General Question

wabarr's avatar

Are religion and science inherently antithetical?

Asked by wabarr (458points) February 7th, 2008

Please explain.

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26 Answers

sferik's avatar

Yes, the idea that beliefs should be accepted on faith (in the face of evidence to the contrary) is antithetical to the scientific approach.

Les's avatar

I am a scientist, first and foremost, but I do have faith. I disagree with the notion that religion and science are two opposite things, just as I agree that art and science are antithetical. I think a person of faith can have faith in whatever she chooses to believe in, as well as have faith in the beauty of scientific reasoning. St. Thomas Aquinas was a believer that a person could (and as he believed, should) believe in God, as well as believe that God created us as cognitive beings, with the ability to rationalize and question our world in a scientific way. God created us, and the idea of science, he thought. I think this is a good way of looking at the world. Have faith, but have faith that (if you believe in God), God set all these things in motion, and if we weren’t suppossed to think critically of the world, we wouldn’t have the ability.

cwilbur's avatar


Science deals with things that can be objectively and empirically proven. Religion deals with things that cannot be objectively and empirically proven.

It’s just as idiotic for scientists to venture into the realm of religion (such as Richard Dawkins with his proselytizing for atheism) as for theologians to venture into the realm of science (such as the current “intelligent design” debacle, which is just a way of clothing new-earth creationism in pseudoscientific clothes).

wabarr's avatar

@cwilbur – interesting response (and I agree with the Dawkins/ID digs). However, as a scientist…I strongly disagree that “science deals with things that can be objectively and empirically proven”. Strictly, when testing hypotheses, scientists can reject the null hypothesis (which is usually that an observed pattern is due random chance) because it is improbable….but it does not follow that any alternative hypotheses are proven true. There are an infinite number of alternative hypotheses that could explain why the null hypothesis seems improbable.

BTW, I am not really sure where I stand on this issue…hence the question.

gooch's avatar

Yet some scientist are religious. I find it interesting that more astronomers are often religious and more biologist are not. Somtimes it depends on the specific field of science they study. In addition many scienties have theories discredited over time. My all time favorite is Spontaneous Generation (the experiment of raw meat creating flies). We know now that the world is not flat of course. So science is not always based on fact.

cwilbur's avatar

@wabarr: just because the scientist has not yet found the correct hypothesis does not mean that there is no correct hypothesis, and even in the absence of a correct hypothesis the scientist is still working empirically and objectively: he or she formulates a hypothesis, constructs an experiment that will test the hypothesis (or, in the case of sciences that are difficult to test experimentally, like astronomy and geology, gathers data that can reinforce or counter the hypothesis). In the absence of objective and empirical proof, the scientist still seeks objective and empirical proof for the hypothesis. That focus on what can be tested, demonstrated, and duplicated—the scientific method—is what makes science science.

You may note the difference between things that can be proven objectively and things that have been proven objectively. I think it’s at the root of your problem with that statement.

Now, scientists aren’t always objective; Einstein famously thought the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was wrong because he believed that God would not not play dice with the universe and that the moon would not cease to exist if nobody was looking at it. The fact that the scientists feels that the null hypothesis is wrong with no way of proving otherwise does not mean that the scientist isn’t looking for objective proof in the end and that the null hypothesis will never be proven wrong.

@gooch: Science is about the search for the best available objective and testable explanation for observed facts. Scientists once thought that fire was caused by a substance called phlogiston: the idea was that burning released the phlogiston in the substance in the form of flame. Eventually this was discredited, and scientists came to understand that fire is the result of oxidation, a chemical process. But that doesn’t mean that phlogiston was not the best available theory at one time, or that the people who thought the phlogiston theory was correct were lying, deceitful, or stupid.

And there’s no reason a scientist shouldn’t be religious. The better the scientist, the more likely he or she is to realize that there are some things that cannot be tested objectively. Religion and science are two complementary paths to truth, and they only appear to conflict when you try to use the approach of one in the domain of the other—something the aforementioned Dawkins and Intelligent Design advocates are unfortunately prone to do.

soundedfury's avatar

@gooch – Science doesn’t lay claim to be based on fact, but on the best available observations of fact. It is a long-standing tradition in most fields of science that the new generation will overthrow the old, as more precise observations become available. Science attempts to explain facts through observation, but those explanations are subject to change as observation becomes more precise.

