e. granting miracles, giving guidance, etc…) Person B believes that the Jesus is going to come again in this lifetime, and the world will end in glory. Person C knows how big the universe really is. This means that person C realizes that 1) the Earth is a relatively small place and 2) there isn't anywhere else we can go if things get messed up here. Which person do you think would be most willing to make difficult decisions to protect the environment for the next, say, 200-300 years?

    There are benefits to “frivolous” science. One benefit is in critical thinking, no matter what the topic. Another benefit is the philosophical placement of humans in the grander scheme of things. This can have direct *practical* effects on humanity, and its future. On any topic, truth beats untruth.

  9. bblais says:

    “””
    What I see as good in society:
    Very little anymore, we are more focused on our jobs, houses, achievements, than the thing that really matters, our loved ones. We use technology to alienate ourselves (there are many good purposes too, just not nearly as utilized as the bad ones). I could go on, but again, I think you get the point.
    “””

    My list would include the valuing of stuff over people, and the overemphasis on sex in our culture, targeted at younger and younger kids. I'd also add to the list a growing anti-intellectual movement (e.g. Sarah Palin) which in my opinion is exceptionally dangerous.

    “””
    I would rather you think me a complete idiot and a fool than divulge my life story.
    “””

    All people are irrational, to some degree (me included)! I have many religious friends, my wife is Catholic, and I don't immediately think someone an idiot for believing. The goal is to try to recognize where one is irrational, and try to offset it with critical, rational thinking and dialogue.

    “””
    if you really do see me and my faith as “a problem”
    “””

    The problem I'm most concerned with, in general, is poor thinking on any topic. I have posts about Power-Balance bracelets, UFOs, alternative medicine, as well as religion. The problem that religion has, is it supports certain types of thinking that are antithetical to rational thinking: reliance on authorities, being satisfied with claims despite the lack of evidence, and the complete lack of any process for self-correction. It is these fundamental problems with thinking that I think lead to dangerous results, especially in a technology-dependant society and exceptionally dangerous when it is mixed with nuclear weapons.

    Finally, I think I may have bumped into one of the taboos in this society that helps keep this engine of non-rational thinking going. If I were to say that the democrats were the problem (and you happened to be a democrat), you'd come back to me with evidence of how either the democrats are good or how the republicans are bad. If I were to say that Patriots fans are ridiculous, then you'd come back with stats on the Patriots, and against my team. However, the second one says that the Catholics are a problem, or that religion is dangerous, it's taken as an insult. Part of it might be that, by criticizing religion, it is taken as a denial of the very real experiences that people have which they attribute to religion. I am perfectly fine accepting the experiences, I just believe there is most likely a more Earth-bound explanation of them. I also accept that these experiences may be quite valuable, but that they don't lend credence to any particular religion.

    I hope this helps clear up some of my perspective on this.

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