SCIENCE AND RELIGION have had a long, rich history of conflict, most famously with the case of Galileo, who was found guilty of heresy for discovering one of the basic truths of our solar system. Likewise, Charles Darwin has been vilified for the last 150 years for discovering a fundamental concept that underlies all of biology and medicine and unifies all of the life sciences. Certainly, there was a time when almost all scientists were theists. But that was also a time when almost all people at every level of society were theists. To publicly disavow the existence of God was, at best, to ensure ostracism and, at worst, to be forced to choose between death and renouncing the evidence compiled through a life’s worth of work.
Certainly, this is no longer the case, and many scientists today don’t believe in God in a traditional sense. (According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 41 percent of scientists don’t believe in God or a higher power). But the issue at hand isn’t one of belief, which by definition is subjective and prone to intense biases.
Instead the issue is an epistemological one: Can science and religion be reconciled, or are they contrasting concepts at their very core? A quick Internet search will yield hundreds of articles falling on either side of the issue. Most notably, Stephen Jay Gould—the renowned paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and the 2001 Humanist of the Year—argued that the two comprised non-overlapping magisteria. In Gould’s view science and religion were mutually exclusive, the former dealing with the natural world and the latter with questions of a spiritual nature, and thus the two shouldn’t be in conflict. There are currently many science communicators who take a similar view, which I suspect is a function of their desire to see science more widely accepted by a religious populace—one that may not be well educated in the field and is likely to have some resistance to it.
My contention is that, ultimately, the existence of a deity is a question of science. Some may be surprised by this because they recognize that science is the systematic study of phenomena in the natural world while religious belief deals with the supernatural, or powers and entities outside the spectrum of what we would consider our natural reality. Yet this is not the case. All religions, particularly the “big three” Abrahamic religions, make claims about the natural world that clearly fall under the purview of one or more fields of science. For instance, almost all religious traditions involve a creation myth regarding how the universe came into existence. We have scientific disciplines devoted to investigating such questions, e.g., cosmology, astronomy, and physics. Almost all religious traditions include stories of how life originated and how life forms came to be as they currently are. Again, we have biology, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics to methodically address such questions.
Beyond the questions of the origin of the universe and of life, all religions make claims that their deities influence events in the natural world. A “miracle” is believed to be just that—when a god or a saint intervenes in some way in the natural world, and thus science can gather evidence as to the accuracy or the lack of legitimacy of those claims.
At a more mundane level, most religions assert that their deity regularly intervenes in daily occurrences by choice or in reaction to followers’ prayer requests. This may transpire when their god influences the outcome of a natural disaster or a life-threatening accident, which would require a manipulation of physics (a tree not falling on the bedroom where someone is sleeping, for example, or a car crash that destroys the vehicle but leaves the driver’s area intact.) The intervention may come in the form of someone recovering from an illness or disease, which would require the deity to tamper with biology and/or chemistry. Just the act of prayers being answered in any way suggests that the person is using thoughts in the form of language (cognitive psychology) produced by chemical and electrical activity in the brain (neurobiology) to telepathically communicate with a supernatural being who will then alter events in the natural world by influencing physics, biology, chemistry, and so on.
As much as theists would choose to deny it, all of these are questions of science, because even if their deity is a product of a supernatural realm, possibly an alternate universe that we cannot detect or measure, once that entity begins to interact with our reality—our natural universe—then it becomes a question of science.
Theists cannot simultaneously insist that they have answers to fundamental questions regarding natural phenomena while also insisting that their claims cannot be examined by science. If such claims are examined, theists can’t reject the findings because they’re inconsistent with their subjective beliefs. And of course, religious assertions have never stood up well to scientific scrutiny. Never has a scientific theory, or even a hypothesis, been replaced with a more viable supernatural explanation. You won’t find any studies on intelligent design published in any credible scientific journal anywhere. Its proponents don’t even have testable hypotheses. Thus, intelligent design doesn’t come close to qualifying as science, nor can its explanations be viewed as legitimate in any objective way.
Some claim that research has shown that prayer is beneficial to people’s psychological well-being. While there are correlational studies that may conclude this, let’s not forget there are many activities that have been shown to be positively correlated with psychological health or cognition in some way, such as solving puzzles, learning a new language, sleeping, reading, exercising, and so on. So theists shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that such findings are evidence of a supernatural being.
There are also experimental studies, the type of studies that can identify cause and effect, that have tested the power of prayer using control and treatment groups to see if there was some measurable impact due to prayer. Without exception, those studies have found no effect of prayer, and those individuals in the control groups who weren’t prayed for actually had better outcomes in most cases. Beyond that, the hard sciences have consistently falsified a long list of claims from religious texts: the age of the universe and of the earth; the origins of humankind; the orientation and structure of the solar system; the possibility of stars falling to Earth; the possibility of a snake talking; the possibility of a worldwide flood and all the animals on Earth descending from pairs that were placed on a boat together just a few thousand years ago; and the list goes on.
