Are Religion and Science Compatible?

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It depends on who you ask. To the fundamentalist religion defines what is true, and science can only be true if it aligns with religious truth (or at least does not contradict it). To the atheist religion is false, and science is the best way to discover the truth. Then, there are the mixed types, who believe in some form of theism, but who also see the value of science when figuring out what is what. These I label religious liberals. Mostly they look to religion for moral guidance, for calm in the midst of a storm, or for encouragement. Some liberals think that science and religion should keep to themselves. And, some compatibilists are of the agnostic persuasion, which is understandable because of not having a belief or nonbelief in god, who also accept scientific knowledge.

First, I will provide an exploration of the viewpoints of these three outlooks and any problems I see with them. I will tackle them in order – the fundamentalists, the atheists, and the religious liberals. Following this I will provide my own argument for the incompatibility of science and religion with one exception. The exception is there are obviously individuals who hold both views in practice, even though I believe it is unsupported by reason and evidence.

Well, let us get going and take a look at the fundamentalists. Most fundamentalists are creationists (today intelligent design is more fashionable, but they are more or less equivalent). They believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; and as such, they accept the Genesis account of creation.* One reason they feel they must hold onto the inerrancy position is that if you allow one thing in the BIble to be not from god, then you would lose the certainty of the gospel, and their salvation would be in jeopardy. Of course, there are other reasons for not believing in the gospels anyway (more below). In Genesis god is seen to create the world in six days. Everything was created at this time on the appointed days. God rested on the seventh day (why I ask?; he mostly just spoke for six days; he did not have to any manual work). There is a second account in Genesis, but this account does not indicate the timing of creation. It has to be a second account because in the first man is created male and female together, whereas in the second Eve (the first woman) only appeared after Adam (the first man) from his rib. But, this does not seem to bother the fundamentalists; they are rather good at ignoring the inconsistencies in the BIble.

Because of their belief in the Genesis account of the Bible, they cannot accept most of the findings of modern science, not just evolution (a fact) or evolution by natural selection (a well confirmed theory†). Although most fundamentalists accept the heliocentric theory, posited in modern times by Copernicus and confirmed by Galileo, there are statements in the Bible that claim the Earth does not move. Even the acceptance of a spherical earth is contradicted by the Bible in parts, but few fundamentalists these days are flat earthers. With some fancy jostling of the text, and ignoring the beliefs of the earlier church, most fundamentalists accept both the heliocentric theory and a spherical earth.

There is more of modern science that fundamentalists (or most) deny. Astronomy has shown that stars, not to mention other galaxies are so far distant that the light from them would not have had enough time since the biblical creation account to have reached the earth. Matter of fact, modern astronomy indicates the age of the universe to be 13.7 or 13.8 billion years. This is just a wee bit off what the biblical account would indicate. Creationists usually believe that the universe and everything that has existed had a beginning some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Some fundamentalists claim that god created the stars and galaxies to only appear to be that distance, without any evidence to support this view. Plus, why would god want to deceive human beings like that. What is the point? So, fundamentalists deny the validity of the findings of modern astronomy and its theoretical cousin cosmology.

Of course, they deny evolution and evolution by natural selection. This is because the Genesis account has god creating all of life in a few days, and only these will procreate after their kind. No room for evolution here. Again, as in astronomy, the age of fossils is greater than creationism’s age range would allow. Again, they claim that god made the fossils at the same time he made the earth. But, this is without any biblical support. The Bible mentions nothing about fossils at all. There are also those creationists that quibble with radiometric dating (which uses the known decay of certain radioactive elements), but their arguments do not hold water.¹

The creationist claim for the age of the earth contradicts the findings of geology as well, so they are pretty much forced to reject the geologists’ own estimate for the age of the earth (4.5 billions years is a likely figure). Evolution and geology come together when the placement of fossils in the geological strata is considered. In fact it was this placement that help geology organize the different strata. We only find certain fossils in certain strata, so that a particular strata can be identified by the kinds of fossils we find in them.

In fact it was this placement that help geology organize the different strata. It was found that only certain fossils where found in certains strata (as just mentioned), so you could find out the order of strata from looking at the age of the fossils. There is a big connection between evolution and geology, which is one of the strongest evidences for evolution. You never find any earlier fossils in a later strata, and vice-a-versa. If there was ever found such an anomaly, it would put evolution in serious question. But, this has never occurred.

