Science and religion are incompatible in two major ways

June 15, 2009

We watch with interest a fresh "accommodation" debate. Jerry   Coyne has helpfully assembled blog posts on this controversy. Can science and religion be compatible? Can they sometimes cooperate? Where might secular humanists be positioned on such issues?

For years scientific organizations have told people they can have their science and piety too. Political appeasement should shock no one—this is politics—and compromises and coalitions should be watched carefully in their natural habitat. Nor should it be surprising that religious people who like science, or scientific people who like their religious friends, are happy to see prominent science organizations indirectly encouraging religion. "That’s accommodation we can believe in!"

Questioning whether such political coalitions are wise shouldn’t be confused with other questions, such as whether science and religion are factually compatible. There has long been political value for science promoters to appease religious believers, going back to science’s infancy when religion nearly killed it in its cradle. Fearful of its older sibling (for both are born of wonder, like philosophy), science has long experience with bowing and cringing and accepting compromise anytime religion erupts into a fit over some new discovery about the world or humanity. For its part, liberal religion has gradually accommodated science. But science has never accommodated religion, except in a limited political sense, and every "compromise" has been forced on science. Let’s review the history.

A 17th century "compromise" granted permission to science to discern God’s design of direct creation. Science directly supports natural evidentialist theology.

A 18th century "compromise" was primarily a deistic notion that science learns how God’s creation has been lawfully working (perfectly) since The Beginning. Science indirectly supports the Creator hypothesis.

A 19th century "compromise" was the Two Magisteria notion, perpetuating the dualistic separation of spirit and matter. Science knows nothing of God, the soul, or morality, and stays out of the way of religion.

Darwinian evolution by natural selection soon threatened the reigning compromise, by explaining how humans are entirely natural, and no souls or direct creation needed. Astronomy then indicated the universe’s vast age and size. All design arguments weaken dramatically. 

A 20th century "compromise" by liberal religion declared that science is fine while faith is not irrational (note the shrinking of "faith is rational" to just "hey, we’re not crazy!"). Pantheism perks up (but by ‘religion’ we here intend supernaturalism). Fundamentalists promptly reject all compromise, clinging to their Bibles.

A 21st century "compromise" by very liberal religion so far sounds like, "We’re just as mystified by God as any nonbeliever, but that’s the fun of faith, and wow Jesus was a great guy." Fundamentalists build Creationist museums and fantasies of hell instead.

Keeping this historical timeline in mind, how could anyone argue that science and religion are incompatible, when history displays such fine compromises? 

Science and religion are belief systems, relying on two distinct methods of knowing: empirical experiment and submissive conviction. If science were to try to accommodate religion, it would surrender its method of knowledge by permitting untested dogma or arbitrary authority to control its conclusions. Religion, by contrast, can accommodate science without surrendering its own method through some combination of (a) faithfully holding beliefs about matters immune from empirical inquiry; (b) adopting science’s conclusions by simply appending the conviction “and God made it so”; or (c) adapting science’s conclusions to fit spiritual intuitions and inspirations.

It is unnecessary to judge, at this point, which side has the better claim to “knowledge”—my point is only that their methods are asymmetrically incompatible. Science must be incompatible with religion’s distinctive method of knowing. 

By the way, this methodological incompatibility is not due to any dogmatic faith in a  naturalistic/atheistic worldview. Naturalism is an additional conclusion from science, not a premise of science. Science rejects things like “the soul” because that hypothesis enjoys no verifiable evidence and contradicts well-established knowledge about things like brains. While naturalism does assert that science’s method and knowledge is superior, this claim is a philosophical claim requiring separate defenses, not a scientific principle or hypothesis. A brief account of philosophical naturalism is offered here < >. Science simply is scientific method and its conclusions. Complaining that science dogmatically excludes religious methods is like complaining that sculpting excludes photography techniques. Put another way, science needs religion like art needs astrology. On the other hand, many religions have continually incorporated the best of science, after long delay. What would medieval theology have been without Aristotle and Ptolemy? We presently hear a few theologians spotting signs of divinity in quantum mechanics and multiverses.

Science is incompatible with religion’s distinctive method of knowing. Science is also incompatible with many of religion’s distinctive conclusions. Leaving goings-on in some supernatural realm aside, many religions claim to have knowledge of entities and events showing up in our world which ought to occasionally be experimentally confirmable by scientific method. Consider religious claims about divine creation of humans, miracles, faith healing, angelic visitations, demonic forces, etc. When scientifically investigated, science concludes that these claims lack merit, about as impressive as horoscopes, Big Foot, and ESP. Sophisticated theology quickly covers for religion by ad-hoc hypothesizing how science must be blind to these matters (hence we get transubstantiation, ectoplasm, God’s gene-tweaking, etc.) Very liberal religion wisely refrains from claims about matters that ought to be scientifically detectable and confirmable (that’s the privilege of broad accommodation). But when a religion continues to make anti-scientific claims, do not be surprised when science declares its incompatibility. 

Can Big Brother religion creatively accommodate science, and offer “generous” compromises with science? Obviously. But science cannot return the favor, sorry, if science must compromise its method or betray its conclusions. Any genuinely pro-science organization, government or not, can clearly drawn the line here. If it can’t, then it has no business claiming to defend science. Has the younger brother grown up? Is it time for the appeasement to stop?