I think cwilbur is exactly right here. Religion and science work in complimentary and exclusive domains. Conflict only comes into being when the two lay claim on the other’s jurisdiction – such a Dawkins’ atheism despite no scientific way to prove or disprove the existence of God, or the insistence on Intelligent Design despite a testable hypothesis.

christybird's avatar

I am a biologist, and, personally, I agree with those of you who say that science and religion are not antithetical. I think science and religion try to answer very different kinds of questions. I don’t think it’s appropriate to try to answer questions like “what does it mean to live a good life?” or “should I give some of my money to charity?” using the scientific method.

Nor, I should add, is it appropriate to try to answer questions about geology or evolution using religion.

I feel like my spirituality complements my scientific side – after all, humans are complicated, multi-faceted beings. Trying to reduce the human experience to only one set of beliefs is pointless. I can practically guarantee that there is not a single person alive who holds a set of beliefs that are all completely consistent with each other. How boring would that be?

hossman's avatar

Don’t make the logical error that Intelligent Design is religion. The fact that many who are religious endorse Intelligent Design because it coincides with their religious practice no more makes Intelligent Design religion than spending a lot of time in McDonalds makes you a hamburger.

In fact, some Intelligent Design proponents are atheists and agnostics, some are influential scientists. At its heart, Intelligent Design postulates the universe, in some form, not necessarily the present form, was created by some intelligent power. This does not have to be a deity in any traditional sense. Intelligent Design is also not contradictory to evolution, as not all Intelligent Design theories inherently deny life can evolve after it is originally created. As an example, deist Intelligent Design postulates an Intelligent Power created the universe and everything since has happened without that Power’s intervention. Evolution occupies one end of the spectrum, denying anything but random events and natural selection (none of which explains how the first “event” or “matter” came to be). Creationism, in its traditional sense, occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, stating the original creation and all events since are controlled by a Deity. Various Intelligent Design theories occupy the space in between. None of it is capable of empirical proof. All of it is based on faith and conjecture.

Randy's avatar

Science is the study of how things work. I mean basically. And whatever god you believe or don’t believe in is usually in control of everything. So… Science is the study of how your god, or lack of one, works.

sferik's avatar

I’d recommend everyone following this thread read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria and Richard Dawkins’ response (as well as his lengthier response in his book, The God Delusion).

Gould argues that science and religion are not antithetical because they exist in different domains. Dawkins asserts that religious hypotheses are no different from scientific hypotheses and should therefore be held to the same level of scrutiny.

I tend to side with Dawkins and am particularly disturbed when public policy is formed on religious, as opposed to scientific, grounds. I’m particularly disturbed by the current administration’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research and support of abstinence-only education. It seems to me that the only justification for these policies is grounded in unverifiable religious beliefs.

cwilbur's avatar

@hossman: Intelligent Design is inspired by religion; it’s nothing more than an attempt to dress up young earth creationism in pseudoscientific garb so that its adherents can play word games with the meaning of “theory.” Evolution doesn’t deny the existence of a Creator; it merely requires changes to happen and natural selection to take its course. It’s not a spectrum at all.

@sferik: It makes just as much sense to subject religious hypotheses to scientific standards of proof as to subject scientific hypotheses to religious standards of proof—and the latter is precisely what we see with the Intelligent Design nonsense. They’re different domains. (And I’d believe what Dawkins says about religion about as much as I believe what Fred Phelps says about religion: both of them are claiming as true things that are contrary to what I observe, and so must be discredited on both scientific and religious grounds.)

That said, I think public policy ought to be formed based on objective and verifiable things, which means allowing for the observance of religion but not mandating it. I seem to recall something somewhere about not being able to establish a religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof? Maybe someone should look that up and see if it’s important, or something.

soundedfury's avatar

@hossman: Intelligent Design is a religious concept precisely because it cannot be proven or disproven. And if relativity is correct, it is a theory that exists outside of time itself. It is not science.

