Do Science & Religion Conflict?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer to Truth:

Science and religion have been battling—forever it seems, certainly as long as science has affected human thinking. The struggle carries deep significance. Some say that religion is superstition and science should eliminate it, the sooner the better. Others say religion is reality and science should glorify the God that created it, the sooner the better. Worldviews are at stake. As the battle rages, meaning and purpose, if any, hang in the balance.
Between science and religion, many call for harmony. Yet there seems, today, only more cacophony. I like that! With science and religion, I do not like artificial harmony or phony accord. I do not like to be placated or fooled. If there’s truth to be found—especially on matters of ultimate concern—I go for conflict. Give me rough argument over smooth talk.
Because I sense in myself a will to believe, I start with Daniel Dennett, a leading philosopher and skeptic and the author of “Breaking the Spell,” which claims religion to be a “natural phenomenon.”
“People want to believe in God,” Dennett says. “They even believe they believe in God. They are tremendously impressed with the fantastic wonderfulness of the universe. And wouldn’t it be nice if there were some sort of recipient for our gratitude? And I feel that as much as anybody. I wish there were somebody to thank. And there’s nobody to thank. But if you think there’s got to be, then you have a motive for trying to identify something as God. And, if you’re a scientist, it’s likely not going to be a traditional God. It’s going to be something not unlike Spinoza’s God, which near as I can tell, is just nature itself.” Dennett adds, “Do I worship nature? Well, almost. I wouldn’t pray to nature. I wouldn’t expect nature to work miracles for me. But I stand in awe and respect of the natural world and delighted to be here, full of gratitude. And because I can’t thank God, I just thank ‘goodness.’”
I give to Dennett the common hope-for-harmony routine—that because the goals and methodologies of science and religion are so different, they can co-exist.
“I don’t buy it,” Dennett asserts. “There’s truth, and then there’s everything else. There’s poetry, there’s art, there’s fantasy—but they aren’t two different kinds of truth. There isn’t scientific truth and emotional truth. No, there’s truth. And scientific method is the best method we’ve come up with for getting at the truth. I’d want to know how theology aims at the truth without following in the footsteps of science.”
To Dennett, truth is accessed only through science. Other nonscientific knowledge may be interesting, but it is not truth in the same sense.
I agree, but could truth in a different sense reflect reality of a different kind? How would a scientist who believes in God frame the argument?
Owen Gingerich, an emeritus astronomer and historian of science at Harvard University, believes in God. To Gingerich, a major issue in science and religion is “God’s actions in the world. Did God plan it perfectly in the first instance and let it run without meddling, or is God continually nudging it?” He believes that “many people have problems with evolution because they feel it’s eliminating God in the sense that they would like to have God in there each step of the way bringing it about. What I suspect is that many people feel that if they lose that [kind of Godly intervention], then they will equally lose the possibility of God interacting very strongly in the world.” For example, “much prayer assumes that God can be persuaded to do something that if you do not ask might not happen.”
The scientific view, obviously, is that God isn’t doing such intervening. “Now that’s a metaphysical assumption on the part of the scientists,” Gingerich says, “because science can’t prove that this kind of interaction does not happen, particularly as 20th-century science developed quantum theory, the uncertainty principle, chaos theory, and the like.” In his view, “theology can be a very demanding and serious intellectual discipline, even though the general metaphysics of scientists doesn’t give it a place at the table.” For scientists to exclude theology, Gingerich insists, is their own “kind of leap of faith,” which scientists have made in their interpretive process, but which “is not fundamentally a part of science itself.”
This is the core confrontation, and I love it. On the one hand, is the scientific worldview the absolute and only standard for assessing truth in the world? Or, on the other hand, does it, too, require “a leap of faith”? In other words, is a strictly scientific worldview self-referential and circular in its reasoning?
My head says the former; my heart, the latter. Maybe my head needs some help—and I know where to find my potential helper: at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my alma mater. Marvin Minsky, the legendary pioneer of artificial intelligence, is not known to be shy about entering the science-religion debate.
To get Minsky started (it doesn’t take much), I ask him whether it is efficacious for scientists to seek harmony between science and theology.
Minsky gives me a look and calls religion “an amazing phenomenon for thousands of years” that is a “psychologically wonderful device.” But he’s just warming up.
“Take all the questions you can’t answer and give them a name,” says Minsky. “So somebody says, ‘Well, God did that.’ And the right question to then ask is, ‘Well, how does God work?’ And [believers] regard that as rude. So there’s something strange about theology. It’s a system of thinking which teaches you not to ask questions. And so it’s incompatible with science.
“The trouble with religion,” Minsky continues, “is it picks particular things and says, ‘Don’t think about this.’ ‘Don’t change that.’ ‘Abide by this Book.’ And that’s very convenient. It saves a lot of time. At any period, if there are questions science can’t yet answer, why knock yourself out? I regard religion as a wonderful way to save people’s time.”
Minsky believes that if religion would not have impeded science for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, humanity would be far advanced, even in dramatically extending human life. “I think death will go away,” Minsky opines. “But we don’t need to pray for it. We need to work for it.” Not yet finished, Minsky adds, “If we look at religion as fossilized old beliefs, some of which may have been useful, that’s fine. But I can’t see serious discussions of theological ideas because they’re all nutty. Unless you say how God works, saying that God exists doesn’t explain anything.”
Minsky is fierce. Good for him. Religion as an excuse to avoid hard questions? Based on the history of religion, he makes a good argument.
But from the foibles or fallacies of human religion, does anything really follow about a Creator God?
I sway forth and back. Perhaps I need someone who hears harmonies between science and religion.
Francisco Ayala is a distinguished authority on evolution and a former Dominican priest who has thought deeply about the science-religion interaction. While he criticizes “intelligent design,” he believes in God. When it comes to how science and religion work, he says, “the difference is radical.” In science, Ayala states, “it is always possible to reject something that was accepted in the past—based on observation or experiment. In religion, we are dealing with different matters. Religion depends on revelation and religious experience. They are not subject to rejection by observation or experiment.”
But religion and science need not be in contradiction, he says, “They’re different [kinds of] truths,” he states. “For the religious believer, no scientific discovery, no matter how well-established, is going to challenge his or her strong faith.”
