Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Are Religion and Science Incompatible?

          Certainly not!  Well, maybe.  Perhaps!  Probably!  In the final analysis it will depend on who you ask, and what Science and Religion are about (I capitalize the words to indicate their status in modern Western culture as iconic institutions).  Science comes from the Latin meaning knowledge (knowing) and Religion also comes from the Latin meaning piety (fear of the gods).  If I were to ask my question in terms of modern Western culture it might be something like this: is Athens (ultimately the original source of the scientific spirit in the West) incompatible with Jerusalem (ultimately the original source of religious piety in the Christian West)?

          Here are two helpful descriptions of Science and Religion I found on the internet.  They are necessarily broad.

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

On the other hand, Religion is a set of variously organized beliefs about the relationship between the natural and supernatural aspects of reality and the role of humans in this relationship.

Two other more narrowly framed descriptions from my own experience are these: Science raises questions about everything and answers them by experimentation; Religion provides answers to everything and discourages questions.  I realize that narrow definitions are easily challengeable, but from my experience these latter two catch up the spirit of what Religion and Science seem to be about. Here are several contrasting statements about Religion and Science.

1a On the basis of observable phenomena (viz. the universe is expanding) Science attributes the origin of all things to the "Big Bang," but does not speculate about what preceded it.

1b Religion attributes the source of everything to God before the Big Bang.

2a Religion must affirm a nonphysical spiritual world, because God is intangible Spirit and hence does not "exist" in time and space.

2b Science only investigates aspects of the physical universe.

3a Religion is prone to superstition and spiritual magic.

3b Science undermines any Religion prone to superstition (from the Latin: unreasonable religious belief) and spiritual magic (viz. any manipulation of the physical by spiritual means).

4a Religion demands faith.

4b Science demands experimentation and repeatability.

5a Science proceeds on the basis of natural cause and effect.

5b Religion posits God as the ultimate cause of whatever happens in the universe.

An example of a clash between Science and Religion was occasioned by Charles Darwin's book, The Origin of the Species (1859).  Darwin offered scientific evidence that plant and animal life evolve from lower life forms over time by means of natural selection.  The default explanation for the origin of the species in the Christian West is that God created all things; in short human beings did not evolve from lower life forms.  Darwin offered physical evidence; Christianity cited the Bible in response.  What counts in Science are evidence and a logical argument.  What counts in Religion in the Christian West is obedience to God, in deference to the Bible and church dogma.  Christianity will eventually lose this debate, as it did the debate about the nature of the solar system (click here to read my blog, "Down the Rabbit Hole," April 26, 2014).

          Christianity's belief in a spiritual world will not be engaged by Science, since Science only investigates aspects of the physical world.  Christianity therefore wins this non-debate by default. Christianity's affirmation of the nature of spiritual reality is directly challenged, however, by the spiritual realities of other non-Christian religions. No scientific tests are available by which to prove which description of spiritual reality, if any, is an accurate description of the way things are in the spiritual universe. In the absence of objective evidence available to a neutral third party settling whose view of the spiritual universe is accurate turns out to be "my opinion beats yours." Spiritual realities do not "exist" in the physical world, for by definition they are spirit.  Spiritual realities are mental constructs in the minds of those who hold such beliefs and in sympathetic accounts in religious literature, which originally began as mental constructs in the mind of the author.  In that sense spiritual universes do exist in time and space.

          Are Science and Religion incompatible?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Peggy S. Hedrick said...

No. Science and Religion are not incompatible--their core difference means they can exist together.
Interesting analysis!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hedrick,
Using your descriptors, religion and science are incompatible, but it really doesn’t seem to matter to most Christians I have known, who tend to compartmentalize and insulate one from the other. Neither do they need to be compatible. Worship tends to serve a purpose that science doesn’t. From my experience (work and community) it seems that churches are chosen because of similar socio-economic, educational, and ethnic cultural aspects. Church serves as a community of similar-minded people. Beliefs and faith are rather secondary, and, as some research hints, coming after affiliation. This is borne out by research that shows social networks, not tenets of the religions, are the major mechanism for conversion. (See Stark, Cities of God, chapter 1.) Only after conversion, does one become inculcated. I would posit that even those who “inherited” their faith communities (because that is where the forebears attended), the beliefs are secondary to the community. Faith, though, doesn’t rely on empirical data. I have faith (confidence) that my car will start because of my experiential context, though I haven’t a clue about the inner workings of it. I don’t have faith that there are any meaningful gods, because of my experiential context.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Are religion and science incompatible? I would say, in general no. Your question for readers may have been stated, "Are science and the Bible incompatible?" The answer would clearly be yes. The Bible contains numerous incompatibilities with present day science, some of which you mentioned. As science continues to uncover additional understanding of the human mind, other compatibilities are likely to be identified. I anticipated science will soon ascertain the "spirit of man" is nothing more than brain chemicals and environmental influences. Like Charles Darwin, the discovers may well be reluctant to publish their findings.



