Appeals to Common Practice Don’t Make Science and Religion Compatible

June 17, 2010

Science and religion are compatible because some scientists are religious, according to Alan Leshner , CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAS) and executive publisher of Science . To be sure, anyone with an ear to the debate over science and religion has heard this argument before. But when critically analyzed, it is wholly unconvincing. 

The practical evidence wielded for the compatibility argument usually includes people like Francis Collins, the geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health who is an evangelical Christian . If devout religious believers can be scientists, the argument goes, there is no tension between the scientific and religious approaches to the world. Yet this line of thought ignores the real issue: the difference between practice and theory (or, is and ought ). In practice, clearly scientists can be religious and hold religious beliefs (though they are overwhelming less religious and more secular than the general American public). But in theory, the scientific and religious outlooks are philosophically incompatible (for more, see here and here . To be clear, I don't think science demands atheism purely due to epistemological matters, but I don't think science and religion are compatible, either. More on this in a forthcoming essay).

Indeed, consider the logic of Leshner's argument:

1. Many scientists are religious/have religious faith.

2. Therefore, science and religion/religious faith are compatible.

And now imagine instead that the following argument was being made:

1. Many people drink alcohol and drive.

2. Therefore, drinking alcohol and driving are compatible.

We would obviously object here, and we would be absolutely correct to do so. Yet the drunk driving logic is no different than the logic Leshner uses to boast of the compability of science and religion. This is precisely why philosphers file Leshner's argument under the "appeal to common practice" fallacy : even if a majority of people believe in something or engage in some practice, that does not mean the belief or practice is acceptable, correct, justified, or reasonable. If one wants to make a case for the compatibility of science and religion, he or she must not point to the abundance of easily partitioned human brains, but instead provide philosophical reasons why science and religion are actually congruous and do not conflict. 

For further reading, Leshner's essay is being discussed on the blogs of Jerry Coyne , Ophelia Benson, and Russell Blackford