With the current reboot of Cosmos, the age-old question of whether science and religion are compatible has presented itself in mainstream once again.
If we were to answer this very methodically, we would start questioning the semantics of “science,” “religion,” and “compatible.” The conventional definitions are broad enough that given particular arrangements of definitions, the answer can be made yes or no without much disagreement.
Suppose I frame the question as, “Can someone who considers themselves to be religious also believe in science?” The answer is a factual yes. But what if I frame the question as, “Can someone who asserts a literal interpretation of the Bible believe in a 13.8 billion year old universe with our origins in natural evolution?” The answer is a logical no.
This kind of disparity shows that if two parties are uncareful, debating whether science and religion are compatible can turn into a useless argument of semantics.
Religion and Science as Methods: Asserting vs Searching
This 1893 illustration by Orlando Ferguson, called “Map of the Square and Stationary Earth,” posits the Earth as, well, not completely flat, but at least much flatter than a globe. Interestingly, at the bottom of the diagram, several Bible verses are pointed out as “scripture that condemns the globe theory.” They include, as stated in the illustration:
And his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.—Ex. 17:12
The world also shall be stable that it be not moved.—1 Chron. 16:30
The four corners of the earth.—Isaiah 11:12
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.—Isaiah 40:12
He that spread forth the earth.—Isaiah 52:5
…and several more which also do not seem to be explicitly condemning of the sphere theory.
Contrast Ferguson with Eratosthenes, a Greek mathematician who lived in the 3rd century BC who used a systematic method of measurement, shadow lengths, and the tools of geometry to estimate the circumference of the earth circa 240 BC:
Using this process, Eratosthenes estimated the circumference of the earth to be the equivalent of 39,690 km, which is amazingly close to the actual circumference of 40,075 km. It becomes even more amazing if you consider that the known world was not very large in Eratosthenes’ time.
Now what was the point of this comparison other than to show that one guy was really smart and the other was an ignoramus? Answer: There is a clear difference in methodology. Ferguson presupposed that the Bible must be true, and built his map attempting to follow the Bible, e.g., literally with four corners. (“But clearly ‘four corners of the earth’ is a metaphor!” How do you know that?) Eratosthenes set up an experiment to find the angle theta from the center of the earth between Alexandria and Syrene, and then solved for an equation using this value to find the circumference of the earth.
That is, religion asserts truth, whereas science searches for truth. This is where the fundamental disagreement arises.
Ferguson asserted that the Bible is true, and thus any “evidence” must be valid if it affirms the Bible and invalid if it contradicts the Bible. (See confirmation bias.)
Eratosthenes’ experiment does not assert or presuppose that the earth is a sphere beforehand. If it turned out that the earth was flat, Eratosthenes would have measured the angle theta to be zero, and then deduced that the world was indeed flat. Instead, he measured an angle of 7.2 degrees, indicating a curvature of the earth which he then calculated. One method uses circular reasoning (“Because it says so in the Bible”), whereas the other uses an actually legitimate process.
Only a very small portion of people still believe in the flat earth model. So, enter the geocentric model (see the Galileo affair). This is apparently still a common belief: as recently as in a 2014 poll, one in four Americans believe that the sun goes around the earth.
I don’t have a problem with these beliefs in themselves. Ignorance is a good justification for them (not justifying ignorance itself), i.e. if I were not educated or did not have the tools of science at my disposal, and I just used my natural intuition on the shape of the earth, I would probably say it is flat. There is nothing immediately obvious to suggest otherwise. After all, nearly every civilization in antiquity independently came up with the idea that the earth is flat. However, if I am presented with all the overwhelming evidence that the earth is round, and I still reject all of the evidence and still assert the earth is flat because I believe some book must be true because it says it’s true, that would be a much worse offense.
In the paragraph above, you can replace the flat-earth/round-earth phrasing with creationism/evolution, and the same argument would hold.
But this can lead to various useless discussions of semantics. What about a religious Christian, for instance, who doesn’t take the Bible literally and can accept scientific facts that are contradictory to literal interpretation? Is this person really “religious”? What about a person (not necessarily religious) who accepts all the relatively older facts that science has shown over time, such as gravity, round earth, and evolution, but refuses to believe the latest advancements in neuroscience? Is this person really “scientific”? (What about a Scotsman who puts sugar in his porridge? Is this person a true “Scotsman”?)
To resolve some of the ambiguity, let’s look at scientists, a category which has a relatively clear definition.
What About “Religious Scientists”?
