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.