The short answer is ‘yes’, and those that deny this are simply, well, in denial. One (Science) attempts to explain phenomena based on observation, experiment and hypothesis testing. As we accumulate data and test our hypotheses, so the confidence in our explanations grows. The other (Religion) attempts to explain phenomena based on revealed knowledge. How anyone can have confidence in such ‘explanations’ (and I argue that statements about for instance origins derived from Religion are not explanations at all) when the knowledge upon which they are based can not be shown to be revealed in the first place is beyond my comprehension.
Scientists themselves are divided on the issue. On one side of the argument are the likes of skeptic-in-residence Michael Shermer who, while simultaneously fending off attacks on evolution by the religious, somehow finds a way to claim that they are compatible. Then there was the late Stephen J. Gould who came up with the concept known as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), which puts forth the idea that science and religion involve domains which do not overlap. Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God and Just A Theory, would also be in this camp.
Then there are the nay-sayers (and I leave no doubt to my readers that I myself can be categorized as such) like PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne who see religion and science as utterly incompatible. And I think they’re right.
The idea that Science and Religion are compatible, embodied in NOMA, simply does not stand up to scrutiny. How can I say such a thing? Do science and religion not deal separately in material and spiritual matters?
No, they do not. Both try to explain phenomena and overlap considerably despite protestations to the contrary by Gould and his followers. NOMA has done a great disservice to us all. Religious belief arose largely because we all want to know the answers to what I call the Burning Questions. These involve existence, purpose and natural phenomena. Early attempts at answering such questions recognized that we were ill-equipped to attempt answering them. The ability to answer them simply did not exist, and to escape our feelings of helplessness and lack of control over this situation we invent anthropomorphized beings (remember: we were supposedly made in God’s image…) which did have the control. This gave us an illusion of control somewhere, if only vicariously through a fictitious character.
It wasn’t till much later that we created the tools we needed to start chipping away at the unknown. When early scientists (themselves devoutly religious) started looking at the world to verify the answers religious authorities had already given about it, problems immediately arose. For instance, early geologists (who fully expected to verify Ussher’s chronology of the Earth) tried to estimate the age of a gorge in Britain. They asked those that lived there how often boulders fell from cliffs and realized that there were far too many boulders for Ussher to be anywhere near correct1.
It was events such as this (and there were many, many such inconsistencies) that caused science to become separated from religion. Some say that religion spawned science because the early scientists were religious. This is specious reasoning, however, particularly when many examples of how religious authority attempted to restrict the dissemination of information and ideas can be cited (the Church even attempted to suppress the invention of the printing press!). Everyone was religious in those days (or at least professed to be so, lest religious authority imprison, torture and/or kill them), and I would argue that science arose despite religion. Once the idea that understanding the universe involved observing the universe rather than reading a text which was ill-suited to this application, it was inevitable that science left religion in its wake.
When Science and Religion try to explain the same phenomena both can not be correct. History is replete with examples where scientific explanations have supplanted religious ones: storms are weather phenomena resulting from warm and cold air masses collide, not gods angry at passengers on a ship (no need anymore to sacrifice some poor sap to appease them!); lightning is not a god trying to smite anyone, but a static discharge across a spark gap; the diversity of life is explained through evolution rather than the just-so story of special creation. In those areas where science and religion do not overlap there is imply no verifiable way in which anything can be known. Thus, we can have no confidence in conclusions drawn in such magisterium, even that such a magisterium exists. Believers plead that such knowledge is revealed, but again, how can you possibly have any confidence in such a statement when it is untestable? You either believe it or don’t. Fine if you believe it, but don’t expect any accommodationism from me on that score. Any who expect me to respect such pleading in a public forum are going to be surprised at my refusal to do so. I refuse outright to be an enabler of credulous thinking. Being a free thinker does NOT entail believing every idea that gets espoused, no matter how popular it may be. It is about drawing conclusion based on evidence and rejecting dogma.
