Science and Religion are Not Compatible

Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has recently published a book called Why Evolution is True, and started up a blog of the same name. He’s come out swinging in the science/religion debates, taking a hard line against “accomodationism” — the rhetorical strategy on the part of some pro-science people and organizations to paper over conflicts between science and religion so that religious believers can be more comfortable accepting the truth of evolution and other scientific ideas. Chris Mooney and others have taken up the other side, while Russell Blackford and others have supported Coyne, and since electrons are free there have been an awful lot of blog posts.

At some point I’d like to weigh in on the actual topic of accomodationism, and in particular on what to do about the Templeton Foundation. But there is a prior question, which some of the discussion has touched on: are science and religion actually compatible? Clearly one’s stance on that issue will affect one’s feelings about accomodationism. So I’d like to put my own feelings down in one place.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. (Here I am deviating somewhat from Coyne’s take, as I understand it.) An airplane is different from a car, and indeed if you want to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco you would take either an airplane or a car, not both at once. But if you take a car and your friend takes a plane, as long as you both end up in San Francisco your journeys were perfectly compatible. Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine an alternative universe in which science and religion were compatible — one in which religious claims about the functioning of the world were regularly verified by scientific practice. We can easily conceive of a world in which the best scientific techniques of evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing left us with an understanding of the workings of Nature which included the existence of God and/or other supernatural phenomena. (St. Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, would undoubtedly agree, as would many religious people who actually are alive.) It’s just not the world we live in. (That’s where they would disagree.)

The incompatibility between science and religion also doesn’t mean that a person can’t be religious and be a good scientist. That would be a silly claim to make, and if someone pretends that it must be what is meant by “science and religion are incompatible” you can be sure they are setting up straw men. There is no problem at all with individual scientists holding all sorts of incorrect beliefs, including about science. There are scientists who believe in the Steady State model of cosmology, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that sunspots are the primary agent of climate change. The mere fact that such positions are held by some scientists doesn’t make them good scientific positions. We should be interested in what is correct and incorrect, and the arguments for either side, not the particular beliefs of certain individuals. (Likewise, if science and religion were compatible, the existence of thousands of irreligious scientists wouldn’t matter either.)

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

But the superficial reasonableness of a claim isn’t enough to be confident that it is true. Science certainly teaches us that reality can be very surprising once we look at it more carefully, and it’s quite conceivable that a more nuanced understanding of the question could explain away what seems to be obviously laid out right in front of us. We should therefore be a little more careful about understanding how exactly a compatibilist would try to reconcile science and religion.

The problem is, unlike the non-intuitive claims of relativity or quantum mechanics or evolution, which are forced on us by a careful confrontation with data, the purported compatibility of “science” and “religion” is simply a claim about the meaning of those two words. The favored method of those who would claim that science and religion are compatible — really, the only method available — is to twist the definition of either “science” or “religion” well out of the form in which most people would recognize it. Often both.

Of course, it’s very difficult to agree on a single definition of “religion” (and not that much easier for “science”), so deciding when a particular definition has been twisted beyond usefulness is a tricky business. But these are human endeavors, and it makes sense to look at the actual practices and beliefs of people who define themselves as religious. And when we do, we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including those mentioned above — Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it. And these claims are often very important to the religions who make them; ask Galileo or Giordano Bruno if you don’t believe me.

But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead. In response, one strategy to assert the compatibility between science and religion has been to take a carving knife to the conventional understanding of “religion,” attempting to remove from its purview all of its claims about the natural world.

That would be the strategy adopted, for example, by Stephen Jay Gould with his principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, the subject of yesterday’s allegory. It’s not until page 55 of his (short) book that Gould gets around to explaining what he means by the “magisterium of religion”:

These questions address moral issues about the value and meaning of life, both in human form and more widely construed. Their fruitful discussion must proceed under a different magisterium, far older than science (at least as a formalized inquiry) and dedicated to a quest for consensus, or at least a clarification of assumptions and criteria, about ethical “ought,” rather than a search for any factual “is” about the material construction of the natural world. This magisterium of ethical discussion and search for meaning includes several disciplines traditionally grouped under the humanities–much of philosophy, and part of literature and history, for example. But human societies have usually centered the discourse of this magisterium upon an institution called “religion”…

In other words, when Gould says “religion,” what he means is — ethics, or perhaps moral philosophy. And that is, indeed, non-overlapping with the understanding of the natural world bequeathed to us by science. But it’s utterly at variance with the meaning of the word “religion” as used throughout history, or as understood by the vast majority of religious believers today. Those people believe in a supernatural being called “God” who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world. Again: I am not making this up.

Of course, nothing is to stop you, when you say the word “religion,” from having in mind something like “moral philosophy,” or perhaps “all of nature,” or “a sense of wonder at the universe.” You can use words to mean whatever you want; it’s just that you will consistently be misunderstood by the ordinary-language speakers with whom you are conversing. And what is the point? If you really mean “ethics” when you say “religion,” why not just say “ethics”? Why confuse the subject with all of the connotations that most people (quite understandably) attach to the term — God, miracles, the supernatural, etc.? If Stephen Jay Gould and the AAAS or anyone else wants to stake out a bold claim that ethics and moral philosophy are completely compatible with science, nobody would be arguing with them. The only reason to even think that would be an interesting claim to make is if one really did want to include the traditional supernatural baggage — in which case it’s a non-empty claim, but a wrong one.

If you hold some unambiguously non-supernatural position that you are tempted to refer to as “religion” — awe at the majesty of the universe, a conviction that people should be excellent to each other, whatever — resist the temptation! Be honest and clear about what you actually believe, rather than conveying unwanted supernatural overtones. Communication among human beings will be vastly improved, and the world will be a better place.

The other favorite move to make, perhaps not as common, is to mess with the meaning of “science.” Usually it consists of taking some particular religious claim that goes beyond harmless non-supernatural wordmongering — “God exists,” for example, or “Jesus rose from the dead” — and pointing out that science can’t prove it isn’t true. Strictly construed, that’s perfectly correct, but it’s a dramatic misrepresentation of how science works. Science never proves anything. Science doesn’t prove that spacetime is curved, or that species evolved according to natural selection, or that the observable universe is billions of years old. That’s simply not how science works. For some reason, people are willing to pretend that the question “Does God exist?” should be subject to completely different standards of scientific reasoning than any other question.

What science does is put forward hypotheses, and use them to make predictions, and test those predictions against empirical evidence. Then the scientists make judgments about which hypotheses are more likely, given the data. These judgments are notoriously hard to formalize, as Thomas Kuhn argued in great detail, and philosophers of science don’t have anything like a rigorous understanding of how such judgments are made. But that’s only a worry at the most severe levels of rigor; in rough outline, the procedure is pretty clear. Scientists like hypotheses that fit the data, of course, but they also like them to be consistent with other established ideas, to be unambiguous and well-defined, to be wide in scope, and most of all to be simple. The more things an hypothesis can explain on the basis of the fewer pieces of input, the happier scientists are. This kind of procedure never proves anything, but a sufficiently successful hypothesis can be judged so very much better than the alternatives that continued adherence to such an alternative (the Steady State cosmology, Lamarckian evolution, the phlogiston theory of combustion) is scientifically untenable.

Scientifically speaking, the existence of God is an untenable hypothesis. It’s not well-defined, it’s completely unnecessary to fit the data, and it adds unhelpful layers of complexity without any corresponding increase in understanding. Again, this is not an a priori result; the God hypothesis could have fit the data better than the alternatives, and indeed there are still respected religious people who argue that it does. Those people are just wrong, in precisely analogous ways to how people who cling to the Steady State theory are wrong. Fifty years ago, the Steady State model was a reasonable hypothesis; likewise, a couple of millennia ago God was a reasonable hypothesis. But our understanding (and our data) has improved greatly since then, and these are no longer viable models. The same kind of reasoning would hold for belief in miracles, various creation stories, and so on.

I have huge respect for many thoughtful religious people, several of whom I count among the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. I just think they’re incorrect, in precisely the same sense in which I think certain of my thoughtful and intelligent physicist friends are wrong about the arrow of time or the interpretation of quantum mechanics. That doesn’t mean we can’t agree about those issues on which we’re in agreement, or that we can’t go out for drinks after arguing passionately with each other in the context of a civil discussion. But these issues matter; they affect people’s lives, from women who are forced to wear head coverings to gay couples who can’t get married to people in Minnesota who can’t buy cars on Sundays. Religion can never be a purely personal matter; how you think about the fundamental nature of reality necessarily impacts how you behave, and those behaviors are going to affect other people. That’s why it’s important to get it right.

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184 Responses to Science and Religion are Not Compatible

  1. BM says:


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  2. Mike says:

    I think what you’ve done is nuanced the word “wrong” — which I like. “Wrong” shouldn’t mean absolutely 100% no way possible to be true, because we can never have such confidence. Maybe there’s a God — but then maybe I am God and the whole world is my fantastic mental creation. I don’t think either has absolutely zero probability, yet I think all would agree there is no value in my considering the latter. So I think “wrong” should mean something like “so unlikely that there is no reason to spend any limited resource continuing to consider it,” which I think is akin to how you are nuancing it.

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  3. Nathan says:

    Some excellent points.
    People turn a relatively simply issue into a complex one.
    Accommodation does not concern itself with truth or facts, merely reaching a big-as-possible target audience. It’s politics and marketing. Science is neither of those.
    Science and religion clash on so many points that a person would have to be dishonest to not see those incompatibilities.
    Abortion is a classic example, scientific knowledge on embryos clashes with the religious ‘understanding’ of embryos and there is no way to reconcile the science with the “laws” or “wishes” of a creator, or no honest way.

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  4. Mandeep says:

    Very nice discussion, Sean — you continue to be one of my favorite ‘crusading anti-religionists’, and i appreciate your work much on this. we’ve discussed these things in the past some, and i generally agree with what you say, mostly — though i do fall into the camp a bit of ‘accomodationist’ via changing the definition of religion from what is commonly understood — and no, i *don’t* think that’s just ‘wimping out’. i think it actually *can* change people more if you have a reasoned discussion with them where you explain exactly what you mean, vs. straight up saying they are wrong (and i agree with Mike’s definition of this above, btw), and misguided from the get-go. that’s not the approach you seem to take in your discussions, both from reading your words, and knowing you in person a bit, but i know it *is* for some of the more ardent atheists out there. anyway — as you say, ‘electrons are free’ (i like that analogy), and many approaches and nudges and pushes help us along in the task of slow fundamental social change. just ask e.g. the Iranians, at the moment.

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  5. Vlad says:

    -You aren’t God. You are remotely controlled from the secret government base on Venus via a tiny implant in your femur. Our sole purpose here is to feed our parasitic overlords. Delek and Vlartok shall return and they won’t be too happy about your dissent.

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  6. Giotis says:

    Science and Religion are Compatible.

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  7. paulo says:

    Science and religion are not compatible particularly where religions are book religions that posit that a particular book contains infallible truth about a broad swath of topics. Seems to me there are possibilities for religions to exist that are compatible with science. You’d probably have to scope the meaning of the work religion while you were at it.

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  8. Richard E. says:

    Sean, can you imagine a religion that makes no specific claims about the physical world — something like a particularly hardline (or maybe softline?) form of Unitarianism, where the “benefit” of the religion derived solely from joining with a like-minded community of individuals??

    (And for the record, I think I have been an atheist for at least as long as Sean has, so I am not advocating this position, but I am curious about the limits of Sean’s argument)

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  9. ree ree says:

    Since our universe has a beginning, there are two possibilities: an eternal multiverse = unobservable, or God = unobservable. Since these two hypotheses are unobservable, and presumably have unobservable consequences (other than the existence of our universe), how do we choose between them? A multiverse hypothesis can explain the smallness of the cosmological constant, but so can’t the God hypothesis as well (CC is small, because God’s intention was to have intelligent life in the universe). I don’t know.

    What do you think?

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  10. Sam Gralla says:

    I like this argument. I still don’t see the point of the food groups.

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  11. Listo says:

    Science and Philosophy are not compatible either. Science and Literature are not compatible either. But it would be a pretty bland world if we didn’t have Philosophy or Literature in it

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  12. Sean says:

    Richard, I think it is an extremely unfortunate mistake to call such a thing a “religion.” That’s just not what the word means to most people who hear it. I think communities of like-minded individuals are a good thing, and they shouldn’t be ashamed of calling themselves that. Be honest!

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  13. Richard E. says:

    This is taking a very firm grip on the third rail, but I think it is a mistake to assume that all opposition to abortion is rooted in religious belief. (Although as a practical matter it may be largely true, especially in the United States).

    If PETA can be concerned about Obama swatting a fly, or hard-core vegans can decline immunizations that were cultured using animal by-products, one can easily imagine a secular philosophy that would see even the newest of zygotes as something of intrinsic worth, and deserving of protection.

    Again I am not ADVOCATING this position, but I think it is self-consistent, even if it makes it hard to agree on where to eat lunch.

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  14. SA says:

    Your following quote needs a response, I think:

    “Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.”

    That supposedly miraculous events are incompatible with science is a common and legitimate argument, but I think we have to be more precise. Science does not say “none of this is true”. Rather, it says “these things do not occur in the course of natural law”, in the sense that science only rules over the domain of predictable phenomena. Whether or not there is more to the story than natural law is the argument that I think people should be having. If there isn’t, and every event is the effect of some predictable natural process, then free will seems to be out the door and my writing this comment is the result of some initial conditions set at the Big Bang. On the other hand, if God / the miraculous / supernature does exist, science could only address the predictable aspects, which would be completely indistinguishable from natural law. This is not a statement about the absurdity of supernature, but rather about the limitations of science.

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  15. Richard E. says:

    Sean, Unitarians would call it a religion — I think you are getting dangerously close to trying to define yourself out of the problem. (Well, its not a religion, so it is still compatible)

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  16. Sean says:

    They can call it whatever they like — we don’t have a language police. But they should admit that they will be misunderstood, because the word “religion” has a perfectly good and well-accepted meaning, which “community of like-minded individuals” doesn’t fit.

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  17. Fabian Ledvina says:

    I feel it comes down to the fact that science posits hypotheses, tests these and rejects those that fail the tests; whereas religion states “facts”, does not require tests and only changes the “facts” when a majority of those in charge decide to (the concept of canon).

    To me, the incompatibility is also in the means rather than just the ends.

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  18. Jason says:

    Xenu will return one day and punish you for your insolence.

    I subscribe more to the militant camp I suppose, in that I would rather there be absolutely no organized religions. I consider it an infectious meme spread to children before they develop any sort of rationality or adults that are already emotionally sensitive.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m out to destroy them. In other news, has anyone seen the Scientology commercial? Talk about production values, nice to know those costs for auditing has been well spent.

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  19. Hopeful says:

    I suppose it all comes down to what you mean by “religion.”

    Yes, the majority of the world’s religious adherents believe that “religion” means a more-or-less literal belief in a set of silly fairy tales and in a human-like deity that listens to human beings and demands fealty and worship. In attacking this very real, very extant notion of religion, you are by no means setting up a straw man.

    But not all of us agree that “religion” has this impoverished meaning. We may not be in the majority, but the fanatics and the literalists do not have a monopoly on religion. We have religion too, and nothing about our understanding of the term lies in conflict with science.

