Are Science and Religion Compatible?

We see articles on this subject every day, and we almost always ignore them. The last time we even mentioned it was Religion vs. Science? Try Opera vs. Baseball, where — although we discussed both sides — we said that we preferred to remain aloof.

You’re all familiar with the position taken by Ken Ham. He fanatically says you’ve got to choose one or the other — see Ken Ham Is Engaged in a War. On the opposite side are people like Richard Dawkins, who sees virtually no merit in religion. Then there’s the occasional guru who writes that in the magnificent grandiosity of his spiritual ecstasy, he is able to encompass them both simultaneously.

Here’s a good article on the continuing debate, from the website of National Public Radio: Are Scientific And Religious Explanations Incompatible? It’s the sort of thing we routinely ignore.

Your Curmudgeon continues to remain aloof, but we’re going to discuss the subject again. To avoid inflaming those on either side of the debate, we’ll use another analogy. We’ve already used opera and baseball, so today it’ll be golf and football — either American football or soccer, it doesn’t matter in this context.

Do golf and football conflict? Some like one but not the other, some like both, and there are those who ignore them entirely. Hard-core partisans love one and despise the other, but only the craziest of those would declare that “You’re either with us or against us!” To keep our analogy going, we assume that there are also accommodationists who try to please both factions.

But the fact is that that golf and football are different activities. One can indeed enjoy both — but not at the same time. It’s obvious that no one can play golf on the same field where a football game is underway. And while engaging in one, the rules and skills of the other are totally inapplicable and probably counter-productive.

Also, legislation favoring either of them (or both) makes no sense, and penalizing or outlawing them is insane. Well, getting back to science and religion, there’s the special case of what gets taught in public schools, but that’s because the states aren’t allowed to teach religion. The Founders were correct in insisting that government should be secular. They knew from history about the inevitably deleterious consequences of combining church and state. But aside from prohibiting governmental activity, there are no restrictions on religion.

So where does this leave us? Pretty much where we began. Because we think it’s an ill-conceived controversy, we shall remain aloof from the compatibility issue. Nevertheless, we’ll continue to ridicule creationism — including creationists’ efforts to gain governmental support for their nonsense.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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23 responses to “Are Science and Religion Compatible?

  1. You could potentially see similar behavior if the groups that governed either the NFL or PGA decided they wanted the market segment enjoyed by the other.

    The media campaign to drive the disposable income of one fan base towards the other group would possibly be similar in nature to what we see from the religious for profit community.

  2. Whoo boy, was that a useless comparison. The reason science and religion do conflict is their spheres of influence overlap. Golf and football (either sort) not so much. This is not just a case of fans of one having bragging rights. (There is so little scoring on football/soccer! Golf takes too long, there’s too little action.) This is a case of minor things, like human rights. For millennia Judaism and Christianity supported slavery. Science argues we were created through an evolutionary process, religionists insist we were created by magic. Do not those things have effects on public policy? That is real things?

  3. Steve Ruis says that science and religion conflict because their spheres of influence overlap. This is true as far as it goes, but the fact is that reigion and science don’t HAVE to overlap. The overlap occurs because idiots still believe that religion is required to explain phenomena in the material world.

    There are numerous sensible people out there that realize the proper sphere for religion is spirituality, and perhaps cultural tradition.

  4. Apologies, but I repeat myself:

    I do not think the real ‘controversy’ is between Science and ‘Religion’; it’s a tussle between Science and political reactionaries–and chiefly in the USA.

    Most mainstream religions don’t have the crazy conflicts with reality that jerks like Hambo and the DI have. I think it is rather dreadful that such crazy folks on the fringe should be mistaken as spokesmen for ‘religion’ in some general sense; they are no such things, but are either political dogmatists of the worst sort or else outright conmen (and sometimes both at the same time).

    Rant over. Apologies again.

  5. docbill1351

    I recommend Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs Fact – Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, which deals with this subject thoroughly and decisively. Coyne’s thesis is this:

    “My thesis is that religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality—they both make “existence claims” about what is real—but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.”

    Lombrozo (NPR article) comes to the same conclusion, I think, by suggesting that the only way to build compatibility is for religion to change in accordance with new discoveries in science. But, she cautions, you’d end up with a fluid religion that is quite different with religions today.

    Actually, this has already been done. The Dalai Lama wrote about personal responsibility as an extensible philosophy that can build through the family, community, nation and world in his book, Ethics for the New Millennium. It is a godless, dynamic ethical philosophy that provides all the warm cookies of religion without the dogma, authoritarianism and conflict.

