Science is irreconcilable with religion

October 4, 2010 § 17 Comments

There are people who claim that science and religion can exist side-by-side, one asking the “how” questions (science) and the other asking the “why” questions (religion). I’d like to say I disagree with this stance, and for a few simple reasons.

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Scientific inquiry is based on measuring interactions and outcomes from observable and repeatable phenomena, based on established empirical principles and existing theories. Outcomes are then observed, tested and compared to create a hypothesis. Scientific method also allows for the falsification of any established hypothesis if information or data arises which is counter to the hypothesis being presented. It is constantly evolving and changing, and if the evidence is great enough, then an agreement is struck among the science community.

Theological inquiry, if it happens at all, is based on interpretations of texts written by men during times when little was understood about the world and the universe. Theological discourse about “what the texts really mean” as opposed to what they say makes up a great deal of the discourse between theologians. Those who go beyond the religious texts tend to talk in vague ways around metaphysical ideas, claiming there must be something more, although ideas like soul have never been observed.

Science does ask the “why” questions, because “why” follows “how” in inquiry, but the “why” of science is actually asking for an answer to the reason something occurs, whereas the “why” from theology is asked without any real intention of arriving at an answer.

Francis Collins, in his video interview at Big Think:

“But faith in its perspective is really asking a different set of questions.  And that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here.  The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm.  Why are we all here?  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Is there a God?  Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?  But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them or you have to say, we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about.”

I would argue that there is a LOT of philosophy in science, but it lies more in the realm of interpretations for what a scientific outcome might mean for humanity, what the implications for society and cultures are, or what possibilities might arise from a scientific discovery. I say there are no questions that can’t be asked of science, but I would say that in lieu of an answer that mysticism is not a real-world solution to these questions.

I think the irreconcilable nature of religion versus science comes from their origins. Sam Harris makes a good point in this video, where he equates the role of religion historically as the one now filled by science.

When we ask questions of our universe using current methods of inquiry we arrive at answers that can then be compared against other observances and outcomes. When we use the method of inquiry of theology, the answer has already been pre-determined from the outset, and the answer is always “God”. This is not a viable way to find answers, especially if we truly desire to know truths.

I feel that Francis Collins is falling victim to his own cognitive dissonance, where he knows that science has the answers for the big questions, and I think he secretly believes that science will eventually  have the ability to answer the philosophical questions we all ask. At the same time he deeply wishes that there is a creator for the universe, whether it be an Abrahamic god, or an alien creator. If there were a creator then we can stop asking questions safe in the knowledge that the ways of the universe are out of our control and beyond our understanding. And some people find it difficult to imagine a universe without a creator because it leaves us alone and isolated in the universe even more so than we already understand ourselves to be.

Why is it such a horrible fate than man is the result of natural processes and not the result of some divine creature’s tinkering with subatomic particles? We do think ourselves so special that there must be some preordained reason for our existences rather than simply existing, and to be special means to be created.

Furthermore, rather than falling into the downwardly spiraling argument “if there is a creator then who created it?” I think it is enough to say this. Just because we don’t understand something fully does not mean we should attribute it to a universal creator. Just because emotions and other non-physical interactions occur between people does not make it magic. One day, as scientific inquiry advances forward we shall see where the “unaccountable” stuff comes from, and we’ll look back at our immaturity and laugh, much as we do about ancient mythologies of a flat earth, elephants and turtles. People once believed that Atlas held the earth aloft on his back, but does anyone believe that now?

Bertrand Russell said this in 1927:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Science remains unafraid to ask the difficult questions, while theology will skirt around the subject matter, posing questions with circular reasoning and asking for disproof of something science has never claimed to exist in the first place. It’s not the job of science to disprove the existence of god, nor is it the desire outcome. Science is here to help us understand the universe, and one day, given enough time, we may discover why we keep asking for there to be a god.

Further Reading:
Science and religion aren’t friends


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§ 17 Responses to Science is irreconcilable with religion

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Packard Sonic, David H Thomas, Atheist Climber, Marty, Marty and others. Marty said: Science is irreconcilable with religion: […]

  • Catalyst says:

    I find your arguments eloquent and well founded. What you write is often thought provoking. I am not as often as strident as you are, I still appreciate what you have to say. In that vein, I know of a TED video that talks about being a “militant atheist”. I hope you enjoy it!