    Quite the contrary. To people like us, religion got the most important fact about our world correct: That there exists a unified entity, an intangible, higher order that governs the world with omniscient and omnipotent and omnipresent authority. Indeed, ours is not an arbitrary world. There is an ethereal pattern that underlies everything, and the claim to its existence is a highly nontrivial assertion that even today is not held by most people, even by most of those who claim to be religious.

    This higher order goes by many names: Some call it God. Others call it Mother Nature. Others call it Natural Law. But it’s there. It’s not human-like. It doesn’t have feelings, or an intelligence, or a will; there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to support such notions. We can’t touch it, or see it directly, but every piece of matter and drop of energy obeys its dictates to the letter, for ultimate reasons that we will never know. Even matter and energy themselves exist only by the rule of this higher law.

    We have learned much about this higher order through scientific examination, but we will almost certainly never know why it exists, or why it is never disobeyed. There is no religion on Earth that can truthfully answer such questions, any more than science can. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply acting the fool. But that’s not the point of religion for people like us—our religion is not about answers.

    If that’s too difficult for you to understand, if this mentality seems confusing or obscure to you, don’t simply assume it’s because we’re ignorant or self-deceitful. Not all human beings are the same, and we don’t all feel the same philosophical desires and urges. We don’t all see things the same way. We don’t all have the same profound needs.

    If you don’t feel the need to spend much time pondering this ultimate higher order, then don’t feel compelled to do so. If you don’t stand agape with awe at its existence, if you don’t feel an occasionally overwhelming desire to marvel at it and, yes, worship it in the manner that most appeals to your inclinations, then don’t feel obliged.

    But some of us take this numinous reverence and express it through our metaphorical and poetic religious traditions. Some of us choose to worship it, not because we expect this impersonal higher order to “listen” and “reward us”, but because our worship is an internally rewarding end in itself. Kirkegaard said that “Prayer changes not God, but him who prays.” Maimonides discounted juvenile arguments about divine reward and punishment, and encouraged his religious compatriots to embrace the act of spiritual engagement and analysis for the very sense of profound philosophical satisfaction that it provided.

    And, along the way, we derive enormous and profound satisfaction from the spiritual massage that we get from the music, the art, the poetry, the culture, and the rituals of our religion traditions, as well as the inner strength we obtain from an embrace of our identity. We celebrate the demands placed upon us by our traditions to stop several times a day and make an affirmative statement blessing the good things in our lives, and taking nothing for granted. There is altogether too little of that going on today.

    And we will continue to do all of these things, despite the commands to literalist orthodoxy by the religious extremists who dominate religion today and, just as intently, despite the sneering condescension of self-congratulatory superior-sounding people like you.

    I commend you for not feeling the urge to act as we do. People are not all the same, and our needs are inevitably going to be different. But to ignore the differences between human beings and to demand that we must all act as you do in order to be as “superior” and “enlightened” as you are—that smacks of smugness.

    There is enormous strength in the diversity of human thought, in having an abundance of philosophical perspective and postures in this world. It might be a great gain to rid the world of the excesses and absurdity practiced by the large majority of those who call themselves religious, but it would be a loss if we should all submit to the conformity of thinking the same way that you do.

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  20. TheRadicalModerate says:

    I think this is overly harsh. Religion and science are perfectly compatible for questions where nobody’s figured out how to generate a falsifiable hypothesis. The fact that the number of those questions is shrinking doesn’t say that religion doesn’t have a place; rather, it merely says that we should expect its place to continue to be marginalized. The fact that the statements, “God created humans,” “God created the Earth,” and “God created the heavens” have all been, to one extent or another, proven incorrect, doesn’t mean that religion isn’t hanging on by its fingernails to “God created the universe” or, more comfortably, to “God created some kind of multiverse.” Maybe those will go by the wayside, too, but you never know where we might bump up against the limits of what’s actually falsifiable.

    Note that this is not an argument that religion should be let off the hook for its assertions that have been proven incorrect, nor should it be prescriptive about things that science has rendered silly. Also note that religions sometimes do change dogma to accommodate new facts, even though they do it on a vastly inefficient time scale. But I’m pretty certain that religious belief systems will settle into small, ecological niches where they can eke out an existence.

    Meanwhile, there are a set of prescriptive things that religions provide that are incredibly useful. Ethics and moral philosophy are two, but there’s a much more important one than that: Religion provides a kind of spiritual hygiene that is enormously beneficial, both to its individual practitioners and to the communities in which they practice. I understand that redefining “religion” to these areas may lack rigor. Unfortunately, unless you find some way to re-factor the idea, you run the risk of throwing a couple of essential babies out with the factually incorrect bathwater.

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  21. Richard E. says:

    Sean, I guess so. But religion consists of both belief and practice. As atheists, we tend to focus on the specific beliefs and philosophical structure of a religion, and ignore the experiential side.

    But to many religious believers (in practice, if not in theory) their experience of their faith may ultimately be more important to them than any specific claim it makes about events that happened in the physical world. And to the extent that this is true, if you define the purely experiential side of faith as “not religion” then you risk preaching to the choir (do atheists have choirs?) on this one.

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  22. Jim says:

    While I generally agree with your thesis, to say that a single resurrection has never happened is a bit of a leap of faith. Science has not studied resurrection because it has not been known to happen under scientifically observable conditions. That’s not the same as knowing that it has not or cannot happen. Highly unlikely – maybe, but not impossible.

    More important than unproven belief is that religion generally wishes to establish articles of faith that members must agree with. These articles are then repeated as fact by members and frequently enforced on non-members, against their will. They universally (as far as I know) establish a hierarchy of authority to judge how questions regarding articles of faith are decided and frequently decide how to punish violators.

    I have to conclude that while religion is probably not compatible with science, mainly, as a social construct, it is not compatible with freedom.

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  23. SA says:


    I think it’s more than that. You say, “Science has not studied resurrection because it has not been know to happen under scientifically observable conditions.” This seems to imply that if we conceived of a way to set up the experiment, we’d be able to measure it predictably. This may in fact be the case, but it might instead be the case that there are phenomena which are genuinely not predictable. If resurrection has occured at any point in history, this scenario seems more likely to me.

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  24. boreds says:

    Agree with the arguments in the posting, but also kind of agree with the first commenter’s `yawn’. Sorry.

    I thought you’d already said this before. But maybe it’s good to get it all down in one place. Definitively. Done. Right?

    I know, I know, three sci/rel posts in a row would be kind of fun ;)

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  25. smijer says:

    Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true.

    This is the issue that must be hashed out. I appreciate your reasonableness in understanding the distinction between “different” and “incompatible”. And, indeed, if all religions were defined primarily by claims that science truly said were untrue, then you could generalize that science and religion are incompatible.

    But, while science says pretty unequivocally that the universe wasn’t made in 6 days, it cannot say much about what happened to Jesus or Moses or the souls of the dead. It says things about what could naturally have happened to Jesus or Moses, and about what could naturally happen to some naturalistic analog of the soul. But it can’t say much about what might have happened outside the laws of nature to any of those, since there remains little empirical evidence left to examine. It is fair to say that science cannot confirm those events, but there just isn’t enough to say that science can falsify them.

    Oh, but others may say, the *methods* of science may say nothing about what might have happened outside the laws of nature, but the *kind of reasoning that informs science* is incompatible with such claims.

    And, yes, if the kind of reasoning science relies upon is generalized to consider questions outside the scope of science (questions divorced from the laws of nature, and from evaluations of empirical evidence), then one finds incompatibility between that type of generalized reasoning and religion.

    But, to so generalize that type of reasoning without justification is “scientism” – a sort of belief in science as a substitute for all forms of reasoning.

    To generalize that type of reasoning in a justified way is “metaphysical naturalism” – a philosophical stance.

    Of course metaphysical naturalism is incompatible with religion – but that’s not the claim that is ostensibly under discussion.

    Of course scientism is incompatible with religion – but that’s not the claim that is ostensibly under discussion.

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  26. Drew says:

    “Communication among human beings will be vastly improved, and the world will be a better place.”

    Indeed! I believe the widespread inability to effectively communicate one’s views is responsible for some of the most pernicious disagreements of today’s society, from politics to religion. I’m with you 100% Sean: while everyone is free to use any word as they see fit, they should understand that they may well be misunderstood and recognize the unfortunate consequences of such a cavalier attitude toward language.

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  27. thales says:

    I was thinking the other day how those who don’t believe in God are called athiests, not adeists. It seems like whenever I’ve cornered a theist, suddenly they become a deist – at least until the conversation is over, at which point they’re theist once again. This is why the idea of NOMA is so insidious. From a purely theoretical point of view, a deist-only religion is compatible with science. Ree ree’s comment above alludes to this. Theism, however, is mostly what we see in the real-world. So I’m happy to be an athiest, and agnostic with respect to deism.

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  28. boreds says:

    You know, I just thought about my previous comment for five minutes in the shower, and I think I put my finger on why I instinctively yawned. Even though I agree with the post.

    In a way, it’s a great post. It (again) confirms you as the physics-PZ, and definitely a go-to guy if you’re organizing a panel debate on science and religion. And it gives people who agree with the title of the post someone to point to, someone to articulate their views coherently.

    But people who already disagree with you don’t ever seem to change their minds with this kind of post. You just don’t speak to them. I would find this frustrating, but maybe that’s not the reason you’re posting this.

    Am I wrong? Are there people out there who’ve found something new in the post, and changed their mind, but just not commented?

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  29. smijer says:

    Deism is a red herring that comes up because people talk past one another. Theist makes points that imply compatibility with science but incompatibility with scientism or metaphysical naturalism. Atheist assumes that compatibility with science implies compatibility with scientism or metaphysical naturalism (whichever they personally hold), and assumes theists’ comments are, on that basis, deistic.

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  30. joel rice says:

    the real question is whether science will eventually find that the world
    is weirder than even religion imagines.

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  31. Sean says:

    boreds, I think it’s important to be clear and comprehensive, so that a good-faith discussion can take place. Sure, there are plenty of potential readers who will find such a post uninteresting — happily, the internet has developed technologies by which they can go look at other web pages. And sure, there will be many die-hards on one side or the other who are more interested in tossing mud than in engaging in dialogue. But I remain convinced that there are sincere people on either side who would like to understand exactly how the other one is thinking. If someone thinks “I’m very religious, by which I mean that I belong to a community of like-minded people, and I don’t see what’s so incompatible with science about that,” I want them to understand my response. Likewise, if someone thinks “I don’t believe that the face of Jesus appears on toast with any regularity, but I do believe in a loving God who created the universe, and science has nothing to say about that,” I also want them to know what I’m thinking. Even if people don’t change their mind, it’s important to be clear and lay things out, because sometimes (like yesterday) it’s more fun to be snarky, but only being snarky is highly non-productive.

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  32. Reginald Selkirk says:

    When are Sean Carroll and Sean Carroll going to get together and write a book about science and religion?

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  33. Thirteenfingers says:

    Has anyone thought that maybe a “day” to God might be different than a day to us? Religion isn’t about facts, it’s about blind faith. Something caused the Big Bang, and the events that came before. Sometimes I wonder if the reasons we can’t answer these questions might be because it’s “knocking on God’s door”. That said, both science and religion fascinate me.

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  34. Elliot says:

    I think the fundamental problem with this argument is that it confuses the primary function of religion to be it’s traditional creedal doctrines. Religion fulfills a greater role in society than just one of doctrine (it’s fundamental purpose is community, and humans are a social animal). This argument actually is against religious creed rather than religion itself.

    That being said, I don’t think that science and religious creed are necessarily incompatible either. As long as one is flexible enough to have a creed that fits with current scientific understand then it is no different than accepting that we do not have a full understanding of, like the big bang. If a creed were, for example, to focus mainly on qualia or moral judgement than by nature it is regarding a non-scientific area and can be accepted on faith with no incompatibility with science.

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  35. Meredith says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, Sean, but your argument seems to stem from the following issue: religion claims certain facts (e.g., within Christianity: God created the universe in six days, Jesus died and was resurrected, etc.) that disagree with our modern understanding of science. Yes?

    Well, I completely agree. The universe is clearly some 13.7 billion years old and people do not come back from the dead. Yet, I consider myself a Christian. How? Not by dismissing these facts, nor by some contrived “God is testing us” scenario. Instead, I choose to interpret biblical texts in a non-literal way. After all, Jesus nearly always spoke in parables. The multitude of authors of the bible lived many, many years after the events they describe took place. Surely they got some details wrong. Surely there are many translations in many languages with many interpretations. Besides, if the bible is taken as 100% literal fact, it contradicts _itself_ in many places!

    My particular faith tradition sits on a “three-legged stool” of scripture, tradition, and reason. Yes, reason. (I am an Episcopalian, if you are curious.)

    I am not convinced that my particular interpretation of religion is the only true and correct one. To the contrary – I love hearing what others have to say on the matter and adapting my views to better fit the evidence I encounter. Much like science. However, I also believe there are many paths to religious truth and that mine is no more correct than the next person’s. This is where the science analog breaks down.

    I never hope to capture an ideal, all-pervasive religion that fully explains the nature of God and works for everybody. Science, on the other hand, does strive to explain everything through the laws of nature, albeit one small piece at a time. Thus, the goals of science and religion are very different.

    So perhaps you should revise your premise: fundamentalist religion, that is, the kind that believes in absolutes and literalism, is not compatible with science. I think you’d be surprised to find how many people are willing to flex the rules of their religious traditions and practices to reach an integration mindset with science.

    If I have managed to twist the definition of religion “well out of the form in which most people would recognize it,” as you warn, then I despair for “most people.” We Christians are supposed to be all about love, after all, and you don’t see folks arguing that science is incompatible with love.

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  36. boreds says:

    Sean, you are probably right—that there are sincere people out there who will listen to your arguments, even if they initially disagree with the title of your post. I hope so.

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  37. daisyrose says:

    Science – was at one time a search for wisdom and enlightenment – for example Alchemy was an humble search for knowledge and truth based on intuition until it became taken over by frauds who sought to persuade that base medals could be turned into gold ( I guess they can ) Before *science* fell into the hands of the traders who used it to make money it was a storehouse of knowledge watched over by thinkers who trusted one another completely – Like religion it was a secret society that to join one was tested not only on intelligence but other qualities such as ones ability to think in the fifth dimension.

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  38. Jason says:


    My only disagreement is with the claim that ethics or moral philosophy are “non-overlapping with the understanding of the natural world bequeathed to us by science.”

    I think the basis for this claim is something like, “Well, science can never tell us what we should do – given any set of facts, we always need to decide for ourselves based on prior principles what normative import they should have.”

    But this is a caricature: we don’t have some set of pristine prior principles which we apply through rationality to arrive at decisions about how we should act. Our ethical reasoning is a messy combination of intuitions handed down by evolutionary biology, social norms, and rational consistency checks.

    On this more realistic view, a careful study of the physical processes in our brain which underlie our ethical judgments could do a great deal to inform us about which are worth holding on to and what the implications are of doing so. Far from being non-overlapping, I expect that future scientific advances in our understanding of the brain and consciousness will revolutionize our understanding of ethics.

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  39. e.pierce says:

    I’m an ex-bahai (currently integralist), so tend to be accomodationist, but not where religion tries to impose on science, especially in maintaining the scientific integrity of evolution. (yes, the Tao of Physics is bunk.)

