Can science and religion co-exist?

The Muslim Debate Initiative (MDI) has written a post with the title I have now given this post. The MDI’s post is in the positive and, given the name of the blog, I assume they are open to reading posts answering in the negative. That is what I’m writing here. I don’t think science and religion can co-exist.

First, we need to examine what we’re looking at. Scientists like Newton and Pasteur are irrefutable evidence that religion and science can co-exist in the same mind, let alone society. The two patently can co-exist. But I still intend answer in the negative. To do that, I want to address the sentiment I think the original question is trying to express: can the methods of science and religion occupy the same intellectual framework? I’m going to defend the answer: no. The methods of science and religion aren’t just different, they are the antithesis of each other. Although some scientists are religious, religion is not how they come to develop scientific ideas and progress.

Religion purports to work by revelation from the supreme creator(s) of the universe and absolute dogmatic claims held with certainty. To question the revelations reported in these related Books is to undermine a foundational premise of religion: the messenger is supreme. Criticism and revision or, worse yet, the discovery of falsehood of a claim of a Book tears apart the fabric of top down revelation on which religion is built. Not only that, but criticism based on new evidence, reason and the open exchange of ideas is the foundation of science.

The reason religion and science do not and cannot share this foundation is because a religion chipped away at by criticism is a nebulous deism at best, and nonexistent if properly examined. Without the unquestionable dogmatic revelation depicted in a Book, religion is content-free. The Exodus from Egypt didn’t happen, the sun doesn’t rest in the sky or set in puddles; walking on water and other miracles are historically unsupported.

Alternatively, the Enlightenment was the beginning of the open exchange of ideas, rebuttal and criticism. The exchange is fueled by evidence, reason and the refusal of knowledge by authority (i.e. dogma and revelation). This is why scientific journals include a method section; so that if you understand it you can offer reasoned criticism.

There have been attempts to adapt religion to conform it to foundations which are closer to that of science. This is a purely aesthetic endeavour: attempts to make Big Bang cosmology analogous to the Genesis account of creation; or make religious claims flexible enough to fit into scientific conclusions. But this veneer of pseudoscience crumbles away when one identifies that it is all an attempt to continue accepting the revelation of Books.

It is important, then, to account for how antithetical methods can exist in people’s minds, even minds great scientists. Isaac Newton was undoubtedly religious and undoubtedly a great scientist; his discoveries were based on evidence, robust mathematical evidence and provided predictions; his ideas were put in the public domain and openly critiqued (even if the rebuttals were weaker the the claims). But the methods of religion played no part in the process. In fact, when Newton called upon religious methods (he delegated the cause to a God) his scientific progress ceased. As Louis Pasteur said, in each person is a voice of science and a voice of faith and never do the two cooperate.

The answer is basically that the human mind is capable of compartmentalised different aspects. It perfectly plausible for a highly skilled architect to have a profound understanding of supports, load bearing, design, lighting, efficiency and solar gain etc. but still think a Mosque can be built with east-facing windows, the foundations can be built from lime jelly and its supports from polystyrene foam; the Mosque will be kept standing by the power of Allah. If it falls down, then the attendants weren’t faithful enough. This model of architecture is clearly incompatible with actual architecture, but the architect feels me applies to religious buildings and another applies to all other buildings. (This is not intended as a direct analogy to religion’s truth finding ability and science’s truth finding finding ability; it is merely intended to illuminate Pasteur’s comment about the religious and scientific voices. They are incompatible and separate methods.)

In a geographical sense, of course science and religion co-exist. In a mind, they can co-exist. But in the realm in which they function–intellectual enquiry and truth tracking–they simply can’t co-exist. However, the argument goes that science and religion are actually attempting to answer different groups of questions. The groups of questions are nonoverlapping and also don’t co-exist: questions of the natural and the supernatural. Why the reach of science and religion cannot be described as reality and fiction, respectively, is not something I have met a person who can articulate. The invention of religion to explain a realm that we simply can’t confirm exists is a nonsense; the quandary is whether religion tells us anything about reality. Religion is incapable of telling us anything about reality and science isn’t tasked with telling us about fiction. (What’s worse is where the religious claim religion is informative–like morality–we have no way to evaluate whether that is an accurate thing; is remains dogmatic and described by authority). The methods are incompatible, and never explore the same thing. One explains the world we live in and develops technology leading to progress; the other is like literature study, exploring a made up fictional world (but at least literature students know they’re doing that). Again, the methods don’t co-exist.