But because the existence of a god is ultimately a question of science, one should not mistakenly think that it’s incumbent upon scientists to disprove all religious claims. Just as it is inappropriate (not to mention illogical) to ask for empirical research to prove the nonexistence of mythical creatures such as leprechauns, mermaids, and ogres, it is likewise inappropriate to claim that science must prove the nonexistence of a god. The burden is on the believers to provide valid replicable evidence for their contentions, and neither faith nor their holy book qualifies as meeting the threshold for that evidence. This is a point that has been emphasized ad nauseam in a variety of forums, and one theists often simply refuse to acknowledge because doing so would leave them with two options, both unpalatable to their belief system: they would either have to provide verifiable evidence for their claims or they would have to question and/or abandon them.
“Eve” by Henri Rousseau
A common tactic of apologists is to find an area of science that has been shown to be inaccurate or that we have yet to figure out and then argue that it’s evidence of God. This is different from the “God of the gaps” in a subtle way. Most commonly, the God of the gaps argument suggests that for each phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the possibility exists that a god is hiding somewhere in that vacuum of knowledge and that this god is ultimately responsible for those unexplained occurrences. But as human knowledge increases, those gaps decrease, ensuring an ever-tightening window for the possibility of supernatural forces. For example, because scientists can merely speculate about what occurred, if anything, prior to the expansion of the universe (or Big Bang), theists who don’t reject the science outright hold out hope for the possibility of a deity who got the ball rolling, so to speak.
But a more ominous extension of the God of the gaps, and here’s where the subtle difference lies, is when theists argue that a gap in scientific knowledge not only allows for the possibility of a deity, but is direct evidence of one. In this scenario the theist attempts to find a flaw, a single incorrect data point, such as a long debunked hoax in the historical fossil record for evolution, and assert not only that that single error invalidates a scientific theory that has been verified by several different fields of science, but that the only other plausible explanation is that an invisible, undetectable deity is responsible for all of existence due to some unexplained mechanism such as using mental telepathy to create all life and matter. As absurd as this logic would appear to the rational thinker, it lies at the core of a great deal of denial of scientific evidence—not just for evolution, but for the expanding universe, for climate change, for the very definition of a scientific theory. And once denial has set in, then confirmation bias takes hold and the denier begins to search for pieces of information, no matter how lacking in credibility, that will support his or her worldview. This is the essence of indoctrination—to be convinced of an absolute truth sans evidence of any sort and then to retain those views at all costs in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. If the theist is to accept the findings of science in general or certain fields in particular, then he or she would be confronted with the cognitive dissonance of their belief system not matching the reality that they accept.
Ultimately, there is no conflict between religious claims and science. The conflict is in the mind of the theist who desperately attempts to preserve his or her belief system. Because religions make claims about the natural world and their god’s manipulation of it, science can test those claims just like any others. We can test whether prayer works, or the age of the earth, or whether a person could breathe for days inside a large fish. When science tests these claims it does so objectively, with accurate findings as the only goal. Yet over the history of humanity, religious claims have been shown to be spectacularly lacking. If, however, a claim cannot be tested, if there is no testable hypothesis, such as the claim that in my attic lives an invisible magic dragon that is entirely undetectable to humans by any means available in the natural world, then such a claim should have no place in rational discussion and should not be given credence as having any relation to reality. It is a prospect not worthy of serious consideration.
Science will continue to advance. Predictions will be made and conclusions drawn, many that are accurate but others that will be in need of revision as further evidence is compiled. Humans will continue to gather information about every aspect of the natural world, and if findings don’t correspond with or support religious beliefs, as has happened throughout history, then the theists do themselves and humankind a disservice by denying objective evidence. The scientific process is neutral; it is objective and seeks only to discover new information, and thus is not in conflict with any entity besides itself as it self-corrects and achieves greater accuracy over time. If there is indeed a conflict, that conflict was fabricated by those whose agenda is driven by subjective beliefs and who fight to preserve positions that are no longer tenable in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Published in the May / June 2016 HumanistJoshua A. Cuevas is a cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of North Georgia. His areas of expertise are learning, memory, evidence-based reasoning, and myths about cognition, and he’s also published in the area of fundamentalist indoctrination.
This fall, PBS will broadcast ''Faith and Reason,'' a documentary written and narrated by Margaret Wertheim and partly financed with $190,000 from the Templeton Foundation, featuring interviews with scientists about God. In the last two years, a steady stream of books has appeared with titles like ''Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World'' and ''God & the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony Between Science & Spirituality.''
