Why can’t science and religion get along?


Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.
This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward L. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation’s largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as “distinct” rather than “antagonistic domains of thought,” the former dealing with “the facts, laws and processes of nature” while the latter addressed “the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind.”

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: “[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts.”

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists’ religious views are. A scientist’s credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one’s area of research. A scientists’ attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

I agree with the Baron.

Next: Is more education the answer?

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

“Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” From another great little video clip from the TV show House.

Comments

  1. A Nonny Mouse says

    Mano,

    I think you overreach a bit with this, “The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does nothing at all.”

    Strictly speaking, science can say nothing of a god who does nothing at all (in the human observed universe) or one who has acted cosistently and constantly and is therefore emperically indistinguishable from a natural law in this same section of the universe. Both of these statements would be further subject to a restriction on the time of when believable observations are recorded.

    It is not completely impossible that there is a god that can act continuously either in changing natural law or as a natural law with only occassional changes.

  2. Kathy says

    I’d argue that absolute trust in reason (fundamentalist atheism?) is dangerous. Capital punishment can be defended on rational grounds (it’s logical to make the punishment fit the crime), as can No Child Left Behind (testing=empirical evidence). Although I can argue these issues (and do) using reason and evidence, ultimately (for me) they lie outside the empirical realm and in the realm of meaning, religion, values, love, and so on.

    Two of the most rational men to serve in recent administrations are Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. To my way of thinking, they weren’t lacking reason…They were steeped in their own arrogant “if this is so, then this is so” arguments and were lacking doubt, questions, humility, emotion, intuition, and compassion.

    Since you’re a Dickens fan, Mano, I’m wondering if you’ve read Hard Times. Your teaching style certainly doesn’t fit the villains’ mode…so that’s not what I’m suggesting…but thematically the novel juxtaposes what Dickens calls Fact and Fancy. Fact without fancy is inhuman, arrogant, and destructive.

    It’s not that atheists need to believe in God. I just object to your stated wish to eradicate not only religion, but all irrational belief. If I believe, beyond all reason or empirical evidence, that a death row inmate’s life has value, this is inseparable from my religious belief. And I don’t value his life because my religion tells me to (which it does) … I value his life because I suspect there are deeper, more lasting values than what I can reason out or prove empirically.

    It seems to me that reason provides a needed check on people’s emotions and gullibility, but the “infinite” realm that Blake refers to provides a check on human hubris.

  3. says

    I think we can trust in reason to make moral choices. The problems seem to happen more when reason isn’t fully applied. If one conveniently drops out certain facts or applies logical fallacies it is easy to come to conclusions that are morally destructive. I think when that happens it is not because someone is trying to apply logic and reason, but that someone is trying to justify and end they’ve already decided upon.

    My concern about condoning supernatural belief isn’t to stop good people from having reasons to value an inmates life (there are many logical reasons for doing so), or other good causes, but to keep people from the slippery slope that says, if it is O.K. to believe irrational thing A, then it is also O.K. to believe B, and if it is O.K. to believe A & B then perhaps A & B are relevant to public policy and we should teach them in school or ban stem cell research, etc.

    What if A is God (one of the more benevolent versions), but B is homeopathic medicine? Do we want people believing that some drug that is really nothing more than water will cure something? Should they take such an unproven medicine when a tested treatment is available?

    I guess my problem is that if A, B and C are all irrational, how can we decide that B and C are unacceptable but A is acceptable?

  4. says

    Kathy,

    Yes, I have read Hard Times and am familiar with Gradgrind. I think that values play an important part in education. But facts and reason are two different things.

    I am not arguing that rationality is sufficient. One has to have a sense of morality and ethics too. But it is only rational, reasonable people who can even hope to arrive at a consensus of things like the death penalty, because we can bring to bear ethics and morality on questions and discuss how to develop universal values of humanity. John Rawls’ attempts at creating a theory of justice outlines a program by which we can construct a just society. Religion plays no role.

    But what if someone says that cursing your parents, committing adultery, having sex with your stepmother or daughter-in-law, homosexuality, bestiality, and working on the sabbath all merit the death penalty because the Bible says so. Where does one take the conversation from there? Religion tends to be a conversation stopper, as I wrote about earlier. Richard Rorty points out that religious believers tend to think that their “moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs”, while there is no reason to think that this is so.

    It seems like you are saying that we need humane values in addition to reason and I agree with that. I just don’t see where religion is necessary for it.

  5. says

    Great post Mano. I find it a bit tiresome when people keep saying that science can not say anything about a god. It’s almost patronising to believers as well – “we’ll let you have you own delusion and won’t say anything about it!”