“But there are scientists who believe in God!” Yes, there are! In fact, a whopping 7% of the National Academy of Sciences believes in a god, the other 93% being atheists and agnostics. The figure is not as extreme for scientists in general (Pew):
And for specific affiliation:
Going from general public to scientists, atheists increase representation by a factor of 8, agnostics by a factor of 5, and Jews by a factor of 4, while evangelical Protestants decrease representation by a factor of 7. What does this mean? Assuming the data is accurate, this implies (1) atheists/agnostics/Jews were filtered out and more likely to be scientists in the first place, and/or (2) somewhere along the process of becoming a scientist, some Christians de-converted. Since changing one’s religion is relatively rare (and this doesn’t explain the Jewish case), it must be explained mostly by (1), that certain groups are more prone to becoming a scientist to begin with, i.e. a selection effect.
Explaining why Christianity is negatively correlated to science is still an interesting question that would deserve an entire post. However, if I had to give a single answer, it would be the social stigma against science (largely Christian-perpetuated).
Another interesting question is explaining why the percentage of Jewish scientists is 4 times higher than the Jewish percentage in the general population. Even though being a Christian decreases your chances of being a scientist, being Jewish increases it significantly. If I had to give an answer here, it would be that Judaism is far more open-minded than Christianity in America, because most American Jews consider being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry/culture rather than as a matter of religion (source):
So, at least part of the increase in the number of Jews from the general population to scientists can be explained by justified comparison to the increase in the number of atheists.
Declarations of Compatibility
Many religious denominations today have declared that that scientific concepts like evolution are not in conflict with their faiths. But it’s one thing to declare something and another to show it. In the history of religion’s acceptance of scientific ideas, the enormous delay is more telling than the final admittance of wrongness, which could come centuries later. The Galileo affair in the early 1600’s was not apologized for by the Catholic Church until 1992 under Pope John Paul II. Even as late as 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) gave a speech using this particular quote by Paul Feyerabend (source):
The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s teaching too. Her verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.
An even more recent fact took a century and a half to be admitted, and only in part, by official Catholic doctrine: evolution. While On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it was not until 1996 that John Paul II officially accepted evolution. Even so, in the acceptance letter, he included the following caveat (source):
Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.
It’s hard to take seriously an organization that refuses an idea so fervently only to attempt to vindicate it centuries later. In the United States, 46% of the population still believe in creationism (source), while a further 32% believes in theistic evolution, with God as an agent in evolution (which kind of defeats the purpose of evolution).
Of course, the slowness of religion to adopt ideas is not just confined to scientific truths. What were some justifications for slavery during the US Civil War? Let’s hear some not-so-well-known quotes by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy (source; going to list multiple to make it clear I’m not just taking one of them out of context…):
“If slavery be a sin, it is not yours. It does not rest on your action for its origin, on your consent for its existence. It is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree.” ~Davis
“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” ~Davis
“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him – our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.” ~Davis
“It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts…Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God – let him go to the Bible…I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation…Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments – in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.” ~Davis
Of course, we can find many, many more recent examples in views expressed on women, interracial marriage, and homosexuality. But this article is on religion and science, so let’s get back on topic.
The point of bringing up these social examples is to demonstrate that religion is not “compatible” in the sense that it has supported homosexuality all along (which it obviously hasn’t). Rather, 100 years in the future, when homosexuality is regarded like having green eyes is today, religious advocates will claim that the fact that religion ended up accepting homosexuality is evidence of its compatibility with homosexuality.
To make it explicit for the science case, in no way was evolution compatible with religion when Darwin was around. Only after one and a half centuries, after revision of doctrine and turning some things into metaphors instead of literal truth was it officially declared that they can they be logically held together. That is, when two contradictory ideas are held together, one has to budge (unless doublethink). In the case of evolution, it was religion that budged. Same with the heliocentric theory: in the 1600s, heliocentrism and religion were not compatible. Only after religion changed into something else was it compatible.
This again raises the question of what we mean by “compatible.” Say Bob and Joe are in a room, and each time this happens, Bob cannot stand Joe and beats him up. We take Bob out and put him under an anger management program, but directed only at Joe. That is, now when Bob and Joe are in the same room, Bob is nice to Joe, and in fact they become friends. However, when you put anyone else in the same room with Bob, Bob will unfailingly beat that person up, until you train Bob to be nice to that particular person.
If I ask, “Are Bob and Joe compatible,” the answer might be yes, only after the psychological treatment. However, if I ask, “Is Bob compatible with having a new person added to his room,” the answer is no. I think this is analogous to religion and science. Religion was at first incompatible with heliocentrism, but after a grueling long time, now it is not. Religion was incompatible with evolution, but after a long time, now it is not. However, religion is incompatible with science as the method, the process of adding new people to the room. Religion is compatible with particular areas of scientific results after rejecting them for as long as possible. However, to be actually compatible with adding new people to the room, Bob needs to be subjected to a session where he learns that beating up anyone is wrong, not just certain people. Whenever religion learns a lesson, whether it’s heliocentrism is right or evolution is right (or slavery is wrong), it never applies that lesson to anything else. (“Oh I understand that it’s wrong to hate on interracial couples now, let’s hate on gays!”)
To the question, “Are science and religion compatible,” my answer is a qualified no.