    On the other hand, please consider that the materialistic version of rationalism/modernism is usually “hostile” to the various near universal expressions of transcendance and so forth that are usually defined as “spirituality”. Habermas formulation was “systems colonize lifeworld”.

    Ironically, the worst fundamentalists are frequently engineers/scientists: they want to read scriptural metaphors as an “instruction manual”, and suffer from overly-linear anti-patterns when defining meanings.

    Don’t ask a scientist to explain religion “correctly”, ask a poet.

    Science should not be fear-based, it should interface with holism, and stop trying to beat-down the valid aspects of spirit.

    Polemic: the civil rights movement in the USA used such “religious” metaphors as “I have been to the mountain top” to liberate slaves. In an purely “scientific” culture, presumably devoid of the “emotions” of religion, spirituality and transcendance, how are the “political” problems of dominance and inequity addressed? How does “science” explain the human need for things like “freedom”, and the long struggle that has gone on for thousands of years, for liberty and democracy?

    Would anyone really want to live in a world in which rationality limits all other forms of experience and consciousness?

    If so, you have just established the basis for scientific totalitarianism.

    Human beings need something more “holistic” than “pure science”.

    The mysticism/spirit traditions contain subcomponent memes that I think of as “spiritual technologies”. The historical disciplines that were associated with the mysticism traditions are rich sources for study.

    Mark Turner’s work on literature and metaphor is illuminating, see some similar commentary by George Lakoff (linguistics) on the limits of modernist “science” culture to correctly define a full range of “human meaning”.

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  40. I would be happier if I had the feeling you had some working familiarity with the history of religions, including Eastern and ancient religions. Too closely equating “religion” with “believing in God” is just not going to fly with a scholar of religions, or with many theologians or philosophers.

    Even when it comes to God, I would be happier if you did not identify “God” with, more or less, the evangelical Protestant understanding of God. What about the God of Aristotle, the God of ‘ibn Arabi, or the God of Plotinus?

    In short, I have the uneasy feeling that you are setting up something that I quite agree with you is an inadequate understanding of reality – the aforesaid more or less evangelical Protestant theology – as a straw man in place of “religion,” which would have to include things like neo-Platonism, not to mention Buddhism, which after all is a major religion that pays no attention to God beyond a few introductory statements to the effect that “God is irrelevant to religion.”

    It doesn’t matter what “most people” think religion is, any more than it matters what “most people” think physics is.

    Mike Gogins

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  41. Pingback: Sean Carroll on the compatibility of faith and science « Why Evolution Is True

  42. Brian says:

    The title of this post is “Science and Religion are Not Compatible.”

    However, given the content of your post it could easily be confused with “Science and God are Not Compatible.”

    While I don’t believe in God, that would be a terrible mistake to allow your readers to make. Your argument simply doesn’t apply to the latter case as it just involves some of the silliest of arguments that religions make.

    The best of the arguments for the existence of a god simply aren’t taken up by any religious people I have ever met. Furthermore you have not made it clear that you are aware of the best of those arguments and that you understand them. Simply linking to an article on why Cosmologists are Atheists is not sufficient. There may well be fundamental limits to the explanatory power of science as Earthlings can practice it. We do not and can not have access to all of the evidence. You must take that into account as well when declaring science to be superior to the best of the theories for the existence of god.

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  43. Chaz says:

    Sean, I agree with the post, but you’re fighting an uphill battle. It’s clear that people *like* to call themselves “religious” even if they don’t believe in the supernatural (indeed Einstein was in this camp). And I think that reserving the word for only its most accurate meaning offends people’s sense of tolerance, at least in the US. People don’t like hearing that you’re only really “Christian” if you believe A and B, or really “Jewish” if you believe X and Y. If you ceded the word “religion” and were generous enough to get in the habit of saying things like “Science is incompatible with beliefs based on faith and the supernatural” (or something more eloquent), you could avoid tedious semantic arguments. You might also reach people who would otherwise perceive you as intolerant and tune you out. What can I say… I’m a pragmatist.

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  44. Stephen Friberg says:

    Hi Sean:

    Yes, I happen to be a physicist. And I understand religion too, something which I’ve found many scientists don’t. (Hi e.pierce, ex-Baha’i).

    You write:

    “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look.”


    “Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.”

    I like to think I’m a fair-minded person, and as U of R trained physics Ph.D., I would like to think that I’ve got a reasonably good scientific education. So, do I think your claim makes any sense? To the analysis.

    Point 1. Your claims about fact statements.

    You are taking allegorical statements like “God made the universe in six days,” “Jesus died and was resurrected,” and “Moses parted the red sea” and conflating them with scientific fact statements.

    I grade this as a D-, not quite an F. I don’t give you an F because I know that many religionists do as you just did, so I want to give you a little credit.

    Another type of truth claim you discuss is “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden”.

    Given that neither you nor I have died, I’m not quite sure where you get your data on this. But still, I give you a C-. Here, you seem to inch in the direction of recognizing that religion might make truth claims that are different than scientific facts.


    Overall, as a “fair-minded person who cares to look”, I conclude that the incompatibility you suggest is not at all evident from the examples you present. Rather, they suggest you are claiming apples (allegories about spiritual truths) to be oranges (scientific fact statements) and skirting the real issues.

    Point 2. Oh forget it. If you don’t get point 1, you are not going to get point 2.

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  45. Socr8s says:

    The debate over Science vs Religion misses the point of both. Science and religion do not have to be incompatible you just have to be willing to see the issues from both the physical and spiritual. As a Christian and someone who believes in scientific principles, I have to ask myself two questions when an apparent conflict between the two exists. The first is what does the physical evidence say? The second is what lesson is my religion trying to teach me? Take the creation story as an example. The evidence shows the earth was formed over billions of years. But my religion is trying to tell me that all things belong to God, so I should humble myself and admit that I do not know everything and I should be a good steward of that which God has entrusted to me. It doesn’t matter how we reconcile the fact that the bible says it took six days and science says billions of years. We might as well argue that a tortoise would never race a hare in nature. We miss the moral of the story.

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  47. JP says:

    Wow… great comments all. Science is a wonderful thing, but even if we were to leave the discussion of religion out of it, as some have done, a 100% science-based approach to life is frightening. The awe and emotion inspired by music is not just a bunch of waveforms colliding with each other in rational synchronicity. Love, as someone earlier mentions, reduced to regions of the brain and dopamine-enhanced feelings. This may all be true, but WHY? Ultimately, that is the question that science can never answer. If you follow the same chain of questioning that children pursue… why does the sun rise, why is there a sun, why are we here… when you ladder up to the existential questions, science cannot answer them. The scientific method was not designed to answer “Why” but rather what and how. Why are we here on earth? Oh, that? Just a random confluence of factors that cascade forth from chemical reactions set into motion when the universe began (never mind, what was there before that?)

    Humans long for material as well as spiritual fulfillment. Love, emotions, awe, inspiration, creativity. Religious or spiritual beliefs are not only natural, but mostly unique to humankind. To simply discard things because they are not replicable in a double-blind study does not mean that they are worthless. Blind adherence to any dogma (fundamentalism, religion and, yes, science) is dangerous.

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  48. steve says:

    I really enjoyed this post Sean.

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  49. Big Vlad says:

    Socr8s: “It doesn’t matter how we reconcile the fact that the bible says it took six days and science says billions of years.”

    I think it does matter! One is wrong and the other is right, do you think asking which is which is not important? And don’t tell me the bible’s claim isn’t to be taken literally, for if not then it is essentially meaningless.

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  50. Neal J. King says:

    The issues that are properly dealt with by religion and spirituality are those questions that cannot be dealt with scientifically, such as:

    - How do I deal with the death of my father?

    - How do I deal with betrayal?

    - Where do I make the trade-off between benefit to myself and harm to another?

    You could know every scientific fact and have the answer to every scientific theory and you would still have no advantage over anyone else for these questions.

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  51. Lab Lemming says:

    What about the legal argument, espoused by accomodationists, that using science to draw conclusions about religion would make it harder to teach science in public schools?

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  52. tacitus says:

    JP, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate music, enjoy sunsets, or fall in love, and you don’t even have to be religious to begin to understand why we do all these things. Indeed, the fact that they are likely a byproduct of human evolution is fascinating in itself.

    There is absolutely no danger of scientific reductionism taking all the fun and wonder out of life. We aren’t robots. Even if we invented a time machine tomorrow and went back in time to discover that none of the religions had any basis in fact, it would not appreciably change the way we think about or go about our lives.

    Only if we ever invented something like the Total Perspective Vortex would we be shocked by the randomness and insignificance of our existence, but as it turns out our brains tend to be well protected against such thoughts. For example, how often do we ponder the millions of events that had to have happened in the lives of your parents and grandparents for you—specifically—to have been conceived? Almost never, I’d wager, and that’s only taking into account the events in the lives of six people.

    And really, bringing religion into it doesn’t help much anyway. If you believe that your existence was ordained by God (as the only solution to this randomness) then that makes your parents and grandparents little more than oblivious puppets being led down the only trail that led to your conception.

    So both “honest” views on life are highly disconcerting–religion doesn’t protect you from anything. Only the fuzzy thinking and lack of attention to the issue that we all engage in does that.

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  53. Sam says:

    Science and religion should be considered to operate in two distinct spheres. Religion operates in the realm of Mythos, which should never be construed as “not true”, or should it be confused with scientific reality. Mythos creates a framework for describing origins and creating a moral basis for social interaction, whereas science is the accumulation of knowledge. Science can never be expected to prove or disprove the existence of God, just as religion can never be expected to explain the physical universe.

    The reality is that science will not sway the beliefs of the faithful (nor should it try), and religious writings and teachings should not substitute for science.

    The scientists that attempt to force their non-God world view on the faithful are just as much to blame for this controversy as the faithful who claim thier religious writings and teachings constitute an absolute and factual truth.

    Religions should encouraage the explorations of science, and science should encourage the free expression of faith.

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  54. tacitus says:

    The issues that are properly dealt with by religion and spirituality are those questions that cannot be dealt with scientifically, such as:

    - How do I deal with the death of my father?
    - How do I deal with betrayal?
    - Where do I make the trade-off between benefit to myself and harm to another?

    You could know every scientific fact and have the answer to every scientific theory and you would still have no advantage over anyone else for these questions.

    What? That’s nonsense. I would wager there are thousands of scientific papers dealing with each of the three issues you listed. Dealing with bereavement is certainly a well studied field in psychology and I have no doubt that there are plenty of non-religious resources available to those who are having such difficulties based on scientific studies of the bereaved and how they coped best with their situation.

    Religion has certainly codified some of the things we have learned throughout our history (the Jewish prohibition against eating pork had a certain amount of sense for the time) but really, much of it is little more than common sense when it boils down to it. And in many cases, the religious advice is hopelessly contradictory. In the case of betrayal, is it “an eye for an eye” or “forgive those who transgressed against you”? Ask ten Christians and you’ll get at least five different answers, probably more.

    Thus religion is, at best, a useful shorthand to help in these situations (it’s far easier to say that “God says do this” instead of having to explain the scientific and historical reasoning why they should do something) but at worst it can make situations far worse than they might otherwise have been.

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  55. Socr8s says:

    Big Vlad. Is the fact that it matters simply because one is wrong and one is wright? How long ago was the creation story told? What did the evidence point to at the time? So the author of the creation story was wrong about how long it took to create the earth. That is not the point of the story. i doubt he even cared how long it took. It is by taking the context out of the bible that both extremes of the debate miss the true meaning. It is true that a hare and tortise do not race in nature. But that deos not make the fable meaningless.

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  56. A disappointingly sloppy use of words and reasoning. You claim incompatibility, and allude to a more general referent for that incompatibility, but rely only on personal (almost aesthetic) reasons to support your claim. So they seem incompatible to you. And you admit that at a rigorous level scientiic knowledge is different to pin down. Then why should you deny incompatibility to others more skeptical than you of how knowledge might evolve? Science as operationalized through Popper simply cannot refute a one-off historical, personal experience that would otherwise defy known laws of physics. You should be more forthright in acknowledging that your claim about the incompatibility of science and religion is not itself scientific except in the sense that you are a scientist (not a trivial sense, but not definitive!).

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  57. Lord says:

    Incompatible with the common simple ideas most people hold of religion, but religion isn’t constrained to the same limitations science is and can adapt to incorporate or dismiss it as irrelevant to its domain. It does not have to be incompatible with it though more often than not is while it shouldn’t be. It seems in your conception the supernatural must exist within the confines of nature, rather than outside of nature, and even deny anything outside of nature. It seems to you nature is a monism so all is amenable to science, whereas religion is a dualism where all may or may not be, and not just concern the unknown, but possibly the unknowable. Now you will dismiss this as impractical and useless, lacking evidence and unprovable, unscientific, but that is the point, they are those things to which science doesn’t apply. Is there anything more? Religion is about the more. We lack the tools to know the unknowable, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know. That is something religion and science share.

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  58. CW says:

    I paraphrase a quote from an older post of Sean’s (pre-merger with Discover Magazine) that I can’t seem to find at the moment. It came from an interview he had with someone who brought up the science vs. religion angle.

    I believe in God and I consider myself religious. But,…(here’s the paraphrase part)… ‘I don’t believe in religion as an alternative to, or an answer for, science.’

    Sean said it much better than my paraphrase, but I just can’t seem to find that post.

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  59. monty says:

    The purpose of Science is to prove that nothing runs on magic.
    The purpose of Religion is to prove that everything runs on magic.

    The two are totally, absolutely incompatible.

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  60. smijer says:

    Monty’s #59 is maybe a caricature of the anti-accommodationist position, but it kind of sums up some of the general themes I see from that camp:

    1) Scientism
    2) Religion is whatever I think it is, not what religious people think it is.

    And, fine if that’s your view. But if you can’t do any better than that, at least don’t try to be snide about it, you know?

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  61. Count Iblis says:

    Sean is 100% correct.

    If I were God and I would communicate with some prophet who would write down some religious texts for the Bible, then my Bible would contain absolute proof that I’m for real.

    My Bible would contain some facts about mathematics, physics, astronomy that are easy to verify. E.g., I could give the first few thousand decimals of pi. I could tell about the solar system, the planets, the masses of the planets, about nearby solar systems, about particles, the masses of particles, incuding the mass of the Higgs boson, etc. etc. etc. Then every new scientific result would confirm the truth of the Bible.

    In case of the real Bible, the opposite has happened.

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  62. Leigh Jackson says:

    Sean, your blog page is showing adverts for two brands: Shell and Templeton. What is brand Templeton? I suggest that it is selling the same commodity that the Discovery Institute is selling: religion. They are selling two brands of religious ideology. One claims to be science; the other claims that religion and science fit together like hand in glove. Both ideologies believe that science should be used to serve the purpose of religion.

    The comments here show that there are many possible philosophical views on the compatibility of science and religion. The AAAS, NAS and the NCSE have publicly expressed the view that science is or can be compatible with religion. I believe that the interest of science would be better served if scientific organisations did not take sides on controversial religio-philosophical questions. It is immaterial to the practice and teaching of good science whether it is compatible with any religion.

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  63. I know people who think that we are probably living in a simulation (call this the Matrix religion). The theory is that, as computer power increases, the ability to simulate the world (planet, solar system, whatever) to any desired degree with grow, and at some point the of number people in simulations will dominate the number people out of simulations will dominate the number of people out of them. The conclusion is that we are highly likely to be in a simulation.