    I think a major problem is that when it comes to god beliefs there is usually no clear hypothesis for testing anyway. Dennett found in his interviews of Christians that when individuals in a group from the same church were asked to describe their concept of their god, everyone’s were different. And the participants were surprised at the difference – they had never discussed their concepts of their god. God beliefs seem to be very personal and consequently there is no agreed hypothesis which can be presented for testing.
    Then again there are “hypotheses” which effectively say god exists outside reality, is supernatural, and therefore outside the province of scientific investigation. But, of course, these believers somehow know – very arrogant!
    It is completely dishonest of religious believers to wish to intervene in the process of scientific investigation, using their religious beliefs, and then withhold those beliefs from scientific investigation.

  6. bob says

    @ Ken:

    In a comment to one of Mano’s older posts, someone suggested that perhaps God, like Einstein’s time, is relative.

  7. ZAR says

    Kathy, I liek hwo the percpetion spreads and you inadvertantly raise d apoitn Id liek to make.

    Atheism is not base don reaosn, its based soley on not belevng in God. Thats it.

    One can irratioanlly arrive at that conclusion, just as pen can rationally hold to beleif in God. (Unlike Mano’s misrepresentation of those who do.)

    Just as Faith is not really beleif without evidence, reason is not relaly a synonym for Atheism, nor even required for it.

    Many of Mano’s own arguments are irrational, and based on false premises.

    But many like to Lnk Atheism with reaosn, and absolute trust in reason as, as you put it, findamentalist Atheism.

    But it snot!

    One can have absolute trust in reason, and still be a Christian, as is proven by the factthat the original rationalsits who avocated absoute trust in Reaosn where themselves Christians. (Except SPinoza, who was Jewish.)

    DesCarte is a perfect example of this, a she was far form Atheistic.

    Even in modern times, not everyone who advocates the use of reason, or trumpets absolute trust in reaosn, is acutlaly an Atheist.

    Many Atheists like to pretend that Atheism is about defendign reason and ratioanlity, and it certianly gives their anti-relgioous crusade mor eluster, but in truth absolute trust in reaosn doesn’t automaticllay scure one in Atheism, just as Atjeism doesn’t automaticllay make one reaosnable.

  8. Zar says

    “I think a major problem is that when it comes to god beliefs there is usually no clear hypothesis for testing anyway.”

    This isn’t true at all, and if you’d acutlaly sit down and study the matter, you can eaisly come up with a Hypothasis or two.

    The problem is, you don’t wantot see beleif inGod as anythign but a dilusion, and htis is hwo you treat it, and its the same with Dennet.

    “Dennett found in his interviews of Christians that when individuals in a group from the same church were asked to describe their concept of their god, everyone’s were different. And the participants were surprised at the difference – they had never discussed their concepts of their god. God beliefs seem to be very personal and consequently there is no agreed hypothesis which can be presented for testing.”

    Dwennet is htus not a Sceintists, as htis is not how Science works. Science does not ask laymen to describe their beleifs about an object in order to shwo rather or not the object exists. OK, so you had some laymen in the CHurhc who disagreed on the detials of God. this means…what?

    Heck, without seeing each description, we can’t even tell how far off form eahc other htey where. Yet this is equated as evidence that God is an untestabel Hypothasis?

    I once visited an Atheist COnvention in VIrginia. Most of the “Science and reaosn” Crowd in attendance wherre not Scientists themselves. Most when I spoke ot them got evolutionary theiry wrong, and knew nothign of basic Physics.

    If I did a diliberate poll, and asked htem to describe Evolutioanry theiry, and got radiclaly different answers, woudl this invlaidate Evoluitonary theory as an unprovabke Hypothasis?

    THis is in effect what Dennet did.

    “Then again there are “hypotheses” which effectively say god exists outside reality, is supernatural, and therefore outside the province of scientific investigation.”

    Not relaly. And if you studied from Seriosu theologians you’d know this isn’t true. But dince when do I expect anoen to pick up a book written by an actual rleigiosu shcolar, its easier to misundestand the real arguments…

    ” But, of course, these believers somehow know – very arrogant!”

    Not as arrogant as thinkign you dont’ even have to study a topic before you ridicule it, and decide its false.

    “It is completely dishonest of religious believers to wish to intervene in the process of scientific investigation, using their religious beliefs, and then withhold those beliefs from scientific investigation. ”

    Which asusmes that No religiosi beleiver has ever subjected their beleifs to sicnetific inquery, and is itsself an arrogant and false presumptionon your part.

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