If the assertion, “Science and religion are incompatible,” simply means, “It is highly unreasonable to accept simultaneously the claims of modern science and the claims of traditional Christianity,” then I agree with it. The trouble is that the word “incompatible” is vague. People often take it to mean something like “logically contradictory,” and I do not agree that science and religion are incompatible in that sense.

For this reason I prefer to avoid the language of compatibility/incompatibility, and talk instead about “tensions” between science and traditional faith. When I am feeling ornery I might say, “severe tensions.” This terminology seems more accurate and descriptive to me. Whether or not the tensions can be relieved in some plausible way is something people have to decide for themselves. My own view is that they cannot be so relieved, but obviously a lot of people disagree.

The only way I can see for there to be an actual contradiction between science and religion is if you specifically build into the religion some factual claim about the natural world. If you regard it as essential to your faith that the world not be more than ten thousand years old, then you really do have a contradiction between science and faith. Short of that, however, religion always seems to have enough wiggle room to avoid the charge of outright contradiction. For example, I think the problem of evil provides a strong reason for rejecting traditional theism, but I cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that God needs to permit evil and suffering to achieve some worthy greater good.

A good example of the confusion that compatibility talk can cause comes from the little book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible. It is an exchange of essays between Daniel Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, three each, apparently based on a debate they had at a conference of the American Philosophical Society. Plantinga opens the debate in a promising way, writing:

Our question: Are science and religion compatible? A useful project would be to try to make the question more precise: What is religion? What is science? What is incompatibility, and what varieties does it come in (explicit contradiction, implicit contradiction, contradiction in the presence of plausible assumptions, improbability of their conjunction)?

Yes, that would have been a useful project. Of the possible meanings of “incompatible” on offer I favor the last, but Plantinga mostly addresses himself to the others. Alas, just a few sentences later Plantinga writes, “These are good topics. but they’ll have to wait for another occasion; here I’ll assume that we have at least a rough grasp of the question.” D’oh!

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Plantinga and Dennett are not using the same notion of incompatibility. A major portion of Plantinga’s defense of compatibility is the idea that God is guiding, in the sense of causing, the mutations on which evolution is based. (We have discussed this argument at length recently, here and here.) Science can’t rule this out! Plantinga seems to think his job is mostly done with this trivial observation. Indeed, in his second essay Plantinga writes:

On further thought, though, it struck me it wasn’t really theism [Dennett] was claiming to be silly, but a different proposition: (1) God guided and orchestrated the course of evolution to produce the kind of creatures he wanted. I was arguing that God and evolution are possible, by pointing to another proposition that is clearly possible, and entails both the existence of God and the truth of evolution. That other proposition is (1); and I said that 1 was possible. I wasn’t arguing that (1) was true, but only using it to show that the existence of God is compatible with the current scientific theory of evolution. And (1) can do its job, even if it isn’t true, even if it isn’t plausible, and even if it is silly. All it has to be is possible.

Dennett, for his part, is plainly using a different notion of compatibility. After quoting a lengthy passage from one of his earlier publications, he writes:

So I agree that contemporary evolutionary theory can’t demonstrate the absence of intelligent design, and any biologist who insists that we can is overstating the case. But Plantinga must deal with the implications of one sentence in the passage above: “Prehistoric fiddling by intergalactic visitors with the DNA of earthly species cannot be ruled out, except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy. Now we might draw the debate to a close right here. I could happily concede that anybody who wishes to entertain the fantasy that intelligent designers from another galaxy (or another dimension) fiddled with our evolutionary prehistory, or salted Earth with life forms, or even arranged for the constants of physics to take on their particular “local” values will find their fantasy consistent with contemporary evolutionary biology.

This disagreement over usqge makes the whole debate highly unsatisfying. Plantinga and Dennett are talking at cross purposes. Plantinga seems inordinately concerned with establishing logical compatibility between God and evolution, while Dennett wants to move on to the far more important question of whether any remotely plausible reason can be offered for believing both. After the first exchange of essays, they both mostly just repeat themselves.