    Is this consistent with science ? There is no evidence for it, but there is not exactly evidence against it either. It is certainly possible imagine falsifying it in principle (say by looking at ever smaller distances / larger energies, and seeing if things start to look discrete). It doesn’t (to me) see much less scientifically compatible than (say) the idea of multiple universes.

    In the matrix religion the entity controlling the simulation has many of the attributes of a deity. It is interesting to me that the people who will accept religion generally won’t accept the matrix religion and vice versa

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  64. Toiski says:

    What bothered me the most in this blog post was… “an hypothesis”. I know some people say it has a silent H, but that’s just wrong. Like pronouncing the R in idea.

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  65. gopher65 says:

    My thoughts exactly monty.

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  66. gopher65 says:


    Physics describes the reality we live in. Therefore by the very definition of the word *everything* is merely a subsection of physics, ultimately, whether you’re talking about social sciences or astronomy. To believe anything else is to arrogantly assume that your particular thought patterns are somehow “special”, and outside of normal reality.

    So I fail to see how saying someone holds that “scientism” is true automatically implies that they are arrogant. Indeed, I’d say that those who are anti-scientism are arrogant, because they are self-centred enough to think that they are outside of nature.

    (I think that scientism is a really weird word to pronounce (it just feels funny on my tongue for some reason), and an unnecessary one at that, since Metaphysical Naturalism already covers scientism. EDIT: I see that scientism has a great many potential different meanings. In fact, the word is so broad, that it can mean practically anything. It’s the philosophical equivalent of the word “whatchamahoozit”.)

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  67. John Merryman says:


    If you consider the history of religion and not a particular static subset of it, then religion is a logical institutional evolutionary adaptation. Are there any social groups you are a member of that have no idiosyncrasies? Now think; What is the purpose of these particular habits, other than to define ones group as distinct. In fact, the more illogical the belief systems, the more effective they are at distinguishing those most defined by their faith and those just wanting to be part of the group.
    Then there is the evolutionary process by which this entity further distills its core message, while still maintaining some necessary contact with the outside, thus legitimizing the existence of the institution with its long history and giving its adherents what they prize most, a sense of immortality, or association with it.
    Science and religion may not be compatible, but they are complementary, in the way that Democrats and Republicans are not compatible, but they are complimentary. One is inherently about bottom up process and the other is about top down order. Contradictions are what give reality its multidimensionality.
    As for God, the logical flaw in monotheism is that the universal state of the absolute would be the elemental, not the ideal, so a spiritual absolute would be the raw essence of awareness from which life rises, not an ideal form of it from which humans fell. It just happens to be politically convenient to assert the ideal is also the source, thus giving all legitimacy to top down order and none to that messy bottom up process.

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  68. tacitus says:

    Marshall, if we’re living in a Matrix universe then there really isn’t any science we can do that could prove it either way. There’s certainly no reason to think that pushing the boundaries of our knowledge in any direction will lead us to uncover a glitch or limitation in the programming (as you can in a video game, for example). Whether we drill down to subatomic particles or unleash the energy of a neutron star, we’ll still only be seeing what the simulation allows us to see.

    To all intents and purposes it *is* our reality, whether or not we are merely inside a simulation, so we might as well live out our lives as though we’re not.

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  69. MartianTruth says:

    Science today is thoroughly naturalistic. Any movements to the contrary are fervently and noisily resisted. The supernatural, we are told most firmly, has no place in science.

    For practical reasons, it may make sense for scientists to talk about natural causes only, for natural causes are what they are interested in. What does NOT make sense is to turn this into an argument that claims that science therefore proves that natural causes are the ONLY causes.

    In fact it is almost tautological to say this. Current scientific dogma cannot incoporate supernatural phenomena for whatever science can study and analyze is defined as natural. For instance, magnetism was once thought of as an occult force, but in becoming analyzable and quantifiable, in coming under the aegis of science, it came to be thought of as natural.

    In the nineteenth century, it became very popular to try to verify the existence of spirits scientifically. People would set up scientific apparatus to try to detect changes in electrical charges or currents or other physical phenomena in an effort to find scientific evidence for the existence of spirits. If they had found such evidence, however, the spirit would now be an object of scientific study. It would be part of the “real” world that science studies. It would then no longer be supernatural. From the perspective of a naturalist, it would be just another, albeit bizarre, phenomenon of the world. When there is scientific evidence for any thing, then that thing is considered to be something in this world, and it is studied as if it were natural.

    Whatever might be supernatural, if it is genuinely supernatural (i.e. beyond this world), then it is not able to be studied by the activity that studies this world. Consequently, science is unalble to disprove the spritual, for if the spiritual agency does something in this world, then the evidence for the spiritual agency is precisely the evidence for what is defined as a natural activity. The current dogma is that whatever science discovers is natural.

    Folks, this way of looking at the world is NOT based on an an argument: it is a matter of DEFINITION!

    In short, Sean et. al. have not argued (in this or any other article or book) that God doesn’t exist. They have just defined their world in such a way that they close themselves to the possiblity that God exists.

    It is they who are the closed system!

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  71. Lord says:

    In many ways, religion is armchair theorizing about the unknown and possibly unknowable, speculation in other words. I wouldn’t say disbelief in more is arrogant, only an application of occam’s razor, but it is a choice and the more interesting question often is what if? Even natural theories are often initially speculative and untestable and must be explored and investigated before drawing any conclusions. There are a great deal of parallels between religion, a multiverse, and a matrix/simulation. All are considerations of more. More is always a possibility and one we should always be open for. Speculation can be interesting and useful to our way of thinking even if not knowable or provable.

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  73. E says:

    Those of us who are teachers have an opportunity and indeed a responsibility to educate students. While I don’t address science and religion in my classes, students do ask what I believe. I suspect that my responses often disappoint students. Probably some of them are hoping that I’ll agree with them so they can use it to justify their own existing beliefs. Some maybe be trying to provoke an argument. But I believe that many of them are genuinely curious because they are struggling with this issue themselves. They are willing to change some of their beliefs about science and/or religion in order to resolve their cognitive dissonance. How I reply has the potential to change not only their own religious beliefs, but also the scope of religion in their world view, i.e., how they define religion. I do not tell them what world view they should have or how they should define religion, as such a response would implicitly endorse obtaining knowledge through authority and/or belief. I do give examples of questions that I believe are best addressed by scientific, experiments, observations, and models along with examples of questions that I can not see how one could answer scientifically. If students leave a class better appreciating the power of the scientific process and what sorts of questions science is well-suited to address, so that they revise their views on the appropriate scope of religion, then I would consider that a remarkably educational experience.

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  74. Rob Knop says:

    For some reason, people are willing to pretend that the question “Does God exist?” should be subject to completely different standards of scientific reasoning than any other question.

    That reason is simply because atheist scientists like yourself do not understand what God is. The very use of the term “the God hypothesis” indicates that you’re talking about something subject to empirical science. When you try and subject it to empirical science, you end up deciding that it’s ill-defined, unhelpful, etc. All of that is because it’s not science.

    The question as to whether the dead rise again — well, clearly, it doesn’t happen systematically. Did it happen once or twice, as a miracle? Science doesn’t support the existence of miracles, and they sure don’t seem to be happening now, so it’s dubious. But there’s wiggle room if you want it. My own position as a Christian is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus probably didn’t really happen– and I know that a lot of Christians would consider this to be a destructive view to the religion, but I’m very far from the only Christian with that view.

    However, to reduce God to a hypothesis that can be tested empirically makes no more sense than to reduce a symphony, or a work of art, to a hypothesis that can be tested empirically. There are more ways of knowing than science. There are more fields of human intellectual endeavor than science. Scientists would do well to remember this– those who recognize it in the first place, anyway.

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  75. Rob Knop says:

    Another thing re: how things are done. You would agree that there are things in science which were accepted by all scientists which have since been shown to be wrong. Consider the Steady-State Universe (which was a dominant view), or the geocentric Universe.

    Given that the broadly accepted tenets of science can be seen to be wrong without having to undermine all of science, why not the same with religion? Creationism is patently wrong, and is no longer accepted by an overwhelming majority of the religious (although it’s accepted by far too many). Once upon a time it was accepted by *all* of the religious. Our understanding of religion, just like our understanding of science, evolves. Some of the evolution of religion has been informed by science, but not all of it.

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  76. Rob Knop says:

    And don’t tell me the bible’s claim isn’t to be taken literally, for if not then it is essentially meaningless.

    This is a canard that’s trotted out all the time in these debates. It’s wrong. It essentially equates all of religion with fundamentalism, and Sean isn’t even doing that (or at least not doing it so obviously and ham-handedly). There are vast numbers of people who take meaning and inspiration from the Bible — or, for that matter, from many other works of human creativity — without having to believe that it’s supposed to be read as literally true.

    Meredith @35 (excellent comment, by the way!) points out that Jesus himself, according to the stories we have, taught via parables. Was he insisting that each parable he told was the literal recounting of something that really happened? No. Yet, he thought that some might take some meaning out of the stories he told.

    Yes, sure, perhaps the people who wrote the creation myths in the Bible (there are in fact two, in the first two chapters of Genesis) thought that they might be how it really happened — although, honestly, I wouldn’t even want to jump to *that* conclusion. But the story doesn’t become completely worthless as a story if we don’t read it as literal history now, just like any other myth or story. I mean, heck, Shakespeare didn’t intend for any of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” when he wrote Shakespeare, yet that doesn’t stop Tom Stoppard from writing a great play, does it? We always add meaning and understanding to something as we read it in different contexts after the fact.

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  77. Sean says:

    Rob, thinking that resurrections or other miracles might occasionally happen, even non-systematically, is (in my view) not good science. That’s why we disagree; not because I don’t know the definition of “God.”

    I went to a Catholic university and took five semesters of religious studies and philosophy of religion; I know enough definitions of “God” to last several lifetimes. But if you’re speaking English to other native English speakers who don’t necessarily share your personal beliefs, it’s convenient to use the definition they do: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe.” You can use whatever favorite definitions you like; nobody can stop you, but most people will misunderstand you.

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  78. Doug says:

    I disagree heartily with those who would argue that science, or only approaching life from a scientific perspective is devoid of passion and emotion. Science is a method of understanding the world around us, but tells us nothing a priori about the way we experience the world (i.e. going so far as to separate “experience” from brain functions). On the contrary to what you say, I find that an accurate understanding of the world only adds to my pleasure. As the neuroscientist who studies the brains of people in love says, there is nothing in the reductionist viewpoint that subtracts from her own feelings of love – in fact to know that the brain patterns of people still in love after 60 years are the same as those who are just married makes it all the more beautiful. Applying “science” to our entire lives just decreases the chances that the conclusions we make are incorrect. Freedom would still be valued, even if we didn’t understand WHY we wanted it, we could say that it increases the collective happiness of people and was a good thing. We just wouldn’t get so worked up over meaningless disagreements.

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  79. David Moles says:

    (I guess this is a narrower version of TheRadicalModerate @20, but:)

    Sean, I almost always love your posts, but every time you post about religion it drives me maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad. I get how you feel about religion and why you’re content to argue with the weakest (and by far most popular) versions of religious belief and dismiss everything else as epicycles, I really do.

    But I don’t — and this is an atheist saying this — I don’t get it when you say things like “Science says: none of this is true.” These are nondisprovable statements — and if you want to point to an incompatibility between science and religion, that’s your incompatibility right there. It’s not just an incompatibility, it’s an incommensurability. The most science — or rational thought in general — can do in the face of a nondisprovable is say: “There is no good reason to believe this.” Any categorical statement of untruth in those circumstances is as much a leap of faith as an affirmation of truth would be.

    You’re a very smart guy, so I assume this is not what you’re doing. But it sure looks like it. What am I missing? Have I been smoking too much Karl Popper?

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  80. Peter Si says:

    Religions are not even compatible with each other so how can they be compatible with science? All religions contain a supernatural component.

    A scientist will be inconsistent if they are also religious as how do they know what hat they are wearing when they are doing science? Does a religious scientist put one hat on when in the lab and another hat on when in a church? How does a religious scientist know to change hats at the correct time?

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  81. xander says:

    I have to disagree. I think religion and science are incompatible simply because one relies on faith, the ability to accept an idea base on little or no evidence, and one relies on evidence, and carefully structured logic using that evidence, to justify the acceptance of an idea. They are fundamentally incompatible in the way the practitioners view the world.

    (Religious people can, and most certainly do, use logic and evidence in their everyday lives; however, to me most of them have accepted a incorrect assumption from the start. It’s akin to having a great proof that’s everywhere lid tight-except that it’s based on a faulty premise.)

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  82. “You are taking allegorical statements like “God made the universe in six days,” “Jesus died and was resurrected,” and “Moses parted the red sea” and conflating them with scientific fact statements.”

    The historical fact is that no-one considered these to be allegorical until science started making
    them look very unlikely. YOU say they are allegorical. Why?

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  84. Arun says:

    The idea that religion is, at its core, a category of explanation, including explaining the physical world needs to be examined deep and hard.

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  85. Arun says:

    If I want to know something about science, I go to the experts – the scientists. If I want to know something about religion, I go, of course, to the masses of lay believers. It makes a lot of sense :)

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  86. Arun says:

    I won’t bother with the citation, just read this because it is fun:

    “…Bayle and Voltaire had their famous controversy precisely with respect to the possibility of a Nation of Atheists. However, the difficulty lay in conceptualising such a society: how, in
    the absence of a conception of God, could such a Nation survive at all? Why would people keep the promises they make, if they did not fear punishment in the hereafter? How could a culture emerge in such a society, where people could never rely on each other’s word? Neither commerce nor industry would be possible; ruin and desolation would be the fate of such a nation of atheists.

    Even here, the ground was prepared by the Christian missionaries. Almost a century before the famous debate between Bayle and Voltaire, the Jesuits were embroiled in a controversy with the Franciscan and Dominican orders about this issue. To these Christians, as well as the massive reading public that followed these disputes avidly for nearly a century, it was not a debate about a hypothetical society. Instead, it was about an old and civilized culture: China. The accumulating travel reports about the Africas and the Americas were suggesting that most of the native peoples there knew neither of God nor of the Devil. When the Christian missionaries met the Chinese culture, however, the issue took on an explosive form. The Confucian thought did not appear to
    countenance either God or the Devil. If this ‘doctrine’ was native to the Chinese culture, how was the nation to be characterised before ‘Buddhism’ came there? The latter, a religion of the illiterate masses, was mostly written off as gross idolatry. What about the Confucian doctrine?

    Fuelled partially by the rivalry between different orders within the Catholic Church (the Jesuits on the one side and the Franciscans and the Dominicans ranged on the other), and partially by the genuine need to understand an alien culture, the conflict and the dispute required the intervention not merely of Sorbonne but of the Holy See itself. (See the brilliant work of Kors 1990, which should be read as a correction to Manuel 1959, 1983.)

    What was at stake in this discussion, which lasted a century, conducted both in the pages of the popular press and through scholarly tracts? Let me allow two Jesuit fathers from the eighteenth century to come forward and testify. The first is Louis Le Comte:

    Would it not be…dangerous [for religion] to [say] that the ancient Chinese,
    like those of the present, were atheists? For would not the Libertines draw
    great advantage from the confession that would be made to them, that in
    so vast, so ancient, so enlightened, so solidly established, and so flourishing
    an Empire, [measured] either by the multitude of its inhabitants or by
    the invention of almost all the arts, the Divinity never had been acknowledged?
    What would become thus of the arguments that the holy fathers, in
    proving the existence of God, drew from the consent of all peoples, in
    whom they claimed that nature had so deeply imprinted the idea of Him,
    that nothing could erase it. (Italics selectively retained.) And, above all,
    why would they have gone to all the trouble of assembling with so much
    care all the testimonies that they could find in the books of the gentile
    philosophers to establish this truth, if they had not believed that it was
    extremely important to use it in that way…? (Cited in Kors 1990: 171-172;
    second italics mine.)

    Almost a hundred years into this furious debate, Joseph Lafite wrote a tract summarising the discussion. Pleading the cause of the Jesuits, he warns his fellow-brethren to take heed:

    One of the strongest proofs against [the atheists]…is the unanimous consent
    of all peoples in acknowledging a Supreme being…This argument
    would give way, however, if it were true that there is a multitude of nations…
    that have no idea of any God…From that, the atheist would seem
    to reason correctly by concluding that if there is almost an entire world of
    people that have no religion, that found among other peoples is the work of
    human discretion and is a contrivance of legislators who created it to control
    people by fear, the mother of superstition (ibid: 177; my italics).

    Lafite sought to “reestablish the proof,” as Kors emphasises (ibid),

    “however, not against the arguments of any atheists, but against a whole
    seventeenth-century tradition of his fellow learned Christians.”


    (The Heathen In His Blindness)
    For this blog post, the title “The Atheist in His Blindness” may be appropriate. The blindness here is that Sean Carroll is accepting the Christian narrative of the world as a universal and correct description of human culture. The Heathen pretty much did the same.

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  87. The folks who are saying that “miracles might be rare” and such are missing a key point: namely, that science also works by “consilience” …

    Furthermore, I have yet to find a religion (taken as a personal thing, anyway) that does not have at least one incompatible-with-science-view. Which is not to say they are *equally* guilty in this regard. Holding some sort of vague mind-body dualism is not as wrong as the stuff with the 6000 year old universe creationists.

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  89. per says:

    Religion is more than what the wacky right wingers in America or the bearded priests in Iran make it out to be. You should open your eyes to its inner meaning, that is, a psychological map to higher state of consciousness, instead of ranting about obvious things such as the incompatibility of fundamentalism with science.

    What you call religion has nothing to do with religion. Don’t use intellectual arguments on a black and white definition.

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  90. TimG says:

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that science and miracles are incompatible? It seems to me that it is possible to have a religion with no claims of miracles, even if in practice this is usually not the case. Let’s say someone believes that there is a God, by which I mean some sort of intelligent entity who created the universe and wrote down all the laws of physics and whatnot. (I realize that you, Sean, believe in existence extending back before the big bang, so perhaps it’s nonsensical to you to talk about “creating the universe”, but certainly science hasn’t conclusively determined there was a time before the big bang. Plus someone could perhaps conceive of a God who created all moments of time at once, but in just such a way that one moment is related to the next according to physical laws of how the world should evolve.)

    Certainly you could say that there is no evidence for such a God, but that just means his existence isn’t a scientific conclusion, not that it conflicts with any accepted scientific conclusion. There’s no evidence that human beings ought to be kind to each other either (due to the well known problem of deducing “ought” from “is”), but that doesn’t mean a belief in the value of kindness conflicts with science.

    Surely a belief in such a God would constitute a religion (especially if we tack on some rules about how this God wants us to live our lives), but as long as we don’t have him performing miracles, I fail to see the conflict with science. You could argue that someone shouldn’t believe in such a religion given the lack of evidence, but that’s a different sort of criticism than saying it is incompatible with science.

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  91. joel rice says:

    The issue is the role of traditions rather than logic.
    What would Isaac Newton think of this blog ?
    It is interesting to consider the influence puritans
    had on science, as well as the other way around.
    It seems crazy to think that billions of people are
    going to read Hamilton’s Elements of Quaternions,
    or study the classification of finite simple groups,
    rather than reading Scripture. There are only so
    many hours in a day to reconcile ideas, if they can
    be reconciled – since when is that any different than
    classical physicists not wanting to wrestle with
    Einstein and Bohr ? It is a messy and multi-generational
    process. It is also unavoidably political. We got rid of Kings
    by arguing that ‘the only king is Jesus’ . Oh gee, that is not
    politically correct. Does anyone think that a nation of
    tenant farmers would build Fermilab ? Some thought that
    illiteracy was a good thing, and sought to preserve it.
    I wonder how far Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens would get
    if people were illiterate.
    My athiestical credentials are having been sent home from
    sunday school on the first day with a note to my mother -
    I had asked why we have to cover our eyes while Sister Mary
    drew a circle to represent the perfection of God. But credit
    where credit is due. In the big picture my complaints were
    small potatos.

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  92. tacitus says:


    Religion is more than what the wacky right wingers in America or the bearded priests in Iran make it out to be.

    True, though in the context of American and Iranian societies, one cannot easily dismiss the influence of those “wacky right wingers” on issues concerning science.

    You should open your eyes to its inner meaning, that is, a psychological map to higher state of consciousness, instead of ranting about obvious things such as the incompatibility of fundamentalism with science.

    Revelation is revelation whether you call it “God” or a “higher state of consciousness.” What your claiming to be religion is no more logical or scientific than that of the “wacky right wingers” and makes about as much sense.

    What you call religion has nothing to do with religion. Don’t use intellectual arguments on a black and white definition.

    Of course it has. Claiming otherwise is being as wrongheaded as those Christians who say that they are not religious but in a “relationship with God.”

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  93. tacitus @68 – What you say about the “Matrix universe” is only true if the simulation is both perfect and neutral. I’m not going to speculate here about its perfection, but I think that you can say something about its neutrality. A “neutral” matrix universe is one run much like the watchmaker or clockmaker deities of the enlightenment – just set up the physical laws, establish initial conditions, and let it run. However, there is no guarantee that the simulation would be neutral, in other words, that the entity or entities doing the simulation might not intervene in various ways. You could even make arguments to say that intervention is likely and so that the interventionist simulations would dominate the neutral ones, implying that we are highly likely to be living in an interventionist matrix universe. I am not saying that I believe in any of this, but these arguments can be made.

    You will, no doubt, note the similarity between living in a nterventionist matrix universe and the world-view of many religions. I am going to go out on a limb here and predict that, as science continues to advance, there will be matrix universe religions, or existing religions will evolve in that direction. Why would God create the universe with dinosaur bones in the rocks ? That sounds highly arbitrary and unlikely, but saying that the simulation had to begin with a consistent set of initial conditions sounds much more scientific and reasonable.

    I would not count on the inability of religion, and the religious impulse, to accommodate itself to the advance of science and technology, and this is just one of the ways that I could see that happening.

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  94. Interesting commentary … but it should have been titled, “Evolution and Christianity are Not

    Since there is NO empirical science supporting evolution, evolution needs to be referred to the religion of Humanism

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  95. tacitus says:


    A Matrix simulation with an interventionist administrator is no more discernible from reality than a neutral one (unless that administrator deliberately decides to come clean to those inside the simulation, but that’s changing the rules of the game).

    After all, what would be the difference between a Matrix manipulation and a miraculous intervention from God? None that I can see — we would still have no way to distinguish between reality and simulation.

    I don’t know about the possible rise of Matrix religions. There is something fundamentally unsatisfying about the thought that we’re being manipulated and (in a way) deceived by another finite being (even if they are God in our simulated Universe).

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  96. “Religion” is an awfully broad catagory. Do all forms of religion make objective claims about the world? I know people who take religion as a kind of poetry–an aesthetic experience where content is subordinate to form. But this raises the question of whether poetry is compatable with science? I’m not trying to be cute. As a writer of fiction and poetry, this is a serious question, and one not altogether unrelated to science and religion. (A brief digression: one can, with care, define what sciene is–or at least distinguish what is and is not science. ‘Religion’ is impossible to define–given the extraordinary range of behaviors, customs and beliefs most would agree to be ‘religious.’ Unless one more stictly defines what is meant by ‘religion,’ the question makes no sense at all).

    But.. .my real question: is content in the form of propositions about the world aesthetically weak if not compatable with scientific understanding? If not, why not? What is the difference between aesthetic and ‘religious’ propositions? Walter Pater believed that all art should aspire to the condition of music: a powerful romantic idea, but realizing that idea in art that involves language is problematic. You’ve blogged here about how science is represented in films. Is a deliberate misrepresentation of a scientific priciple an aesthetic flaw as well? Why? Why not?

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  97. John Merryman says:

    Arun, 86;

    That is an interesting historical insight. It goes further in examining how science and religion do co-exist and conflict in the same society, than facile denunciations of miracle claims. Those claims do serve an obvious social function, as a form of mental indoctrination, or rite of initiation into the group. Sean is a very focused and mentally disciplined individual, so maybe there is a personal quandary being played out, possibly trying to reconcile the rigor of his Catholic upbringing, with the rational worldview it has lead him to. He might consider advancing a more nuanced inquiry, given the depth of his knowledge of both.
    Personally I think relativism, as the basis of morality, isn’t given proper credit. The dictum of doing unto others, as you would have them do unto you, is moral relativism at its most basic. If I weigh my actions against God, it is a matter of how I and my particular sect defines God, but if I weigh my actions against the rest of reality, then it pushes back in a very fundamental fashion. Karma is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Good and bad are the elemental binary code of biology, the attraction of the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental, not just some conflict between the forces of light and dark.
    If science really wants to replace religion, it has to do more than just serve as a foil for reactionaries.

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  98. KiwiDamien says:

    Hi Sean,

    I think the most contentious claim you made is

    Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

    As SA states in 14 the particular events with Jesus and Moses science has very little to say. I wanted to add a little more to that. You have claimed that an answer like “a sense of wonderment of the universe” should not be called a religion as it has the potential to confuse people. Instead you want to reserve the term for supernatural occurrences. But if you take this view, don’t you require that “miraculous events” counter the laws of the natural world? The reason that Jesus being resurrected is a religious claim of the supernatural is that the laws of the natural world (presumably) say such an event is impossible.

    [Of course, one is quickly lead into arguments about "natural laws" (which are presumably unchanging) and the "laws of science" by which I mean our current best approximation to natural laws. It can reasonably be asked if we could ever find a supernatural event, as we find events that violate the laws of science all the time which we then use to make better laws of science. The best description I could have for a supernatural event is one in which repeatable experiments give a consistent outcomes except in very rare and isolated cases.]

    I don’t actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I do agree that we are giving religion a lot more “wiggle room” than we would give almost any other subject confronted with evidence. But I feel that the idea of miracles as being an exception to natural law does undermine the idea that science says particular miracles did not happen. So I think that the accommodation argument is slightly better than you have presented them here.

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  99. Al Moritz says:

    Sean says:
    “Rob, thinking that resurrections or other miracles might occasionally happen, even non-systematically, is (in my view) not good science.”

    Wrong, it is simply not science at all. Science requires reproducibility, which is not the case with one-off things like miracles. Science cannot say anything about miracles if the results are not traceable by evidence that can be investigated in the here and now. To say that thinking that miracles might occcasionally happen is not good science confuses science with philosophy (i.e. methodological naturalism equals philosophical naturalism, which is not true). And if you say that science encompasses all reality, then this is not a scientific statement either, but a philosophical one as well.

    To believe that a good scientist must assume philosophical naturalism (the natural world is all there is), instead of just following methodological naturalism (always search for natural causes in your work) is wrong. Certainly, all religious scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, would disagree with such a belief.

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  100. LucianSK says:

    “Those people believe in a supernatural being called “God” who created the universe, is intensely interested in the behavior of human beings, and occasionally intervenes miraculously in the natural world. Again: I am not making this up.”

    When you talk about Religion you aren’t talking about the dictionary definition, you are talking about Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. I believe in a God but I don’t believe in the supernatural like ghosts. I believe God should be defined through science and math.

    That being said when you lump all religious people into a stereotype how is it any different than sexism, racism etc? If you hate Christianity, Islam and Judaism, take on THOSE religions and stop blaming religion as a concept.

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  101. raincrow says:

    Science is a fabulous methodology for exploring all the stuff in creation (i.e., the Big Bang) and explaining how it operates, but is completely silent on where all the raw material for creation came from. And in that astounding silence is the fundament of all being, the mystery which some people call God, the Creator, etc., etc., etc. Studies indicate most humans (80%? I’ve lost track of the %) perceive the existence of this fundament. The remainder do not. Although the subject has been very poorly studied to date, there are indications this perception has a genetic basis. People who do not perceive the presence of a Creator/God go on and on and on and on brightly intellectualizing, assuring themselves that ~80% of the species is delusional. And I (who perceive the presence of a Creator/God as clearly as I perceive the existence of my arms and legs) just smile as I watch a spectacle comparable to someone genetically colorblind loudly asserting that there is no such thing as “blue,” all the artworks that purport to depict/use “blue” are a grand waste of our species’ time, the billions who claim to perceive “blue” are sad victims of mass delusion, and the mythical existence of “blue” merely adds unlikely and unnecessary complications to theories of physics, time-space, and the origin of the universe.

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  102. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this conversation.

    In case you are interested, the United Church of Christ published a letter last year on the importance of religion and science engaging each other more intelligently. You can find it here.

    Link to the letter on the left at the Pastoral Letter tab. Link to a sermon I wrote in response is in the main body of the text.

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  103. Bradley Evans says:

    You are RIGHT.

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  104. Pingback: Responding to Sean Carroll: What If There Had Been a Camera at the Resurrection? | The Intersection | Discover Magazine

  105. Tim Carroll says:

    As usual, a fairly ridiculous and uninformed conversation about science and religion by someone based in Western religion and philosophy. Hence the need to defend the notion of faith and whether there is a God or not against science. Please. Can’t we get a bit beyond this?

    Please read anything by Ken Wilber or even the Dalai Lama for that matter. American Buddhism in particular moved on from this conversation years ago. However, it requires a much more sophisticated understanding of what is the domain and truth claims of religious experience and what is the domain and truth claims of science. These two are not incompatible, just different

    Organized religion, on the other hand, especially Western religion, which uses symbols of consciousness in a mostly unconscious way, is almost always a crock and highly dangerous to boot. (As they say in Buddhism, “If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him.”) The whole notion of defending “faith” as something profound opens the door to all the crazies out there. It also stops a more profound spiritual evolution based on doubt, curiosity, and the need to personally verify received wisdom. Don’t trust. Verify!

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  106. tacitus says:

    Eastern religion has as much basis for its existence as western religion — i.e. nothing but feelings and hearsay. I will admit that having a dominant religion around that wasn’t so willing to control and proselytize would be much more palatable but, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t make it any more true.

    I’m fine with people wanting to meditate on the meaning of life and other existential matters, and I am sure that people could learn a thing or two from doing so, but let’s not pretend that that type of religion has any more validity behind it from a supernatural sense than any other.

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  107. raincrow says:

    Most anti-religionists I have encountered in these kinds of comment threads BELIEVE they are engaging in the rigorous parsing of ideas that accompany rational thought but completely fail to do so — I think of it as “faith-based rationality.” It’s just another flavor of “WE know what’s really true and YOU ARE WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.”


