Ask Ethan #47: Do Science and Religion have to be at odds? (Synopsis)

“Ignorance is hardly unusual, Miss Davar. The longer I live, the more I come to realize that it is the natural state of the human mind. There are many who will strive to defend its sanctity and then expect you to be impressed with their efforts.” -Brandon Sanderson

At the risk of inflaming everyone who doesn't think exactly like I do -- which is quite likely to literally be everyone who reads this -- sometimes I get a submission for Ask Ethan that I think is far too important to not address. And this week's entry, from Jonathan Hasey, really resonated with me.

Image credit: Randall Munroe of xkcd, via Image credit: Randall Munroe of xkcd, via

It's the question of whether science and religion need to conflict with one another, or more generally, about how we gain, gather and choose what type of information we most value in this world. It's something we all deal with and struggle with every day, particularly when we're faced with the complexity of all human experience.

I'm sure you'll have plenty to say (so come back here and weigh in), but go ahead and read my take on whether science and religion need to conflict.


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Ethan, you are a great communicator and teacher. Of course, all your regular readers already know that.

Thank you for this- it's so refreshing to read about science from someone who has an open mind, and I think science in general is an entity, above all others, that consists of allowing all possibilities their due consideration.

By Sarah Jaudon (not verified) on 26 Jul 2014 #permalink

I did like this post. I also thought some of your responses were a little weak and dodged the question.

Not all of them though, I particularly appreciated the "greek word". I learned something, and it was also a particularly honest moment.

By Russell Miller (not verified) on 26 Jul 2014 #permalink

This isthe first time I have read any of your aerticles. In my personal opinion, if science and religion do not conflict it is because they address two fundamentally different aspects of the universe: Science addresses the testable, religion (often specifically ) excludes evidence.
If they do conflict it is when either tries to address the other sphere. i.e. when scientist try to "prove" religion is invalid (impossible), or when religion tries to claim historical reality for their beliefs.

Truly excellent, Ethan. And even though the plural of anecdote isn't data, we can reasonably assume that Jonathan is not the only one having those thoughts: there are more folks like Jonathan out there.

It seems to me that the key points were that your ability to describe the beauty of science reaches others in a way that communicates something meaningful, and that the absence of hostility to religion in your posts enables religious readers to think about what you say rather than feeling that they are being driven away.

Other science bloggers take note! If your goal is to communicate science effectively and to reach people across a wider spectrum of belief vis-a-vis religion, that's how to do it. If your goal is to assert dominance for your own beliefs, disregard what Ethan said and you'll also find out that you're not helping the cause of science education either.

To Jonathan, welcome aboard, this is one small corner of cyberspace where there is mutual respect and a shared appreciation of the boundless beauty of the universe. May there be many more such places to come, and perhaps you and Ethan and/or others of us here will find ways to collaborate and encourage a similar approach in other science forums.

This is something our society needs right now: people in science and religion working together to seek common ground of agreement, and encouraging others to do so.

Religion is fine. It's the theologies that screw it up.

Religion isn't fine. It's a waste of thought.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 27 Jul 2014 #permalink

I generally say that religion discussed "why" while science discusses "how".

People are at odds--they are called zealots--not science and religion.

More than 99% of the Christians of Homs, Syria have been driven out in the last year. How many scientists were driven out of Ceylon last summer?

By Jan Vones (not verified) on 28 Jul 2014 #permalink

Science and dogma are at odds. The rules by which each operate are diametrically opposed. One revolves around evidence, one around faith. Can they coexist peacefully? Of course that's possible, but not ideal. Dogma, in any capacity, does a disservice to the advancement of humankind.

Whatever one chooses to believe in is the truth for that person at that time. Every subject, every lesson in life is a stepping stone toward ones own reality. The more open the mind, the more steps become available, the wiser one becomes. Be understanding for others who may not yet be on the same step.

It isn't that science and religion can't get on, it's that religion can't abide science.

Look at Martin Luther for how and why.

PS what 'why' does religion answer? None. It *claims* an answer, but canot say why it's right.

Sure, such as why the laws themselves (and some talk of how those can vary, but what meta-laws would be "logically obvious" to start with?) Logic can't derive existential selection, that's for example why Max Tegmark came up with MUH.
(BTW I hope a URL is an OK "location".)

By Neil Bates (not verified) on 02 Aug 2014 #permalink

Religion addresses our relationship between one another and of course God, Love is Supreme or should be, while science addresses our relationship to the universe.

Except that religion is DEFINITELY NOT the only method of addressing our relationship with one another. And that's giving you the benefit of actually having said something concrete (you do not say what "addressing" is done by religion. After all, there's a lot of how you can kill, torture or enslave others in most religions, which isn't true any more, therefore could not have been anything that religion addressed on our interrelationship that holds true any more, right?)

And if there is no god, then NOTHING addresses our relationship with it unless it's atheism.

So neither works. We don't need religion for one and the other is more than slightly begging the question.

And Neil, your post doesn't say what "why" question religion answers, only that some things may not be possible to know a priori, though I would query your assertion, since you can derive


from Shroedinger's equation, and THAT was an an axiom (and one derived fromobservation of its apparent validity: something ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN by religion, unless of course, it can be "shown" to prove God...)

So please, what "why" question does religion answer?
It tells us about people, but bugger all about reality.

@16 In Sean Carroll's many world's viewpoint, one of your other selves has just become Pope.

According to some christian faiths (funny how god can't clear this up, despite being the god of all those faiths...), that would make me Satan's representative on earth.

According to many christians, as an atheist, or even merely for wondering, I am Satan's representative on earth.

So in some small way I've managed to make the multitudinous options of just that "one" faith (they are all christians together when it comes to how popular their faith is, but not when it comes to deciding who is a True Christian (tm)) come to happy agreement!

Religion is about signs. Not science. Just because religion doesn't intensively talk about scientific facts, it doesn't make it limited. Religion is greater than science. It's about life and and lifestyles. It's about standards and morals.

Science is just a study of nature.

By Saeed Vazirian (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink