What is the Conflict between Science and Religion?

It is easy to assert something; it is slightly harder to back it up. But endeavour, my comrades, for in the effort of backing a claim up you finally add some substance, enter into a real conversation and, most excitingly of all, run the risk of learning something. “Religion and science are incompatible”. Is that true? It’s not just true; it’s true on many different levels.

Science is not a body of knowledge. But, at its most superficial reading, science is a body of knowledge: The Periodic Table of Elements, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Hoyle’s Gas Laws, enzymes, digestion, nutrition etc. And it is possible to make the case that the body of knowledge, science at its most superficial, is incompatible with religion. This is the very reason we have Creationists pitting a marketing campaign against evolution, and better orators of the apologist variety challenging anything we may know about the Big Bang.

“[The Pope] told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”

– Stephen Hawking

Through history, as the body of knowledge of science expanded the conflict between science and religion became clear: religion was being pushed out. The amount we know goes up, and God isn’t there, and at the very perimeter between our knowledge and our ignorance an investigator has the choice between continuing the investigation and thus discovering something, or to invoke a God and stagnate discovery. In Newton’s Principia he does not make reference to any deity. The motion of the planets had always been put down to God, but Newton understood it and so he never had to mention God in order to give the laws of motion. But his laws of motion did not account for all the planets. He could do what is called a “two body problem”, which explains why one object orbits another and the forces those two bodies exhibit on each other. But once he looked all the bodies of the sky his maths fell apart and he couldn’t fix it. In that moment Newton was at the boundary of his own understanding, and he says this:

“The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts and almost in the same plan. Ten Moons are revolv’d about the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn, in circles concentric with them, with the same direction of motion, and nearly in the planes of the orbits of those Planets. But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions: since the Comets range over all parts of the heavens, in very eccentric orbits. For by that kind of motion they pass easily through the orbits of the Planets, and with great rapidity; and in their aphelions, where they move the slowest, and are detain’d the longest, they recede to the greatest distances from each other, and thence suffer the least disturbance from their mutual attractions. This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”

– Isaac Newton, 1726

Okay, so that’s arrogant. Because Newton could not do the maths to turn his two-body problem into a multi-body problem he assumed no one could and that the regular motion that we see must be the “counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being”. And then he stopped investigating.

“Even if you’re as brilliant as Newton you reach a point where you start basking in majesty of God and then your discovery stops. It just stops.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, in this speech

But Newton did create one more part of the body of knowledge that was not compatible with God, and God receded. Then, along came Laplace. Laplace used a mathematical technique called perturbation theory* to turn Isaac Newton’s two-body problem into a multi-body problem. Where Newton had given up and invoked God, Laplace had understood. Even Newton’s God was forced to recede.

* it is worth saying that perturbation theory is simpler than differential and integral calculus. That is worth saying that simply because Newton invented calculus to explain the orbits of the planets, but as soon as he had God on the brain he lost that magic.

The body of knowledge of science was incompatible with God.

At a deeper level, science is not its body of knowledge. Science is a method. And the method, also, is incompatible with religion. Religion is top-down knowledge: whether you get your knowledge from a Book or a mystic, that’s it. The whole process is encouraged by our intuitions; the same intuitions Newton succumbed to. But, nonetheless, intuitions. There’s no room in that for science.

“Science is the philosophy of discovery. [Religion] is the philosophy of ignorance”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

If science worked that way, we’d still believe God authored the motion of the planets, because Newton said so. But Laplace probed the solar system and the solar system taught him something. Aristotle thought that the speed things fell was proportional to their mass. If science was like religion, we would still believe that. But Galileo inquired a little further into the matter and demonstrated that wasn’t true. And then NASA demonstrated it a little more. The method of science is not top-down and authoritative. Science is about not knowing, and then asking the Universe: experiment. Evidence is when the Universe answers.

In science we have evidence, and evidence is the Universe telling us how It is. Religion is people telling us how they think it is.

To demonstrate, consider the following two narratives:

The Bible

Approximately 4,600 years ago, the entire planet flooded. There were mass-deaths across all species. The only survivors were a single family of humans and either two or seven individuals of each species (depending on whether they were clean or dirty animals).


The Egyptian Dynasties progressed right through this global flood, unimpeded (despite their death); archaeologists have been unable to find a layer of animal remains in the Earth’s crust to suggest mass-deaths of everything; there are no oceanic sediments in places they shouldn’t be; genetic analysis does not show a human population bottle-neck as extreme as six individuals; there are intact desserts and soils that are hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old.

How are these compatible? And if they’re not, which is more reasonable to believe?

16 thoughts on “What is the Conflict between Science and Religion?”

  1. Great article. Love one of your closing thoughts, “science is ago not knowing, and then asking the universe: experiment. Evidence is when the universe answers.” I’ll be keeping that handy and using it. Great stuff!

      1. It can, I suppose.

        The real issue I had with this post is conflation. The philosophy of science conflicts with God of the Gaps, and the scientific consensus conflicts with a minority position among religious scientists, but those two facts really don’t have anything in common.

      2. I say in the post that I am looking at the conflict between religion and science at more than one level.
        I’m not trying to conflate the methodology with the actual body of knowledge.
        And even if I was trying to do that, it wasn’t my point.

        I’m also trying to figure out what the nuanced point you’re trying to make is by referring to “religious scientists”. I am referring to the religious body of knowledge, regardless of who believes it (i.e. the actual content of the books).

      3. The “religious body of knowledge” isn’t a concrete, uncontroversial object. For example, few religious people would treat Isaiah 40:6 as a claim that human tissue is made of cellulose.

        Christians like me view Genesis by comparison to contemporaneous creation myths. It served to highlight God’s intentional, purposeful participation in creation, contrasted against the chaotic themes in the other ANE creation myths of the time.

      4. Genesis includes Noah’s flood.
        And if my 8 year old brother can understand that we are a planet orbiting a star on the outer-reaches of an unexceptional galaxy (except for insofar that all galaxies seem exceptional — of course), why could God not teach that? Why does He teach “firmament”?

        And you’ve already been talking to John Zande about the archaeological evidence regarding Exodus…

      5. The deluge has plenty of precedent as an origin myth too. Gilgamesh, anyone?

        “Firmament” is an unfortunate construction in the 1611 KJV. But that’s beside the point. Obviously a creation myth is going to reflect the scientific and cosmological beliefs of the day, or it isn’t going to be accepted. The question is not whether Genesis contains scientific facts (hidden nuggets of proof which would only be understandable in the West millenia later), but how Genesis differs from contemporaneous mth.

      6. I contest the idea that a God couldn’t convince people of the truth, so He had to pander to the accepted myths of the time, creating a patently false document.

        Regarding Noah’s flood: there are a series of very important differences between a global flood where even the tallest mountains were submerged, and a big flood.

        To me it appears that I am not dealing with the presupposition that the Bible cannot be wrong, and the related methodology that approximates to ‘whenever the Bible appears to be wrong, bend and flex to offended passage until it can be considered a cryptic metaphor for whatever the current scientific understanding is’.

        And on this we agree: the Bible is wrong. We simply disagree about how important that is.

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