Also, putting evolution on a spectrum with ID and Creationism is disingenuous. Evolution doesn’t concern itself with the initial event, as evolution is a theory for biological change and not a cosmological theory.

hossman's avatar

Evolution cannot be proven or disproven either. If so, I challenge you to do so. Creationism is religious, Intelligent Design is not, you are confusing the two, as do many.

Intelligent Design is merely the alternate theory to evolution, that some force, power, whatever you wish to call it, but an “intelligence” for lack of a better word, rather than random events, has caused the universe. No belief in a deity is necessary. The “intelligence” could be something else. Those of you that believe this level of complexity can happen randomly have far more faith than I.

I agree with soundedfury that ID and evolution are really not comparable, but I have no idea what the current “start of matter and the universe theory” may be. It is much more analagous to compare ID to the Big Bang theory.

If public policy must be based on objective and verifiable things, than global warming is out (just a theory), most economic and foreign policy is out (just theories). Teaching ID is not establishing a religion.

I find it interesting that supposedly open-minded science is so panicked about examining ID. If it is an inferior theory, it will go by the wayside as so many others have. But the current attitude by so many toward ID seems a lot more like the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo. It seems like a little panic is setting in. Perhaps the concern is that a wider acceptance of ID will result in greater acceptance of Creationism, or greater acceptance of religion itself. While I understand that train of thought, the knee-jerk reactions and censorship attempted by so many to the concept that there might be some “willful pattern” to all of this strikes me as insecurity. If you are so sure your own theories are correct, then ID will do you no harm. Again, if you have a better theory, be the first to prove it.

Word games with the meaning of theory? I think that’s what science is trying to do. Science is certainly lowering the bar of what “proof” means. ID is inspired by religion? For some, perhaps, but a number of scientists are accepting ID without accepting religion, being drawn to ID from their own application of the scientific method. Religious standards of proof? There are none. It’s inherently incapable of proof, as is every single one of the theories as to how life came to be. And if you’re going to discard everything “inspired by religion,” then much of science has to go. . . almost all of philosophy. . .

Evolution itself could be the Intelligent Design. You believe it is random. Natural selection, random genetic mutation, all of these elements of evolution are just as readily accounted for by an intelligent design for such things to occur as they are explained by randomness. In fact, if it was truly random, I suggest there would be far more observable failures than anyone has been able to show.

In summary, you cannot prove the absence of the “invisible hand” any more than I can prove the presence. You say you observe something, I say it was made to be observable by you. It’s the same level of sophistry on both sides.

You see, what is weakening the “current theories” is the unwillingness to compete in the free market of ideas. It smacks of insecurity, of cowardice. It fuels the Creationists because it looks like mainstream science is running and hiding. There are many highly qualified scientists prepared to examine ID through the scientific method. To fail to do so is itself an indication of academic dishonesty. If you are right, be prepared to show you are right, but merely belittling something by calling it religion is avoiding the question.

sferik's avatar

@hossman Evidence for evolution exists in the fossil record or bacteria mutating in a petri dish. Intelligent Design is not an alternate theory to evolution because evolution is not a theory of life’s origin (abiogenesis). It’s a theory of how one form of life changes over time through mutation and natural selection.

In the scientific community, if you posit that something exists, he burden of proof is on you to provide evidence for its existence. Merely asserting that something exists and challenging others to prove otherwise is not science.

cwilbur's avatar

@hossman: you’re making the same mistake the Intelligent Design advocates make. In science, “theory” means a hypothesis that’s stood up to a great deal of testing. In the vernacular, “theory” means something completely unproven and probably untested. “Theory” is a term of art, and Intelligent Design advocates either willfully or ignorantly misuse it when they say “Evolution is just a theory.” You make this mistake when you say that global warming is just a theory and economics is just a theory: when scientists and economists use the word “theory,” they mean that the hypothesis they refer to has explained all the observable facts and has stood up to the best efforts yet made to falsify it; attempting to discredit the hypothesis by insisting that they must mean the vernacular meaning is playing word games. Whether you play it out of ignorance or willful deceit, it’s inaccurate and misleading.

