Can Science and Religion Peacefully Coexist?

12 10 2010

University of Chicago professor of biology, Jerry Coyne, recently penned an article that appeared in USA Today entitled, Science and religion aren’t friends. In it, Coyne made the argument that “science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.” He cited the several books by New Atheists authors such as, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris which he says have exposed the “dangers of faith and the lack of evidence of the God of Abraham.” I’m not sure what this has to do exactly with his argument that science and religion are incompatible, since these are not science books, but rather deal mainly in philosophy, but we will set that aside for now.

Coyne does go on to assert that science has been nibbling away at religious explanations for natural phenomena, that evolution has taken a “huge bite” our of religion, and that recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls. He states that science is even studying the origin of morality, all with the goal of closing the gaps not yet filled by science.

Coyne acknowledges that Christians have written many responses to these works of the so-called New Atheists; however, he quips that they are merely attempts to demonize these authors while writing them off as “arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.” However, Dr. Coyne sticks to his guns in the midst of these attacks and claims, as a former believer, that it is all “bunk”; science and religion are two are different forms of inquiry. Or, as the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould called them, nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA).

Of course, Coyne acknowledges that there are leading scientists who are Christians; however, he simply writes that off as those who hold “conflicting notions in their heads at the same time.” He compares this to making a case, based upon the rate of infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are “perfectly compatible.” However, he says, it is important to distinguish real truth from that which we only want to be true.

Finally, he goes on to argue that science “works” while religion does not. He says that religion leads to war and strife (citing the World Trade Center attack as an example), while science settles things peacefully. Science is based upon reason, doubt, and questions authority, while religion is based upon revelation, dogma and authority. He says that there is “no way of knowing if it’s [religion] true.” In fact, he asserts, religion calls on people to hold incompatible truths.

To support this point, Coyne gives two pieces of evidence. First, the problem of evil; using the inevitable reference to the Holocaust. How do religious people rationalize the existence of evil and the existence of a loving God? Second, he cites the contrast of how many scientists are atheists as compared to the general poplulation; and the negative relationship between religion and acceptance of evolution as a valid theory. So, let me examine his argument to see whether is withstands scrutiny.

I will state at the outset that historically speaking, the idea that science and religion are incompatible is a fairly recent phenomenon. When we examine the history of science, as I did in a class this past summer, we come to realize that science and religion have been more closely linked than many realize in our post-Darwin world. It was Darwin that was a turning point in the way that science and religion have interacted in our history. We can cite discovery after discovery that were made by people who were not only religious, but were even Christian ministers.

I think first of Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest who first proposed one of the most successful and confirmed theories in physics and cosmology, the Big Bang theory. It was atheist astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” as a slur against Lemaître’s theory. Hoyle refused to accept the theory, not because the physics and the mathematics didn’t work, but because he didn’t care for the implications – it meant that the universe had a beginning, and he found that a hard pill to swallow. He held on to the steady state model (the universe neither expanded nor contracted, but was in a constant steady state) until the evidence made that position untenable. In fact, there were many scientists throughout history that saw their scientific endeavors as a way to understand the mind of God. So, I don’t see Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria as a valid hypothesis.

Coyne also asserts in the article that we now know that the universe did not require a creator. He doesn’t explain in the article how he knows this to be the case. In fact, one of the only other persons that we know of who has made such a bold claim is Stephen Hawking, to whom Coyne later refers in his article. Hawking’s claims are extremely speculative, based upon M-theory or what is known as “Super String Theory.” Roger Penrose, a former colleague and research collaborator with Hawking and no theist himself, recently said that M-theory is too speculative to even be considered science. To date, it is believed that there are 10500 possible explanations for M-theory, beyond the bounds of what science could feasibly test. Being untestable and non-falsifiable, M-theory is stuck in the realm of metaphysics and outside the realm of physics. Therefore, Coyne’s and Hawking’s statements are overblown and without foundation.