There are some other interesting moments in the debate, but I’ll save those for a future post. It turns out our new blogging platform has a word count feature, and suddenly I can just feel myself starting to ramble…


  1. #1 Wesley Dodson
    May 30, 2012

    Science and religion are two sides of the same coin?

  2. #2 Pena
    Europe, Finland
    June 15, 2012

    Being European, it is a bit surreallistic to read about the creationism vs evolution in America.There is no such controversy in Europe, hardly at all. Religion and science are “compatible” here. They are not the sides of the same coin, they are different coins. Material world is one, spiritual world is another. They may interact, but that´s then not science, and not repeatable as scientific experiment (that was the religious view… materialistic view would not include the spritual at all) Evolution is taught at science classes exclusively. People think (90% at least) that the “material man” probably evolved somehow, but the spirit is created.

    Americans may think that´s just because of seculiarization, but not only. In my country 1/4 believes in God as the church teaches, 2/4 believes, but in a different way as they say, 1/4 don´t believe, and ~2% say they are atheists.

    Europeans remember the case of Galileo Galilei, and don´t try to make a big fuss with this.

  3. #3 Kevin
    June 23, 2012

    One of the most famous statements of traditional theism is, “God created man to His image and likeness”. This is as much a comment about man as it is about God. Theists believe that man’s intelligence has an intelligent cause. In his recent debate with Cardinal Pell, Richard Dawkins seemed to indirectly imply that our intelligence may ultimately reduce, with the rest of the universe, to “nothing”, or something “very simple”.

    If this is the standard materialist view, another important question is: can any remotely plausible reason be offered for believing both materialism and law? (The entire edifice of law being built on the belief that man is morally responsible for his intentional actions.)

  4. #4 Wow
    June 23, 2012

    “can any remotely plausible reason be offered for believing both materialism and law?”

    Yes. Because this:

    “The entire edifice of law being built on the belief that man is morally responsible for his intentional actions.”

    Is a false assertion.

  5. #5 Peter Beattie
    June 24, 2012

    Science can’t rule this out!

    Which is not just a trivial observation but also a way of shooting yourself in the foot while trying to lood terribly clever. As I said at the other place re Michael Ruse’s reconciliation of miracles with science:

    The discussion rests on an appreciation of what we take the problem to be that our definition of ‘science’ is supposed to help solve. Let me explain.

    I would propose to use the term to distinguish approaches that can lead to objective knowledge of experiential phenomena (science) from those that can’t (not science). Then there is another term, ‘philosophy’, which I’d propose to use to distinguish between approaches that can lead to objective knowledge about imaginary things that we have not (yet) experienced (e.g. the structure of an argument, the explanatory power of an idea). Science, in that sense, is a specialized branch of philosophy that uses or invents whatever experiment or method it needs to test its (very strictly speaking: philosophical) theories against experiential evidence. Mathematics is a similar case of a specialized branch of philosophy, as it deals with imaginary things that are idealizations of experiential phenomena, e.g. circles and numbers.

    Now, in the case of someone positing, say, a ‘different plane of being’ that is outside of time and space (i.e. outside of reality, i.e. imaginary), then that is something that doesn’t (as you rightly point out) even rise to the level of specialized treatment that we call science. But strictly speaking, it doesn’t even rise to the level of philosophy either, since things that are purely imaginary and have no possible connection to reality cannot even be talked about in terms of objective knowledge. They may even be self-contradictory—as many of them actually are. But I can use philosophy to make that judgement.

    Finally, to say that this has nothing to do with science is only true in a sense that is irrelevant in this case. Because what the discussion is about is whether e.g. a ‘different plane of being’ can be talked about in terms of objective knowledge or in terms of fiction. And of course, talking about fiction can be immense fun. But it is different from reality. And being able to make that distinction is vitally important. Thus, to say that ‘you cannot use science to prove me wrong’, and then have what is simply the more general discipline of philosophy tell you that we don’t even need the specialized tool of science to conclude that you are talking about fiction, is, on that analysis, pretty embarrassing.

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    July 5, 2012

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