Yesterday morning, I was in a discussion on UK Christian talk radio on the topic of “Is Christian faith at odds with science?”, with Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. It’s going to be available as a podcast at sometime in the next day, but I may not be able to link to it right away — tomorrow I fly away to Germany for a week, so my schedule is going to be a bit chaotic for a while.

Don’t expect fireworks. It was the usual feeble accommodationist claptrap, but I had my nice man hat on and actually tried to get across some basic ideas. To no avail, of course, but at least I tried.

I have now discovered that I was trying to make the same points Lawrence Krauss is doing in the Wall Street Journal: religion is wrong. It’s a set of answers, and worse, a set of procedures, that don’t work. That’s the root of our argument that religion is incompatible with science.

That word, “incompatibility”, is a problem, though. The uniform response we always get when we say that is “Hey! I’m a Christian, and I’m a scientist, therefore they can’t be incompatible!” Alexander was no exception, and said basically the same thing right away. It’s an irrelevant point; it assumes that a person can’t possibly hold two incompatible ideas at once. We know that is not true. We have complicated and imperfect brains, and even the most brilliant person on earth is not going to be perfectly consistent. When we talk about incompatibility, we have to also specify what purposes are in conflict, and show that the patterns of behavior have different results.

For instance, if you just like to go to church because you enjoy the company, then the purpose of religion to you is to reinforce social bonds — so of course there is no incompatibility between science and religion there. If you go for the choir (as Stephen Jay Gould was known to do), you’re there to enjoy the music, and science does not dictate that human beings are not allowed to enjoy music. For that matter, science doesn’t say that someone is not allowed to enjoy the perverse circumlocutions of theology, so if someone attends for the religion sensu strictu, no problem.

But in a debate about the compatibility of science and religion, we have to put the argument in an appropriate context and define a specific shared purpose for both science and religion — it’s the only legitimate ground for discussion. In this case, what we’re trying to do is address big questions (remember, the Templeton Foundation says they’re all about those “big questions”) about the nature of the universe, about our history, about how we function, and then we encounter a conflict: religion keeps giving us different answers. Very different answers. They can’t all be right, and since no two religions give the same answers, but since science can generally converge on similar and consistent answers, I know which one is right. And that makes religion simply wrong.

We have to look at what they do to see why. In order to probe the nature of the universe around us, science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them. We also evaluate our success by whether the end results work: it’s how we end up with lasers and microwave ovens, and antibiotics and cancer therapies.

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be. It’s always wrong, from an empirical perspective, although I do have to credit theologians with some of the most amazingly intricate logical exercises as they try to justify their conclusions. The end result of all of this kind of clever wankery, though, is that some people say the world is 6000 years old, that it was inundated with a global flood 4000 years ago, and other people say something completely different, and there is no way within the body of theology to resolve which answers are right. They have to step outside their narrow domain to get an independent confirmation — that is, they rely on science to give them the answers to the Big Questions in which they purport to have expertise.

So what theistic scientists have to do is abandon the operational techniques of religion and use science to address those questions. The “theistic” part of their moniker is nothing but useless baggage which, if they take it at all seriously, would interfere with their understanding of the world. That is what I mean by an incompatibility between the two.

Krauss uses a marvelous and well-known quote from J.B.S. Haldane to make that point more briefly.

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

I got Alexander to agree that he does not use religion in the laboratory — I don’t know anyone who would say that they do, other than creationist kooks — but it didn’t seem to sink in that that is an admission of incompatibility. Religion doesn’t work to answer questions in science, which always leaves me wondering…if you accept that, why do you go on thinking it might be giving you correct answers in ordinary daily life? It has an awfully poor track record.

Now one way the defenders of religion like to get around this empirical problem is to change the game in mid-play: one moment we’re talking about tools for understanding the world, where there is a conflict, and then they switch to a completely different purpose, that of establishing a common morality, or appreciating art, or falling in love. I would be the first to admit that science does not and should not dictate morality: the cases in the past where this has happened (eugenics comes to mind right away) have been disastrous. Science is good at explaining what is and how it works, and not so great at telling us how it should work. I also wouldn’t use the scientific method directly to determine whether I like some music or poetry or not.

However, I’m going to have to say that religion doesn’t do a good job at that either. SJ Gould tried to partition the domains of authority for science and religion by explicitly setting a boundary, and saying religion should have the job of defining what is right and good…but I think he failed, because he gave far too much credit to religion for being able to discern and act on a reasonable morality. It’s foundation on authority and its role in defining in and out groups means it is too exclusionary, too narrow and inflexible, and also too willing to ignore empirical evidence. It’s why we have religion behind such immoral acts today as trying to restrict civil rights to people who have only a certain range of sexual behaviors, or facilitating the spread of sexually transmitted disease in Africa by damning sex education and condom use.

And when it comes to other questions than the cosmic ones about the nature of existence, I prefer that we apply just about any discipline other than religion to the problem: at least they are evidence-based, where religion is not. I’d rather consult a philosopher than a theologian on morality; they’ve been thinking about it with a broader scope than the pious promoters of sectarian belief, anyway, don’t restrict their principles to worshippers of one particular idol, and usually don’t invoke magical rewards and punishments that have never been seen to justify decisions. If I’m in love I’m better off pulling a book of poetry off the shelf than consulting a celibate. I’d rather hear about economics from an economist than from a ouija board or a pulpit, and I like the idea of policy decisions being evaluated for effectiveness, rather than ideological purity. When we’re looking at communities and interactions between individuals, give me a psychologist or a sociologist over a priest any day. The only useful priests in those matters are the ones who understand the principles of psychology and sociology, and apply those, rather than pulling a quote out of their holy book.

Accommodationists are a problem not because accommodation is bad, but because they are pushing for the wrong kind of accommodation. Science doesn’t need to conform, religion does. Religion demands a special kind of privilege in these discussions because if we actually get down to assessing views fairly and objectively, on the basis of what works, it fails. I say, let it.

This is also why so many of us object to the Templeton Foundation. Their agenda consists solely of mixing up science and religion, to the detriment of the former. They just want to compromise…but asking us to compromise science that works with faith that doesn’t is a fool’s bargain. Why should we?


  1. #1 Mike John
    December 17, 2009

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