Is Religion and Science compatible?

The relationship between science and religion is a debate that has raged on since classical antiquity. Discussed at length by philosophers, theologians, scientists and politicians, I have also found myself far too often discussing the ins and outs of religion and science over a pint of the local ale with friends and colleagues. This post will briefly describe the ways in which religion and science may be completely incompatible.

It is perhaps best to initially define both terms; science is the intellectual and practical activity of the systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. While religion is the belief in (and worship of) a superhuman power or personal god, it can also be defined as the pursuit of an interest with great devotion and passion. It is here where these two practices look to be fundamentally incompatible, with science based upon reason, empiricism and evidence derived theories while religion deals in belief, faith and supernatural causation.

Karl popper, regarded as one of the most important science philosophers radically redesigned the logic of scientific discovery in the 20th century with his theory of empirical falsification. This theory states that a hypothesis can never be proven; only falsified by empirical evidence. The very nature of deriving a hypothesis to be tested involves a series of logical deductions and the anticipation of the way something may behave (or if you will, an educated guess!).  This logic contradicts the theory of religion at the most basic level in that a supernatural god cannot be proven or disproven to exist.

The greatest example of the incompatible nature of science and religion is the evolution vs creationism debate. Evolution is the process by which different kinds of living organisms are believed to have developed from earlier and simpler forms during the history of the earth and involves the gradual change in inheritable traits. Developed by Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century he was not the only scientist to be arriving at this sort of theory at this time. But it was his scrupulous observations that led him to his eureka moment, noticing that each species seemed to differ slightly from the predecessor and that this difference gave the newer species a slight advantage in its environment. While the theory of creationism is the belief that the universe and living organisms within it derive from specific acts of divine creation (though it could be argued that this is a circular theory leading to the question of who created the creator? But that is a debate for another time!). It is painfully clear how incompatible these two theories are and one simply cannot believe both.

Neil deGrasse Tyson states that the ideas of science and religion are completely irreconcilable due to the differences in the central dogma; science relies upon experimental verification while religion relies upon faith (often unquestionable faith) which are two opposite ways of gaining knowledge. Richard Dawkins a self-confessed ‘deeply religious non-believer’ suggests that religion subverts science and saps the intellect. Other people such as Lawrence Krauss suggest that incompatibility is a theological concern and not a scientific one. It is here perhaps that when discussing religion against we are straying into the theological by trying to discuss the meaning and purpose of life, which religion deals in.

In contrast, many scientists and theologians have suggested that there are a number of similarities between science and religion. Charles A. Coulson, a theoretical chemist and mathematician, argues that science is advanced by ‘creative imagination’ and not just mere ‘collection of facts’. This is perhaps best shown in the field of experimental archaeology which involves the reconstructing of the past through replicating the performance of various tasks and feats to tell us more about the ancient cultures performing these tasks. Not unlike religion that involves a great deal of critical evaluation and personal interpretation, or if you will ‘creative imagination’.

It could also be suggested that both religion and science may be founded upon a very personal idealism. For instance as I sit here now reading scientific books and articles I am personally interpreting them for which another individual may interpret entirely different. It’s also possible that upon reading the bible I could take home a completely different set of ideas than somebody else.

It is in this sense that I believe that while science and religion may be fundamentally incompatible, they are intrinsically linked and similar (maybe more so than some people would like to admit), for example scholars of both practices belong to an institution that strives for personal enlightenment and an explanation of the world around us, be it scientific or supernatural. What is clear also is that throughout history science and religion have often coexisted peacefully leading to advances in technology, health and knowledge. Up until the French revolution the Catholic Church was the largest sponsor of scientific research, paying for priests and monks to study at Universities, logic and mathematics also flourished under Hinduism and Buddhism. Even Gregor Mendel, dubbed the father of modern genetics, was a practising priest who experimented on plant hybridisation on pea plants in the monastery grounds.

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MartynWing

Biologist. Archaeologist. Aspiring writer.

2 thoughts on “Is Religion and Science compatible?”

  1. Religion is compatible with science, as you point out regarding Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism. There are no scientific fasifiables for religion, so no conflict there. The thing that is incompatible with religion is scientists.

    Cosmologists can’t find stuff any better than the priests can – in fact they can’t find 96% of the universe and do a damn poor job of explaining the 4% they can see. When they find something, they always say, “we didn’t expect that.” Look at the results of New Horizons fly-by of Pluto. Everything they found is a surprise and doesn’t fit the standard model. They can’t predict what they’ll find and keep tweaking equations to figure it out, like a shaman throwing bones.

    Speaking of guesswork, how about multiverses and extra dimensions. Pure fantasy – nothing “scientific” about it. Unless they directly observe, or make some dark energy, dark matter, a black hole, or a multiverse in the lab, I don’t see any of these concepts as any more scientific than the idea Sodom was destroyed by brimstone from the sky…oh wait, there is evidence for that.

    Scientists have a dogma called the Big Bang that is based largely on guesswork and very little on observation. I don’t know a single “finding” of the theory that does not have an alternative explanation, removing any falsifiable proofs.

    It’s one dogma against another for sure. I’m not religious. That’s why I don’t like cosmology preachers like Niel DeGrasse Tyson – he won’t admit what he doesn’t know.

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    1. Hi there, Thank you for your comment!

      I understand what you are saying, however I must disagree with you here. Astronomy, sadly, is not something I am hugely knowledgeable on. But I can tell you that these theories cannot be disregarded as mere fictional speculation or guesswork because of the laws that scientists follow, as I stated previously we must look at current hypothesis and things we know, make logical deductions/interpretations and then come up with a new hypothesis. I personally believe that anything inexplicable is just because we don’t yet understand it.

      The big bang theory is a result of a phenomenal amount of work by scientists. Hubble observed that the distances between galaxies was strongly correlated with their redshifts (which occurs when the radiation or light source is moving away from the observer) and concluded that galaxies are receding away from us with a velocity proportional to their distance. Therefore in past times the galaxies and stars were much closer together which would lead to a denser and hotter universe, perhaps resulting from the big bang. The big bang theory relies upon Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and offers explanations of a number of observed phenomenon’s in our universe. Of course I must agree that the state of the universe in the earliest years is still relatively unknown and open to a great deal of speculation and investigation. I guess what my point here is that experimental verification can take the form of observation.

      With regards to the multiverse theory I again don’t know much about it however I have read that it is sometimes described as a philosophical debate because it lacks falsifiability by means of scientific experiment.

      With regards to the destruction of Sodom by brimstone falling from heaven, you are correct, there has been archaeological discoveries of ruins of ancient bronze age cities (2500-2000 BC) around the dead sea that contain evidence of destruction by fire (burnt and reddened bricks). Theories suggest that the city was destroyed by a comet, the raining fire could refer to the break-up of the comet in the atmosphere, and comets are also rich in sulfur which would explain the burning brimstone. Comet destruction would also help explain what happened to Lot’s wife, where she turned back to the city and became a pillar of salt, the impact from a comet would create a surge of dust and debris that would expand outward rapidly (much like the impact wave of a nuclear bomb). This is another example of how I believe that religion and science involve a great deal of personal interpretation. As the bible has been written and revised many times and sources collected after the events took place it could be suggested that the comet hit Sodom and was then described as divine intervention afterwards OR as the bible suggests it could be interpreted that an angel did actually go and speak to Lot to tell him the city would be destroyed to cleanse rampant sin in the city and then brought down a comet or ‘fire from heaven’. This perhaps also described the incompatibility here as it is impossible to determine or falsify if God destroyed the city.

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