So, the fundamentalists cannot accept a large part of what modern science has shown us. All most all will accept the spherical earth, and a little less than most will accept the heliocentric theory (by my own estimates). None, or very little will accept evolution (either fact or theory). Because fossils play such a central role in geology in understanding the different strata, geology is probably not accepted by some or most. They will not in general accept astronomy’s findings and cosmological theory, which includes the big bang.‡ It is amazing that they should accept anything. Most fundamentalist will take advantage of modern medicine, which is becoming more and more reliant on genetics, which is part of the modern synthesis of evolution by natural solution, so they appear to hold contradictory views, which they probably are not even aware of (if evolution is false, then the use of genetics in medicine makes no sense).

Concluding, for the fundamentalists almost the whole of science is not compatible with their religious beliefs. Possibly, they even have issues with the scientific method itself. Their claims that science is false is born out in their behavior. Their current fight against evolution is in the production of high school biology texts, where they work to have evolution excised or give it very little coverage. Besides a few prominent ministers, most fundamentalist support the science deniers of global warming and its related climate change. Many home school their children or send them to religious schools, where they are shielded from most of science and critical thinking.^

So, let us look at the atheist. Atheists are not monolithic. They fall into different nonexclusive categories. These categories fall into different domains. The most important domain (in my opinion) is in knowledge claims. There are two categories in this type of atheism. There is the atheist who claims that there are no gods; these are called gnostic atheists. The other category in this domain is the agnostic atheist; this type of atheist does not see any evidence for god, hence their unbelief, but they do not make the knowledge claim that there are no gods like the gnostic atheists do.

The other domain I see, that holds some importance, it is atheists’ attitudes toward believers. There are what I call the live and let live atheist. There are also within this category those who try to convince believers to ditch their belief (could you call these evangelical atheists). Then, there are those that are active in promoting the needs of atheists in general; they are active in atheistic causes, like ensuring the separation of church and state in the United States. Finally,  there are those that actively work to bring about the demise of religion. Within this last category would be your atheist terrorist, but I have not personally heard of any of these people doing despicable acts for the atheist cause. More sanely, there are scientists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins that I think could be described as this last type of atheist.

[For my part I do claim there are not any gods, and I am of the live and let live variety. However, I do speak up if only semi-privately against believers who actually harm others and may speak out when I see a believer whose beliefs are clearly a detriment to his or her own well-being.]

But, do all atheists think that religion is incompatible with science? Probably not. But, some I think could take the compatibilist view, and they would tend to be agnostic atheists with a live and let live attitude. For the most part I am going to delay further discussion until the final section where I cover my own viewpoint. What can be said now is that (again) almost all atheists support science and would agree to the validity of well tested theories. The exceptions would be some existentialists and postmodernists. Some older generation atheists (like Marx or Machiavelli) may see the utility of religion in keeping people in line. But, today we know that morality is quite acceptable without religion.

Now, I come to the religious liberals. These believers if Christians, do not take the inerrancy of the Bible track. I suppose liberal Muslims pick and choose what they will believe that is in the Koran. And, those of the Judaic faith have a considerable population of religious liberals, including some who are on the orthodox branch (mostly what are called modern orthodox Jews).

What is important to these liberals in their religion are of several kinds. One group practices what is known as the social gospel. Salvation is not of supreme importance in this form of religion. They take those parts of the Bible that speak of serving the poor and make it their focus for practicing their religion. These people seek to do good works by helping those in need. These are for the most part admirable believers. They often do not attach any religious teaching to those they serve. This is unlike fundamentalists who actively seek to convert those they intend to help; after all the soul is still what is most important for these believers, not the body. Because of their limiting of the biblical message to social issues these religious liberals do not in general have any issues with science. To them science is compatible with their religion.

Then, there are your scientists who also believe to one degree or the other. Some like Francis Collins of NIH are committed Christians. Thankfully, this does not interfere, as far as I know, with the way he practices science. But, there are others who could be described as deist. This is they believe in a creator god, which then goes on to have no interaction with the universe which he/she/it created. They accept science as the best way to investigate the universe, even if it all got its start from some such god or goddess. One scientist who is a hard nut to crack open as far as his beliefs in god are concerned is Albert Einstein. He once stated, “god did not play dice with the universe.” He said this because he could not accept the randomness inherent in the quantum world. He also sees the practicing of science as an act of spirituality. These things and a few others, including the rejection of a biblical god, indicate a belief in a deist type god at most. There are scientists like Stephen Jay Gould who claimed separate spheres for science and religion. What his personal beliefs were I have not read. So scientists appear to run the gamut between committed believer of a theistic religion to deist or some other vague belief in a god. There is also the Spinoza type of god that equates god with the universe as a whole (Einstein may indeed crack open here).

And then you have theists who see no reason to exclude scientific knowledge. They are quite happy living with their personal beliefs in god, and have no issues with the findings of science, including evolution. Even the Catholic Church has accepted  evolution as an explanation of life on earth. They only reserve the soul, which their god implants into human beings at least by birth. Historically, the Catholic Church did not necessitate life beginning at conception, which is now the accepted doctrine, hence their opposition to some forms of modern contraception.

And finally, there are the religious liberals that think religion is required to provide moral guidance. Somehow without god to provide a moral sphere morally good actions by human beings is not possible. They look to such things like the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule to give moral rules. What they do not necessarily recognize is that almost all civilizations in the past have developed the same rules, maybe most with deities to support them, but not all are given such backing. So to these believers they cannot imagine that morally good actions are possible without any sanction from a deity, but yet again they see nothing wrong with accepting the whole of modern science.

So, what do I think? Not that what I think is what you should think. But, you may give it some thought. Okay, I am an incompatibilist as stated earlier. There are a number of reasons I hold this position. I will take them in turn, but here they are in brief. One, religion and science use different epistemologies. This is they have different kinds of evidence they allow for their beliefs to be justified. Two, science excludes any reason for god to be as more and more domains once thought to be the provenance of religion come under the reign of science. This is the god of the gaps argument, that has failed again and again. Three, there is no valid argument or valid evidence to support the truth of religions at all. And four, religion is not necessary for moral guidance.

First, what is epistemology? It is basically theories of what we can know and how we can know it. The most common definition of knowledge in this field of philosophy is “justified true belief.” This basically means for something to count as knowledge you must belief something, and this belief needs to be justified by some form of evidence or coherent reason or both, and finally what is believed has to be true. All three of these components can be challenged by one counterexample or another, most of which fall under “the Gettier problem.” But, with enough qualifications this definition of knowledge works reasonably well, which might be all we can hope for. And then, “truth” has its own set of problems. Most philosophers will settle on what aligns with reality, or describes what the universe is in fact like.

So, with this bit of discussion on knowledge, I will focus on the evidence/reason aspect of belief justification. Science accepts only such evidence as can be called empirical. This is it is connected with what can be experienced or established experimentally. Experiments are the best guide here because it allows for a control environment in which to investigate one variable, or in some cases more than one variable. But, experience is nothing to sneeze at either. If you want to know if it is raining outside, you go and have the experience of looking out the window in appropriate lighting.

There are two major differences between scientific and religious knowledge. The first is that religion (or some kind of belief in a deity or deities) has no experimental evidence for it that has stood the test of replication and peer review, while the opposite is the case for scientific knowledge. Replication is important to show that the first experiment was not a fluke. Most replication experiments today usually focus on some aspect of the original experiment instead of a carbon copy. Peer review is important to assess an experiment’s validity in methods and analysis. This process is designed to hopefully weed the bad experiments out from the good ones and make the scientific garden look pretty. Religious beliefs just do not have this kind of scientific support; therefore, in this respect science is not compatible with religion. There is no valid scientific reason to belief.

However, the believer will try to rely on experience as evidence for her or his beliefs. “I have experience the power of pray.” “God has change my life.” “I experience the holy spirit.” “I feel the presence of god.” By these experiences or those like them, the believer will claim that they have all the evidence they need. Okay it is an experience. But, the problem here is that it is a subjective experience. These are experiences that only the individual who is experiencing it has access to. But, for experience to count as valid it must be at least intersubjective, which when enough people have this experience we usually allow that the experience as an objective fact. Or it is possible to have such backing. Well, what if there is a group who all claim that they have experienced the presence of god or are moved by the holy spirit. These experiences do occur, especially in the fundamentalist pentecostalist churches. However, are these experience really intersubjective? I think not. For everyone is experiencing these events in their own way. And, these experiences are often called ineffable (something that is literally indescribable). The experiences are too varied or are not described in a coherent way to count as intersubjective. It is unlike two people looking out the window to see if it is raining. They see the exact same thing—rain if it is indeed raining. For an experience to count it must be of an empirical nature. This is it must describe something about the world that can be gained from our five senses. These religious experiences do not have this kind of backing. One final fact that I am somewhat reluctant to state is the phenomenon of mass hysteria.

Another aspect of the difference in epistemology of the the scientific and religious outlooks is coherent reasoning. Coherent reasoning is about consistency and the elimination of contradictions. Scientific reasoning strives for coherency. Religious reasoning is inherently incoherent. All known concepts of god have either inconsistencies or are out and out contradictory.

As can be seen from my discussion of the differences between the epistemologies of science and religion, they are clearly at odds with one another. The two do not match up. Therefore, I claim that religion and science are incompatible as far as their separate epistemologies are concerned.

Next, I will discuss the god of the gaps, and how it points to the incompatibility between science and religion. This will be much shorter than the epistemological section. At one time it was fashionable to declare that god was necessary because you could not explain how something could arise without god’s causation and design. God was thought to be needed as a cause for things to happen or appear, and he (by then god was thought of as exclusively male) was needed to design the complicated things of nature. The first theory to really put these notions to flight was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. God was no longer needed for living creatures and plants to exist. Since then, the god of the gaps argument has been fighting a rearguard action. More and more the need for god as an explanation became less and less, until it became reasonable to reject this approach to the proof of god’s existence.

So, the god of the gaps argument is eliminated, killed off by science. So, science leaves no room for god in the natural world, and what is left is the dubious world of the supernatural for which no valid evidence or argument can be call in to support it, which is actually the third reason that science and religion are incompatible.

There is no evidence of what can be called objective or intersubjective (see above for more on these) that counts when we are talking about evidence that indicates a god that exists. And, there is certainly not any empirical evidence of the scientific kind that supports the existence of a deity. There are those that maintain that a scientific proof of god’s existence would not count as evidence for god. They claim that this would take away the supernatural aspect, which seems so integral to any definition of god, except for maybe Spinoza’s type of god (that god and the universe are the same). Although, there maybe some that would claim that god is both natural and supernatural. But, it is god’s supernaturality that needs the evidence that does not seem to be or could even be exhibited by science.

As for any rational (or logical) proofs of god’s existence, there is not one that holds water at the end of the day (sorry, no water for your nightly expresso). The ontological proof, which claims that for a perfect being to be posited it must include its own existence. This is just the thought of a perfect being leads one to its existence. The most common argument against this proof is that existence is not a predicate. You cannot state “something is is.” I also think it begs the question. Your assuming the very thing you are trying to prove. And, then as proof of god’s existence, it is just assumed that this being would be god.

The cosmological set of arguments, one of which is that everything has a cause, but there must be something that has no cause, which acts as a first cause. First, it contradicts itself. If everything must have a cause there can be no first cause. Second, while everything we know has a cause in the sense of its being determined, this does not mean that everything must have a cause. For all we no the universe may have had no cause, yet still be fully determined. Finally, there is no logical necessity of avoiding an infinite regress.

While the argument from design is not a deductive proof, it is still an inductive one, which still may be included in the logical set of proofs. Unless you allow for an incompetent god, this obviously fails because nature is chock full of imperfections (see Why Deism Is Not the Answer?  for some of these imperfections). Natural selection will accept anything that works, it does not have to meet some impossible perfection standard.

And, as a counter-argument to god’s existence, there is the problem of evil. This is only an argument against an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing god. But, this is the god that is most popularly argued for and the type of god most theists desire to exist. I do not really like the term “evil” because it already has connotations with god’s existence. Let us just say bad things happen. An all-good god would desire that these bad things would not occur, and being an all-powerful god should be able to prevent them. And, being an all-knowing god should be aware of all the consequences the universe it has created would have, including the happening of bad things. It just does not logically add up: 1 + 1 + 1 ≠ 1.

So, there is no logical proof for god’s existence. The ontological, cosmological, and design arguments all fail for one reason or another, and they also fail for more than just one reason. And, the problem of evil throws a wrench into the whole of the god’s existence thing. This fact along with the evidential issues makes the claim for the incompatibility of science and religion a strong one.

Finally, I come to the separate spheres for religion and science based on morality. Again, I think the reality of morality does not support this compatibility. First, biblical morality on a whole is not very attractive. Sure, there are things like golden rule and the last half of the Ten Commandments, but god is an ugly character not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. One example from both will suffice, but there is plenty more that you can find in them. In the Old Testament god wants most of the inhabitants of Canaan exterminate in act after act of ethnic cleansing. Most people were horrified when this occurred in the former Yugoslavia. In the New Testament if you are unwilling to believe on practically no evidence at all or have never heard of Jesus at all, you are condemned to eternal punishment often described as a place of fire. Burning people for an eternity is not very nice. So, the claim that the Bible is necessary for moral rules and guidelines for behavior is false, unless you are willing to accept “do as I say not as I do,” and only parents can say this, and since god did not create anything god cannot be considered a parent.

