Science and religion do not get along


I’ve frequently heard and read the opinion that science and religion are compatible – after all there are plenty of religious scientists, and, anyway, isn’t belief in religion ultimately the same as belief in science?

I’ve concluded that they’re not compatible – neither fundamentally nor conceptually. I think when people argue for compatibility they are mostly arguing for social cohesion. After all, most people have religious beliefs, and science and its products are very prevalent in almost every society – so it’s an intolerable situation if the two can’t sit alongside each other. So when people say the two are not opposed, I think it’s mostly a wish for social harmony – a need for social compatibility. While that is (maybe) a laudable aim, I don’t think that the two spheres can be reconciled conceptually.

I’ve often heard the argument – and I’m sure many others have – which goes along the following lines: “Well you believe in science – and I believe in God – so you can’t claim any priority for your belief over mine – we are both in the same boat – you depend on belief just as much as I do.” This is usually accompanied by a smug smile – and an almost audible “Gotcha on that one!”

But religious belief and belief in science are not analogous, or even similar. The comparison is both glib and bogus.

Firstly religious faith is not based on the gathering of empirical evidence, nor on a process as follows – the generation of hypotheses and theories based on a methodical and systematic gathering of data – theories which are then tested to see if they are replicable, theories which are then either refuted or refined – ie the basic approach of the scientific method.

I think most people of religious faith would not claim that empirical evidence is essential to their faith – and many argue that no empirical evidence is necessary at all. Faith is essentially a commitment – and usually allows that there are things that cannot in principle be known, but that these unknowables do not undermine religious commitment and faith that some things are true. (ie if God, as commonly held, exists outside of time and space, empirical evidence could hardly be considered relevant to belief in him.) Yes religious believers will sometimes adduce empirical evidence to support their case, but even then evidence does not characterize religious faith – it is not an essential underpinning, even if it is sometimes brought in to boost an argument.

In science it is very different. Empirical evidence is the foundation of science – as is testing, replicability and falsifiability. It claims no certainty (outside the realms of pure logic and maths).  Yes, science posits theories and hypotheses – but the notion of a theory that could in principle never be tested by evidence makes no sense within science. These are the main thrusts of science – whereas the main thrust of religious belief is a commitment to belief without the necessity for empirical evidence.

Belief in science is based on certain assumptions – I would argue a “realist” stance toward the universe (in philosophical terms): the assumption that the universe exists whether we know it, or are conscious of it, or not. Yes, that is vulnerable to radical scepticism: how do we know we are not dreaming, or that our experiences are not produced by the manipulation of our brain in a vat? We don’t know for certain, ultimately, (although certain things have to exist even to pose those questions of course) but we proceed in a methodical way, acknowledging that assumption – an assumption that chimes with our common-sense apprehension of a really existing world around us. Science then proceeds with its axioms, logic and methods in a rigorously controlled exploration of the universe – but, crucially, by never claiming absolute certainty for any of its conclusions, because of the possibility that the radical sceptic might be right.

Science does assume a fact of the matter – but doesn’t claim it has absolutely established the fact of the matter. It might claim that some theories are closer to the fact of the matter than others – since they accord better with known evidence – but again there is always a caution in science  – never a claim of perfect knowledge. There can be no absolute certainty about a belief in science. (The fact that scientists make mistakes, and that some do make bogus claims to certainty, does not negate this – individual scientists are of course fallible, this doesn’t therefore mean that the scientific process is not sound.)

Religious belief does not proceed in this way: if it did, we would have serious religious authorities testing the possibility of a return from death after three days, ready to refute their own beliefs if this could not be re-created under scientifically controlled conditions. Nor does religious belief acknowledge the challenge and limitations of radical scepticism – as science does – by never asserting complete certainty: rather religious belief tends to embrace both the unknown and certainty at the same time, seeing no contradiction or problem there. Most people of religious faith claim to know that certain things are facts – ie the existence of God, or the resurrection.

