5 Conflicts Between Science and Religion
How Did The Conflict Begin?
The rise of science and atheism can be attributed to a period of rapid cultural and intellectual development called the Renaissance. Beginning around 500 years ago in Europe, it led to Western, secular values dominating the world, infusing liberal and atheistic attitudes into unprepared cultures. Though many religious leaders rejected these values, some attempted to reinterpret scripture for greater agreement with science. This led to disharmony in many world religions, where those reluctant to change distanced themselves from reformers. As a result, old religions splintered into new sects, each with its own interpretation of traditional beliefs.
Over the centuries, science has consistently provided further cause for panic, provoking hostile reactions from religious believers. However, unlike traditional atheism, science never intended to threaten religion. When Edwin Hubble proved the existence of an expanding universe, the evidence was so convincing and the conclusion so irrefutable that it became the domain of common sense. When Charles Darwin recognized evolution through natural selection, the unambiguous utility of its application to all facets of the natural world gave us a tantalizing avenue to pursue our origins. With the Big Bang, evolution, and a wealth of other knowledge-based advances, science has inadvertently forced the reinterpretation of religion in places where its dogma is in conflict with overt truth.
Such a battle should concern neither side. The illimitable iteration of cause and effect will always establish an empyreal abode. For example, if the Universe started with an explosion then one could claim God caused the explosion to occur. If dinosaur fossils are found then God put them there to test our faith. If the Earth is billions of years old, then a day in the Genesis story is equal to hundreds of millions of years. These are actual interpretations of the Bible that have been forced into existence by science.
1. Evolution vs Intelligent Design
Rather than reconcile scripture with evolutionary theory, Christians invented a new theory called Intelligent Design (ID). It claimed that living things are too complex to be explained by the randomness of natural selection. The unsupported suggestion that a creator God must therefore be the cause revealed the religious underpinning of the theory. This lack of impartiality saw Intelligent Design fail to become an established scientific theory.
Impartiality is crucial to the scientific method. Scientists look for evidence to derive answers, but creationists look for evidence to support a particular answer. It's unscientific to selectively look for and document evidence based on how favorable it is to your beliefs.
This biased search for evidence is characteristic of the psychology of religion. Religions typically include a number of comforting beliefs (afterlife, loving god, purposeful existence, etc) that believers are emotionally invested in, and dependent on. Believers are therefore motivated to find evidence that supports and reinforces their beliefs. Thus, all that opposes their beliefs is automatically dismissed, and all in favor is given utmost attention. For the same reason, believers will surround themselves with people who share their beliefs, providing further illusory reinforcement. The group becomes a source of identity and pride, and the pleasure derived from satiating this pride is reason enough to bias their approach to evaluating evidence.
Filling one's head with self-serving beliefs opens the door to unscientific thinking. As Socrates surmised, it's the emptiness of the inquiring mind that drives us towards truth. And, even if one religion has hit on absolute truth, the assumption that one knows this truth will always spur conflict with other religions making the same claim. This is why religion begets conflict, and why faith in the truth is just as damaging as faith in complete falsehood.
Intelligent Design Is Defeated In Court
2. Evidence vs Miracles
Scientists and religious believers are both attracted to unexplained, miraculous phenomena for different reasons. Scientists look for a natural cause and let their curiosity drive them towards an answer. Religious believers see an opportunity to reinforce their faith by declaring divine intervention. Such declarations support their existing belief system, thus helping to perpetuate the positive emotional states that the beliefs elicit. As with intelligent design, God is the desired cause, and this brings about a dismissal or downright subversion of natural explanations. Indeed, it's not observation or evidence that causes believers to assume a miracle occurred; it's a prior belief that God is capable of miracles.
Declaring miracles can be highly pernicious if it ends a search for natural causes. When a miraculous solution is required once more, there will be no way to solve the problem without one. Throughout history, miracles have been declared, resulting in a termination of scientific research and a pleasurable reinforcement of religious beliefs. However, if God gives a man cancer, and Satan cures the man to sabotage God’s plan, what is the Christian to believe? Unless the Christian can find a reason to despise the man being saved, the cure would be attributed to God and the cancer to Satan. The unfortunate consequence is that millions may have died while Christians and other religious individuals decided who they should be hating.
In history lies the realization that religion is nothing but a collection of assumptions about the unknown that disappear with the advancement of human knowledge. The only evidence a religionist possesses for a miracle is a lack of evidence to the contrary. At the dawn of mankind, if we'd ascribed fire to a miraculous cause, we’d still be living in caves huddling together for warmth and wondering why God won’t fire a lightning bolt into the forest to spark another flame. People who believe in miracles do not deserve to live in a world of medicine and computers.
Religious people often say they're happy to accept natural explanations when presented with them. However, in a world of religious folk, such an explanation would never be found. Society would assume there's nothing more to learn because the only relevant knowledge is inside a holy book. Intellectual development would come to a complete halt. Religious people sometimes respond by saying God provides or inspires answers when needed, and yet, throughout history, they've persecuted scientists who've supposedly received this inspiration.
