Are religion and science mutually exclusive?

posted at 3:01 pm on July 5, 2015 by Jazz Shaw

Jeffrey Tayler, writing at the Atlantic, has a review of a new book by Jerry Coyne titled Faith Versus Fact. In this instance, the review might be even more interesting than the book itself, but it’s a topic which has been a perennial bone of contention among the commentariat here. The discussion, particularly in terms of how Tayler seems to give a favorably nod to Coyne’s work, raises some of the same old issues about science and faith and tries in vain to measure the value of each on the same scale.

The review begins with a an old favorite of atheists, pointing out a tragic case involving Ashley King, a 13 year old girl in a family of Christian Scientists who was refused medical treatment for a massive tumor and ended up dying. If the book approaches takeoff on the same runway it’s almost excusable to stop reading right there. These stories are heartbreaking, but they are also incredibly cheap shots at religion in general and Christianity in particular because the authors rarely bother to point out exactly how far out of the mainstream these practitioners are. Personally, I don’t consider the practice of Christian Scientology the Church of Christ, Scientist a viable defense for negligent homicide, nor do I think many Christians would be quick to defend it. I similarly don’t pretend to understand the practices of some congregations who handle serpents as part of their services, but as long as they are adults I’m willing to let them live with the consequences of their choices. (Or not live, as the case may be.)

Once you get past the easy, low hanging fruit of attacking religion as described above, the book purports to set aside the idea that faith and science are two separate worlds where each can be left to their own devices. Why is that an outdated idea? Because the author moves into the realm of saying that the two can not be evaluated on the same grounds because science consists of self-correcting wrongs while religion is just wrong for eternity.

In calm, levelheaded prose, Coyne refutes the “accommodationist” position that science and faith belong to “two non-overlapping magisteria”—a theory coined by his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould that espouses that science concerns itself with establishing facts about the physical universe, while religion is interested in spiritual matters, and the two therefore cannot be in conflict. Reconciling the two is impossible, he writes, because religion’s “combination of certainty, morality, and universal punishment is toxic,” while science, in contrast, acknowledges the fact that it might err, arriving at truths that are “provisional and evidence-based,” but at least testable. Unlike religion, science self-corrects, points out its errors, and tries again.

The irony of this argument is that it relies entirely on a dishonest premise just as fully as the author asserts religion does. That entire section of the argument devolves from a claim that religion is unbending when, in reality, religions adapt over time in well documented ways, though change tends to come at a more stately pace than in the scientific community. Christianity, for example, has undergone huge shifts from the protestant schism to the politically driven evolution of the Anglican Church and many, many more. Even in the modern era, the faith as practiced by the Puritans at the founding of the United States would be almost unrecognizable to most mainstream protestants today. And even when faith runs directly afoul of science the Church has, on occasion, shown it’s ability to adapt. (Heck, the Catholics even pardoned Galileo after only a few centuries.)

The article next takes the inevitable turn toward claiming that the current debate over global warming is proof of the ignorance of the faithful, and then goes on to generalize from there.

Primarily, though, Coyne focuses on the epistemological. He notes that religion has always advanced hypotheses about the cosmos and the origins of life—matters that he argues belong within the realm of science. He bluntly evaluates faith’s record of teachings about the natural world as a “failure of religion to find out the truth about anything.” Worse, he states, faith from the start leads humans toward “thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study.”

Coyne is clear in his argument that to understand the cosmos there is no need of a “Creator.” What science says about the temporal nature of our own solar system, in fact, renders more than improbable the existence of a divine plan for humanity. “Human tenure on Earth,” he writes, “will end when the sun … vaporize[s] the Earth in less than five billion years,” while the universe “will also end [through] heat death,” with temperatures falling to absolute zero. What does this say for those who insist there’s a divine plan for mankind on Earth? The “God of the gaps,” Coyne argues, is losing out as science fills in the missing pieces.