The strength of science is based on its predictive and explanatory power. It has been remarkably successful in both fields over the past several centuries – if it hadn’t been, it would long have been abandoned. And of course, it has increasingly posited well-tested theories in areas which have long been the province of religion – for example, the beginning of the universe, and the existence of moral behaviour among humans.

As I see it, science is gradually replacing the authority of religion with well-developed theories – that are drawn from evidence and rational argument. I think this process will continue. The old saw about religion being able to explain the “why” while science can explain the “how” is completely erroneous in my view. Science is far better placed to answer why questions – see, for example, the whys of human behaviour – than religion is – viz. the powerful analytical tools offered by, for example, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, plain ole psychology and sociology.

So the two are different, not analogous.

Religious doctrine in my view is largely parable and myth – stories developed in the past, when we didn’t have a methodical process to explore the universe, in order to explain things like the beginning of life and the roots of morality – and to inspire desired conduct.

There IS a parallel in that both science and religion attempt to explain life and the universe – but they do it in totally different ways.  And here I have to depart from the philosopher Paul Boghossian’s argument, in his excellent “Fear of Knowledge,” that Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine were actually taking a fundamentally similar approach to knowledge.

Bellarmine was the church’s representative – and the church eventually forced Galileo to recant the theories he had derived from his observations using a telescope. One of those theories was that the earth orbited the sun, rather than vice versa. Boghossian argues that they were both using a method based on evidence – Galileo on empirical observation, Bellarmine on evidence from the Scriptures – so therefore there wasn’t a paradigm difference between them. But I’d argue, as above, that in fact there was – since their method of gathering evidence, and the foundation that was built on, are so radically different. Science, ultimately, is not based on the word of an authority, it’s based on exploration of evidence. Bellarmine was basing his theory on authority, without any exploration – at least not beyond the words of the authority. There was no notion of testing the authority with outside evidence with Bellarmine.

So the two, in my view, are not compatible or analogous. Mostly, in Western societies we keep them apart – although there are clashes – for instance when education boards in the US argue that the theory of evolution should only be given equal credence to Genesis. In other countries science is severely curtailed and held back because of religious sensitivities (and to be fair, the same has happened in secular dictatorships like the Soviet Union (viz suppression of genetic research by Stalin) and Nazi Germany – hardly surprising given the totally unscientific belief in the superiority of the Aryan race).

So overall it’s an uncomfortable subject – and most people I sense would prefer to let things lie – but when there are clashes it is serious – since it’s crucial for, say, public policy, what kind of principles and evidence we use to decide how we should live. And when science contradicts religion in these matters, we should pay more attention to science.


Additional note:

After reading Rebecca Goldstein’s splendid novel “36 Arguments for the existence of God,” I’m aware of some additional arguments relating to the above. Namely – isn’t the scientist committed to a faith in reason and logic? We all have to make use of reason and logic even to posit an argument – but the religious person can be more comfortable since he/she acknowledges a debt to faith, while the scientist doesn’t?

But again – are these faiths actually similar? For one thing reason and logic patently work  in the world we experience – they are used with predictable and definite results in a systematic way. They enable us to apply knowledge to the world and to achieve results – as science has done for centuries. In other words, faith in reason is backed up by substantial and consistent evidence. Is faith in God, or his existence similar to this? It hardly seems so. They are very different: one is a tool or medium for achieving empirical results and to convey arguments and ideas. The other is essentially a commitment to the existence of something existing outside of empirical knowledge. It’s hard to see it as some kind of systematic tool of thought. Once again, it is divorced from a procedural method falsifiable by contradiction or the failure of empirical results. Contradictions are not inherently anathema to faith in God – ultimately there is a mystery. And empirical results, as above, hardly seem to be the foundational testing of faith in God.

Thirdly, the religious believer cannot reject reason without falling into absurdity – since if there was no reason to believe in any one doctrine, one could believe anything – you could not object to someone believing in Satanism or the tooth fairy, as Goldstein points out. So maybe it’s a reverse bind on the religious believer as against the scientist: both have no choice but to use reason, but that gives more problems to the religious believer, since reason has to ultimately justify religious faith. That is not a problem for the scientist, but I’d argue it’s a much more problematic road for the religious.






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