One of the areas that I think is interesting and one to which Coyne alludes is the area of consciousness. Most materialists (those who believe that all of reality is made of matter) believe that the mind is simply a state of the brain, if even that. Some believe that the mind is simply a useful fiction. Whichever position that Coyne and other materialists take, they have a huge problem, that being that if the mind doesn’t exist, or is simply a brain state, then we are completely determined beings. If we are determined beings (without free will) then we don’t make choices or have intentional thoughts (about other things). If we lack these characteristics, then reason and rationality go out the window. Yet, reason and rationality are the foundation of science and the big hook on which he and other materialists hang their hat. So, if Coyne is right and there is no immaterial world (which is what he is ultimately getting at with his argument) then his argument is meaningless as it is just the determined output of his brain, something over which he had no control and for which he cannot verify or falsify for truthfulness. So, if Coyne is right, then he would never be able to know it. Yet he argues so forcefully and persuasively. I think that his argument works against him. He falls on the sword of his own argument.

But, it gets worse. He also argues that the Holocaust was an evil event. But how can we have evil events if we have no free will? How can we be guilty of that for which we had no control? Again, he implies libertarian free will, yet he has no basis for that. Nor does he have a basis for objective good and evil. For, if there is no transcendent standard of right and wrong, then we are merely speaking of preferences. He may not have liked what happened during World War II by the Nazis, but he certainly cannot call it evil, as that implies an objective standard.

Also, if our actions are merely the result of an evolutionary process that selects for survival, then why call behaviors that have survived this selection process evil? We should suppose that they have survival value, otherwise, they would have been selected against. Yet, we read our favorite news sites and they are filled with stories that our conscience would inform us are evil. What’s up with that? How is it that these behaviors survive and yet we consider them evil? I suppose that we merely have to hold these incompatible ideas in our heads if we choose to hold on to the neo-Darwinian model.

As for the number of scientists who are atheists, it is easy to cite statistics of the number of people who believe one idea or another, but statistics don’t determine truth, they only determine popularity, and truth is not a popularity contest. Nor can one assume the truth of macro evolution, which is far from solid science (not to be confused with micro evolution which is solid), and then criticize a group of people who don’t agree with it, even if their reasons are not grounded in scientific arguments. This doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, nor does it do anything to prove his thesis.

In the end, there are good reasons to believe that God exists. Those reasons, partly based on science, include: the origin of the universe; the fine-tuning of the universe; the existence of objective morals; the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the existence of the conscious mind, and many others. Yes, we do use science to give evidence of God’s existence and if Dr. Coyne has a problem with that, he is free to give evidence to explain these phenomena naturalistically. However, I don’t believe that some of these are explainable scientifically as they fall outside the realm of science. Still, science and religion can work together. Science was once even called the handmaid of religion. Whether that is true today, they are still able to work hand in hand as they have throughout history past.

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12 responses

12 10 2010
straightcut

I don’t think so. Coz science will say question me to find me out whereas religion says you cannot question anything. It is there for your own good. You do not have any authority to question that

12 10 2010
veritasnetwork

First, if existence is limited to the material world, then you have no way of even asking a valid question. We are merely matter in motion and matter has no intentionality (thoughts of or about other things), no consciousness, therefore, there are no questions being asked. That is merely an illusion that evolution foists upon you. Science does not say anything, science is a method that finds its roots in philosophy. Regarding religion, why can we not ask questions and test the truth claims? I see no reason why not, I do it regularly.

13 10 2010
straightcut

probably for me existence is indeed limited to the material world. And I have a simple logic behind that, in true sense anything which supersedes the material limitations is indeed not available to us as evidence. Gospels of varied religions tell us to believe in something which is out of our limitation. Like a tooth-fairy. it can be argued true if GOD is true. If you ask question about religion, then after a certain extent you have to believe without any proper evidence. May be a lot of people can say it is out of our limit, but my question is what is the point of believing in something that we know we never can get a positive answer.

13 10 2010
veritasnetwork

I don’t think that your logic quite works out here. For logic itself is an immaterial thing. Numbers are abstract objects. Thoughts themselves are not material, yet you have demonstrated their existence right within your post. So, I think we do have ample evidence that there is existence beyond mere matter.

