The conflict between science and religion

This page last updated August 11th, 2020
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This page in brief ….

For many people, the apparent conflict between science and religion and the perceived difficulty of reconciling faith in God with the methods of science, are major reasons to no longer believe in God.

So how much are religion and science in conflict? What can we learn from either side of the debate? It turns out there are a lot of ideas to consider.

Are most scientists atheists? Is religion based on the quicksand of unjustified faith, as opposed to science being based on solid evidence? Do science and religion provide answers to different questions? Are there some important questions science cannot answer and religion can?

For a discussion of all these questions, read on!

Contents of this page

Science is good at what it does

There is no doubt that science has greatly enriched our lives in many, many ways, from medicine to transport to electronics. And this has occurred because the scientific method has proven an excellent way to discover and demonstrate facts about our world, from the big bang to atoms, from biological evolution to neuroscience.

This success has led many critics of religion to proclaim that science is the only sure way to know anything, and religion is slowly being stripped of any value in explaining anything of importance.

Religious belief is incompatible with the methods of science, it is argued. For instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne says: “science and religion are not only in conflict – even at “war” – but also represent incompatible ways of viewing the world.”

Faith vs facts

Many people agree with Jerry Coyne says when he says: “religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith”. Religion is based on “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions”, he says, “you must choose between faith and reason”.

This leads Coyne to believe that scientists who are christians are being inconsistent and illogical. He says: “how can you reject the divine in your laboratory but accept that the wine you sip on Sunday is the blood of Jesus?”

Examples of apparent conflict

Evolution

Biological evolution is sometimes considered the most important area where science and christianity are incompatible. But it is actually only some forms of christianity that are incompatible with evolution. Right from before Darwin put forward his theory, there were christians supporting the concept. And in the present day, many christians simply accept evolution as a fact and adjust their christian beliefs accordingly. There are challenges that need to be faced (see Evolution and God), but they don’t lead to much change in the core beliefs of christianity. Christians can easily see evolution as the process which God planned in advance to lead to humans. Nevertheless, for many christians, this is an area of conflict.

Healing and miracles

The laws of physics, biology, etc, don’t have a place for miracles. So many atheists argue that miracles, especially healing miracles, are not possible – each apparent miracle is either a coincidence, a spontaneous remission or a natural process that medical science hasn’t discovered yet. But of course this is a dogmatic position, not one arrived at by scientific method. Christians argue that if all we consider is the laws of physics, especially if we think they are the only factors, then we will come to this conclusion, but if it is possible that God exists, then who knows what he or she might do? Each apparent miracle has to be assessed on its merits, and when this is done, there are good reasons to believe miracles are possible (see Healing miracles and God). Belief in the possibility of miracles doesn’t change our understanding that normally (in the vast majority of situations) the laws of physics will be followed.

The resurrection

The alleged resurrection of Jesus is a special case of miracles generally, and the same argument applies. Normally dead people stay dead, but if there’s a God, he could resurrect people if he chose. And if Jesus was a divine human, then it seems likely that he might be one of the few cases when God might do that. Most christians don’t think it is unscientific to believe in the resurrection, it’s a matter of whether the evidence supports belief in God and belief in Jesus.

Free will and consciousness

Many cognitive scientists say there is no room in their science for genuinely (i.e. “libertarian”) free will, while human consciousness bewilders them. Yet we all experience what it is like to be “us” (consciousness) and we live our lives with an almost unshakeable belief that we are free to make choices and be responsible for our actions. Christians believe all humans are made in the image of God and deserving of respect and fair treatment, which seems to be in conflict with the cognitive science. So in this case the conflict is between science and universal human experience and religion.

Climate change

It is well-known that many conservative christians are sceptical of the science of climate change, often for very illogical reasons. On the other hand, many “progressive” christians accept climate science and are active in urging political and societal action to avert the worst impacts of future climate change (that is my own position). However it remains true that this is an important area of conflict between science and religion.