The problem with teaching Intelligent Design as science is that it’s not only not objectively provable, there is no way to objectively prove it. Can you come up with an experiment that, if you get one set of results, will establish that there is an Intelligent Designer, and if you get another set of results, will establish that there is none? That’s called “the scientific method”—the cycle of observation, falsifiable hypothesis, experiment— and it’s the thing that determines what is science and what is not.

Intelligent Design can’t be expressed in terms of an objectively falsifiable statement. This means it’s not science, and it has no place in a science classroom. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s not true. There may be an Intelligent Designer. But until you can come up with even a hypothetical objective test for the existence of an Intelligent Designer—an experiment that would give one set of results if an Intelligent Designer created things, and another set of results if it was pure chance—it’s not science. And further, no scientist (except for a militant atheist jackass like Dawkins) will tell you that evolution requires random chance; creationism in general, the concept that God made everything, or set in motion the chain of events leading to everything, is not incompatible with evolution in the slightest; it’s just Biblical literalism, which requires the earth to be only a few thousand years old and the Universe to have been created in 7 Earth days, which is incompatible with evolution.

Intelligent Design deserves to be belittled because it’s an attempt by creationists to get religious beliefs in the door on the same footing as science, in an attempt to do an end run around the separation of church and state in the public schools and gain credibility for creationism. If it were treated as an article of faith, and the topic of religious and philosophical discussion, it would not deserve this derision.

@sferik: I’d claim that the mutations of bacteria are evidence for evolution, not proof of evolution. But the point stands.

hossman's avatar

OK, cwilbur. Enough semantics. You say your cosmology has stood up to testing, that it explains the observable facts, and has stood up to the best efforts to disprove it, go ahead. Or pick global warming. Set forth your evidence, let’s have some fun. None of it is provable. I challenge you to do so. That is why your theory is a theory. I don’t need wordplay, you cannot prove your cosmology, or global warming, with any more certainty than Intelligent Design. Can you design an experiment that will prove global warming or any theory of cosmology? Describe it. Stop playing with semantics, and show me your evidence. Go ahead. I will then show it to be the faith that it is.

If ID deserves to be belittled, then all of cosmology does, because none of it is empirically provable. I agree with you that evolution, and for that matter, string theory, and the Big Bang theory, are none of them incompatible with Intelligent Design. At its essence, Intelligent Design simply says that these events were set in motion or designed by an intelligent force rather than random events. Cause rather than accident. You are making the assumption. Although certainly some creationists are trying to ride the coattails of ID, many who support ID have nothing to do with creationism or religion. Atheism’s foremost scholar has been persuaded by the scientific and philisophical methods to accept natural evidence as proof of Intelligent Design. He is hardly a religious man. Many geneticists, physicists, biochemists, astronomers and other scientists agree. It is you who are engaging in intellectual and scientific hypocrisy by trying to label ID as religion. The fact that many of its supporters are religious does not make it religion. Go ahead. If your theory is superior, prove it empirically. If you can’t, then you must admit your theory has no more basis in science, and you are simply reflecting the denial hysteria of those last in science that are denying the scientific method.

ID scientists today are merely accepting again what the greatest minds of the Enlightenment knew already, that science and nature inevitably lead to the conclusion that something greater than Man has made it so.

hossman's avatar

Cwilbur, you admit above “But until you can come up with even a hypothetical objective test for the existence of an Intelligent Designer—an experiment that would give one set of results if an Intelligent Designer created things, and another set of results if it was pure chance—it’s not science.” Since you admit there is no objective test, perhaps I am misunderstanding you. Are you admitting no cosmological theory is provable? Because if this is coupled with your recognition evolution is reconcilable with ID, then we are not that far apart, but I simply do not understand your opposition to ID as science.

It would seem to me then that your objection to ID is purely your hypothesis that it is the start of a “slippery slope” to teaching creationism. If that is your objection, then make that clear. I do not find that sufficient to justify the hypocrisy of claiming ID is an inferior, nonscientific cosmology. It would seem then the problem is one of teaching ID correctly, the supposed intent of some is not justification to deny the scientific method and bar ID as a theory. The irrationality, hypocrisy and contradiction of doing so cheapens scientific method by making it subjective rather than objective, and merely serves to discredit the scientific method and academic process, just as the attempts to stifle scientific views dissenting from global warming discredits the objectivity of science as a whole.

hossman's avatar

Perhaps a good place to start would be to have a consistent definition of the word “theory.” Your implication that science’s definition of theory is “a hypothesis that’s stood up to a good deal of testing” is OK with me, but I have checked 3 common scientific works that provide 3 definitions different than yours and different from each other. So I don’t think the semantics is confined to creationists or me. Just so you know, I am not a literalist creationist.