Imagine If Doctors Accepted This Explanation
3. The Big Bang vs Genesis
The Big Bang is the theory that the universe began with an extremely dense singularity before rapidly expanding over the course of 14 billion years into what we see today. Edwin Hubble provided crucial evidence for the theory in 1929 when he discovered that most of the matter in the universe is moving away from us (red-shifted).
A number of poorly supported theories have been proposed about what caused or occurred before the Big Bang. The proper scientific position is that we don’t know what caused it (if there even was a cause). While this uncertain position is most favorable to the search for an answer, it's the least desirable position to occupy. This is because uncertainty produces unpleasant feelings of anxiety, and these tend to usher people into beliefs that assuage the anxiety.
Religious beliefs appear to provide such comforting certainty. Many believers claim the universe is 6,000 years old, while others have been compelled by science to reinterpret scripture in less ridiculous ways. However, many religious people claim scientists have beliefs that are equally ridiculous, such as thinking the universe just `popped into existence'. This criticism is surprising because religionists believe God made the universe pop into existence. Though some scientists might consider the `pop' theory, few to none would believe it without sufficient evidence. Nevertheless, religious people find it difficult to conceive of an opposition that doesn't believe in something to the same absolute degree they do.
Religious believers like to think they possess evidence for God creating the universe. The value they attribute to this evidence is another source of conflict between science and religion. For example, some would say God created the universe because he is omnipotent and eternal. However, these attributes are given to God in response to the prior belief that he created the universe. They are not observed attributes that led to the belief. The believer deduces that God must be all powerful and eternal to have created the universe, and therefore God created the universe because being all powerful and eternal makes him capable of doing it. This is clearly a circular argument. Furthermore, is omnipotence necessary for the creation of the universe? Perhaps a larger, denser, universe would have required more power.
4. Absolutism vs Skepticism
On a fundamental level, science and religion come into conflict because science is incompatible with faith. A scientist trusts in the likelihood of constants and equations, but he doesn't have faith in them. The Big Bang and evolution are still only theories, and their popularity is a function of how well their predictions replicate the world we live in. In other words, certainty isn't real in science. Newton's theory was amended by Einstein's, and Einstein's theory will have to endure the same fate.
Conversely, uncertainty isn't real in religion. There is no debate in Islam about the holiness of the Koran or the prophecy of Mohammed. There is no question in Christianity about the purpose of Christ's resurrection. In this way, one can say the philosophies of science and religion are mutually exclusive.
As alluded to earlier, religious believers too often see science as another religion with another set of absolute truths. However, science holds no beliefs in such high regard and its neutrality is unaffected by religious claims. This dichotomous thinking may arise from the absoluteness of religious beliefs and a lack of familiarity with probability. If a person doesn't agree with a believer, the person is automatically assumed to have disagreed. There is no middle ground for a person who wants to withhold judgment until better evidence is available.
Though science is neutral in this way, some prominent atheists also seek to dispense with the middle ground in their arguments with believers. Richard Dawkins has claimed agnostics possess a belief about whether or not an answer will be found to the question of God's existence (The God Delusion, Chap. 2). Yet, why should agnostics have to make such an absolute statement? Presumably, Dawkins assumes this about agnostics to tarnish them with the same criticisms he levels at believers.
Dawkins on Agnosticism
It's unclear why some atheists suffer from the same dichotomous thinking as religious believers. One theory would be that the ridicule atheists aim at believers is indicative of a certain degree of pride. This pride likely comes from a belief that their position is intellectually superior, i.e. it's a position held by some prominent scientists and philosophers they revere. Thus, any middle ground, such as agnosticism, would serve to marginalize that position by making it look extreme. If their position looks extreme and unreasonable, their source of pride is damaged. To protect it, they generate asinine criticisms against agnostics and uncommitted atheists.
5. Significance vs Insignificance
Cosmological data has spectacularly demonstrated our insignificance in the universe. We exist on a tiny blue planet, orbiting an ordinary star, in one of billions of galaxies that make up the universe. Though we haven't found life yet, it likely exists on some of the trillions of planets that litter the cosmos. While our place in the spectrum of terrestrial life is of great comfort, we may be mere fish in the sea for visitors from further shores.
The apparent truth that humanity is an insignificant speck of dust in the vastness of space and time conflicts with the comforting religious notion that we're the centerpiece of God’s plan. One can easily see how wishful thinking could create such a notion. After all, it's far more difficult to accept a large, empty, lonely universe than it is to accept one in which God holds our hand and protects us from being swatted by the next asteroid to come our way.
Even though some religious believers see themselves as facing an assault, science is not intentionally targeting them. Religion and science are mutually exclusive philosophies that are seeking to answer the same questions. Just as the Pauli Exclusion Principle tells us that no two particles can occupy the same quantum state; religion and science are similarly prevented from occupying the same epistemological space.
There is no requirement or overwhelming desire in science to destroy religion. The only will is to answer questions about the unknown. However, religions have addressed these questions poorly in the past, causing millions of people to become emotionally invested in the veracity of their answers. This has made religion into an inevitable and unintentional casualty of scientific progress.
© 2013 Thomas Swan