The Incompatibility Between Science and Religion

(This is a follow-up to my earlier post – A Good Question: Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?)

Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True, has sparked off a Big Debate about whether science and religion are incompatible. 

Sean Carroll, who writes a wonderful blog on the Discover magazine, joins this discussions and, while taking the side of the “incompatiblists”, lays out some really good points.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. 

True, there’s a difference between difference and incompatibility. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other. After making this very important distinction, Sean goes ahead and elaborates his rationale:

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

Can’t argue with that!

It is also imperative to understand the logic of the “compatibilists” – those who argue that science and religion are compatible. As Sean explains, the purported compatibility is simply a claim about the meanings of the words “religion” and “science”. Their strategy is to twist the meaning of one or both of these words to make them seem compatible. Most likely, they will argue that by saying “religion” they actually mean “ethics”, or “moral philosophy”, or “the way of life”. First of all, this is correct, but only up to some extent. Religion does overlap with ethics, moral philosophy etc. But the fact is, religion is that, and much more. For instance, religion has always made claims about the way our world works – the way it was created, and miracles and what not. And science has proved that these claims are outright incorrect. Secondly, if you mean “ethics” by the word “religion” then simply say “ethics”. No one would argue against those who claim that ethics and science are compatible!

Another important clarification is that the incompatibility doesn’t necessarily mean that a religious person can not be a scientist, or vice versa. People hold contradictory beliefs all the time, and “we should be interested in what is correct and incorrect, and the arguments on either side, not the particular beliefs of certain individuals.” In conclusion, Sean writes:

I have huge respect for many thoughtful religious people, several of whom I count among the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. I just think they’re incorrect, in precisely the same sense in which I think certain of my thoughtful and intelligent physicist friends are wrong about the arrow of time or the interpretation of quantum mechanics. That doesn’t mean we can’t agree about those issues on which we’re in agreement, or that we can’t go out for drinks after arguing passionately with each other in the context of a civil discussion. But these issues matter; they affect people’s lives, from women who are forced to wear head coverings to gay couples who can’t get married to people in Minnesota who can’t buy cars on Sundays. Religion can never be a purely personal matter; how you think about the fundamental nature of reality necessarily impacts how you behave, and those behaviors are going to affect other people. That’s why it’s important to get it right.

Read the whole article here, it’s well worth your time.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. 

5 responses to “The Incompatibility Between Science and Religion

  1. I think that the central error in this piece is the perceived function of science and religion.

    Is religion meant to propose testable hypotheses? Is science the ideal tool to provide ethical and moral guidelines on the use of technological issues?

    I don’t agree that they’re incompatible because they don’t even operate on the same plane …

    Thanks for reading

    • Vishal

      The incompatibility between science and religion (that’s argued in this post) is not due to their functions or purposes. You may argue that science serves a different purpose (empirical in nature) as compared to religion (revelatory), and you may be right about that. But, although they work on different planes (as you mentioned), they do make claims about the real world that are contradictory. “God made the universe in 6 days”, “Jesus was born of a virgin”, “the human soul survives the bodily death” are some examples of the types of claims that religion makes about the real, physical world. And science says that these are simply not true! Hence, the incompatibility.

      • Thank you for going through the trouble of answering. I have one clarification to make, if you don’t mind.
        You picked on three categories of “religious fallacies”
        a) God made the universe in 6 days. Taken literally this is obviously not true. I am a practising Catholic. We do not think that it is wise to interpret the Scriptures unguided. We defer to the authority of the Church as bestowed upon her by Jesus Christ Himself. This has in fact kept the Catholic Church from splintering into sects and cults.
        b) That “Jesus was born of a virgin” is what we call “dogma”. It makes sense only the light of a Catholic’s acceptance of the authority of the Church. It is generally understood to be a truth about faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful. A dogma implies two thing, viz. Divine revelation and the authoritative teaching of the Church.
        Besides, it has been known to happen that a hymen remains intact even after childbirth – unusual but not unheard of. This leads me on to another issue. Miracles. God cannot logically break the laws of nature to perform miracles. He has to use the tools at his disposal to work them. A miracle in theory should be scientifically reproducible. Omnipotent doesn’t mean that you can do absolutely everything e.g. squaring a circle, or creating something that goes so fast that not even God himself could beat it in a flat-out race (‘cos if he can’t beat it he’s not omnipotent, and if he can’t create it he’s not omnipotent either, so omnipotence cannot result in something that contradicts itself)
        c) the human soul survives bodily death is quite difficult to disprove scientifically with our current crop of techniques and equipment. From a purely scientific standpoint you can’t safely say that it doesn’t exist yet (neither can you say that it does), because there is (as yet) simply no way of verifying or falsifying such a claim. A Catholic would believe such a thing because Christ Himself said so. Again, it boils down to deference to Authority based on what we’d call a “track record”
        This is the essence of the problem that some scientists have with religion. Religion (by which I mean Catholicism) requires its adherents to relinquish and subjugate themselves to the will of God as revealed through the Catholic Church. Science, due to the nature of its subject matter, cannot ask the same of its exponents. On the contrary it requires that they assume nothing and investigate everything.
        What many fail to see is that they seek different levels of truth. You’d use a harpoon to catch a whale and a net to catch a shrimp … if you get my drift.
        Thanks for reading

        • Vishal

          Interestingly, your response to those three examples shows an interesting spectrum ranging from ‘caving-in’ to ‘rhetoric’:

          (1) IT’S SYMBOLIC!

          Since science has already proven that X is simply not true, let’s just say the reference to X in the Scriptures is purely symbolic. … And conveniently forget the fact that before science disproved it, our ancestors have believed in the the literal truth of X for centuries.

          (2) IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE!

          Since there’s a non-zero probability of Y – again, according to science – it could have happened. However bizarre or unconvincing the explanation might be, and however plausible an alternate explanation is (a Biblical mistranslation, for instance). Here’s an interesting article.

          (3) IT’S TRUE!

          Science hasn’t disproved Z yet. Or even better: science can never disprove Z (given the nature of the belief, or due to the lack of anthropological evidences). Hence, it’s perfectly rational to believe in Z with unquestionable and utmost sincerity.

          To me, this seems like a double standard: adjusting and even repudiating your religious beliefs based on scientific evidence or genuine moral inquiry – like in the case of slavery, for instance.

          And your comment about the authority of the Church [I hope this doesn't get too personal or offensive]: I understand that as a Catholic you feel comfortable with and convinced by the papal infallibility. But the majority of the world doesn’t share that reverence for the Pope. Do you think all others are simply mistaken (and going to burn in Hell as a result)? If so, do you think only the Catholics have a monopoly on truth? If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, then I don’t think we have any common ground for a healthy discussion…

          • I am not offended by your comments, at all. As a Catholic I firmly believe in the live-and-let-live way of doing things.
            I am free to believe whatever I wish, as are you.
            Nobody sends anybody to Hell. We go to Hell out of our choice. But then again, if one doesn’t know what Hell is, my statement won’t make much sense.
            Catholics do not believe that others are simply mistaken. We are aware, however, that there is room for improvement everywhere, including within ourselves.
            How healthy the discussion can be is subject to one’s openness to receive new ideas and differing points of view.

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