Ayala waxes eloquent on how the discoveries and marvels of science can be a benefit to religion by showing the complexity, diversity, and majesty of physical existence. Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, he says, “the beauty of life is very inspiring,” adding “I think people of faith should gain an inspiration by looking at the world of life and that should inspire them to think more of God and to love God.” To see the presence of God in the world, he says, “that is religion.”
According to Ayala, science can neither prove nor disprove God. But it can show a magnificently diverse world of living things that inspires awe and reverence.
How might religion work with specific sciences? I ask Wentzel van Huyssteen, a theologian and expert on human origins.
“It would be easy to construct a situation where there would be a permanent, eternal conflict between science and religion,” van Huyssteen says. “The strategies are so different. But if one moves up a step from religion and science in general to specific theology and specific sciences, then it becomes more tangible and we can say, OK, here we have a specific kind of theology and a specific kind of science—say, psychology, paleoanthropology, cosmology. And then it becomes possible to see how these very different strategies can be brought closer to each other by asking what is it that we do that could be somewhat similar?”
Van Huyssteen refers to his own expertise. “Take the issue of human uniqueness, which is a term used in both theology and science,” he says. “If one follows this kind of topic, then it becomes clearer how to diffuse a conflict. At some point, one may still reach a point, a point of no return, where each side may want to divert. But if one sticks to the more generic terminology of science and religion, then it’s either a duet or a duel.”
Admonishing theologians to “show that the disciplines we are practicing are philosophically sound,” van Huyssteen states that theologians have a “huge epistemic obligation to show that in thinking about this domain of religion, we can foster interdisciplinary conversations.” Van Huyssteen makes a distinction between the common practice of religion and the academic study of theology, which he says can complement science.
Paul Davies, a cosmologist and director of Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, is respected by both scientists and theologians. Not moved by flattery, he often disagrees with both sides.
“Science and religion start from opposite poles,” Davies says. “Science begins on the basis that all knowledge is provisional, it must be testable, that we put forward hypothesis about the world and we change our minds if experiments show that we are wrong. [Most] religions start with an act of faith, that there are certain things which are true and must be accepted to be true and they are not testable. And the question is, do science and religion meet somewhere in the middle so that they could be mutually productive?
“What tends to happen,” he continues, “is that the science informs religion more than the other way around.” He has a concrete example that impressed him. “There has been a long tradition of theological inquiry into the nature of time and God’s relation to time,” he says. “One can see the problem immediately. Here we have this notion of a being who is supposed to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and ‘perfect,’ who nevertheless at some particular moment made up his mind to have a universe and, snap, there appeared the universe. If this [creation] was such a good idea, why didn’t God make it ‘earlier’ or ‘before’? An answer goes back to Augustine, who said that the world was made with time and not in time. In other words, he took God right outside of time.”
By taking God outside of time, Davies explains, one problem went away, but it was replaced by another problem: namely, that “if God is a truly timeless being—eternal in the sense of being outside of time altogether—then what meaning could one attach to things like prayer and God interacting in history? Can one make any sense of an atemporal God—a God who is outside of time—entering into history in any sort of meaningful way? Well, there was no real answer to that, and theologians have debated these issues for centuries. But now along comes physics. Einstein showed that time is not some sort of arena in which the drama of nature is acted out. Space and time are not just there as the stage on which the play of the world takes place. Space and time are part of the cast; that is, space and time are part of physics just as much as matter and force, and that if you believe the universe came into existence with a big bang, then space and time could have come into existence with a big bang as well. Just as Augustine said: The world was made with time and not in time.
“So physics tells us that time is part of the physical universe,” Davies concludes. “So if you want to have a God who is somehow responsible for this physical universe, then this God has to be outside of time—and physics supports the notion of a timeless being. So that’s one concrete way, I think, in which science can inform theology.”
As for the traditional personal God, Davies says, “it may be that we simply have to accept that these thousands of years of tradition of a guardian-angel type of God, a personal being with whom one can have a personal relationship, and who will look after us and make sure nothing dreadful will happen … maybe we just have to let that go and find inspiration from science and from what we find at the scientific frontier. It’s not [as some scientists would say], a cold, meaningless, heartless universe in which human beings have no place. I think we have a place. It’s not a central place. We’re not the pinnacle of creation. We’re not at the center of the universe, but we have a role nevertheless, and that is enough to sustain me.”
Science is not going to be a substitute for religion, Davies says, “but it can provide a framework of ideas in which there can be a genuine spiritual dimension without having to go back to the guardian-angel God.”
OK, it’s my time to get personal. Here’s what I think (circa mid-2009; I, for one, should always date my belief system assertions).
That the universe is majestic, all agree. That God is the reason, all do not. Some scientists say there’s no need for God. Others say that science is perfectly consistent with a creator. Still others find meaning in the (assumed) fundamental nature of mind or consciousness without a traditional God. That mystery remains, all agree.
Whether science and religion conflict depends on one’s definition of science. If science is a truthful and growing body of knowledge about the physical world, then science, by this definition, has nothing to say about anything that is not part of the physical world. Science would have to be neutral—radically neutral—about religion, with science and religion operating, quite literally, in different domains. (In no way, however, would this stance validate religion as an independent avenue to apprehend reality.)
On the other hand, if science is defined as a method of critical thinking that is the only path to absolute truth, then science, so defined, is the mortal enemy of religion because all religions’ claims about God will fail the standard scientific-method tests of experimentation and repeatability.
What about the religious claim that science describes a world consistent with a supreme creator?
Here I will be precise. If it turns out that there is a God, then it would have made sense to read into the world the evidence of God’s handiwork. However, it still would not follow that science can ever be used in the first place to justify the existence of such a God.
There is unremitting tension between science and religion—and to me, that’s good to get … closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Marvin Minsky, Francisco Ayala, Wentzel van Huyssteen, and Paul Davies in “Do Science & Religion Conflict?” the 34th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Category: Closer to Truth