Speaking from the corner of one who takes the opposite view of the author’s – that science and faith can happily exist in their own realms and can never be accurately weighed on the same scale – the arguments put forth by Coyne again commit the same cardinal sin which he accuses the religious of, namely the practice of basing your entire argument on something which can never be proven. For the scientist to stare into the blackness of the universe and declare that he’s on the path to explaining it all for us he must rely on one baseline assumption: that everything he sees is, in fact, exactly as it appears. And yet science is always backtracking and second guessing itself (as it should) without ever really questioning the starting point.

The definitive example of this is found in the endless old chestnut of creation. I don’t tend to run with the creationists myself, finding no reason to say that God couldn’t have set up the universe billions of years ago with a particular design intended to produce the result we see today. But by the same token, I recognize that the creationists can never be truly proven wrong. If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, then there is absolutely no reason that He couldn’t have created an Earth with a bunch of dinosaur bones and oil reserves buried under the surface, leaving them there for us to find. For that matter, He could just as readily have created a universe of stars and planets and cosmic dust all swirling in motion as if they had been doing so for 14 billion years. Proving that negative is impossible and it’s a waste of time to make the attempt.

In any event, this was still an interesting read even for the faithful and an exercise in caution for those looking to entirely dismiss religion. Your arguments will be analyzed in a far more scientific light than any discussion of theology so you should endeavor to anchor your facts a bit more firmly before you begin.


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Comments

Coyne’s use of Christian Science to attack religion in general is like using the Workers World Party to claim all political parties are necessarily totalitarian.

Athanasius on July 5, 2015 at 5:58 PM

Well, most political parties eventually become totalitarian, so there’s that.

AesopFan on July 5, 2015 at 10:27 PM

obviously and unarguably yes.

everdiso on July 5, 2015 at 6:59 PM

Many eminent scientists, like Francis Collins (director of the humane genome project) disagree with you.

Ricard on July 5, 2015 at 10:43 PM

I don’t think any christians would defend it from a religious perspective, but I think some christians would defend it from a libertarian perspective. If a parent has a right to reassign their child’s gender, why doesn’t a parent, for any reason, have a right to withhold certain medical procedures and chemicals? It’s amazing to me that we live in a society in which are rights are so completely subjected to the rapid pace of social norm dynamics.

blink on July 5, 2015 at 6:32 PM

Selectivity is the hallmark of the Left.
Circumcision is an evil religiously-motivated violation of the child’s rights; female genital mutilation is an ethnic curiosity so who are we to judge; and abortion is an Immutable Right.

Children can’t have Twinkies and soda in their home-packed-lunch, but girls can have IUDs installed by the school without parental knowledge, much less approval.

AesopFan on July 5, 2015 at 11:00 PM

Very fine discussion tonight, thanks everyone.

AesopFan on July 5, 2015 at 11:07 PM

Yawn. Another pipsqueak shaking his tiny fist at God. The real issue here is that the fellow is doing his bit as a member of the hive to prepare the battlefield for the homosexual-led war against Christianity and morality.

Mason on July 6, 2015 at 12:09 AM

If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, then there is absolutely no reason that He couldn’t have created an Earth with a bunch of dinosaur bones and oil reserves buried under the surface, leaving them there for us to find.

What????

Jazz, you attempt to write about religion & science, yet you’re that badly misinformed?????

No one believes that scenario!

The most logical explanation for millions of fossils worldwide is a worldwide flood that tossed up billions of tons of sediment that buried these creatures.

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 4:20 AM

…Please take a glance here, Jazz, before you try again to write what non-Darwinists believe about fossils.

http://creation.com/fossils-questions-and-answers

BTW, creation.com has over 9000 articles written by advanced-degree scientists.
If you have any questions about any creation viewpoint, there’s a search engine at the site to point you to some great answers.