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  108. Stew says:

    its not so much the incompatibility between science and religion, but science and the idea of a god; at least the christian version. After all, what was it that got Adam kicked out of paradise? Surely not Eve; a talking snake, c’mon. Actually, it was nothing more than pure unadulterated curiosity, and the innate desire to know. Apparently, Adam very quickly understood the importance of an informed, inquiring, mind and Eve as well, especially in how she would share the forbidden fruit of knowledge with him; first people?first sin?first scientists!

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  109. VFRMark says:

    Science IS a religion but, religion IS NOT a science…
    Seriously though, you will find that the two subjects of science and religion mesh quite well as soon as you take the BS out of religion and science finally comes to grips with the quantum relm, one day when my time comes I can ask GOD how he invented the torsion field….

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  110. Pingback: Science, Religion, Humanity and other unknowns « Hypertiling

  111. Pingback: Science and Religion are Not Compatible

  112. Brian says:

    This argument is a pointless pursuit, unless the goal is to provide yet another avenue for people to eventually scream in all caps at each other.

    The foundation science rests on is arguably made of facts, the purpose is to bolster the foundation. Likewise, religion is built on faith, and arguably, it’s purpose is also to bolster it’s foundation.

    Somewhere in between are ethicists who crack heads of both camps.

    If by incompatible you also mean that the combining of the two shows the worst of both, I agree. Gotta run, have to pay tithes to Gore via carbon credits or I’ll be damned to a lifetime of listening to Hansen pretend that he’s both a policy maker and an honest scientist.

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  113. tacitus says:

    raincrow, from your previous post, it’s plain you don’t know the difference between science and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. I’m willing to listen to religious ideas, but they at least have to make some sense.

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  114. JimV says:

    This is, I think, one of the clearest and most respectful of the postings which I have seen on my side of the current “accommodationist” debate which Dr. Coyne has sparked. Yet people write comments to tell us we misunderstand religions and/or hate them. All my close relatives are religious, tending towards the fundamentalist side of the spectrum. I was brought up hearing the same sermons and reading the same bible. A) I don’t hate my relatives and friends who are religious, and as for hating religion, its like soylent green – it’s people, just people. B) I understand calculus better than most of them – why am I necessarily the one whose understanding is limited?

    If it is all allegorical, like Aesop’s Fables, then why all the mysticism? If religion claims special revelations unachievable to atheist thinkers, or miracles attributable to the requested intercession of supernatural agents, then it is unscientific (in this universe). If it is just allegory, then it is unnecessary. (I can read Mencken or Mark Twain instead.)

    While visiting relatives a few years ago, I went to Sunday church with them. The adult Sunday School class was a taped presentation rebutting “The DaVinci Code”. The pastor asked the class what the consequences would be if the novel’s premise (that Jesus was a mortal man) were true. “Then I should be playing golf right now,” one of the flock replied.

    I have three cable channels which are all that sort of religion, all the time (and more on Sunday). The deists so far have zero full-time channels, as do the atheists. When the deists and atheists have equal time, or the theists have better evidence, I will reassess my non-accommodationist view. In the meantime, being told that I am a hater who has dim understanding reinforces my view.

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  115. blanton says:

    I still am confused about one thing, Sean. Virtually every
    scientific result we take to be true these days has gone through a
    very specific process of publication and peer review, along with
    the formulation of *specific* hypotheses and their experimental

    Why haven’t I seen the demonstration of the likely non-existence
    of God go through this process? The scientific process is the gold
    standard for the determination of truth in our day and age. And
    it would be an important and highly cited result if it could be
    convincingly made.

    I suspect the main issue is that the theory of God has no specific
    hypotheses that anybody agrees on in detail (and not in the trivial
    way, say, that theories of galaxy formation don’t have any consistent
    hypotheses, just because they are very difficult to formulate in a
    testable way, but for deeper and more fundamental reasons).

    However, whatever the issue, why should I take seriously what
    a few armchair philosophers who happen to be scientists think
    on this issue? Your opinions aren’t on par with other scientific
    results, because they have not gone through the same process
    of truth-seeking — that communal vetting — that real scientific
    results have.

    As a recent example, I can argue to my friends and family, that
    yes, you should really believe that the land around Juneau is
    rising — I can read a number of peer-reviewed articles about
    it in JGR by otherwise well-cited researchers, and I can read those
    articles and make [some] sense of their hypotheses and the tests
    of those hypotheses. I simply cannot use the same tools (even
    JGR, which seems like a relevant place to start!) to argue
    that science has made it untenable to believe in God. Where’s
    the documentation and the clear-cut test?

    Scientists haven’t addressed the issue using standard scientific
    techniques, so they oughtn’t claim that they have done so. We
    should concentrate on public education about the scientific
    process, and about things that we actually CAN state with
    scientific certainty. Some of those things will conflict with what
    some religions say. People can evaluate for themselves how
    it affects their faith.

    P.S. I guess there is no type of philosopher other than an
    “armchair” one. Excuse the invective!

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  116. ChrisS says:

    “Science and religion are NOT compatible” is a vacuous statement. There are many religions and many views of science. So, is the correct statement: “no science is compatible with any religion.” Well that’s not true, as the “science” of “intelligent design” could be compatible with a form of fundamentalist christianity. There is no consensus as to what is a TRUE science or a TRUE religion.

    I prefer to look at it this way: A religionist believes in their own personal religion. That is, they believe their religion is TRUE. Well, equivalent religions that believe the same truths are really the same religion. So….no two different religions can both be true. That is, religionists believe all the religions are FALSE except theirs. I simply believe all religions are FALSE. Period. That is, out of all the things believed to be TRUE in a particular religion, at least one is FALSE.

    In a way that is my “religion”: I don’t know what is the truth (about certain religious tenets, such as creation or the existence of the supernatural). But I believe that anyone who says they do know is lying.

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  117. jim says:

    Awareness based on the specifity of a species limits the individual but allows collectives to be aware of phenomenon that are not readily apparent. Group theory, common denominators of reference points or perspectives, and training allow us to “see” and “communicate.” Science and religion seek to accomodate the same goal; to perceive and understand the truth. Science and even religion are dynamic and constantly changing with respect to time. To say that religion and science can never be reconciled is arrogant, shortsighted, and foolish. The Cosmos is my “higher power” and accomodates everything in it rather nicely. The initial reference frame we share (knock on wood) is what validates a theory or claim as truth or natural law. Most theologians already make accomodations for extraterrestrial life including the Vatican, Jews, and Muslims. I’ve yet to meet a scientist who could predict based on his theory like Mozart composed sonatas. I’ve yet to meet a religious person who at some point or another didn’t adapt their beliefs based on uncontrovertable new information. Religion is based on theory just a much as science is even if the faithful are unwilling to admit it. Observe the religious person long enough and inevitably they change. Religion is the poor man’s science where your only instrument for discovery is the human body; what we feel often determines what you think about how you feel. I beleive that as our understanding of the human nervous system grows, our understanding of religion will be justified by science and that the discoveries along the way about the rest of the physical universe will help unify the two.

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  118. Doug says:

    When people argue against using the example of using the supernatural beliefs to define religion, they are entirely missing the point of Sean’s argument. Are you saying that Southern Baptism is not a religion? What he means by messing with the definition of religion is confusing the reason any individual may participate with – which is exactly what you do by talking about belief in some vague higher power, or respect for tradition, or access to certain states of consciousness as religion. Those are personal reasons for adhering to a religion, but the religion itself is the set of practices and beliefs that the people share in common. From this point I think the rest of Sean’s argument follows quite clearly, so I have nothing further to add, except that from the point of view of us non-accommodationists it is precisely this this intertwining of beliefs and practices that is so pernicious. Science can very clearly say that much of religious belief is ludicrous, but because in practice there is so much emotion tied to it that people cannot even accept factual evidence in conflict with what they believe. This is a problem not unique to the religious mindset, just particularly embodied by it – perfected one may say.

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  119. tom says:

    @friberg: those statements were not originally intended to be metaphorical.

    Everyone who’s trying to cling to the notion that science and religion are compatible is just proving Carroll’s point.

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  120. John Merryman says:

    Topical article in Time a few weeks ago, by Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God.,9171,1902851,00.html

    Takeaway; The meme is adaptable and profoundly tribal. What’s good for the group is God’s Word.

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  121. Saurabh says:


    However, you must be careful not to generalize your connotation of the word ‘religion’ as its general meaning. There are billions of religious people whose religious beliefs are far from the world ‘was built in 6 days’ statement. As an example, Japuji Sahib, the main text of the Sikhs (disclaimer: I am not a Sikh), states how the nature of reality is mysterious, the unity in supreme reality etc. Zen Buddhism, which is a popular religion in itself, is far from the ‘Moses parted the Red Sea’ rhetoric and focuses on a person’s self-discovery through a system of self-questioning and meditation.

    Religion is, depending upon cultures and countries and customs, a very differently understood word. A lot of the world’s major religions are more about meditation, self-understanding, and philosophical aspects of our existence.

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  122. amrit sorli says:

    When observer in science will become conscious this will connect science and religion.

    yours Amrit Sorli

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  123. rob says:

    the question of whether or not religion and science are compatible makes as much sense as whether or not santa and science are compatible.

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  124. Jeff says:

    Deism is a great safety net for anyone who fears God and advocating it isn’t as likely to polarize people as much as the other two. It’s as logical as anything else we’ve hypothesized, yet doesn’t claim total knowledge of the subject, or even a capacity to acquire such knowledge.
    If there is a creator, he probably knows quite well the physical laws that hold the universe together, so, as the architect of the universe he would be able to apply these laws to his creation. It seems more reasonable to fathom for the human mind than saying everything just “is”, or claiming all knowledge of the creation is explicitly covered in a book.

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  125. raincrow says:

    Ah, tacitus, so we enter a “my pub list is longer than yours” contest! I wonder how extensively you’ve written on scientific thought, experimental design, the philosophy and methodology of excluding/including data that is inconvenient to one’s hypothesis, etc.? I long ago grew tired of hearing the same old stuff from folks who claim to be educated and rationalist, then proudly exhibit blatant ignorance and dogmatism when it comes to matters of world religious beliefs/practices and science. I don’t pretend to be a sophisticated and thorough thinker when it somes to physical chemistry or plant physiology, or whatever your field of research is. Perhaps you shouldn’t pretend to be a sophisticated and thorough thinker when it comes to matters of religious faith. Maybe you need to get out a little more.

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  126. Stephen Friberg says:

    On June 24th, Phillip Helbig quoted me as saying:

    >“You are taking allegorical statements like “God made the universe in six days,”
    > “Jesus died and was resurrected,” and “Moses parted the red sea” and
    > conflating them with scientific fact statements.”

    He then made an interesting comment and asked an important question:

    > The historical fact is that no-one considered these to be allegorical until
    > science started making them look very unlikely. YOU say they are
    > allegorical. Why?

    Let me try to answer. This is an important issue because a very common argument against religion these days is that it is a kind of pre-scientific science and that it’s truth statements are primitive – and wrong – truth statements of a scientific type. Carroll is making this type of argument in saying that science and religion are incompatible.

    Clearly, many religionists, including such distinguished early Christian church figures as Saint Augustine and medieval authorities such as Thomas Aquinas did not mistake allegorical truth for scientific fact. The historical record is very rich on the issue of the relationships between “natural philosophy” and religious allegory, and indeed it is one of the main topics of study in fields like medieval studies, Islamic studies, or late classical studies.

    So it is simply a mistake to assume that religious allegory was always interpreted as science. However, it is highly probable that the poorly educated did so.

    If you are interested in European history, you might consider looking into the emergence of modern science in the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Galileo was a major figure in that scientific revolution.

    Galileo’s fight was not with allegorical religious truth – he seems to have had no problem at all with it. Rather, his fight was with Aristotelian science and Aristotelian philosophy that had been absorbed into Catholicism as unassailable dogma. In other words, the big fight was between old science and new science, not science vs. religious allegory.

    Another thing you might consider looking into was the relationship between religious allegory and Hellenistic science in the late classical age. Judaism and especially Christianity came of age in cultures permeated with Hellenistic rationalism, the precursor to modern science. What this means is that for classically educated Christian – and later Islamic – elites the difference between allegory and what then considered natural philosophy was no great mystery.

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  127. Rob Knop says:

    Sean — whether or not you’ve taken a lot of philosophy of religion classes, use of the term “the God hypothesis” misses the point. It reduces that which religion talks about to a scientific model. If you want to treat God purely scientifically, yeah, I’d say that the God Hypothesis is something like MOND — it has been used by people to explain some mystifying observations, but is no longer useful in explaining those observations as we have other explanations that are extremely well supported by data.

    But, while a lot of people continue to use religion as a way of explaining the mechanisms of natural events even though science has completely obsoleted religion’s role in that realm, there is more to religion than that, a lot more. You’re only tearing down one part of religion.

    A thread on Chris Mooney’s blog pointed me (in the comments) to this review of Dawin’s “The God Deulsion”.

    I recommend it. In particular, I’m fond of this paragraph: Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

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  128. Larry Moran says:

    Mededith #35 says,

    I think you’d be surprised to find how many people are willing to flex the rules of their religious traditions and practices to reach an integration mindset with science.

    I don’t know about Sean but I’d be surprised.

    There are probably millions of people who THINK they’ve watered down their religion enough to be compatible with science but as soon as you start asking questions like, “Do you believe in miracles?” or “Do you believe that prayers are answered?” the illusion evaporates.

    If those questions don’t work then try, “Do you believe in a soul?” or “Do you believe in life after death?” If you get a “no” answer to all four questions then you can proceed to the more difficult ones.

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  129. Jason says:

    Sean, thanks for articulating such a well reasoned article. You’ve said it better than I could have and I appreciate it.

    Hopefully you’ve not been inundated w/ hate mail.

    Keep up the good work.

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  130. RedRat says:

    Arun Says:
    June 24th, 2009 at 4:52 am

    I won’t bother with the citation, just read this because it is fun:

    “…Bayle and Voltaire had their famous controversy precisely with respect to the possibility of a Nation of Atheists. However, the difficulty lay in conceptualising such a society: how, in the absence of a conception of God, could such a Nation survive at all? Why would people keep the promises they make, if they did not fear punishment in the hereafter? How could a culture emerge in such a society, where people could never rely on each other’s word? Neither commerce nor industry would be possible; ruin and desolation would be the fate of such a nation of atheists.
    I would disagree with this conclusion. It implies that all contracts (social, business, and legal) are dependent on the existence of some mythological being. Right now, contracts are violated, when they are, the government steps in imposes legal remedies. If you are discussing Morality, this also does not need a God. Morality is nothing more than a people determining what is correct behavior and what a social group stands for.

    Morality is not immutable. Even if we look at the U.S. and its history, at one time it was “moral” to own slaves, same goes for Europe even when the Christian faith (mostly the Catholic Church) was the governing principle. Same goes for other parts of the world. Some moral codes sometimes appear universal, e.g., “thou shall not steal”, but we find that when you get down to specifics there is plenty of wiggle room around even that simple statement. You can’t steal from your country’s fellow man, but you can steal from other countries, etc. The largest universal “Thou shall not kill” has so many loopholes as to be, for practical purposes, non-existent at a moral code.