The premise that religion and science answer different questions is the point of the MDI’s post. What they argue is religion is correct in some ontological sense and not just literature study. That, I think, we can’t confirm.


8 thoughts on “Can science and religion co-exist?”

  1. I think we need a clarification. The Abrahamic faiths cannot coexist with science. Their hypothesis of a singular conscious creator spirit, a personality, who is all-powerful and all-knowing is nonsense and doesn’t fit. However, there can be some degree of coexistence if the theistic view is more pantheistic (nature’s god, not necessarily conscious or particularly interested), or perhaps the energy-centric views held by the eastern mystics. While that theistic view doesn’t assist science in any particular way, it can provide a philosophical depth to the findings that can then go on to establish faiths like Jainism.

    1. I’ve not given appropriate time to pantheistic or energy-centric beliefs for two reasons: they compound definitions of words (like “energy” -what i mean by ‘compound definitions’ is explained in a post going up later today) making the claims impenetrable, and a lot of people describe themselves as pantheists without ever elaborating on claims.
      Also, energy centric beliefs get tied up in nonsense like this ( Scientific Proof:Thoughts & Intentions Can Alter …:
      It is a problem, and they do deserve more attention, but i don’t think i can do it.

      1. Oh, I generally agree with you, which is why I said these system can’t help (or assist) science in any meaningful way. If there can be any coexistence then its only in painting the data with a warm-fuzzy.

  2. I also tend to agree. To the extent anyone looks to science or religion for answers to questions in their lives, there is a natural competition and science keeps winning. For disease, religion offers ritual, science offers medicine. For natural disasters, religion offers the “wrath of god” and science offers geoscience. And so on and on and on. In fact, religion is incapable of answering any real questions as it can only make up answers, so it is inherently incompatible with methods that can provide some answers.

    But the question is “can they co-exist?” The answer is “only amongst the ignorant.” There are highly educated and highly trained intellectuals who still claim to be religious, but religious movements are populated with people who are not very well versed in either science or their religion. If they were pulled out of the equation, the social impetus for “belonging” to a “faith community” would diminish and eventually very few of the intellectuals would claim some kind of faith.

    1. That’s an interesting perspective, Steve. Consider this hypothetical: for nearly ten thousand years, humans lived in relative harmony with their environment, expanding their populations, and living lives based around nearly constant family connections, friendship, work and play. Many of them died young, many people suffered terribly from incurable illnesses, many went hungry, and many died in stupid wars. Yet they persisted, living away life after life in the company of their kin, and believing in silly ideas about gods and spirits. Let’s call the period in which those ignorant idiots lived “the religious period.”

      Not too long ago, some people began telling their employees to build more and more powerful tools, and called the result science. In a few short years, the oceans were filled with garbage, the ozone layer fell apart, and the majority of humanity lived in crippling poverty, even the simplest employment or meanest food unavailable to them. Many of them died young, many people suffered terribly from incurable illnesses, many went hungry, and many died in stupid wars. Tribal leaders postured against one another, subtly threatening each other with weapons so powerful they could destroy the planet hundreds of times over, even as prominent figures warned of unstoppable plague, wars of finality, or extinction by environmental destruction. Let’s call the period in which those enlightened thinkers lived “the scientific period.”

      (1) Which period “wins,” as you put it?

      (2) Who are more intelligent–the people of the religious period, or the people of the scientific period?

      (3A) Would your answer to either of the above questions change if Russia and Anglo-America have a nuclear war that destroys humanity, and in the last second of your existence, you were asked those two latter questions?

      (3B) Same question, but this time, you’re dying of starvation and aggressive skin cancer in a blistering desert after peak oil and extreme global warming caused the end of civilization (before we managed to develop some kind of cheap and efficient solar power to save our tablet-using asses)?

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