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 4:24 AM

…And since you mentioned oil in that quote, Jazz, here are some real creationist views on that topic.

http://creation.com/search?q=oil

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 4:26 AM

** Flat Earth Alert **

Younggod on July 6, 2015 at 6:24 AM

With science, you have to understand it before you can believe it. With religion, you have to believe it before you will ever understand. That’s why faith means what it does.
– Me

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 6:30 AM

Science is nothing more than our understanding of Gods work.

long_cat on July 6, 2015 at 6:45 AM

With science, you have to understand it before you can believe it. With religion, you have to believe it before you will ever understand. That’s why faith means what it does.
– Me

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 6:30 AM

Nicely done!

That it also explains why ‘anthropic global warming’ is faith-based is an excellent two-fer.

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 8:42 AM

Nicely done!

That it also explains why ‘anthropic global warming’ is faith-based is an excellent two-fer.

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 8:42 AM

Yep. Anything you believe before you understand is religion.

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 9:20 AM

Since virutally everyone has some sort of religion this is an odd argument to make.

Take for example those that have a religious belief in catastrophic anthropomorphic global warming.

They have their god, their devils, their sins, and their dogma. Yet they will argue that their religion IS science even though, of course, in actual science one discards theories that fail to match observed data – not as they do “hiding the decline” instead…

18-1 on July 6, 2015 at 9:22 AM

The ceremony of a religion clearly has no intersection with science, while the mythology of pretty much any religion is going to be incompatible with science. The mortality of a religion is a special case, though, as it may turn out that a moral commandment can be shown to be scientifically self defeating or dangerous. That said, usually when you hear someone claiming that science has proven a moral tenet wrong, it’s usually a fraud (like the current issue with homosexuality).

Count to 10 on July 6, 2015 at 9:46 AM

In terms of creation of the universe and the world, isn’t there currently essential agreement between non-advocacy science and Judeo-Christianity? Hasn’t Stephen Meyers’ “Darwin’s Doubt” demonstrated that Neo-Darwinism cannot explain the Cambrian Explosion, and especially the origin of new information required to produce the myriad of new life forms. New information can only arise from conscious activity, one explanation being the Judeo-Christian God. After all, the New Testament Gospel of John starts off with, “In the beginning [i.e., the Big Bang] was the Word…”, and surely part of that Word is information.

In terms of the reliability of the Genesis 1 account of creation, once the text is parsed with an in-depth understanding of Hebrew, it can be shown that nuances in the word “day” can result in eras rather than 24-hour days, as discussed by Gerald Schroeder (“The Age of the Universe”) and John Lennox (“Seven Days that Divide the World”); in the case of Schroeder, a proper understanding of Relativity yields amazing correlations between the Biblical text and scientific understanding.

papajames on July 6, 2015 at 9:51 AM

And lest anyone think that the effort to reconcile science with Christendom rests entirely with the young-earth crowd:

reasons.org

It should be noted that there is literature theorizing about the idea of a “day-age” in Genesis that dates as far back as the first century, so this is not a new idea cooked up to try and square-peg modern cosmology into the account.

The Schaef on July 6, 2015 at 10:42 AM

With religion, you have to believe it before you will ever understand. That’s why faith means what it does.
– Me

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 6:30 AM

Sort of.

Faith is not blind as many imply. I have faith in my wife because I know her attributes. She is incredibly stubborn, yet will bend over backwards for everyone else around her. She works to lose weight (almost 100lbs already), but will sometimes not eat as much as she should. She does not understand computers, but works hard every day at hers and another’s equine boarding facility. I fell in love with her in college, and that love continues to grow. I have faith in her because I know and understand her. When given a situation, I have faith in how she will respond, because I understand her nature.

The same is true with God. I have faith in God because I know and understand Him through his scripture, and his obvious works throughout my life (which I now understand as I look back on them).

Atheists do not have faith, because they refuse to acknowledge God, refuse to learn about God, and refuse to trust God’s promises. In other words, they willfully lack faith, not because God doesn’t really exist, but because of their choice not to search in the first place. They do not see, because they refuse to open their eyes. That is not a failure of their eyes, but of their rebellious nature.

dominigan on July 6, 2015 at 11:58 AM

If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, ….