  • LetUsRatiocinate says:

    Science asks and does its current best to answer any and all questions. Theology belongs in the realm of art. Art means different things to different people, sometimes helps folks make it through the night, and doesn’t worry about being demonstrably true. Truth, in art, relates to one’s opinion. Science may begin with opinion regarding a particular problem, but moves toward objective, demonstrable evidence as soon as it can test the opinions. Theology doesn’t need to test opinions. Opinions stand supreme unassisted by evidence. In fact, theology holds faith, the ability to believe without or even despite evidence, as one of its highest values.

    • Faith – belief in the absence of evidence, or even in the presence of contradictory evidence – is not something to be held up as something to aspire to. It is not admirable. It is something that we need to divest ourselves of. Opinion unassisted by evidence is worthless. Worse, wrong beliefs (which opinion in the absence of supporting evidence almost always is) lead to bad actions.

  • Thanks Marty. I read this with the growing feeling that it wasn’t hitting the mark for me. In the end I had to take notes and construct an argument out of what I think you are saying. I won’t bore you with all of it, I’ll concentrate on what I think is a key point.

    As someone who has now forgotten much of his undergrad philosophy of science ;), I’m going to strongly disagree with the idea that science exists on its own without reference to outside disciplines.

    The argument seems to be:
    * Science contains a lot of philosophy and “There are no questions that can’t be asked of science” (so we don’t need philosophy or religion).

    eg, “I would argue that there is a LOT of philosophy in science, but it lies more in the realm of interpretations for what a scientific outcome might mean for humanity, what the implications for society and cultures are…”

    It seems to me, these questions aren’t questions of science at all. If we say “climate change is likely to hurt humans”, that’s a scientific statement. If we say “hurting humans is bad”, this is a value statement and completely outside of the realm of science.

    I’m sorry to be pedantic, but there is no philosophy within science. Science assumes a philosophy, and is based on non-scientific and probably unprovable assumptions (that events are ’caused’, for example). Philosophy is prior to science, in the sense that we have beliefs about what exists in the world, the reliability of our observations, the rationality of the world and so forth. It can be debated whether religion contributes to this kind of knowledge or not, but the view that science can answer every question and needs no other support is, i believe, wrong. If this is what Collins is saying, then he is correct in my view.


    A couple of other things I was curious about:

    “One day, as scientific inquiry advances forward we shall see where the “unaccountable” stuff comes from”.

    I hate to say it, but this appears to be a faith statement, not a scientific statement. It’s a statement of what we HOPE will occur. We have no evidence that science will be able to answer ALL our questions in the future.

    I wonder if our society may be creeping back into a mythology of progress, where life is always becoming bigger, better, truer, more robust…? (Similar to the American Dream, if you like.) As I understand it, there was another point in history where Westerners thought that. Then two world wars came along, and a lot of people felt a little more humble about human progress (Bertrand Russell, I believe, was one of them but I could be mistaken).

    Do you think the word “irreconcilable” is a bit strong? To show that science is “irreconcilable” with religion you’d have to show that there is an unavoidable conflict at a philosophical level. I think that would be hard to do.


    Jonathan 🙂

    • Skiapod says:

      The last paragraph is actually fairly straightforward to resolve. Maybe I’m missing something? Science is based on methodological naturalism, which is the antithesis of the supernaturalism evoked by religion. So I guess it comes down to a working definition of “religion”, as not all religions are supernaturally-based.

    • Skiapod says:

      Oh god, disregard the last part of my last sentence. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it might be helpful to identify the aspects of religion that are incompatible with science. I really do think that the naturalism of science is incompatible with religion. There’d be nothing but comprise on either/both world view/tool/whateveryawannacallit if one tried. For example, one could just say “God did it” in response to whatever science discovered. Zero help, that.