Anonymous said...

Excellent, Charles. Thoughtful and thought provoking. We agree with you and we thank you for sharing with us.

Harrylyn and Charles

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks everyone for commenting on the question. Jim' comments raise a new wrinkle however. In his view Science and Religion are not incompatible, although Science and the Bible are. It prompts the following observation on my part. Generally all Christian groups rely on the Bible for aspects of their faith. The same is true for the Jewish use of Hebrew Bible. And some conservative Christian groups even declare the Bible to be "God's Word." Is Jim suggesting that, although other Religions may not be incompatible with Science, the Christian Religion in particular is incompatible with Science because of its belief in and use of the Bible as an authoritative document for faith? And that prompts the question: if Science is incompatible with the Bible, why would it not be incompatible with the Christian Religion?

Anonymous said...

Charlie's question: If science is incompatible with the Bible, why would it not be incompatible with the Christian Religion?

Attempted answer: Inconsistencies or even errors in the Bible established by science do not disprove Christianity nor do they disturb all Christians. Science has not yet determined Christianity to be in error; perhaps science never will. Science has no interest in specifically disproving Christianity, but Science will continue to disprove erroneous, i.e. ancient superstitious claims made by the Bible. This indicates nothing more than the Bible is not what some Christians claim it to be. Critical thinking Christians have long ago perceived the Bible to be something other than absolute facts, but this realization has not dampened their Christianity.


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Jim,
I have been away from my computer for several days, so I am late in replying. I am not really sure how many Christians are "critical thinking Christians," but you seem to think it is more than I think it to be. Most Christian churches continue to push the idea that one can through the power of God (by prayer) spiritually manipulate physical situations and actually produce a "miracle." For example two popes were recently declared "saints" because the three required attested miracles were verified by the church. I am not picking on Catholics with this observation. Such claims of miracle are regularly affirmed in protestant churches, and the protestants don't even verify the miracles! The church teaches that God regularly works miracles in the modern world (i.e., spiritual manipulation of the physical world in some fashion) and hold out the Bible as proof that God is still the God who acts in history, as God did in the past. For example, Joshua prayed to the Lord to keep the sun and moon still for a day while the Israelites took vengeance on the Amorites. And the sun and the moon stood still! Such ancient examples of God manipulating the physical world "prove the Bible is true" to "Bible believing Christians." That being the case why could God not do the same kind of thing today? Such as healing the Syrian General Naaman of leprosy by "seven ducks in a muddy stream" (2 Kings 5: a title used by a famous Southern Baptist preacher). Science does not speak with a uniform voice, and as scientists are engaged with the physical world, it would simply not be in the purview of scientists to "disprove Christianity." But people who work in biblical studies and the history of religions using the scientific method, however, do undermine the Bible as the textbook of faith for the church and in so doing undermine a Christianity based on the Bible, which is virtually all Christian groups. Would you as a scientist approve of teaching children such things? Probably not, but they are taught to children and adults weekly in churches that use the Bible for study, and they hear it preached from the pulpits. The problem is: once we remove God from being active in the world, why is that not disproving Christianity? What's left if God does not act in the world?

Anonymous said...


As usual you raise interesting questions for critical thinking Christians, e.g.

-how many Christians are critical thinkers?
-does God manipulate the physical world?
-once we remove God from being active on the world, why is that not disproving Christianity?
-What's left if God does not act in the world?

I have little light to shed on these questions, as they are not subject to scientific investigation. I know of no scientific studies underway to answer these questions/assumptions. But as I commented previously , science has refuted with clear evidence that many statements in the Bible are not factually correct. Though not the task of science, the scientific evidence indicates the Bible is not what some, certainly not all Christians and Jews claim it to be.