Conflict or concord?

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued: “There is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.”

He argues that the scientific method requires that our perceptual and rational faculties are reliable, but naturalism (the belief that there is no God and the physical world is all there is) provides insufficient reason for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable. Therefore, he argues, the scientific method requires something like theism.

Of course critics don’t accept this argument, but it remains something that should be considered in the discussion of the conflict between science and religion.

Who thinks there is conflict?

A few decades ago, many anthrolopogists predicted the end of religious belief as science became the basis of our lives. For example, in 1966, the distinguished anthropologist Anthony Wallace predicted: “belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge”. Since then, many critics of religion have expressed the same view, even up until the present.

However it hasn’t happened that way. While religious belief is declining in most western countries:

  • Atheism isn’t growing nearly as fast in those countries, as many people take on “spiritual but not religious” beliefs.
  • Religious belief is growing in many non-western countries, and globally. Notable here are:
    • the reversions from former Communist states in USSR and Eastern Europe to allow religious freedom;
    • the failure of secular governments in India and Turkey and the return to explicitly religious governments.
  • The conversion of former animistic religious believers to major religions in Africa and Asia.

As a result, anthropologists and historians of religion now recognise that the secularisation hypothesis was mistaken. Science and history Professor Peter Harrison: “The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past …. Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it.”

Surveys on whether scientists and laypeople think there is conflict don’t always give consistent results. This is what I’ve found:

  • Wikipedia reports that in an un-named study “most social and natural scientists from 21 American universities did not perceive conflict between science and religion, while 37% did”.
  • Elaine Howard Ecklund reports that only around a quarter of people or scientists feel there is conflict between science and religion. Perhaps surprisingly, 70% of those who identify as “evangelical christian” do not see any conflict.
  • On the other hand, this paper reports that “59% of Americans report that religion and science conflict, though only about 30% say it conflicts with their own beliefs”.

I guess we can conclude that people’s ideas on this are fluid, but overall, the belief that there is conflict between science and religion is not widely held.

Different ways of thinking about the world

While only some religious believers find science in conflict with their faith, there are certainly some differences in thinking. Science and religion can be seen to offer different and competing bases for deciding for moral issues like stem cell research, and also different and contradictory understandings of the world (e.g. whether via evolution or not). When these sorts of issues are part of a believer’s identity, then there is likely to be conflict.

However many scientists are religious believers, and christian theologians have always said that God reveals himself through both word and world, so it is clear the two ways of thinking can overlap significantly.

No interest in evidence?

There is little doubt that, for many religious believers, belief is based less on evidence and more on other factors – the culture they grew up in, who they trust and what they want to believe. (Probably the same can be said for non-believers.) But there is equally little doubt that this isn’t the case for many other believers (and non-believers).

One of the most common reasons people believe in God is because they believe he has made contact with them or intervened in their lives. They believe he has healed them, changed their lives, guided them, comforted them, helped them through a difficult time, given their life meaning, or communicated to them in some way.

Sceptics will argue that this is all subjective, but it is nevertheless evidence. Arguably personal experience is the best evidence of all for many things – for example, I know what I had for dinner tonight and there is no way for you to argue against me if I say I had vegetables in cheese sauce. And the evidence of personal experience is significant, as the cases I have linked to show.

There are two other indications that Jerry’s claim is true for some people, but over-stated as a generalisation:

  1. Many christians are interested in reasons to believe, avidly reading authors like CS Lewis and Tim Keller and philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig and JP Moreland, and keenly following Craig’s debates. This indicates a good deal of interest in reason and evidence.
  2. The life of Jesus is a significant part of the reasons why many christians believe, and it has been subjected to enormous analysis by historians, providing another large area of evidence for God.

Doubtless Jerry Coyne and other like him would contest the value of all this evidence, but that is very different from saying christian belief is not at all based on evidence.

What is faith anyway?

