Science versus Religion: can't we just get along?

Science and religion are often seen at odds. Currently in the US, the political party that cloaks itself in the most religious terms is also the most anti-science. Compared to the general population, scientists are more likely to be atheists. For example see this letter to Nature 10 years ago (subscription required). In the table, below, it is apparent that a belief in a personal god dropped dramatically over the last century among scientists.

So, are these two approaches to understand ourselves at odds or is this simply a matter of perspective? Well, first we have to realize that we are dealing with words (science, religion) that mean different things to different people. So before we answer this question let's define our terms.
Science: a natural philosophical approach to understanding the universe and all that is in it. The underlying supposition of science is that the universe can be understood without appeal to supernatural mechanisms. (The way in which science is done is well well well beyond the scope of a single blog, much less a blog post!)

Religion: a belief system that encompasses faith as an approach to understand the universe. The underlying supposition of religion is that the universe can be understood by revelation. (Revelation contains personal revelation, revelation from a church leader, and revelation from religious texts.)

Alright, we have some terms (admittedly both are superficial, but they serve to basically hit the main points). Are these compatible? Well, the short answer is no. Actually the longer answer is no as well, just with additional points. Now I am not saying that one cannot be a scientist and religious. I would never say that, and if I did I would be proven wrong immediately and emphatically. However, I do think that the only way someone can be completely rational (and no, I am not completely rational, Im only 1/4 Vulcan) is to NOT be religious. I need to stress that I am not making value judgments with these statements. One can be a great human being and do great things for society and be a deeply religious person. However, and I need to stress this, the converse is true as well: One can be a great human being and do great things for society and be an atheist. (Those who think this is completely wrong can now take a flying leap along with your psychotic lackeys like Sarah Palin.)

So, I have stated for the record that being religious or an atheist does not necessarily have anything to do with a person's role in society, why then do I think there is a problem between science and religion. Well, the problem comes from the fact that religion requires revelation and this is anathema to science. Just because Darwin wrote it doesn't make it true, the fact the we can observe it, make predictions and find that these predictions are correct, etc makes it true. Maybe it would help to think of it this way, if Darwin never wrote On The Origin Of The Species or even never existed, evolutionary theory would exist today pretty much as it is. If the Bible had not been written, there would be no Baptists today. This is the difference, the "truth" established by science can be determined independently by anyone (exceptions apply), but the "truth" established by religion does not exist without someone saying it does. this is why there are moral people in the before the presence of and in the absence of Christianity. Not killing other humans in your society can be considered a natural morality not a religious mandate.

Now I realize the human brain is outstanding in its ability to compartmentalize conflict, so rational people can easily go to church on Sunday and hang with their homies givin' it up to god and what not. That doesn't mean religion and science are compatible simply that people are odd odd creatures. Since we are so good at compartmentalization, does it matter that science and religion are not compatible?

ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY!!! See here, here, and here for a few reasons why. This is a problem inherent with religion because it requires this appeal to revelation. If Pope Louis the π/2 said it, David Koresh said it, Sir Loin of Beoff said it, then it must be true. Of course it may not be true, now its up to the individual to decide where faith ends and reality begins and that my friends is the problem. When push comes to shove it is in fact a fight between faith and reality! Reality! Not some philosophical approach to knowledge, REALITY!

Why was it wrong for the Manson family to kill Sharon Tate? The killers had faith, no different than any other believer.
Why is it wrong for fuck-head islamic fundamentalist to behead prsioners? The fuck-heads had faith, no different than any other believer.
Think we are any different? If you support or supported the wars in the mid-east, tell me that you never justified them in part based on the differences in religion between them and us.

Why is it wrong to teach creationism in schools?, Why is it wrong to teach that the earth is 6000 years old?, Why is it wrong to teach the earth is flat? All of these questions are equally supported by faith and completely overturned by REALITY.

No, religion is not the cause of all of our problems, but it is an intellectual maelstrom that allows and justifies the causes of many of our problems.

-Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, Nature 394, 313(23 July 1998), "Leading scientists still reject God," doi:10.1038/28478.
-Leonardo da Vinci’s "Vitruvian Man"
-Michelangelo's "La Creazione"


  1. Scientist: Observes Evidence -> test, test, test -> Plausible Conclusion.

    Zealot: Conclusion -> Find (make up) evidence.

  2. An example of religious teachings that is just out of touch with reality (and really gets to me as a woman) is the fact that we are very; very close (if we haven't already exceeded it) the human carrying capacity of the planet yet the Catholic Church STILL does not recognize birth control. Stupid and dangerous.

  3. Snap, you hit the nail on the head and zealism goes well beyond religion (and isnt reserved for republicans as much as they want to monopolize it).

    Sen T. Harkin (D-Ia) on NCCAM: "One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving." emphasis mine

  4. Take caution when using 'science' and 'reality' interchangeably. Science is a perpetual approximation of reality; it continually refines and adapts itself as new ideas and new evidence presents itself.

    That said, I completely agree religion and science are not compatible in the least.

  5. Yeah, Steven Novella is all over Harkin at NeuroLogica

  6. Point taked "Former", however if you are referencing my comment I wasn't really talking about "science" in my comment--I was taking the opportunity to have a mini rant. I was talking about religious stuff that's out of touch with ANYTHING (science, reality, you name it!)... I was raised Roman Catholic so my "beefs" with religion are often based on stances that the Catholic Church has, since it's the one that I know the most about.

  7. Former, I will grant you that our scientific knowledge is only an approximation of reality. However, this approximation is easily a bazillion orders of magnitude closer to reality than our religious knowledge. So, until religion greatly improves its track record, I am comfortable, in this context, using science and reality interchangeably.

    Thanks for posting your comment!

    Snap, I started dealing with Harkin, but by the time I get it done it will be waayyyy old news. Might have to put a different spin on it so I can salvage it.

  8. GV - thanks for using the electrons, that really helped.

  9. I believe that they are compatible. I love science and understand its cause and effect relation to the universe. But there are ways in which they are similar. Atheist say show me god in their arguments. But for the sake of debate can you show me an atom. Can you show me a quark. No you can't but you believe it is there even tho you can't or ever will be able to see it. Now i believe in the atomic theory. Yes sometimes religion gets proven inaccurate but so does science. And here is one point i would also like to make lack of proof is not disproof. Like we have no proof of what creates gravity but we know its there. Alot of science are just theories and guesses. Some might be right and some might be wrong only time will tell. They can and do coexist but you are basing all info on the assumption that all religios people are the same or that all are close minded. I completely believe in the scientific theory but in my mind who created the rules? It is possible that the rules where created by god. Science isn't the pursute of disproving god because that is impossible its the pursute of finding the rules of the universe threw the scientific theory. And the only thing science can realy say accurately is there is no scientific evidence for god. The cant say he doesn't exist they can just say there is no evidence. As i said before lack of proof is not disproof. And alot of theoretical physics have beliefs that could parallel religion in the fact there is no proof. So is a theoretical physicist just a preacher of a diffrent religion.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS