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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. @Mike
    -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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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)

  7. 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?

  8. 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

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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)

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Jim,

    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.

  21. 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 😉

  22. 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.