A Universe With Purpose
The Templeton Foundation also gave the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences $1.4 million for a heavily promoted conference called ''Science and the Spiritual Quest,'' held this month in Berkeley, Calif. For four days scientists, most of them Christians, Jews or Muslims, testified about their efforts to resolve their own conflicts over science and religion. All seemed to share the conviction that this is a purposeful universe, that there is a reason to be here.
''Theology is not some airy-fairy form of metaphysical speculation,'' said John C. Polkinghorne, a Cambridge University particle physicist turned Anglican priest whose books include ''Quarks, Chaos & Christianity'' and the newly published ''Belief in God in an Age of Science.'' Like science, he said, religion is rooted in encounters with reality -- though in the latter case these include spiritual revelations whose truths lie in the unreachable realm of the subjective. The pervading question was whether this kind of experience could ever be studied scientifically.
For most of the century people have espoused the view that science and religion should be kept apart to avoid the inevitable combustions. But to logical minds it has always been troubling that two opposing ways could exist to explain the same universe. Science and religion spring from the human obsession to find order in the world. But surely there can be only one true explanation for reality. Life was either created or it evolved. Prayer is either communication with God or a psychological salve. The universe is either pervaded by spiritual forces or ruled by nothing but physical laws.
One way out of the dilemma has been to embrace a kind of deism: The Almighty created the universe according to certain specifications and then left it to run on its own. ''God'' becomes a metaphor for the laws that science tries to uncover.
Or religion can be explained away scientifically. ''There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose,'' Dr. Wilson wrote in ''Consilience.'' He warned against letting this genetically ingrained drive overpower the intellect. ''If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.'' It is important not to confuse the universe as it is with the universe as we wish it would be.
Limits of Science Can Lead to Religion
For many researchers, the whole point of science is to replace religious teachings with verifiable theories, and to pretend otherwise is self-delusion. ''We're working on building up a complete picture of the universe, which, if we succeed, will be a complete understanding of the universe and everything that's in it,'' Richard Dawkins, a University of Oxford biologist, said in a preview copy of ''Faith and Reason.'' He found it baffling that some of his colleagues struggle to keep God in the picture. ''I don't understand why they waste their time going into this other stuff, which never has added anything to the storehouse of human wisdom,'' he said, ''and I don't see that it ever will.''
But others, like the cosmologist Allan Sandage, have found that their search for objective truth has led them to questions that science cannot answer. ''The most amazing thing to me is existence itself,'' Dr. Sandage said at the Berkeley conference. ''Why is there something instead of nothing?'' This impenetrable mystery, he said, drove him to become a believer. ''How is it that inanimate matter can organize itself to contemplate itself? That's outside of any science I know.''
Science, like religion, is ultimately built on a platform of beliefs and assumptions. No one can prove that the universe is mathematical or that the same laws that seem to hold in the here and now can be applied to the distant quasars or to the first moments of time. These are among the tenets of the faith, marking the point at which reasoning can begin. ''Science is not able to question these issues,'' George Ellis, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker, said at the conference. ''It takes them for granted as its bedrock.''
It is not just the coincidence of the approaching millennium that is inspiring hopes for what would be the grandest of unified theories. Faced with science's success in modeling the world, people find it harder to accept religious teachings that cannot be verified. Many Christians were disturbed when radiocarbon dating suggested that the Shroud of Turin was not Jesus's burial cloth but a medieval forgery, and they hope that new scientific data, not religious fiat, will overturn the old research. Even the creationists realized long ago that they can't sway the opposition simply by asserting that their beliefs are true because they are written in the Bible. They proffer scientific proof -- pseudoscientific, those outside the faith would say -- that life and the universe were created as described in Genesis.
But science, too, is feeling its limits, leaving a vacuum that religion is happy to rush into. Neuroscientists can explain the brain, on a rough level, as networks of communicating cells called neurons. But it is hard to imagine a satisfying theory of the conscious experience -- what it is like to be alive. And no amount of theorizing is apt to converge on a persuasive explanation of where the mathematical laws are written or what happened before the Big Bang. For all its powers to observe and reason, the mind ultimately encounters chasms. Then the only choice is to retreat or take the great leap and choose what to believe.
Dollars Fuel Effort To Put God in Science
For all the genuine philosophical longings, the recent drive to put God back in science would not be nearly so intense without the millions of Templeton dollars looking for places to land. ''We are searching for a serious rapprochement between science and religion,'' Charles Harper, the executive director and vice president of the Templeton Foundation, said at the beginning of the Berkeley conference.
