I’ve been thinking a lot about how to test whether science and religion are compatible. A couple of nights ago, with the aid of a Johnny Walker Black and soda (it really was in your honor, Hitch… hang in there!) I stumbled on a very simple truth:
We cannot use both science and religion to address the same question and arrive at the same answer with each method.
If ever there was a statement of incompatibility, that’s it, don’t you think? Thinking back on the history of science and religion, I can’t come up with one instance of religion coming up with the scientific answer to a question — without resorting to science. (I can’t claim to know the full extent of religious declarations, but I think it’s safe to say science has also never verified a genuinely religious claim.)
That should be the end of the discussion. When it comes to answering questions accurately, consistently, and repeatably, science is winning by about five billion to zero over religion. No religious experiment (what is a religious experiment anyway?!) has ever arrived at empirical truth. No science experiment has ever arrived at religious dogma. Incompatible.
However, we all know by now what the next objection will be. “Science and religion don’t answer the same questions, so your point is a red herring. Science addresses questions of how. Religion addresses questions of why.”
This answer sounds good. And it’s emotionally appealing. In the end, it’s also empty. Let’s examine it more closely:
Let’s suppose that there is a class of questions which religion addresses and science does not. We ought to be able to figure out which questions belong to which methodology by a process of elimination. We know what science can address — pretty much anything to do with matter/energy/space time and how it works. So what does that leave for religion?
Well… there are those who would claim that religion addresses morality, but they are breaking their own rule when they do. Morality is easily addressed by science, and has been since pretty much the beginning of “human science,” whether psychology, neurology, or sociology. More importantly, when science addresses morality, the answers are different than religion’s. So we’re back to my first statement. Religion and science cannot address the same question and arrive at the same answer consistently and repeatably.
Others claim that religion addresses questions of comfort and hope in a dark and scary world. This again crosses a line and goes into scientific territory. In studying the human animal, we’ve discovered what does and does not comfort people, and we’ve learned that religion’s answers — again — do not line up with scientific answers.
The thing is, if we examine these questions carefully, we’ll see that they’re missing their own point. It was claimed that religion answers questions of “why.” But morality and hope are not about why. They’re about how. Which is what science is supposed to be addressing.
There’s only one kind of question involving “why” that science cannot answer. “Why are we here?”
Sure, a scientist would say, “We’re here because of accretion and biological processes and so forth.” But a religionist would respond by saying, “Yes… but why did all of that happen in the first place?” At this point, the scientist will correctly shrug his or her shoulders and wander off to find something more productive to do.
So we’ve found something religion answers that science does not. And I would suggest that this is fine. I’m OK with religion answering this question.
Does that shock you? It shouldn’t. What are the things religion will say? It will probably say something called god “wanted” things to be this way and made them so. And that’s fine, because the way things are set up, that’s the ONLY question religion can answer that won’t conflict with science. It is impotent to comment on the nature of reality, on cause/effect, on morality. It is literally incapable of discovering any other question which science cannot address.
In the end, religion backs itself into an irrelevant corner by claiming compatibility. We can demonstrate empirically that religion and science cannot answer any questions about reality compatibly, so all that’s left is to ascribe existence to some nebulous intelligence’s “desire.” And that’s fine by me, I suppose. If it makes you feel better, then good for you. But don’t go claiming that you can discover anything about what you or I should or shouldn’t do, because that is the purveyance of science.
- Greg Paul: the science of religion (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- Thriving on open questions: science, religion, and spirituality (bluejaysway.wordpress.com)
- Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D.: Religious Scientists: Faith in the American University (huffingtonpost.com)