  6. What an absolutely lousy analogy. Easily the worst post I’ve ever seen on this site. The only way this makes sense is if you want to compare playing golf with a football rule book because that’s what Ham and his ilk want. Except of course he wants a bible rule book used with science and that is as stupid as it gets.

  7. We actually agree here, despite me being a more hardcore atheist than even Dawkins (he’s not a 7; I am).

    “Because we think it’s an ill-conceived controversy”
    Usually it is indeed.
    The thing is simply that science uses deduction and induction, while religion uses faith and possibly deduction. A priori there is not reason to assume that the results of both have to contradict each other.
    At the other hand those results totally can conflict, as the usual suspects this nice blog writes about demonstrate over and over again.
    Pretty good analogy.

  8. mnb0 says: “Pretty good analogy.”

    Not everyone agrees, but that’s not unusual around here.

  9. mnb0 says: “religion uses faith and possibly deduction”

    It’s all deduction, starting with their premises taken on faith. What they don’t seem to use is induction, which is essential in science.

  10. Greg S says, “the proper sphere for religion is spirituality, and perhaps cultural tradition.”

    Cultural tradition I can go with. I never know what people mean by the word “spirituality,” because no two people seem to mean the same thing by it. What do you mean, Greg S?

  11. Cyano de Bactergerac

    They step on each other’s turfs all the time. E.g., religion steps on biology with creationism (and more, if you hold to a young earth), and science casts the religious claim of life after death into doubt with neurology. The only way to keep them separate by having one of them relinquish any claim of having to do with the real world. But there wouldn’t be much point in either science or religion that way, would there?

  12. From a sociological view, science and theology are different activities with different practitioners operating under different professional norms addressing themselves to different subjects in pursuit of different goals, among other differences. Although science and theology both involve the interpretation and application of text in an attempt to understand and eventually solve problems of interest in each activity’s respective field, Golf and football have more in common with one another, I’d say (I won’t get into why exactly here, as that is not my main point). Still, the analogy of golf and football to science and theology is useful because it is true you can’t do golf and football at the same time just as you can’t do science and theology at the same time.

    Apart from illuminating our inability to do science and theology at the same time, the analogy also helps make the point that the practice of science and the practice of theology are too different from one another to be in a general state of conflict with one another, despite the best efforts of those who have an interest (whether political or personal or both) in provoking the appearance of conflict. Now, the particular claim of a particular scientist may conflict with the particular claim of a particular theologian, of course, but whether there is such a conflict here or there is a case-by-case, facts-and-circumstances determination that one cannot defensibly make by arguing that science and theology generally conflict with one another.

    It may be fun and profitable to say science (or certain branches of it, at least) and religion conflict, or to at least imply that this is so and that one’s coreligionists need to be up in arms about it (I am looking at a certain “think tank” now), but it is not the sort of thing that honest scholars typically do.

  13. @Josh Baloney. 100% baloney.

    “Although science and theology both involve the interpretation and application of text in an attempt to understand and eventually solve problems of interest in each activity’s respective field….” Really? Please tell me the exact way in which a theologian would proceed to test a scientific truth claim. Wait just a minute here while I look up photosynthesis in my buybull. Oh, wait….

    On the other hand, let’s test a theological claim. All modern humans are descended from Adam and Eve. Oh, look, we can test that using genetics. Result? Theological claim is BS.

    “interpretation and application of text” No, Theology looks at things this way. They take something that was written down and argue what it means. Scientists substitute the word “Fact” for “text”.

  14. Whooha! “But the fact is that that golf and football are different activities. One can indeed enjoy both — but not at the same time.”
    What! have to ever played golfing football? Get game except that a lot of golfers don’t play anymore. It can be painfull being hit by 300lbs after a swing at the ball!

  15. GPF:

    A scientist reads a paper published in his field to determine the research question, the methodology of the study, its results, its recommendations for further research, etc. The scientist is engaged in the interpretation and application of text. Theologians interpret and apply theological text to theological questions. Science and theology are very, very different in many respects, which was my main and obvious point yet was still somehow missed, but both activities involve the interpretation and application of text. Frankly, every social activity involves the interpretation and application of text, in one form or another, even football. And, yes, science is a social enterprise.

  16. Yes of course you’re exactly right. Both enterprises are exactly the same because they use words. That’s it and since I use text, I must be a scientist. Or a theologian. No, no, I’ve got it, I’m Gregor Mendel so I can be both!! Your entire premise is word salad. You want to claim NOMA, just do it without the ‘text makes them all social enterprises” nonsense.