  • Andrew Cort says:

    It’s usually about assumptions. If Faith is defined as “belief without evidence”, then it’s pretty hard to defend Faith. I doubt most of the great theologians throughout history would accept such a simplistic definition. If Evidence is restricted to evidence-of-the-senses, well Plato had a lot to say about this untrustworthy definition — but if we assume it despite that, then of course we can’t get around it. And if an ‘analysis of a text’ is only about what it literally says, and suggesting that it could mean ‘more’ than it says is silly, then all my years of law school were a silly waste of time. But anyway, what do you suppose a symbol, after all, is?

    • Of course this doesn’t apply to law, law is based on philosophical observances from the past and precedent. It is ever changing as we grasp a better understanding of human nature. The words of theological texts (and by that I mean the Bible and Qur’an) dally over assumptions made of people and society as if there were a higher power. Law in the west should make no such claim. In my opinion anyhow.

  • leesis says:

    An interesting read and really any response if intelligent would take too much space (including what Jon notes above) but I do have one a question…and ask forgiveness if it comes out a bit messy.

    “Scientific inquiry is based on measuring interactions and outcomes from observable and repeatable phenomena, based on established empirical principles and existing theories”

    Agreed but surely you must agree that science has not yet developed the tools to measure many things even at the organic level? Nor even to understand what’s out there to be measured.

    As such is it not reasonable to say that, ‘at this time’ we MAY yet develop the tools that MAY be able to measure a soul/spirit/god something-a-rather? My preferred term is a more powerful consciousness than human that is perhaps interrelated with us. Sigh…god is so much shorter :).

    I am not religious but subjective experience as well as the commonality of theology/philosophy regarding pre-post organic life existence and a non-human consciousness across all time and culture leads me to conclude at the least that we exist pre/post organic life and yes there is ‘something’. (i’ll write a book one day 🙂

    Can I not then imagine science may well develop a tool to prove this just as the aura was well known thousands of years before we managed to develop a tool to photograph them or the writers of the Vedic system knew mediation was profoundly healing 5000 years before science developed tools that prove it and the same for the Chinese and acupuncture etc etc etc?

    Asked in all sincerity…Leesa

  • athdead says:



    The atheists are coming to my city – MONTREAL!

    please be sure to stop by for tea

    atheism is dead forever!
    add comment moderation to your BS

    you will not have a PUBLIC FORUM

    NEW GAME WITH YOU LITTLE F*CKERS – SPEAK N DIE. Come see the latest DM videos for your viewing pleasure!



    And the Pope is 100% correct: The Nazis and the atheists both wish to ABOLISH FAITH….

    hawking is WRONG

    science cannot explain NOTHING!


    October 3 2010 Montreal
    go post this up on “pharnygula”. I’ve had an opportunity to see PZ’s ugly face in real life! I am spamming the world from the Delta Hotel where the convention is taking place….


    believe me, the only reason the photo is available is because I WANTED IT OUT THERE….

    actually it is quite a flattering photo of me:

    With finger cocked and pointing, I say “And I gotta take out these idiots!”


    That PZ would post a link on his website to something that completely exposes him for the fraud that he really is completely baffles me….

    The reason I ran is because I did not want to be mobbed by my female atheist fan base.

    And finally, the *only* man in Minnesota who says there is no God has suddenly become an arbiter on mental health…


    See, I am a METAPHYSICAL PLUMBER…. Atheism is the *SHIT* that needs to be FLUSHED DOWN THE TOILET OF THE UNIVERSE!

    • Interesting. I especially like the part about “NEW GAME WITH YOU LITTLE F*CKERS – SPEAK N DIE.” And I must really applaud you on your grammar, spelling and elocution. Well done!

  • leesis says:

    oh AC I love your response

  • Dan J says:

    Dennis certainly does have a way with words. I got him in my comments at least once:

  • Mark Jameson says:

    In my opinion, Science and Religion is like oil and water, they do not mix. In the past, people who studied science were branded as enemies of the church or heretics. The real challenge even though they do not mix, is if they can try to learn from each other and start understanding the other’s point of view?

    Something that I want to happen in the future or not if they still are stubborn on their own beliefs.

    Mark Jameson
    audiocreed forums – Indexing art,
    literature, science & philosophy

  • Shax says:

    Hello Markuze. Your photo looks old, fat and deranged.

  • Science is irreconcilable with religion « Atheist Climber…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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