The money and the inspiration come from the investor John Marks Templeton, founder of the Templeton Growth Fund and other ventures, who retired in 1992 to work full time on his philanthropy. The most prominent of Sir John's endeavors (he was knighted in 1987) is the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, guaranteed to exceed the Nobel Prizes in monetary value. (Mr. Templeton thought Alfred Nobel snubbed spirituality.) Early winners of the Templeton award, first given in 1973, were usually religious leaders like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. More recently the prizes, now more than $1 million, have gone to the political scientist Michael Novak and the physicist and science writer Paul Davies.
The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley is receiving $12.6 million from Templeton to help develop science and religion programs at universities worldwide. The American Association for the Advancement of Science received $1.3 million ''to help establish a science and religion dialogue.''
Last year the foundation's announcement that it would award grants of $100,000 to $200,000 for a program in ''forgiveness studies'' sent behavioral scientists scrambling to write proposals. Among the work being funded are ''Forgiveness and Community: A Game-Theoretic Analysis,'' ''Assessment of Forgiveness: Psychometric, Interpersonal, and Psychophysiological Correlates'' and ''Does Forgiveness Enhance Brain Activation Associated With Empathy in Victims of Assault?''
Those who submitted proposals were asked to include a section about how their research would address the issues clarified in Mr. Templeton's books ''Discovering the Laws of Life'' and ''Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles.'' A major focus of the foundation is publishing some 20 works by and about Mr. Templeton and encouraging scientific research on what its literature describes as ''optimism, hope and personal control.''
Polite Talk, But No Passion
Judging from the conference, no amount of money is likely to succeed in blending science and religion into a common pursuit. A kind of Sunday school politeness pervaded the meeting, with none of the impassioned confrontations expected from such an emotionally charged subject. ''Many of the speakers have been preaching to the choir,'' Dr. Sandage complained. ''There are no atheists on the program, only strict believers.''
Many of the speakers avoided grappling with religion directly, content to ponder mysteries that have disturbed scientists for decades. The Stanford University cosmologist Andrei Linde speculated on the tantalizing possibility that consciousness, the very hallmark of humanity, could be an intrinsic part of the universe -- as fundamental to the warp and woof of creation as space and time. After all, he said, our subjective experience is the only thing each of us is really sure of. All else is speculation.
''Our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions,'' Dr. Linde argued. ''I know for sure that my pain exists, my 'green' exists, and my 'sweet' exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.'' It is to explain the source of these perceptions that we posit the existence of an outside reality, forgetting that this is just a supposition.
The existence of a real world is another of the tenets of the scientific faith. It is impossible to proceed without it. But many scientists would find the view that consciousness is the root of everything to be hopelessly anthropomorphic and even solipsistic. The conference might also have booked prominent scientists, like Stephen Jay Gould, who argue that consciousness, as powerful as it necessarily seems to its holders, may be just an accident of evolution. Behind the face of consciousness, one can choose to find God. Or not. Without a decisive experiment, it is a matter of personal belief, not of science.
The astrophysicist John Barrow of the University of Sussex spoke of another longstanding mystery: the dazzling cosmological coincidences that make life possible. If certain physical constants had slightly different values, stars would not have formed to cook up the atoms that made the biological molecules. Since early in the century, some truth seekers have taken this sort of argument as a reason to believe that the universe was created with people in mind.
But one is also free to choose the opposite belief: that the coincidences simply show that life is indeed an incredible fluke.
It was hard to know what to make of some of the presentations. Mitchell Marcus, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Pennsylvania, speculated that the craft of artificial intelligence -- designing thinking computers -- is a modern realization of the school of Jewish mysticism based on the Kabala. According to this ancient teaching, it is not quarks and leptons but the first 10 numbers and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are the true fundamental particles: the elements of the divine utterance that gave rise to creation. ''Computer scientists,'' he declared, ''are the Kabalists of today.'' The ancient rabbis are said to have used magical incantations to create beings called golems. The programmers create their simulated creatures with incantations of computer code.
The audience politely applauded after each presentation. But there was little sense of intellectual excitement, that people were coming to grips with the disturbing issue of whether there really is a God.
Most of the presentations consisted more simply of heartfelt testimonials about the difficulties of constantly being pulled by two powerfully conflicting attractions, the material and the spiritual, the known and the unknowable. And some of the speakers seemed to believe that, for all the efforts to bring them together, science and religion must inevitably go their separate ways. ''Would I do science differently if I weren't a Quaker?'' asked Jocelyn Bell Burnell, chairwoman of the physics department of the Open University in England and a Quaker. ''I don't think so.''
Dr. Sandage, the cosmologist, matter of factly put it like this: ''I don't go to a biology book to learn how to live. I don't go to the Bible to learn about science.''
As science continues to draw its picture of the physical world, each question it answers will inevitably raise more. So there will always be mysteries, the voids in human knowledge where religious awe can grow.Continue reading the main story