If that’s your definition, I fail to see how any cosmological theory can meet that standard, as cosmology is by its nature incapable of empirical testing. It’s all faith. Global warming is only testable, due to its global and long term nature, by computer modeling, itself predicated upon assumptions, which also makes it faith rather than empirically provable. I wonder if one of the reasons so much of science is moving away from the Big Bang Theory is its significant resemblance to the creation cosmologies of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Science does not need to be so scared of Religion, the two are not only reconcilable and not contradictory, and times they may be synergistic.

hossman's avatar

@sferik: There actually is some overlap between ID and evolution, as evolution posits a natural selection and mutation process over time, ID posits that natural selection and mutation are part of an intelligently designed creation, either set up that way and then left alone, or as part of an ongoing “intent.” (Part of the problem is that the semantics of many of these terms are inherently slippery and difficult to define concretely).

I agree, in science, if you posit that something exists, the burden of proof is on you to prove its existence. If you wish to deny ID is science, then you must deny all cosmology is science, by your own definition. If you posit that any cosmological theory is science, you bear the burden of proof that it lives up to your standard. I am not asking you to disprove ID. I am asking you to prove any contrary theory. Any one. Go ahead. What I deny is that you can try to disparage ID without recognizing your hypocrisy in claiming that it is inferior to any other cosmology. In fact, no more faith is required for ID than much of physics and other sciences.

Hmmm. The utter silence is deafening. Claiming “I don’t need to prove” is a great copout. I’m sure the Catholic Church had the same frame of mind in Galileo’s trial. That is the great hypocrisy of science, that it cannot recognize it is driven by faith, just like religion.

cwilbur's avatar

@hossman: if you can’t devise a hypothesis that can be tested either with an experiment or with further observation, it ain’t science. No amount of BS about “eminent scientists are willing to explore ID!” will make ID anything but a political movement to get creationism taught in schools.

Go back and read what I wrote above: I don’t think science and religion are inherently antithetical, and I don’t think one trumps the other. I also think that using science to answer religious questions and religion to answer scientific questions is asinine, and the more you try to trumpet that ID is really scientific, the more asinine it gets.

Your arguments in favor of ID are religious ones, not scientific ones. This doesn’t mean they’re false, it means that they’re not science.

The Big Bang theory is a hypothesis that’s backed by a great deal of objective, empirical evidence. Evolution is a hypothesis that’s backed by a great deal of objective, empirical evidence. Global warming caused by greenhouse gases is a hypothesis that’s backed by a great deal of objective, empirical evidence. Intelligent Design has no objective, empirical evidence behind it. One of these things is not like the others.

hossman's avatar

Again, cwilbur, you dodge the question. If ID is inferior, then show me the superiority of any other cosmological theory. You say the Big Bang theory is backed by evidence, but give none. Where is your evidence? Why don’t you start engaging in the scientific method. Again, show me the superiority of any other cosmological theory. Your blind insistence in the mantra “not science” is lemming-like and asinine.

You keep talking and saying nothing. Since I am supposedly engaging in an inferior process, wow me with your superior science. You still haven’t said anything. I’m really interested in your objective, empirical evidence for global warming. I tell you what, let me make my challenge completely clear. Take the weekend. You post here your evidence for any other cosmology. I will post for ID. Then you show me how your evidence is superior. I will maintain my assertion both are matters of faith, neither is superior.

I just can’t believe you think this is science, to just say it is so, without showing it is so. This is the sort of science that supported a flat Earth. The hypocrisy is astounding. You want me to accept your assertions based on what? Your statement that is what is acceptable? Sounds like religion to me. Your brand of religious fanaticism lacks such self awareness, you cannot see you are engaging in blind faith yourself.

