Are science and religion compatible?

“Science and Religion” seems to be a popular topic for debate on the internet these days. Even in New Zealand Richard Dawkins‘ recent visit encouraged 14 religious scientists, historians and theologians to produce their own statement on the subject (see ‘Public Statement Concerning Science and Christian Faith’ by New Zealand Religious Scientists).

That particular statement seems to be a “sour grapes” response to the public interest in Dawkins’ visit. It has little substance and resorts to straw mannery in its attacks on “Professor Dawkins’ scientism.”(That word “scientism” is a dead give away, isn’t it?) So far, I don’t think it has elicited any response or interest (except from comments on the site which seems to be the only place reporting it).

Of far more substance were two presentations made at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne last Saturday. Given by AC Grayling and PZ Myers these covered the science – religion issue in very different but complimentary ways – both in substance and style. They are both extremely informative and entertaining speakers – each in their own way.

Science and religion evolved from ignorance

Grayling’s approach was to question the appropriateness even of the phrase “science and religion.” These things are just so different this phrase is misleading. It was a bit like saying “marmalade and bicycle!”

As for compatibility of science and religion the fact remains that religion has often seen itself in competition with science. One has only to think of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and Galileo Galilei, who was imprisoned by the inquisition, over their support for Copernican ideas of the universe.

Today the concept of compatibility is being promoted by religious apologists because of the respect this might confer on them. Humanity widely recognises the success of the scientific method in understanding reality and religion tries to bask in that respect by claiming some sort of relationship with science.

Grayling agreed that religion can get something out of science, beside the reflected glory. For example, science can investigate the phenomenon of religious experience through study of neural correlates in the brain.  But religion cannot offer anything to science. It’s methodology of revelation, claims of  ultimate truth and disrespect for evidence is in sharp contrast to that of science. Science does not claim to have all the answers. It’s methods rely on evidence from reality and testing against that reality. And the ideas of science are always amenable to change as new evidence is acquired.

Science works to satisfy humanity’s requirement for knowledge, while religion can only respond to humanity’s requirement for stories.

I liked Grayling’s reject of a common claim made these days by religious apologists – that science has its origins in religion, specifically Christianity. He compared this to the naive creationist assertion that evolution describes humans as evolving from monkeys.

No, science did not evolve from religion. Far from it. Both religion and science (like humans and monkeys) did evolve though from a common ancestor – ignorance. The evolved separately because they took different directions.

We can imagine how early in human social evolution we developed methods of trial and error as we learned to use agriculture and to navigate. This apporoach put us on a scientific path. On the other hand we also became preoccupied with taboos, spirits and superstition, often expressed in our early animism. From these religion evolved.

Grayling is a quiet but authoritative lecturer. He certainly kept the audience entranced. One Aussie journalist described him as having rock star status.

Religious beliefs independent of science

We all expected Myers to be somewhat scandalous, and certainly forthright. He didn’t disappoint but he also proved to be very entertaining, often having us in fits of laughter. But he had a serious message – and it got through to the very appreciative audience.

Myers demolished the argument that religion is proven to be compatible with science because some well known scientists are also enthusiastic Christians. Of course people can be scientists and Christians (or Buddhists, or Atheists, etc.). That is an obvious fact about our ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time – it says nothing about true compatibility. He presented the example of a multiple murderer in the US who was also a devout Christian. Being a Christian and a multiple murderer at the same time is obviously possible – but that says nothing about cause and effect. It would be silly to draw conclusions about the criminality of Christians from such examples. It’s like saying atheists are immoral because Stalin was an atheist, or Christians are immoral because Hitler was a Catholic. Silly.

PZ discussed at some length the example of Ken Miller, a well known US evolutionary scientist who is also a devout Catholic. He admires Miller’s scientific work and particularly his educational role in the struggle against creationism/intelligent design. This work is invaluable.

However, when Miller attempts to justify his religious beliefs in scientific terms he makes big mistakes. Particularly blatant is the attempt to find a mechanism for his god’s involvement in the world through a mechanism of quantum uncertainty.

Myers made clear that he does not feel hostility to religious people. He did not go along with people who claimed that religion makes people evil – far from it. Many religious people are humane, caring people. However, he does feel that religion makes one “stupid.” It interferes with our ability to understand the real world.

Science is important because the world is often counter-intuitive. It often does not behave the way our brain would like it to. We have to overcome superstition and bias to0 understand the world as it really is. This understanding is important to humanity – how else are we to solve the problems we currently face?

This is obviously an on-going debate. There have been some interesting internet articles on the discussion, particularly on the concept of “accommodationism” and the argument that scientists should not criticise religion. It’s a fascinating debate – but one has to be able to recognise the straw men.

Did I mention I attended the Global Atheist Convention? Best international conference I have even been to. Great speakers. Met some of my science heroes.

Look forward to videos of the presentations on DVD, if not on-line.


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18 responses to “Are science and religion compatible?

  1. I am also looking forward to seeing some video from this.

    I am thinking too on going to this conference in Copenhagen in June. I think both AC Grayling and PZ Meyers are speaking there, so am pleased to read your report on the Melbourne GAC Ken.


  2. The Copenhagen convention looks interesting.

    Like the idea of a surprise speaker.

    I think Atheist Alliance International is planning a series of these international conventions. The Aussie one was the first and was amazingly successful so I guess they will be encouraged by it.

    It is also a good format for authors to promote their new books and, of course, for readers. The booksellers just couldn’t keep up in Melbourne. I managed to get books signed by Grayling and Dawkins (although the queue for Dawkins was over an hour. Somebody described it as going back to the big bang).