Coyne and others use a definition of faith that is very helpful to their argument, and ignore what many thoughtful christians actually think. For example, he quotes from Hebrews 11 in the Bible that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, ignores the use of the word “evidence” and what it might mean in that context, and so asserts that faith is totally devoid of empirical evidence.

But a little reading shows that faith has more than one meaning.

  • The Oxford Dictionary defines faith as: “complete trust or confidence; strong belief in a religion”. There is nothing in that to exclude reason as a basis for faith. It is true that some dictionaries also add “without proof” or “without evidence”, but clearly these are secondary parts of the definition.
  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this dual nature of faith quite clear: “Religious faith is of two kinds: evidence-sensitive and evidence-insensitive. The former views faith as closely coordinated with demonstrable truths; the latter more strictly as an act of the will of the religious believer alone.”

These views are supported by the Bible, where the most common word translated as faith in the New Testament (the Greek word “pistis”) has a range of meanings: mental assent, trust, allegiance, loyalty, confidence in somebody. So an attitude of faith can be:

  1. a way of forming a belief that ignores or dismisses evidence (Jerry Coyne’s usage), or
  2. a basis for moving from evidential facts to a personal worldview – it is obvious that the proposition “God exists” cannot be either proved or disproved, but most of us (theist and atheist alike) hold a view that is psychologically stronger than the evidence, and “faith” is the ingredient that takes us from evidence to (un)belief, or
  3. ongoing allegiance or loyalty to the God christians believe (for evidential reasons) really exists. Their ongoing life experience will likely add evidential reasons to those the person began with.

An example of how I see the word would be a loving marriage. The original choice to marry is based on evidence, in this case our experience of the person over a period of time, but the choice to marry cannot be made with certainty so a certain amount of “faith” is involved (#2 above). Then, over time, each partner makes the choice to continue to be loyal to their partner (#3 above).

So religion and science typically see the world differently and form beliefs differently, but these differences aren’t always in conflict, and many believers find both approaches helpful in understanding the world and life.

The methods of science and religion

The scientific method is very clear. It involves “observation and experiment; the development of falsifiable hypotheses; the relentless questioning of established views” (Paul Bloom). It works because nature generally seems to behave in orderly ways, so that if you duplicate someone’s experiment exactly you should get the same result.

Some limitations of science

So science is a good way to know or discover facts about our physical world. But it has its limitations.

  • Its methods define and limit what it can tell us. Werner Heisenberg said: “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. There are questions it is not able to answer, and maybe others we don’t ask of it.
  • It reduces and generalises, and so: “science describes only one dimension of the many layered reality within which we live, restricting itself to the impersonal and general, and bracketing out the personal and unique” (former particle physicist John Polkinghorne).
  • It is based on reproducibility, but some events and experiences are not able to be reproduced (e.g. history and personal experience).
  • It can tend to treat people impersonally, like causal systems, and so is often unable to resolve personal issues. For example, medical science can treat depression by medication, but depression and suicide rates are rising in most western countries.
  • Science can provide information to assist in making ethical decisions, but science is not able to make ethical value judgments (it tells us what is, not what ought to be).
  • Science is based on naturalistic assumptions, and so if there is anything “beyond” the natural, it will be unable to address it. Scientists can easily assume there is nothing beyond the natural, then when science using naturalistic methods doesn’t find anything, conclude that’s all there is – a circular argument.
  • We must also note that everything we know, science or otherwise, is built on assumptions – for example, that the external world is real (this isn’t a dream or a simulation), other people are thinking ethical beings just as I am, that the rules of logic and the laws of physics apply everywhere and at all times, and so on.

None of this reduces the wonderful achievements of science, but it does show that we may need other tools for some questions.