There is something called the divine command theory in ethics, which is not necessarily based on the Bible. It is more or less a philosophical position. This theory says that what is moral or not is given by god. Without it we are cut adrift and are only able to act as we please. Along with the rules it is also has god providing punishment and reward for morally bad and morally good behavior respectively. The first thing wrong here is that is something good because god says it is, or is it good and god then sanctions it? If the first you have a moral dictator who could call anything good or bad as he or she would desire. If the second, than we do not need god’s sanction; it is independent of god. And, if the reason you behave well is to get rewarded or avoid punishment, can these behaviors really be call acting morally good. I say it is saving you butt or passing Go and getting two hundred dollars.

So, a biblical god or a god of any sacred scripture is not required for good moral behavior, and may in fact be a bad way of learning what is good to do or not. And, the divine command theory fails on two counts. Given these two things, you lose any relevant argument for god being involved in morality at all. Best to leave god out of any ethical consideration, if you entertain these notions at all.

Well, then how do we determine what counts as morally good behavior. It begins with moral feelings. The main one of which is empathy. Humans have a natural capacity to care about others. And, we are also not cut adrift without some morally reasonable concepts to guide us. There is the concept of harm. We should avoid what causes harm to others (this may also include other animals) and work to prevent harm if it is in our power to do so. Another useful concept is that of enhancing the flourishing of life (again this may also include other animals). Both moral feelings and the capacity to reason about right and wrong amounts to moral subjectivism (see What is Moral Subjectivism About? for a more detailed discussion of this view of ethics from my perspective). Fortunately, most humans have similar moral feelings and moral reasoning abilities. This does not make it perfect. But, I think this asks to much. This is another reason why god based morality fails—it seeks perfection where there is none to be had.

Okay, morality cannot be successfully tied to religion, and a secular morality is both workable to a good degree, and it is the best we can hope for. So, once again, looking at morality we can see an incompatibility between religion and science.

I have looked at four aspects to the religion and science compatibility issue. To summarize science and religion operate under differing epistemologies; the god of the gaps argument shows the bankruptcy of using god to somehow fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge (i.e. it has continuously failed over and over again); the fact that there is no valid evidence or argument for the existence of god; and the failure of religion to give a good model of morality. Based on these four conclusions I think it is reasonable to claim that religion and science are incompatible. I am only claiming reasonability here for I do not think I have offered a full proof argument for my own conclusion. But, I do claim that it is beyond reasonable doubt at this point, therefore it is reasonable to hold this conclusion. Thus, I believe that religion and science are incompatible.

 

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Compatible?

 

¹ Although dated, Science and Creationism has good arguments in it that refuted the creationist claims. The chapter “Scientific Creationism Versus Evolution: The Mislabeled Debate” has a good rebuttal of creationists’ arguments against radiometric dating.

* However, a literal interpretation would allow for other preexisting gods and an unformed something. So, god is not singular, and the question of creation ex nihilo (from nothing) is up for further examination.

† Only special and general relativity and quantum field theory are better confirmed. I should mention that a theory in science is not some scheme just thrown out there. At one point it was a hypothesis, which needed the backing of experimental evidence. But, once enough evidence, and no falsification having been found via experimentation, a hypothesis gains the status of a theory. Theories that have past these tests are thought of as true, granted that it is subject to future falsification. Because of this some say that the theory is provisionally true, but I see no necessity to label well-confirmed theories as such.

‡ The big bang is somewhat of a misnomer. The name was coined by Fred Alan Wolf who was a steady-state theory proponent. {What we can calculate is not a big bang, but what occurred when the universe was at the Planck length and Planck time. The Planck length is equal to 1.6 x 10-35 meters (http://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae281.cfm). This is a decimal point followed by 35 zeros then the numerals 16. The Planck time is equal to 5.39 x 10-44 seconds (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time). This is a decimal point followed by 44 zeros then the numerals 539. These are unbelievably small. A smaller distance than this and a shorter time than this is not currently calculable, and maybe presents a true theoretical limit to our knowledge, unless a theory of quantum gravity would allow smaller distances and times.

^ See If Religion Is the Truth, Why Are Certain Believers Afraid of Science and Rationalism? for why they need to shield their children from these things.

 

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