    And I really liked the idea of combining entertainment/humour with the more serious talks.


  3. Science and religion have different roles in our society.
    Both enterprises seek answers to big questions, but they differ in the nature of those questions, and the types of answers sought.

    Where critical people often draw on the objective authority of science, Slavoj Zizek sees the radical potential of religion:

    “Science today effectively does compete with religion, insofar as it serves two properly ideological needs, those for hope and those for censorship, which were traditionally taken care of by religion …
    Science and religion have changed places: today, science provides the security religion once guaranteed. In a curious inversion, religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.”

    In these lines, Zizek highlights what is clear to any critical reader of the new atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens and co.); that it functions as a secular kind of fundamentalism. This is not a new insight.

    What is more compelling is the role Zizek assigns to religion. Rather than the future of marginal voicelessness that many church leaders fear, the church has a place as a “site of resistance” able to express “critical doubts about today’s society.”. In support of this argument Zizek quotes John Gray “…churches have become sanctuaries of doubt” in contrast to science’s “refuge from uncertainty.”

    Reading further: Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West for a telling critique of the problems inherent in our technocratic culture.


  4. Richard Christie

    I get my religion from Pat Condell.


  5. Stanley Fish, writing in the NYTimes, dispels many popular myths about religion (and science) that the New Atheists tend to espouse:
    God Talk, part 2. In summary:
    faith and reason are not independent of one another
    the supposed ‘clarity’ of science is dependent on numerous presuppositions
    the supposed ‘blindness’ of religion ignores the doubt and dissent, the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, permeating religious thought throughout history
    the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.


  6. Humanity widely recognises the success of the scientific method in understanding reality and religion tries to bask in that respect by claiming some sort of relationship with science.


    But religion cannot offer anything to science. It’s methodology of revelation, claims of ultimate truth and disrespect for evidence is in sharp contrast to that of science.

    Nicely said.

    What has religion done lately?
    For example: Shintoism

    That’s a religion.

    So what’s it done lately?
    Not much.
    If it vanished tomorrow, it would be no great loss.


  7. Allow me be the brave soul to say that science and religion share a singular commonality — words.

    All the rest is interpretation. Of words of course.


  8. Pingback: March 17, 2010 - Science and Religion Today

  9. IF God exists, we’ll eventually all find out that science and religion are compatible. If God does not exist, religion is (at best) an evolutionary gimmick that genes use to compel organisms to reproduce more effectively.

    Has anybody seen a good Darwinian argument that religion has significant survival value? I would think the Mormons and Catholics could make the argument that it does…


  10. Scott, I’ve heard it argued that religion doesn’t necessarily survive because it is beneficial to humans but because it is a meme which can spread sideways (i.e. it isn’t solely reliant on parent > child) which has mechanisms built in to ensure its own survival (i.e. chants, rituals, punishments, rewards, etc). Suicide bombing would be an extreme example of this kind of meme where we can see that it’s definitely very bad for the survival of the host but still manages to spread memetically.


  11. That said, I’m fairly sure that religion would have been a great unifying force throughout human history which may have indeed helped ensure the survival of the group who shared those beliefs and rituals. Issues can arise when we need to rely on facts that contradict some of the established beliefs of a religion (i.e. medicine as opposed to prayer to cure an illness).


  12. God(s) might exist, although it’s extremely unlikely. If they do I can see no reasons that the religious stories will apply. Surely the story will be much more incredible, more amazing than the sad old religious myths.

    So I don’t see that makes science and religion compatible. They can never be compatible because they use completely contrasting epistemological methods.


  13. Scott W. Somerville

    In industrialized societies, religious people outbreed secular people by a substantial margin, and religious beliefs tend to be transmitted to the next generation. There’s nothing in Darwinism that says “truth” has any evolutionary advantage, as such. It would seem that Darwinism should produce more believers than atheists.


  14. Quite true Scott. Especially when we observe doctrines like the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. Big families = more children who are very likely to adopt the religion of their parents.


  15. So let’s hypothesize that a “religious experience gene” makes it more likely that individuals will have a transcendent experience of some kind. Couple that with a “be fruitful and multiply” meme and you’ve got a recipe for reproduction.


  16. I think we have to be very careful about sinking into the mistake of genetic determinism. There is more value in considering religious memes or god (ideology) virus analyses.

    However, it could be that there is a genetic disposition towards ‘magical thinking’ or other personality factors which could make individuals susceptible to some beliefs, or attitudes towards life.

    Somebody has suggested a genetic disposition – a little along to path to schizophrenia – could predispose individuals to “magical thinking/creativity/etc.’

    But inheritance of religious beliefs could easily be explained simply by upbringing. It tends to happen with politics too.

    Let’s face it – there are a huge number of ex-Catholics around. People turned off by their experience – a lot of it bad and/or illegal.


  17. I don’t know whether there is such a thing as a “religious experience gene” but it certainly seems that one of the burdens of having a predicting, pattern-recognising brain is that it will tend to over-compensate in finding patterns without the same kind of penalty it would if it under-compensated. (i.e. the classic example of the stick in the grass being mistaken for a snake).

    If there are genes that are selected for that have any influence on religion or superstition then I’d say they’re more likely to be related to the complex relationships that go into the way our brain recognises patterns. (but I’m a developer, not a neuroscientist!)


  18. Pingback: Science and Religion Pt 2 « CJC General Paper

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