The bible, for instance, is the textbook of one of the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity. (We do rag on Christianity a lot in North America, but let’s face it, it is by far the predominant religion here. The same arguments apply to the other two (Islam and Judaism), so those of you who are Christians aren’t actually been singled out. Deal.) The only way to read that book is in a literal fashion. This is another point upon which I disagree with Shermer and the only time I will ever agree with Ken Ham – Shermer seems to think that it is okay to treat bible mythology as allegorical. The problem with this, and Ham recognizes this also, is that if one part of the bible is treated as not literally being true, what parts can be? It’s a slippery slope where one picks and chooses what they want to be true, watering it down to where its meaning is meaningless.
So, when scientific inquiry demonstrates that the Earth was not created in 6 p.m., October 23, 4004 BCE (Ussher et al predated the concept of error bars and significant figures), that there was no world-wide flood, that the diversity of life we observe today occurred through descent with modification and not through wholesale creation, there are only two possibilities that allow believers to maintain their belief:
- concede to the overwhelming evidence that such stories are just that – stories – and accept the scientific explanations in a retreating action;
- deny any evidence contradicting accounts in the bible exists.
I call the former a retreating action because that is exactly what it is – beating a retreat. Such people concede that scientific inquiry provides better answers, while clinging desperately to what remains. As our tools get better and better, such people will need to retreat further and further. What will happen to belief in such people when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are reconciled and we can push our understanding of the inflation of the universe back to the singularity? I look forward to the possibility that we can finally understand the origins of the universe (but sadly I doubt I will see this in my lifetime), but will this type of belief finally back these people into a corner where they must choose either to discard their belief or become the second type like Ken Ham? I do not envy these people their dilemma.
I find type 1 believers to be rather dishonest. Oh, not in an overt way, but they’re kidding themselves, trying to have their cake and eat it too. Oddly, Ham’s sort is more honest. Wrong (really, REALLY wrong), but honest nonetheless.
I’ve often come across people that can see God’s involvement in natural phenomena (the other day I ran across a commenter who claimed to be able to see the hand of God in the generation of rain). But the reasoning is completely faulty, since causality is <em>presumed</em> rather than <em>demonstrated</em>. This is the key difference between naturalism, upon which all modern Science is based, and viewing the world through the lens of their own mythology, which is what Religious explanations offer. Without demonstrating causality, however, ascribing phenomena to any god is arbitrary, as I could easily create a framework from which I could claim that rain is due to the pink unicorns of Pluto.
So when the National Academy of Sciences makes the following statement:
Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.
I call “BULLSHIT!” The NAS follows this up with several statements from scientists supporting this position, including Ken Miller, Francis Collins and Father George Coyne. As Jerry Coyne (no relation, neither in blood nor ideology) points our, 92% of the members of the NAS flat-out reject a personal god (it’s even higher in Britain’s Royal Society), yet there were no dissenting opinions given? What the hell is the NAS trying to do? Perhaps they feel that it is a pragmatic approach, but accommodating religion in this fashion can only reinforce the erroneous idea that viewing the universe from a religious viewpoint has some validity or can somehow add to science. I defy anyone to show me any verifiable advancement in our knowledge that is at all useful in our understanding of the universe. Anywhere and everywhere religion and science have intersected (and they do intersect – Gould was kidding himself) science has won out and handily so. Naturalism is the only way of looking at the universe that produces verifiable results, and results that are not verifiable (spiritual nonsense, for instance) are not results at all.
Sure, there are things we don’t know yet. I’d be out of a job if that were the case. And it is pretty much a certainty that this will always be so. But that does not in any way imply that the spiritual realm exists! It only implies that there are phenomena out there awaiting discovery and explanation. Nothing more! Naturalism has worked unbelievably well in the past, and it will continue to amaze in the future. Why am I a naturalist? Simple – IT WORKS! In my opinion, it is the only way of knowing which has demonstrably worked at all.
Is evolution a threat to faith? You bet it is. The whole of naturalism itself is a threat to faith, evolution being but one thread in the whole naturalist tapestry. Accommodating religious ‘moderates’ by giving them the illusion that religion and science are somehow compatible boggles my mind, especially coming from a source such as the NAS. Sure, there are many scientists that are religious, but they check their religious beliefs at the door every day they go to their respective labs. Science ignores religion, and must do so in order to function at all. How is that at all jibe with the meaning of ‘compatibility’?
- Gorst, M. Measuring Eternity: The Search for the Beginning of Time, Broadway (2002)