Go ahead. Give me your proof for the Big Bang, or admit you take it on faith.

sferik's avatar

From Wikipedia: “Observational evidence for the Big Bang includes the analysis of the spectrum of light from galaxies, which reveal a shift towards longer wavelengths proportional to each galaxy’s distance in a relationship described by Hubble’s law. Combined with the evidence that observers located anywhere in the universe make similar observations (the Copernican principle), this suggests that space itself is expanding. The next most important observational evidence was the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964. This had been predicted as a relic from when hot ionized plasma of the early universe first cooled sufficiently to form neutral hydrogen and allow space to become transparent to light, and its discovery led to general acceptance among physicists that the Big Bang is the best model for the evolution of the universe. A third important line of evidence is the relative proportion of light elements in the universe, which is a close match to predictions for the formation of light elements in the first minutes of the universe, according to Big Bang nucleosynthesis.”

theabk's avatar

The overall theory of evolution can be broken down into a few parts:
1.) Organisms have heritable mutations
2.) In a given environment, some mutations will make an organism more or less likely to survive, while others will be neutral
3.) Selection for advantageous mutations (and against disadvantageous ones) over many generations can give rise to speciation

All of these postulates are proven facts, not theories (even in the scientific sense of the word). What technically can not be proven, because it happened in the past, is that this is how all contemporary species came about. However, many lines of evidence (fossil record, genomic similarities, homologous structures, mathematical modeling, etc.) make it extremely likely that this is the case.

The problem with ID is that saying evolution is too complex to have happened by chance is not an opposing theory – an opposing theory would have to be an alternative explanation of how speciation occurred. ID is concerned with a designer or a prime mover, which evolution is not.

As for why people in the scientific community are so frustrated by ID proponents, I think it’s the kind of intellectual relativism they imply. There is a problem with pretending that we must devote equal intellectual seriousness and resources to one of the most well-documented and well-explained theories in science (which evolution is) and to a theory claiming that evolution is just too complicated to have occurred.

Personally, the thing that bothers me the most about ID is its assumption that evolution is all egghead scientific elitism. An understanding of evolution has been essential to the scientific discoveries and lab techniques which have allowed the development of many of the medicines we have today. (To give the simplest example, if you believe that getting a flu shot every year will protect you more than getting one in your lifetime, you believe in evolution.) The understanding of evolution is not just an abstract theory for ivory-tower researchers: it has been absolutely indispensable in medical discoveries which have alleviated massive amounts of suffering in the world.

cwilbur's avatar

@hossman: what I have written, I have written. If you can’t see the difference between the Big Bang (which is about how) and creationism (which is about why), you can’t see the difference between the evidence for evolution (see the answers given by sferik and theabk) and your “evidence” for ID (“it’s just too complicated, I don’t understand how it could have been random!”), and you can’t understand what makes a falsifiable hypothesis, then there’s just no point in continuing this discussion with you.

cwilbur's avatar

And here’s a bit more, which I think may clarify why hossman and I are talking past each other.

My point is not that ID is wrong and evolution, the Big Bang, and global warming are right; my point is that ID is not science and evolution, the Big Bang and global warming are science.

This is because it is possible to frame evolution, the Big Bang theory, and global warming as falsifiable hypotheses—indeed, that’s exactly what they are—and to gather evidence that will refute those statements. I’d also claim that the phlogiston theory is science, because it can be phrased as a falsifiable hypothesis—flame is the result when a substance is split into phlogiston and calx. Further experiments and measurements showed the phlogiston theory to be false, but it was an objective statement that was tested by experiment and observation.

Intelligent Design isn’t science because it can’t be falsified; it posits an Intelligent Designer who can’t be otherwise observed. How do you demonstrate the existence of that Designer? If you want to treat Intelligent Design as science, then propose an experiment that will demonstrate that such a Designer exists, and be prepared to abandon the hypothesis if you can’t demonstrate it, or if the experiment seems to demonstrate the opposite of what you expect. (See, for instance, the Michelson-Morley experiments to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether, and what they wound up demonstrating instead.) Then the other scientists will deal with ID as a scientific theory and not as an attempt at getting religion in the back door.

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