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.