    Your “main and obvious point” is totally wrongheaded. With one, you can figure out what is true or at least what is very likely not true. With the other, you can’t. Care to guess which is which?

    Science can put the lie to Theology. It does not work the other way around.

  17. GreenPoisonFrog says to Josh: “Your entire premise is word salad.”

    Be gentle with Josh. I think he’s a Discoveroid.

  18. GPF:

    As I wrote earlier:

    “The particular claim of a particular scientist may conflict with the particular claim of a particular theologian, of course, but whether there is such a conflict here or there is a case-by-case, facts-and-circumstances determination.”

    That is, I am not aware of any scientist acting as a scientist who makes a scientific claim clearly in conflict with any theological claim of any theologian acting as a theologian. My point is about the boundaries of disciplines, of course, and about the process of determining where those boundaries are, exactly. You are apparently talking about something else.

  19. @Josh
    A Mormon theologian may make the claim that pre-Columbian Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel. A theologian of Native American religion may make the claim of origins only in the Americas. An anthropologist make make a claim of origins from Siberia.

  20. Cyrano asks me to explain what I mean by “spirituality”. I’m not religious, so I can’t claim any universal understanding of spirituality. I would perhaps say spirituality is that which is not within the domain of the material, but I suppose that answer isn’t very satisfying.

    As a child, I used to be very religious, but that didn’t last long, because I asked qustions the nature of which religion couldn’t provide satisfying answers. But even now, the symbols of the particular religion I was brought up on resonate within me on an unconscious level. Metaphors can be powerful things, even if (or perhaps especially if) we acknowledge that they aren’t the literal, factual, material truth.

    Read Genesis with that in mind. Humans “fell” because we ate the fruit of knowledge and thereby became aware of sin. The Serpent claimed that eating of that fruit would make us like God. Conventional Christians believe the Serpent was lying, but I believe there is a symbolic truth. Humans are more like God because of knowledge than we ever would be had we chose ignorance. Also our big fat intelligent brains makes childbearing tough, so human mothers are in fact “punished” by this “choice” of human evolution.

    Make no mistake – I do not believe in the literal creation, but I can still find value in the works of religion.

  21. Tom:

    Did the anthropologist you refer to publish a paper that addresses the claims of the two theologians? I ask because that’s the sort of thing that, depending on what’s in the paper, might count as an example of religion and science in conflict with one another.

  22. I am suggesting this as a hypothetical. I do not know enough about Mormonism or Native American religions to point to specific theologians and what they say. But I would be surprised to find a scholarly anthropological study which would explicitly cite any such theologian. I only have in mind several studies which relate pre-Columbian Native Americans with Siberian or North Asian or East Asian peoples of more than 10,000 years ago, on the basis of genetic, linguistic, and archeological data.

  23. Dave Luckett

    Josh is, I think right, to insist that scientists as scientists and theologians as theologians do not investigate each other’s specific claims in each other’s specific fields. Notice, please, that the statement “The Bible must be read literally” is not a theological claim, seeing that it’s not about God and has no logical foundation. It’s merely an assertion that most theologians don’t respect at all. (In fact, most would be contemptuous of it.)

    Theology essentially and necessarily concerns itself with examining logical inferences that arise from statements about God. The study of the meaning of a Biblical or textual statement about God is part of it. To obtain that meaning theology gains input from exegesis, but exegesis itself implicitly requires that the meaning of a text is not necessarily literal, even if it is known exactly what the words literally meant to its intended readers. Even that much is often not certainly known, with the Bible. Theologians do NOT necessarily assume that the Biblical texts are the Word of God, nor that they are inerrant, nor to be read literally. Usually the contrary, in fact. Theology itself is not necessarily theist, or deist. Many theologians are atheists or agnostics, just as many scientists are theists.

    Science essentially and necessarily is not concerned with any statement that is not testable by observation of evidence. God and his nature are not testable by evidence. It must follow that science is not concerned with theology.

    Now, you can call that NOMA, if you like. You can object that a statement like “God created all things” is a statement about God, but one that science investigates, so therefore science IS concerned with theology. I would answer that science CAN’T investigate the idea that God created all things, only the processes by which they arose. The idea that God can and does use observable natural processes has theological implications, of course, but I know no serious theologian who ever thought that God must work by fiat and miracle alone. The observable natural process called evolution has theological implications but science is not in the slightest interested in that.

    So, although I don’t like the term “compatible”, which seems to my mind to assume a full integration, I think science and theology can co-exist. As to their respective fruitfulness and application, well, that’s a different issue, far too large for a blog post.