5 Responses

  1. V.V. Raman says:

    One might as well ask, “Do music and sports conflict?” or “Do poetry reading and wine-tasting conflict?”
    The point is, the human experience is rich, complex, and multifaceted.
    We think of and do different things to derive fulfillment.
    We enjoy ice-cream, watch movies, listen to music, read books, play chess, pray, argue and do a hundred other things also.
    Sometimes, it appears people are doing the same thing, as when they are playing with a ball. But it is important to know if one is playing soccer or basket ball.
    If two teams play ball together, one imagining the game is soccer and the other it is basket ball, there can only be chaos and confusion. The two games are played in accordance with very different rules.
    Science has its rules for testing the truth content of propositions. Religion has its own rules, which are not the same.
    It is surprising that serious thinkers don’t seem to recognize this simple fact, and try to introduce soccer rules into baseball rules, causing a spectacle that ranges from the amusing to the acrimonious.
    Those who play a game independently of the other are often quite happy and fulfilled.

  2. mike gottschalk says:

    I’ve been thinking about the nature of being itself for years, and today, I might boil it down to this: we emerge from, and exist in this life by a means which is contingent: And because we are the ones aware of our contingency, we are forced to answer the question, is there a place for us to trust in this life from which we emerge? and if there is, what will be the basis of our trust?

    I’m an aspiring follower of Christ; even so, I would argue that any “revelation” reveals something invisible: otherwise, it wouldn’t be revelation would it? If I put my ultimate faith in Christ, and not the invisible that he might embody, then maybe what I’ve done, is made this historical figure into a fetish rather than a revelation.

    So I see that beyond both science and religion, is a need to discuss the invisibles as possibly existing as phenomena in their own right ( subjective experiencing as one invisible) along with exploring their place in our lives.

  3. Anonymous says:

    when Raman says `Science has its rules for testing the truth content of propositions. Religion has its own rules, which are not the same.’ ,I can agree as far as his remark concerns science.But what are the rules followed by religion for testing the truth?Most of the truths put forward by religion are in fact matters of faith.One does not test them..simply believe them without questioning.

  4. Glenn Borchardt says:

    Science and religion use opposing assumptions. See “The Ten Assumptions of Science” or “The Scientific Worldview” to find out the differences between the two and why those differences are unreconcilable.

    Glenn Borchardt

  5. V.V. Raman says:

    < when Raman says 'Science has its rules for testing the truth content of propositions. Religion has its own rules, which are not the same.' ,I can agree as far as his remark concerns science. But what are the rules followed by religion for testing the truth? >

    For an answer to this question, you may wish to see my book: “Truth and Tension in Science and Religion.”;

Leave a Reply