The [in]compatibility of science and religion

There have been several books lately promoting the idea the religion and science are compatible – or at least challenging any suggestion that they might be incompatible. Of course, these were written by advocates of religion, or at least advocates of “belief in belief.”

While many of these books were critiqued in reviews there has been very little challenge presented in book length. So I was very pleased to see news that Victor Stenger has a new book, released in Apri,l called God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

John W. Loftus at debunking Christianity has read a pre-release copy and is very impressed (see  Stenger’s New Book: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion). He calls it a tour de force.

Loftus says (in part):

“The reader is treated to the history of the conflict between science and religion where Stenger argues there is a fundamental conflict between the two. “Science” he writes, “has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failures. Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it.” (p. 15)”

I have often said that religion and science are not incompatible at the individual level. After all many scientists are also religious. But their basic approach to knowledge, their epistemologies, are incompatible. So I agree with this comment by Loftus:

“Believers generally do not trust science. Stenger’s book is the antidote. Believers will see just how science works and why it is to be trusted over anything religion has ever produced. “Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible,” Stenger argues, “because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies–the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world.” (p. 16)”

Loftus thinks this is Stenger’s best book yet – because it is ” written for the average intelligent reader. There isn’t a lot of technical jargon in it.” He believes it will “appeal to a broad range of readers . . . because he’s hit the nail on the head, writing about the essential problem between scientifically minded people and believers.”

Another book to look forward to.

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9 responses to “The [in]compatibility of science and religion

  1. Sigh, no doubt another fact-free exercise in pseudo history.


  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Many thanks for this, I am saving it for buying the book asap! I am fairly impressed by Stenger’s “GOD – the failed hypothesis” because he got so much right.

    @ ropata: I doubt an atheist would get history wrong, or try to exercise pseudohistory. That use to be the modus operandi for religious apologists.

    However I am not sure if you are trolling? Because the post claims the book is not centered on history.

    The book seems to be based in physicist Stenger’s strength: science and how it is incompatible with religion. “their basic approach to knowledge, their epistemologies, are incompatible.” Nothing about a work of (pseudo)history, nothing about a basis in (pseudo)history, in fact never mentioning history.

    The pity take is that science is in the business of replacing belief with fact, while religion is in the business to replace fact with belief. Stenger has another take on it, but essentially it is about methodology. Do you want to get at the facts by carefully not fooling yourself or do you want to fool yourself and/or others in order to look away from uncomfortable facts?


    By the way, the article you point to is especially egregious. It is written by a religious apologist who states that he wants to make a case for “the [c]hristian religion” (which one? there are many) to be a factor in the rise of modern science.

    The evidence? Problems of a specific historian of science, and a belief not by historians but by “religious historians”, apologists and known _pseudo-historians_,* that the conflict theory is wrong!

    The article even goes so far to claim “the soon-to-be-debunked traditional view”. I wished I could have stopped reading the atrocious mess of historically unreferenced claims already there.

    However, the article goes on to describe how religion changes in the face of science knowledge. This is exactly the incompatibility that is under consideration. Another such historical fact on the incompatibility is how education statistically makes agnostics out of religious, and atheists out of agnostics and has done so over decades.

    Sigh, indeed.

    * It is religious historians that claims everything in the christian religious text may be historically correct, when historians and archaeologists despite tremendous difficulties caused by religious “alternate views” finds evidence that ~ 99 % of the text is non-historical. How else could it be, it is a _myth_ for FSM sake!


  3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “It is religious historians that claims everything in the christian religious text may be historically correct” and base that on eager pattern search instead of actual testable facts.


  4. Yes, Ropata, I have to giggle when these apologists try to use the Galileo affair to deny any conflict between science and religion.

    And their “conflict hypothesis” is a self constructed myth described as religion and science always and everywhere being in conflict (that no scientist promotes). A straw man easy to demolish.

    And it enables them to avoid the elephant in the room – the conflict between epistemologies.


  5. As I’ve said before, science and religion are incommensurable, so they can’t be in conflict, the conflict is only between individuals from each community who, as a result of human nature, have a need for conflict.


  6. But, Andrew, you are presenting an abstract form of NOMA which actually doesn’t apply in practice (at least completely).

    While some religionists and some scientists may insist that the two fields are incommensurable (and they may work hard to keep it that way) the fact is that each field does, at least from time to time, intrude into the domain of the other (or what some consider their domains). So if religion attempts to make definitive statements about the real objectively existing world it intrudes into the domain of science – and that is where the epistemological conflict becomes apparent. The opposite is also occurring where science these days studies areas like morality and origins long claimed by religion as its domain. Again this leads to epistemological conflict.

    I don’t think this is at all surprising as religion originally encompassed the science domain. Perfectly natural as both religion and science have a common ancestor – ignorance. So inevitably, even now, their real domains of action will sometimes overlap. That in itself does not lead to conflict (after all different groups of scientists will have overlapping domains). But whereas different groups of scientists have a common epistemology, religion has a quite different epistemology to that of science.

    This makes conflict inevitable at that level.


  7. No, religious interpretations are irrelevant to scientific understandings because they do not involve the scientific process. The vast majority of people, both religious and scientific, do not see a need for conflict, there maybe different beliefs and conclusions involved, but that does not mean they need debating. People looking to create conflict do so by applying the religious method (faith) to the science or the scientific process to religious beliefs, then they go about arguing past each other.

    An analogy is that plenty of different animals can coexist on the same territory without coming into conflict, (rabbits and ducks) it’s only when you throw in a few hawks that there’s conflict.


  8. Andrew, I think we agree on the basics. You refer to “applying the religious method (faith) to the science or the scientific process to religious beliefs.” I describe that as an inevitable epistemogucal conflict. Inevitable because the methods are completely different. And conflicting because they relate to real things about the world which concern us all.

    You might wish that these things don’t need to be debated but clearly they do when it impacts how our kids are to be educated, what laws we should make on human fertility, and how do we establish when a person is no longer alive.

    You imply that it is only trouble makers who apply scientific methods to investigating religious beliefs. But isn’t that perfectly natural and to be expected? Especially as those “beliefs” are often used to dictate how you and I should live?


  9. “I have often said that religion and science are not incompatible at the individual level. After all many scientists are also religious.”

    A common fallacy/non sequitur here: Science does not equal scientists. Scientists are human beings, science is a process that uses methodological naturalism. A robot might be programmed to carry out scientific experiments, but it’s personal belief system (if any) would hardly be relevant to the issue of whether science is compatible with religion.


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