Then everything would be subject to change in which case there would be no such thing as facts. Religion dismissed out of hand.

beselfish on July 6, 2015 at 12:14 PM

** Flat Earth Alert **

Younggod on July 6, 2015 at 6:24 AM

Another example of anti-theist myth–one that President Obama recently cited, BTW, so you’re on his team.
Belief in a flat Earth has always been extremely rare in the Church.

http://creation.com/flat-earth-myth

And the Flat Earth Society was founded by a Darwinist, BTW.

http://creation.com/flat-earth-leader-is-an-evolutionist

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 12:47 PM

If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, ….

Then everything would be subject to change in which case there would be no such thing as facts. Religion dismissed out of hand.

beselfish on July 6, 2015 at 12:14 PM

…So says your religion.
Your illogical, uninformed religion.

God never changes.
Almost every major branch of science was founded by God-believers precisely because they knew God to be a God of order, as well as unchanging.

http://creation.com/biblical-roots-of-modern-science

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 12:55 PM

Sort of…

dominigan on July 6, 2015 at 11:58 AM

No sort of about it.

If you follow my link above, you will find the following:

Faith is that aspect of reasoning when you look beyond your five senses in order to understand the world around you. For you, your senses mark the extent of your existence, while for people of faith, our senses only mark our beginning. Your options are only what your senses can tell you, while my options are limitless.

Just because I use faith in understanding what is around me, doesn’t mean I have little reason to do so. As far as I am concerned, I have a great deal of reason to know what I know. Such as I know my faith leads me better in achieving a life worth living better than anything science could tell me.

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 1:00 PM

If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, ….

Then everything would be subject to change in which case there would be no such thing as facts. Religion dismissed out of hand.

beselfish on July 6, 2015 at 12:14 PM

The conclusion makes no sense from the premise…

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 1:04 PM

Nicely done!

That it also explains why ‘anthropic global warming’ is faith-based is an excellent two-fer.

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 8:42 AM

Yep. Anything you believe before you understand is religion.

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 9:20 AM

Well…you can take something on ‘faith’ with having a ‘religion’ involved.

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 1:39 PM

Anything you believe before you understand is religion.

CaliforniaRefugee on July 6, 2015 at 9:20 AM

So…

The pre-school child who flips the light switch, believing that action will produce light…
Is that religious faith?

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 2:30 PM

The conclusion makes no sense from the premise…

Ricard on July 6, 2015 at 1:04 PM

Life is so easy when you can just say something and it’s true simply because you said it, isn’t it?

Another reason religion is poison. Your mind is so atrophied from following edicts as if they were principles and regurgitating them as arguments that you’ve lost the ability to explain yourself in a cogent and persuasive manner.

beselfish on July 6, 2015 at 3:14 PM

…So says your religion.
Your illogical, uninformed religion.

God never changes.
Almost every major branch of science was founded by God-believers precisely because they knew God to be a God of order, as well as unchanging.

http://creation.com/biblical-roots-of-modern-science

itsnotaboutme on July 6, 2015 at 12:55 PM

God never changes? Not according to Jazz Shaw. In his very post we are commenting on he points out “…in reality, religions adapt over time in well documented ways, though change tends to come at a more stately pace than in the scientific community.” Do you mean to say that religion changes regardless of God’s wishes?

Just because Isaac Newton was god-fearing (and the Founders, for that matter) doesn’t mean that his Calculus is an article of faith or anything to do with religion.

Oh, and by-the-way, referring to religion as uninformed and illogical is redundant.

beselfish on July 6, 2015 at 3:24 PM

Science is nothing more than our understanding of Gods work.

long_cat on July 6, 2015 at 6:45 AM

Best answer so far and the reason why many scientists are also religious. They have the humility to know, that after their greatest mental effort, they will never know first-causes and, since life is short, we each have to take a position on our purpose in this universe before it is too late to act.

Impish trolls who like to stoke this religion/ science pseudo-schism understand neither.

virgo on July 8, 2015 at 11:05 AM