Other ways of knowing

The scientific method isn’t the only way to form beliefs. It is a truism that the way we form beliefs must be appropriate to the matter we are considering. Philosophers point out that there are many ways we can know things (see Is there no evidence for God?):

  • Historical facts are known by methods similar to science, but with little ability to replicate results and hence less certainty.
  • Mathematical and philosophical truths are known through inference and reasoning.
  • Everything we know (even science) comes to us through our sense experiences and most of what we know only comes that way.
  • Much of what we know comes from our memory.
  • I know I feel cold or hungry by introspection (I guess a special form of experience).
  • Much of what we know comes via authority – no-one can possibly verify even a small fraction of the information we receive, so we have to trust doctors, scientists, travel guides, friends and relatives, etc. Much of our beliefs, both (ir)religious and secular are learned beliefs based on authority.

Religious belief uses all of these methods, not just blind faith as Coyne and others assert. It might be preferable to be able to verify religious belief, and all other choices (friendships, life partner, career, ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc) by rigorous science, but it clearly isn’t possible. We all make decisions in all these areas with the best means we have, and few of us think those decisions are without good reasons.

So it seems that Jerry Coyne has over-stated the dilemma for scientists who are religious believers. All of us form metaphysical beliefs in all these different ways, the religious scientists and the atheist scientists are no different in that regard, they just come to different conclusions.

What use is religion anyway?

Many science advocates dismiss religion as being of no value because it doesn’t actually achieve anything. Richard Dawkins: “Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”

But religious belief and practice achieves a lot that is of value. Consider:

Thus it seems clear that, contrary to Richard Dawkins’ assertion, religion “gets results”, and results that often science is unable to provide. I suspect he was only considering knowledge of the physical world, and forgetting personal benefits. Some people may value the personal benefits more than the scientific ones, but I would say both are of benefit.

So again it seems that the idea of conflict between science and religion is based on narrow thinking or misunderstanding.

Revelation and dogma

Coyne and others criticise believers for accepting truth via the authority of dogma and revelation. But as we have seen, we all, even Jerry, accept many truths on someone else’s authority. When he seeks the help of a doctor, a car mechanic or an interior decorator, he is trusting their expertise on matters where he is likely not knowledgable. There is nothing wrong with this, provided the people he consults are reliable. We all do it.

So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with dogma and revelation, provided the authority behind them is reliable. I too have my problems with dogma because I like to feel free to question things, but questioning my doctor’s prescription is generally not a healthy exercise. And if we have received a genuine revelation from God, then that is very good authority! So the question that needs to be hammered out is whether christians (or other believers) base their beliefs on good and trustworthy authority.

Christian belief is adaptable

History shows that christians adapt their beliefs in many ways. Christians may believe in the authority of the Bible, but interperetations can change over time, or in response to particular external facts. Like science, christian understanding is always provisional, and christians supposedly depend on the Spirit of God to guide them. Some historians say this adaptability is a distinctive feature of christianity.

I know that in my lifetime as a christian, my beliefs have developed and changed a lot as I understood the Bible and the world in new and more accurate ways, and I have been witness to some massive shifts in christian belief.

So again, the differences between religious believers and scientists, real enough in some cases, are not intrinsic to christianity and have been over-stated for many believers.

Cognitive science of religion

Cognitive scientists of religion (mostly psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists) investigate how people think about religion. Since religion has grown and persisted in human culture, they say it must be based on features that confer a survival advantage via natural selection. A number of factors are important here:

  • People tend to see order out of chaos. We often see patterns, even in apparently random events like the shape of clouds.
  • We are prone to anthropomorphise our surroundings. The patterns we see are often human, like a face in a tree or even a pizza. We can easily think a shadow at night is a person.
  • We often infer events are caused by agents rather than just random. It is easy to think a tree tapping on a window pane in the wind at night is a person.
  • We tend to infer teleology, to think natural things and events have a purpose, they are created for our use.
  • People are natural dualists. We find it easy to believe our minds are separate from our bodies and just inhabit our bodies.

All of these natural modes of thought make it easy, even natural, for people to believe in God, or gods. Some say this is evidence for God, others say this suggests we don’t need God to explain religious belief.

Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that most of our beliefs, whether religious, ethical or political, or even a non-expert’s understanding of science, are learned from people we trust, without being fully understood. But, he argues, scientific thinking is different, in that it is rigorous, structured and analytical.

There is some good evidence to support the idea that non-religious people tend, on the whole, to be more sceptical, more intelligent, more intellectual and able to reason critically, while religious people tend to think differently about the world and are more likely to be imaginative rather than analytical. It is unclear whether religious people are more or less educated in science than non-believers, but it seems that there is little difference. However religious people are less likely to choose science as a career.

Two modes of thinking

We use different parts of our brains in making decisions and choosing what to believe, and make decisions by different processes.

Scientific thinking uses mostly analytical thinking – a slow process of reasoning and evaluation that processes a lot of factual information in a systematic way. The scientific method requires this approach, however it requires time and energy that we don’t always have for some decisions. Analytical people can tend to be less socially aware and more task-focused, and analytical thinking tends to lead to unbelief.

Intuitive thinking is often our first and unconscious response. It utilises emotions (necessary for good decision-making on some matters) and heuristics (rules of thumb or thinking shortcuts) to make better and faster decisions. It turns out that intuitive thinking can be better for complex or risky situations where there is insufficient information or time to do a full analysis. For example, a study of doctors in a hospital emergency department showed that younger and less experienced doctors tended to make slower analytical decisions whereas the more experienced doctors made faster intuitive decisions using heuristics. Intuitive people tend to be more socially aware and imaginative. Religious people are more likely to be intuitive and more likely to rely on intuitive thinking even when a more critical approach might be beneficial.

It turns out that while scientists tend to think more analytically, religious people tend to think more intuitively. There is little doubt that the scientific method requires analytical thinking (though often the scientist first uses intuitive thinking to come up with an “inspired” idea). But is religious belief more like science and thus also require analytical thinking, or is it more like other issues in life which employ intuitive thinking?

So it seems that both scientists and religious believers use both modes of thought. The scientific method and religious belief characteristically use different modes, but this may be appropriate. However religious believers who use intuitive thinking are more likely to mistrust science and to hold unscientific beliefs.

Statistics of religious belief among scientists

There is a lot of information, some of it conflicting, on this. Here is a brief summary.

  • A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities in the US found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and more than 75% believe that religions convey important truths. (Ecklund & Scheitle, 2007, as reported by University of California). However Wikipedia gave a slightly different impression, that Ecklund found that scientists were almost evenly split between atheists, agnostics and believers.
  • Wikipedia also reports:
    • a 1996 survey of US scientists that found 39% believed God exists, 45% disbelieved, and 15% had doubts or didn’t know – this was similar to a parallel survey conducted in 1916,
    • a 2009 US survey found 33% believed in God, 18% believed in a universal spirit or higher power, and 41% did not believe in either God or a higher power – in this survey, younger scientists were found to be “substantially more likely” than older scientists to say they believe in God,
    • surveys found 65% scientists in the UK are non-religious, but only 6% of Indian scientists,
    • a 2009 study of US university professors found 10% were atheists, 13% were agnostic, 19% believe in a higher power, 4% believe in God some of the time, 17% had doubts but believed in God, 35% believed in God and had no doubts,
    • physicians in the United States, by contrast, are much more religious than scientists, with 76% stating a belief in God,
    • 65% of Nobel Laureates have identified as Christian, 22% as Jews, 10% as non-believers and the remainder from other religions.
  • The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy references three studies, including two of those referenced above:
    • A survey among National Academy of Sciences members found that 72% disbelieved in God’s existence and only 7% were theists (Larson and Witham 1998).
    • Ecklund and Scheitle (2007) analyzed responses from scientists from elite universities in the US and found almost a third were atheists, almost a third were agnostics, a quarter were theists and the remainder had some spiritual beliefs. This is a different interpretation from those given in the first dot point.
    • Gross and Simmons (2009) surveyed university professors (both humanities and sciences) and found more than half believed in God and another fifth believed in a higher power. This is the same study as one reported by Wikipedia.
  • In my blog post, Science vs religion – who believes and who doesn’t?, I report on more recent evidence (2016) from Elaine Ecklund that scientists are not as opposed to religion as we might imagine. Belief in God or a higher power among the scientists surveyed varied from about 20% in the UK to more than 50% in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey, while the majority of non-religious scientists were fairly agnostic about God.
  • Scientists in most countries are less religious than the general population.
  • It seems that most scientists don’t believe there is conflict between science and religion. About half think the two are independent, a smaller number think they are complementary, and only a small number think there is conflict.