I think that there is vast difference between positing the existence of the tooth fairy and positing the existence of God. For example, does anyone really believe that the tooth fairy exists (beyond children who don’t know better)? Yet, the majority of the world believes that God exists. Now, this doesn’t serve as evidence for God’s existence, it simply says that the beliefs of the two are not on par. Yet, I believe that we do have evidence for God’s existence which I have posted in this blog post and others on my site. Included would be the fact that all matter, space, and time came into existence – which would mean that the cause has to be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, as well as extremely intelligent and powerful when the size and complexity of the universe is considered. Second, we look to objective moral values which would require a transcendent origin. Third, we can look to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Nobody makes these types of arguments for the existence of tooth fairies, leprechauns, or unicorns.

We believe plenty of other things about our world for which we have no positive evidence. Every scientific theory is held with the idea that we can never have absolute certainty, but only probabilistic confidence that they are accurate. We posit that ideas like quarks exist, dark energy and dark matter, etc., only on the basis of indirect evidence, not direct evidence. However, the hypotheses are tested and, when they produce positive results, we put more confidence in them. The same can be said for the “God hypothesis”, we look to the evidence, and when we see that the hypothesis makes more sense than the alternatives, we put more confidence into it. I think that the evidence from science, morality and other areas are adding more confidence to this belief.

12 10 2010
straightcut

anyway i disagree with the last paragraph, i believe theres good reasons to reject the idea of god, totally based on science

12 10 2010
veritasnetwork

Can you give me some of those reasons?

13 10 2010
straightcut

The main point behind rejecting God is the absence of evidence. As you said, it does not mean evidence of absence yet, after some million years no evidence could be found. That means absence of an existing is more logical.

13 10 2010
veritasnetwork

Absence of evidence should lead you to agnosticism, not atheism. You have not proved that God does not exist, only shown (at best) that there is no supportive evidence. However, as I have shown, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of God – evidence that you have not addressed yet. So, maybe you could address some of the evidence that I have presented and tell me why it is not valid to you. In other words, please present counter-evidence or refute the evidence provided. Let me repeat them: the origin and fine tuning of the universe seems to require an immaterial, spaceless, timeless, powerful and intelligent agent. Second, objective morality seems to require a transcendent origin. Third, the resurrection of Jesus confirms his claims of deity. Let’s start with these.

12 10 2010
NotAScientist

“First, if existence is limited to the material world, then you have no way of even asking a valid question. We are merely matter in motion and matter has no intentionality (thoughts of or about other things), no consciousness, therefore, there are no questions being asked.”

Except it is and we are, so your claim is utterly baseless and without merit.

“Regarding religion, why can we not ask questions and test the truth claims?”

We do.

And we discover those truth claims to be false.

12 10 2010
veritasnetwork

That is question-begging. How do you know that existence is limited to matter alone? I think that bears some evidence on your part rather than merely asserting it to be so. The same goes for your assertion about truth claims of religion. Which claims have you proved false and what is the evidence for that? You make bold claims, but now comes time to show your evidence, even if you are not a scientist.

12 10 2010
NotAScientist

“That is question-begging. How do you know that existence is limited to matter alone?”

We have no good reason or evidence to suspect otherwise, besides people like you seeming to wish it is so.

“Which claims have you proved false and what is the evidence for that?”

My evidence is the lack of good evidence for every supernatural religious claim I have ever heard. By all means, start lining them up and showing off the lack of evidence for them.

12 10 2010
veritasnetwork

We have no good reason or evidence to suspect otherwise, besides people like you seeming to wish it is so.

Sorry, but that is not evidence for your view. I have given evidence in that we have consciousness, which does not fit a materialistic paradigm. A thought is not a material thing. Free will does not fit with materialism. You need to provide evidence for your view, it is not the default position.

My evidence is the lack of good evidence for every supernatural religious claim I have ever heard. By all means, start lining them up and showing off the lack of evidence for them.

The absence of evidence is not evidence for absence. You cannot prove a position by the lack of evidence for the opposing view. You made the claim that religious claims are false and I asked you for evidence of your positive claim. The burden of proof is on you.

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