    Religion is really a creation of social organization. How else can a large populated society keep order than by inferring that the leader speaks for some Deity, and if you don’t follow his/her rules, you will meet punishment in an afterlife for eternity. Religion allows a society to very economically maintain order without having to put a policeman on each and every corner and in every building. It also serves the state in that it creates bogeymen to instill fear into the population and keep that population tuned to whoever their leader might be. In the end, religion is a tool that societies use for controlling their population and maintaining order.

    Is there a God? There might be but that being cannot be the one of our various legends and myths. Since I believe in the “Big Bang” and accept the current science about the universe, if there is a God it is not what you read in the various “Holy Books” of any religious stripe. This God, must be beyond all space and time (after it created this universe and everything in it). Is that God personally interested in our comings and goings, NO!

    We must accept that our “Holy Books” are nothing more than the codified collection of our various culture’s myths and stories that helped to explain their everyday world. The Bible, Upanishads, Koran, the stories of Mt. Olympus, all are of the same stripe and equally valid. In fact, those old Roman and Greek Gods sometime make more sense than our Judeo-Christian Bible, i.e., ever try rectifying the God of the Old Testament with the New Testament?

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  131. Mark says:

    Great post, very clear, plain language, really excellent writing … but. Sorry to nitpick, but not buying cars on Sundays isn’t a religious issue anymore. Hardly any religious people are against it. However the car dealerships (their employees) want a day off that most other people have off. They would never propose changing this blue law, and if anybody did (who would?), they would fiercely oppose it.

    Very defensive Minnesotan. It took at least 5 viewings of Fargo before I stopped wincing.

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  132. Pingback: The great accommodationism debate « Evolving Thoughts

  133. Samson says:

    the conclusions of natural science are by definition natural, the conclusion of theology is by definition spiritual. the natural has an explanation of the spiritual, and the spiritual has an explanation of the natural. what, however, the natural can never explain is how it came to existence. what the spiritual can never explain is how the Prime Mover came to exist.

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  134. UUinMich says:

    Religion and religious communities can be good and powerful in many peoples lives. However, some religions make claims which are demonstrably untrue (YEC, etc.). Your resolution to this dilemma is to discard religion lock, stock and barrel (or throwing the baby out with the bathwater).
    There are other possibilities, however.
    As several commenters have noted, your mental image of “religion” seems to be nearly iodentical with American evangelical Christianity. This most assuredly is a form of religion which is incompatible with a scientific worldview. It is not, however, definitional for all forms of religion. A belief in or acceptance of some church dogma (or divine revelation via a received text) is not completely normative for religion, either.
    One way we can minimize the problems of this conflict is to redefine what religion “means” in America. By that effort, we may be able to change the definition of what religion is from one that is compatible with what the average person on the street may currently define it to be into a more open definition, where dogma and revelation are NOT trying to tell us untrue things about the world.
    For case histories, please see some local Unitarians. They may be able to tell you that you CAN have a religion without dogma or revelation. You can have your cake and eat it too – U-U’s get to play in church softball leagues, have pot luck meals and share in ceremonial acknowledgements of big life events (births, weddings, deaths, etc.) and STILL be able to distinguish fact from fiction.
    And you know that religion CAN be re-defined. It has happened many times over the course of our evolutionary history (polytheism to monotheism, blood-bathed “mystery religions” to communion, etc., etc). Maybe it would be a good time to cut away the diseased and unhealthy parts of religion rather than to shoot the patient.

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  135. rob says:

    scientist: Listen, strange men living in the sky distributing psalms is no basis for a system of rational inquiry. Supreme descriptive power derives from a methodical verification of theories, not from some farcical interpretation of ancient books.

    theist: Be quiet!

    scientist: Well, but you can’t expect to discover scientific explanations of the world just interpretin’ literature some airy tart dictated at you!

    theist: Shut up!

    scientist: I mean, if I went ’round saying the universe was created in 6 days just because some arsonous bint talked to me from a burning bush, they’d put me away!

    theist: Shut up, will you. Shut up!

    scientist: Ah, now we see the intolerance inherent in the system.

    theist: Shut up!

    scientist: Oh! Come and see the intolerance inherent in the system! Help, help! I’m being repressed!

    theist: Bloody atheist!

    scientist: Oh, what a give-away. Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about. Did you see him repressing me? You saw it, didn’t you?

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  136. Meredith says:

    @Larry Moran #128 (and anyone else who is interested!)

    I recommend taking a glance at the book Practicing Science, Living Faith. It is a collection of twelve interviews with leading scientists with a myriad of backgrounds that engages questions like those you mention.

    I did a significant research project for a class in 2007 exploring how folks manage to integrate religious beliefs with science. While I admittedly went in with my own person bias toward integration, I was surprised to see how many other scientists have similar views. I don’t pretend that religion OR science has all the answers, but rather I see them as places from which to probe, engage, and most importantly live the questions.

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  137. Mike says:

    Interesting piece but a little un-nuanced about what religion is, or might be.

    Religion comes in many flavours, including some non-theistic ones. It is a wider and more complex category than you imply, and is not necessarily captured in silly statements about cosmology. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is of the opinion that if there’s any part of Buddhism which is in conflict with science, then it should be reconsidered. For him religion is about consciousness, and he has embraced physics and backed neurological research into what the monks are up to. He has been perfectly happy to ditch the Buddhist cosmology, replacing it with the explanations that science offers, and relegating the older accounts to the realm of (venerable) myth and metaphor. Where does this put him? The historical Buddha made no claims whatsoever about God or the Soul. He was one among many non-theist religious thinkers of that time.

    When all is stripped away, religion is about neurology producing a change in consciousness – in a living human, in a social context. Anyone who has experienced an altered state, howsoever caused, knows this. The rest is culture and commerce.

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  138. unkleE says:

    ” we find religion making all sorts of claims about the natural world, including ….. Jesus died and was resurrected, etc. ……. But the progress of science over the last few centuries has increasingly shown these claims to be straightforwardly incorrect. We know more about the natural world now than we did two millennia ago, and we know enough to say that people don’t come back from the dead.”

    They knew quite well enough back then that people don’t come back from the dead in the natural cause of events. We just understand the physiology better now. And that’s where I believe the author here is mistaken.

    Christians who believe in the resurrection don’t believe such things can happen naturally any more than non-believers do -we simply believe there is a supernatural God who interferes in what would otherwise be a closed natural system. And I don’t see how that claim is incompatible with science, or contrary to science. Science has no way to test by its usual methods either the claim that God exists or that Jesus was resurrected.

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  139. Jim says:

    Here is my take, which is a variation of much of the above:

    The problem with your transportation analogy to clarify compatibility is that the trip we are really on is multigenerational and has many phases. It’s more like migration than a single trip. And to complicate matters, we have some idea where we’ve come from (although religion seems to cloud even this) but we still really don’t know where we are going, except, it is hoped, away from where we’ve been. So I see religion and science as two legs of the journey. Science takes you where religion can’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is no longer entirely relevant. It remains to be seen whether religion (understood broadly) can evolve into something that compliments science. It does for some (it seemed to for Einstein and Oppenheimer, but they were not your classic bible thumpers), even if the absurd national debate largely fails to take this into account. If religion can do this, it can be compatible with science.

    To switch metaphors, science is better than religion at collapsing the wave function of truth. When people had only religion, they kept trying to use it to back their behavior with certainty. In that respect, science and religion are incompatible. But as we know, the results you get from collapsing the wave function are of statistical value. Statistics point you toward possibilities and the recognition of new possibilities establishes new wave functions to probe. For anyone with a religious turn of mind but who doesn’t need to read scripture literally, science can be extremely useful as a means of contemplating divinity (infinity/limits) and looking down the road. If you believe that the world you inhabit is a reflection of God, then understanding that reflection gives you some insight into the kind of God you have.

    What we have learned from science and religion in each leg of the journey is that you can’t necessarily take what you find there at face value. So the question of compatibility between science and religion at this point is really a question of perspective.

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  140. jack_sprat says:

    Truth is, we’re all so many Flatlanders, some certain that there’s no such thing as a third dimension, others equally certain about its nature, a few who may be brilliant enough to see a glimpse beyond the limitations of their environment. The latter, I suspect, include some of those very same quantum physicists who Sean is so equally certain are mistaken. Surf the wave; Aristotle’s point has been proven, and he couldn’t have been more wrong.

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  141. Evolved-Believing says:

    To measure the compatibility between “religion” and science I think you need to go beyond the Abranamic beliefs. Just as there are many branches of “scence” there are many types of religious thought. It really boils down to a belief in what started the universe as we see it – and in reality we simply don’t know – YET.

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  144. Andy says:

    Yawn…looking forward to tomorrow’s Sunday mass and going to my university research institute afterward. This discussion will not change the mind of a single person.

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  146. Rob R. says:

    Sean: “What science does is put forward hypotheses, and use them to make predictions, and test those predictions against empirical evidence. Then the scientists make judgments about which hypotheses are more likely, given the data.”

    Well let us take the central tenet of Christianity, which you mention in your blog (and you weren’t making it up):

    Sean: “Jesus died and was resurrected”

    This happened once, and only once according to those same Scriptures and by way of a supernatural, omnipotent being, The One Most High God, intervening in the ‘natural order of things.’

    To this claim you say, “[...] science says: none of that is true.” As the first quote of yours correctly states, “What science does is put forward hypotheses, and use them to make predictions, and test those predictions against empirical evidence.

    How is it that you reached this (scientific) conclusion ["none of this is true"] without the prediction, testing and emperical evidence you say is necessary? I get that you do not believe in such things but don’t pretend that it’s because “science says.” It says no such thing, because it can’t, by defintion. Gould was right.

    That’s why it’s important to get it right.

    Science, you’re doing it wrong. You want philosophy or theology [101]… or stick with debunking specific ‘creation science’ claims.

    I’m sure this has, more than likely, already been brought up in the ~150 comments… but, I’m always reading CV but have never posted… (you’re welcome :D ) All that being said, I really enjoy your blog.


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  147. Multi-Dimensional says:

    Addressing the essay and some of the comments:
    All of the world’s religions have one thing in common, Spiritualism. I can best describe it, through my research, as individuals who have experienced a personal, spiritual awareness, to differing degrees, at some time, many times, or continually in their lives.

    There is significant data proving that the majority of people in the world are “religious”, not only today, but always have been, as far back as recorded history began. The only changing factor is the type of religions practiced by varying groups. And the common denominator is the Spiritual experience. Social studies like all sciences, is quantitative and relevant.

    The majority of people in the world are not inferior (mathematical improbability). It is true, that those with the highest IQ’s account for less than 3% of the population. And it is also true, that the majority of these gifted individuals believe in some form of Spiritualism. Added, the majority of these gifted individuals do not succeed at higher levels than average IQ individuals. For the most part, they lead “average” lives.

    Almost all people in the world rationalize, and make decisions/choices that are fueled by free-will. It is true that life experiences influence decisions. But, the dominating factor in every choice is free-will. It is rare that individuals don’t think, or exercise free-will past the reasoning age (varies by individual, but generally occurs some time in adolescence). In the US, we have based our court systems, and age requirements on this fact.

    There are studies that have defined a process more susceptible to “brainwashing” as being most likely to effect results, if begun prior to age five, and consistently continued through adolescence. However, these studies indicate that although this practice may achieve the initial desired results, it generally only prolongs adherence, past the teen years, by two to five years.

    On this note, it is unreasonable to conclude that the majority of humans in the world today are blindly following any set of imposed religious theories. It is improbable that the majority of adults would continue a time-consuming practice in which they have experienced no personal, benefiting results. It is most common for young adults to define themselves, based on personal experience, and thought, in self-serving terms, in early adulthood.

    One also should not assume that the majority are swayed to Spiritualism solely in response to difficult times, or events in their lives. Although personal difficulties and traumatic events may initially cause some individuals to seek Spiritualism, if a reasonable personal impression is not made, the effect will be temporary, and the Spiritualism unlikely to pervade.

    It is important to study all of the puzzle pieces, with an open mind, in order to advance. Important details are missed, when focus on specific fields only, are pursued. “A Scientific mind is an Open Mind”. The closed mindedness can be likened to our FBI/Police systems, who don’t share relative information, and therefore never can achieve at the highest levels.

    Why not pursue the scientific aspects of religions’ common denominator, Spiritualism, in conjunction with science, in terms of relative issues. Such as finding a way to track the energy that leaves a dying body. Where does it go? It doesn’t die. Can we develop a tool to track its travel via its frequencies? And if so, how far can we track it? Does it disperse, remain somewhat intact, is it recycled, does it vary by individual, etc?

    Or even easier, what about detailed studies into human energy frequencies emitted, in terms of various emotional states, such as those “spiritual” states, the majority attest to? Are there traceable similarities among individuals? How do the frequencies compare to other emotional energy frequencies, such as anger, or joy? Which of the emotional energy frequencies created by thought is most beneficial to a human, and in what way? What physical processes occur in individuals who are in “higher states of consciousness”.Once emotional energy frequencies have been emitted by a human, can they be received by another? If so, what is the measurable and perceived reaction of the receiving party, if there is any?

    There are many avenues regarding Spiritualism that can be pursued through the application of combined sciences with open minds. To disregard one or another is defeating the purpose of progress. These may seem like unattainable pursuits today. But, they all aren’t. It seems so senseless to waste time closing doors, in pursuit of disproving religion, or its compatibility, when you will never defeat its foundation, Spiritualism.

    Spiritualism is compatible with Science, and studies should be pursued.

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  149. streamwanderer says:

    So when, as a result of hundreds of years of empirical observation coming out of eastern religious traditions- meditators claim health benefits from their practice and then this is subsequently verified by western science, the two are incompatible! To begin with the categories of science and religion are western demarcations and do not map easily onto other cultures – all that we’re left via Carroll is the revelation of an ethnocentric bias in how he defines his terms.

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  152. Madame_Furie says:

    Doug Says: “I disagree heartily with those who would argue that science, or only approaching life from a scientific perspective is devoid of passion and emotion.”

    Doug you’re my favourite commenter here. I think I have a little crush :-)

    All the usual accommodationist arguments are trotted out in this long thread: “But that’s not MY religion you’re talking about!” “But religion does some good doesn’t it?” — exactly the same arguments I made for years. In the end, after I let go of literalism, orthodoxy, then the idea of a personal god, then the idea of an unknowable deity, I had to conclude that religion was simply unnecessary, it is woefully incomplete as a way of understanding the world. Moreover, it’s delusional, and our propensity for religiosity/magical thinking/superstition is simply an evolutionary throwback. Reading and listening to arguments like those here helped sharpen my thinking. I realized I was only in church for the music, and I could get the same (nay – deeper) feelings of wonder and life-abundance without compromising my intellect. Now I sleep in on Sundays, and read science books while sipping my coffee.

    Thanks Sean for your post.

    Thanks Doug for your comments. I am not a scientist, but fascinated with scientific subjects: neuroscience and astrophysics in particular.

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  153. Dr. Bob says:

    I’ve no doubt, personally, that supernatural phenomena exists. Edgar Cayce comes to mind. It’s disheartening that so many continue to deny it’s existence, rather than explore it’s possibilities.

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  154. Adam.Mike.Selene says:

    The basis for my own religious belief is the observation that “nothing does not exist.” What I call my religion is my attempt to relate to the infinite.

    I do not think that my religion is incompatible with science. To say that religion is not traditionally like this, may be accurate, (or at least for Western Religion, or Judeo Christian Religion) but it begs the point.

    Obviously, religion is not about a three letter word, it is about Human being trying to understand. As is science.

    Religion is kind of backward. It can improve. Come to think of it, ancient Greek Religion was consistent with science. Science didn’t know so much, and there were not many crucial experiments which could be done to challenge religious beliefs. And the Greeks did challenge some of their religious beliefs based on their science. (any classicists out there who can help me out?)

    Western civilization started getting religion and science out of synch about 500 years ago, maybe it is time to update things!

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  156. Dr.Bob says:

    —”Religion can never be a purely personal matter”

    -Whoops, you blew it here! And although there are many who are aware of the discrepancies that exist in the definition of the word “religion”, there are so many more who don’t. You can not provide persuasive arguments if your readers have a different definition of the words you are using.

    Part of the problem is the confusion associated with the word “religion’. In its original definition, which withstood the majority of time, it was understood entirely as a personal, individual matter, and had nothing to do with the huge variety of institutions, or their huge variety of practices. When using the word “religion” it is important to acknowledge that most individuals understand the word in its informal definition, which is an offshoot of its original definition, and still the most common, and still categorized as such in all dictionaries:

    Original (noun)
    a. personal individual BELIEFS in, and REVERENCE for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

    The problem is that in more recent times, this same definition has been expanded nonsensically to include an array of societal definitions that have evolved, including:

    b. A SYSTEM grounded in such belief and worship
    (this expansion of the original definition should not have occurred, as the word “system”, being the defining noun, opposes the original definition. Under this addendum , the definition is no longer an “individual BELIEF”. It is now a system-a group of, interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole). It cannot be both INDIVIDUAL and a GROUP. It is clear that the necessity for two words was warranted. However, it is not uncommon for the English language to follow nonsensical rules, if society has been using words incorrectly. In other words, society has created three unique definitions for the word “religious”-see 4. below, for the third, and note, this is not the most commonly understood definition).

    2. The LIFE or CONDITION of a person in a religious order.
    (an expansion on the original “individual” definition, with emphasis on a state of being, and association with an organized group).

    3. A set of BELIEFS, VALUES, and PRACTICES based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
    (an expansion of the original definition to include Values, and Practices, but not Reverence, with a singular association).

    4. A CAUSE, a PRINCIPLE, or an ACTIVITY pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
    (Causes and Principles can be attributed to individual beliefs-the original definition. However, an Activity, although still a noun, can only be a result of them, used in this context, and should not have been used as a defining noun, adding a third definition, defined by society).

    Religion: informal (generally accepted by majority): to accept a higher power as a controlling influence for the good in one’s life.

    Definition conflicts/recap:

    Original: Individual Beliefs
    Expanded: A system
    Expanded: An activity
    Informal (most accepted): Individual Beliefs for one’s personal good

    It is important to use descriptive terminology when using the word “religion” so that readers understand which definition you are addressing.

    —”how you think about the fundamental nature of reality necessarily impacts how you behave, and those behaviors are going to affect other people”.

    So what? Who’s worried about the occasional “religious” person who shows up at our door? We don’t have to pay for their kids’ “religious” education. They do! Their political influence is minimal, at best. Their behaviors are not, for the majority, ill-willed. I worry about the behaviors that are not related to the “fundamental nature of reality”, those attributable to abuse, addictions, and crime, which lie primarily, with the non-religious.

    Foremost, people are only influenced by the behavior of others, if they choose to be. Individuality is beautiful. It’s the differences between us that promote thought and progress (the minds of many). I admit, I’m not thrilled when my vote doesn’t produce desired results. But, I accept it as the fairest system we have. And I doubt that how one thinks about the fundamental nature of reality necessarily impacts their behavior in a negative fashion. Perhaps a few, but I doubt it accounts for more than .1%. Not noteworthy!

    It is obvious that you have a firm belief in your views, and I salute you for your individuality. Everyone struggles with the big questions in life. We are all searching for truths. My best advice to you, as an older individual, is to consider all options, and truly contemplate, ponder, and look within. You might be surprised at the results! We all have our own paths to beat, and life is so short.

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  158. Anchor says:

    Adam.Mike.Selene Says: “Western civilization started getting religion and science out of synch about 500 years ago, maybe it is time to update things!”

    Hmmm…then it seems as if religion has an awful lot of catching up to do. Of course, we all know how spectacularly practical religions are in the art of updating their “knowledge” based on empirical evidence, so it won’t be too much longer now, will it?

    Especially when religious people are so good at making “observations” (i.e., “nothing doesn’t exist”) in an attempt to relate themselves to the “infinite”. They should catch up just about any minute now. With that magnificent ancient heritage of intellectual discipline at their disposal, they should overtake science in no time at all.

    Wonder what’s keeping them? I for one would very much like to know any progress on how grievously finite entities relate to the infinite. It sounds very very important.

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  159. Neal J. King says:

    Another voice for non-overlapping magisteria:

    Vatican should learn from Galileo mess, prelate says

    VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Catholic Church should not fear scientific progress and possibly repeat the mistake it made when it condemned astronomer Galileo in the 17th century, a Vatican official said on Thursday in a rare self-criticism.

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  161. e.pierce says:

    After meditating, I decided that John Merryman is god. :)

    | 106. tacitus Says:
    | June 24th, 2009 at 1:54 pm
    | Eastern religion has as much basis for its existence as western religion
    | — i.e. nothing but feelings and hearsay.

    |I’m fine with people wanting to meditate on the meaning of life and other
    | existential matters, and I am sure that people could learn a thing or two
    | from doing so…

    Shadow stuff (contradiction), but: ok, good. What is it that they are learning? What does science say about “feelings”? You make a judgement that “feelings” are inferior, which doesn’t seem scientific (objective, rational). Are you demeaning the “feelings” of religious people on the basis of your own “scientific” feelings? Why are you required to dominate religious people? What dangers do religious people pose that require such domination? Electing neocons to political office? Undermining the institutions that democracy and “good” science rest upon?

    Perhaps such people meditate on what science means. As do scientists. What happens if the meditators reach different conclusions than do the pure-rationalists? In reality this has taken place. Integralists and others think that when both religion and science are stripped of “junk”, they can be seen as being complementary. They both contain PARTIAL truths than can be brought together to form more complete truth. (question: what does brain science tell us about this?)

    George Lakoff says that conservatism arises from a “strict daddy” archetype, and progressivism/liberalism from a “nurturing mommy” archetype. The “stages” seem predictable: meanings derived from premodern, modern and postmodern culture. I think some of the same goes for anti-religion and pro-religion memes.

    This pro-science blog article is mostly about the “junk”, and mostly about the “junk” on the religion side, not about the “junk” on the science side. And not about what “non-junk” versions of both would look like from the perspective of a “complimentary” (integral) paradigm.

    So, what you are saying seems contradictory, and reveals one of the usual problems with a specific form of “pro-science” thinking: the “one truth above all” anti-pattern. I guess you could call it “fundamentalist scientism”. Integralists call it “the flatland of modernity”.

    Setting that aside, I would like to know why science can’t simply be allowed to investigate, without prejudice, “meditating on meaning and other existential matters”? Certainly some good research has been done by people doing brain scans. Linguists have proposed new “scientific” models about how the brain “constructs meaning” (Mark Turner). Some have said that the changes in “how we think about how we think” are so revolutionary that they will alter most fields of scholarship.

    Science, as a dominant belief system, or set of values, or social-political “project”, came out of one of the most fundamental paradigm shifts in human history: modernity. Ken Wilber says that this “fragmented” the four quadrants of consciousness, Jung’s “I”, “We”, “It” (“Its”).


    The purpose of that shift was to liberate humanity from false ideas (superstitions, etc., that religion is full of), and create ways that larger numbers of (middle class) people could pursue science as part of a program of social progress and economic change.

    Thus, “scientific” people should be willing to examine the psychosocial and economic and political origins of modern science as objectively as they do religion. And of course, that is exactly what AAAS, Templeton and various other organizations have been trying to do. (A joyous fracas that could only be happening in a culture that enacts the “felt requirements” of open-mindedness and quick abandonment of false ideas.)

    My understanding is that in doing so, it becomes obvious that the modernist project of science (which is progressive, liberal), is generally “hostile” to religion. As Ken Wilber states, there are many good reasons for such hostility. Religion, at least as it evolved in imperialist cultures, was used to oppress people for a very long time.

    (does “science” tell us that imperialism is “good” or “bad”? or “neither”?)

    Now that postmodern culture (relativism/pluralism) is flourishing in the postagrarian and postindustrial worlds, and has “deconstructed” the historical and psychosocial underpinnings of scientific memes, perhaps a worthy project would be to look at the possibility of carefully reintegrating metaphor and transcendence into the dominant form of culture.

    In doing so, practical proposals arise for such things as “spiritual capitalism”.

    From an integral perspective, postmodernism has some major cultural problems that need to be solved (“lack of moral rudder” – “too much nurturing mommy”).

    Integralists look to both science and meditation to provide “complimentary” answers.


    (a big “Hi” to Dr. S.Friberg)

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  162. windy says:

    I still am confused about one thing, Sean. Virtually every
    scientific result we take to be true these days has gone through a
    very specific process of publication and peer review, along with
    the formulation of *specific* hypotheses and their experimental

    Why haven’t I seen the demonstration of the likely non-existence
    of God go through this process?

    Where are the peer-reviewed publications explicitly demonstrating the non-existence of unicorns, fairies or demons? If there aren’t any, would you say that science doesn’t have anything to say on those things?

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  163. blanton says:

    Dear Windy,

    Unicorns are a funny example to pick, especially
    since there is nothing inherently weird or implausible
    about unicorns per se (besides the fact that they
    do not exist). I mean, they are like horses, but have
    horns, like rhinos. So I’m not sure why they come up
    as an example in these arguments — I doubt you really
    believe they are as implausible as God is. But let’s
    leave that aside.

    Unicorns do (like fairies and demons) have the
    virtue of being pretty specifically defined things,
    that zoologists really could have found, and that
    indeed people looked for pretty hard for a while.
    So I’d say that indeed science does have stuff to
    say on them, though I’m not the best person to

    God’s a tougher one, right? I mean, *some* people
    have pretty specific hypotheses that they associate
    with God. For example, some people think that
    the Earth was created by God 6000 years ago.
    That’s obviously false. But unfortunately, it hardly
    rules out God as a concept, and in fact in reality
    most religious people don’t think that God implies
    that hypothesis anyway. All religions have their
    own set of hypotheses, indeed even if they believe
    that there is any testable set of physical predictions
    that religion makes at all, which almost all theologians
    and indeed clergy do not.

    Under those conditions, why should scientists
    wade in and say “this God stuff is not a scientifically
    well-defined concept, so it must be UNTRUE”, instead
    of just saying “this God stuff is not a scientifically
    well-defined concept”? I mean, if it really isn’t well-defined
    then it can neither be shown to be true nor shown to
    be untrue.

    We could also advise people to ignore all things
    that were not scientifically well-defined, but that’s
    clearly impractical, if, say, you need to make any daily
    decisions in your life.

    But my real point is that there are lots of important
    scientific results we want to be able to convince people
    are true, that have been hammered out in the standard
    scientific manner over decades, using empirical methods.
    Those results deserve respect. I very much dislike it
    when somebody writes a few paragraphs of pure reasoning
    that purports to come to come to a conclusion on a vast
    area of human thinking, and wraps it in the cloak
    of “science” because the author is a professional scientist,
    as if then it acquires the authority that we associate with
    real scientific results. A casual, uninformed reader
    might believe that the writer is just simplifying some more
    complex scientific argument — after all, this is only the
    lay-readable version, right? — that has the support of
    the scientific consensus.

    Doing that undermines the importance of actual scientific
    work, and makes it harder to convince the general public
    of its truth. Anyway.

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  169. windy says:

    Unicorns do (like fairies and demons) have the virtue of being pretty specifically defined things, that zoologists really could have found, and that indeed people looked for pretty hard for a while. So I’d say that indeed science does have stuff to say on them, though I’m not the best person to ask.

    But now you’ve moved your goalposts – there isn’t a peer reviewed publication where the existence of unicorns is experimentally put to test, and yet you agree that science has something to say about them, so you’ve added something about “specifically defined” concepts. That seems like a cop-out.

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  173. Greg says:

    “Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.”

    Actually “science”, or more correctly those who use the scientific method, do not say none of this is true. They say that there is no evidence that supports these claims. It’s an important distinction that when stated incorrectly exasperates the argument.

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  174. articulett says:

    If there were an afterlife that could be affected by what you did or thought in this life, then science would have something to say about that. All scientists would have a vested interest, in fact, in finding out the best way to ensure that this afterlife was the best it could be. This was clear to me, even as a child, and I wondered why scientists weren’t actively testing those who claimed to have divine gifts.

    But if there is no afterlife, and there is no more evidence for souls then there are for demons and fairies, then scientists have the obligation to let lay people in on this information so that they are not manipulated by those who claim to have access to higher truths. In this way, humans are free to learn actual truths–the kind they can examine for themselves–the kind that are the same for everyone regardless of belief.

    If the emperor is naked, and those who imagine him to be wearing clothes are delusional, who else but a scientist will say so? If there are no such thing as invisible undetectable clothing, who will let the world know?

    Science is the candle in the darkness, unfortunately all invisible, unmeasurable, entities disappear in it’s light– even the ones people feel “special” and “saved” for “believing in”. Science is the only method we have of actually KNOWING anything. It is the only method that is self correcting and takes into account the known ways humans fool themselves.

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  175. vallor says:

    Sean lost me at comment 16. Based on what I’ve seen, it’s nothing more than a semantics argument, arguing about the meaning of terms.

    I strongly suggest having a better go at this, with a _meaningful_ discussion, where the discussion isn’t about some one man’s perceived limitations of language, but instead, “religion” — whatever it is — is compared and contrasted with science — whatever it is.

    And i put it this way because Sean seems to think of a religion is compatible with science, then it isn’t a religion, by definition. But this is a circular argument.

    For instance, there are some zen Buddhists that hold their religion to be compatible with science — but Sean’s response to this would be that they are not “true Buddhists”, in a classic example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

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  176. limboaz says:

    Perhaps a better question is this: are science and politics compatible? Secular fundamentalists like the author of this article have had their thinking polluted by their political beliefs and see everything in that light. Sad really.

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  180. m says:

    what do you define ‘truth as being?

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  182. I’ve just read the post, (which raises pretty fundamental points which I don’t think any rational minded person should have a problem with) and the initial few comments, and am really glad that this here is still alive.

    There’s a comment above (right at the top) about what exactly is meant by ‘religion’. When we talk of Science and religion being incompatible we speak of dogmatic religion, ie. religion according to scriptures, and this, I feel, can never be compatible with Science, mostly due to the fact that it is dated. Then there is this concept of ‘God of the Gaps’, which is really interesting here, because if we see religion as an organic ‘process’ which is constantly reviewed by science, ie. knowledge (forgive me if this term overtly simplifies science!), then I think the concept of God will be totally acceptable.

    But all this depends on one question, about the nature of knowledge, whether it is finite or not. Because if it is, Science, someday (whenever that is) will leave no ‘Gaps’ for God; but until then, we just might have to live with the idea, because its ‘absolute’ non-existence is still beyond our capacity to ‘absolutely’ deny.

    Once again, we have to be more specific in what we mean by words exactly, ie. religion.

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