All this shows that a significant number of scientists can hold to both scientific and religious knowledge, and the conflict between science and religion may not be as pervasive or definite than we might think, in scientists’ minds at least.

The conflict thesis in history

The “conflict thesis” is the claim that religious authorities have always opposed the growth of science. The idea was most prominent in the 19th century, in the writings, for example, of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. It is still put forward by modern critics of christianity, who cite the trials of Galileo, the execution of Gordano Bruno, the supposed burning of the library of Alexandria and the execution of Hypatia, and the Scopes evolution trial as examples.

However modern historians (e.g. Ronald Numbers, David Lindberg and Lawrence Principe) have almost totally rejected this idea as a distortion of the known facts. They say religion and religious authorities sometimes opposed some aspects of science, but at other times supported scientific work. After all, most of the medieval natural philosophers (the forerunners of today’s scientists) were churchmen, and the church sponsored the establishment of many universities.

So history doesn’t offer strong evidence of a major conflict between religion and science (see also this review of book The New Atheism, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion by historian Nathan Johnstone, on History for Atheists).

Professor Peter Harrison: “The myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe.”

Science and scientism

Scientism is “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques”, which leads to “the belief that scientific methods can be applied to all problems, with the consequent application of inappropriate scientific methods in unsuitable circumstances” (both definitions from Oxford dictionaries).

Many philosophers and scientists think that some of the proponents of the conflict between science and religion are overstating the role of science, ignoring some of what philosophy can teach us, and coming close to scientism.

Conclusion

  1. There are several different ways to arrive at truth. While the scientific method is the best way to gain an accurate understanding of the physical world, it may not be the best way to gain other types of knowledge, including religious belief.
  2. Many religious believers don’t use reliable methods to support their belief. However other believers have what they believe is good evidence for their belief.
  3. Critics of religion often use definitions of faith that don’t reflect what christians actually think, and tend to ignore that christian belief isn’t fixed, but evolves in response to knowledge, just as science does. They often generalise from poor examples of belief and ignore how more thoughtful believers think about their faith.
  4. Religion and science typically see the world differently and form beliefs differently. Scientific thinking is more analytical than religious thinking, and less intuitive. However all people use both modes of thinking to some degree. Thoughtful christians are comfortable with both ways of thinking about their beliefs and science, but more intuitive christians are more likely to mistrust science.
  5. More people in western countries (primarily USA), both scientists and laypeople, think there is no conflict than those who think there is. Popular ideas of the conflict between science and religion appear to be influenced by outdated and unjustified understandings of history.
  6. In western countries, scientists are less likely than the rest of the population to believe in a religion, and more likely to be atheists or agnostics. The percentages vary across different countries. Surprisingly, the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners have identified as religious.

I conclude that while there is conflict between science and religion in some people’s minds, the conflict isn’t nearly as deep as often claimed. Critics of religion typically claim more for science than can be justified, and often base their case on poor examples of christian thinking.

Critics of religious belief would do better to focus on the evidence and the reasoning of their opponents, and not try to win the intellectual battle by merely dismissing religious thinkers.

Further reading

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Photo by Thao Le Hoang on Unsplash.