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February 4, 2016 / BTM

Three arguments you’ll face on why faith and science are incompatible

scifaith

Before you reach the age of twenty, I guarantee you will hear one or all of the following reasons why faith and science are incompatible:

  • Most scientists are atheists (implying that science and faith don’t mix).
  • Science is about facts and empirical evidence. Faith is about feelings, moral meaning, and value. (Implying that science and faith have no areas of intersection)
  • Science doesn’t need God to explain anything (implying that God and faith have no place in science).

Let’s kick the tires of these arguments to see how well they stand up.

 

Most scientists are atheists

Actually, historically scientists were overwhelmingly religious.

Scientific inquiry did not begin as an atheistic endeavor. It was birthed by people of faith. Some of the founders of modern science were Christians – Cuvier, Linnaeus, Pascal, Faraday, Mendel, Copernicus. Their purpose in their practice of science was to discover more about God.

But these scientists lived at a time when society at large was also more religious. What about scientists today?

Today, scientists ARE more likely to be atheists.

However, not quite as overwhelmingly so as some people may suggest:

Clearly it is possible to believe in God and be a scientist. In fact, there are many instances of scientists who came to believe in God or a Higher Power as a result of science (e.g. Antony Flew, Dean Kenyon, and J Warner Wallace).

But the statement “Most scientists are atheists” also tries to imply something further: that scientists became atheists because of the scientific evidence for it. Although some surely did, this was not necessarily the case for everyone.

Biologist George Klein did not base his atheism on scientific evidence; it was just what he’d always believed since childhood. Double Nobel prize-winning scientist Marie Curie and mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing both rejected the idea of God after the death of loved ones. Paleontologist Richard Leakey rejected God out of disillusionment (source).

However, there is something about the way science has come to be defined that makes it difficult to practice faith in a God who is active in the universe. This plays into argument # 2.

Science is about facts and empirical evidence; faith is about feelings, moral meaning, and value

Notice how this definition forces faith and science to be mutually exclusive. Indeed the prevailing understanding of science is that any view that does not conform to naturalistic materialism is not scientific.

No God allowed in that definition.

Add to this the definition of faith that is insisted upon by atheists (which I don’t think anyone actually practices), and you have a tidy little divide between science and faith.

And yet, science and faith make truth claims in similar areas – like the origin of the  universe, life, and humans; or whether or not Jesus existed; or what happens after death. And science isn’t just about facts and empirical evidence. Scientists are human too; they aren’t impartial robots. Scientists must interpret their data, and they do so through their own belief lens.

“My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “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.” (quoted by Lawrence Krauss in the NewYorker)

Notice that Haldane starts with a presupposition: God does not exist. He then goes on to conduct his research, restricting his interpretations to naturalistic and materialistic ones. Which leads to argument #3…

Science doesn’t need God to explain anything

One might think that it this is an easy conclusion to come to since science restricts itself to purely naturalistic, materialistic explanations. Nonetheless, this is a statement that requires a lot of faith to utter.

So far, scientists haven’t developed any scientifically credible, naturalistic, materialistic explanations for the origin of the universe and life. Those aren’t small questions – they leave big holes in our knowledge.

Scientists have certainly come up with some ideas about how each of these may have been set into motion through naturalistic, materialistic means, but they have no solid evidence or mechanism to prove this to date. In fact, the more we discover, the more difficult it becomes to create one all-inclusive ‘theory of everything’ to explain all the gaps we have in our knowledge.

Compatible or incompatible?

Neuroscientist David Eagleman cautions all scientists from entrenching themselves into a strict viewpoint, whether religious or atheist. He was quoted as saying:

“I think scientists should be possibilians, which means actually exploring ideas and using the tools of science to rule out bad ones.”

How refreshing.

Science is actually supposed to be a quest for truth. That quest shouldn’t be shackled by which kinds of answers are allowed and which are not allowed. To the utmost of their ability, scientists should be open-minded and follow the evidence wherever it leads…even if that means discovering that faith and science aren’t incompatible.

What arguments have you heard for why faith and science are incompatible?

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15 Comments

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  1. Paul Ens / Feb 4 2016 11:01 pm

    The question isn’t “why do scientists deny God?” (since your assertion is that most do not)… the question is, “why do Christians deny science?”

    If you really mean “SCIENCE IS ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A QUEST FOR TRUTH” and “TO THE UTMOST OF THEIR ABILITY, SCIENTISTS SHOULD BE OPEN-MINDED AND FOLLOW THE EVIDENCE WHEREVER IT LEADS…”

    then I think you are attacking the wrong side of this. You should be asking science-denying believers what truth could possibly harm them?

    • BTM / Feb 5 2016 9:34 am

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, there is no truth that could possibly harm believers. I am commenting on the accepted definition of science, that only materialistic, naturalistic conclusions are considered ‘science’ and suggesting that that is very limiting. It would be akin to investigating a homicide but limiting the suspects to white men only, regardless of whether or not the evidence suggests that Hispanics or Afro-Americans might be implicated. It doesn’t make sense, unless you presuppose that God does not exist. |I doubt very strongly that there are “science denying” believers out there – no one denies all science. Perhaps you mean particular scientific ideas. I am not one of them. But believers do not tend to think there is a conflict between faith and science, while atheists do (which is what the whole post was about – whether or not faith and science are incompatible). I gather you must not think faith and science are incompatible if you’d like believers to not be “science denying”, so that’s great.

      • Paul Ens / Feb 5 2016 11:50 am

        IT WOULD BE AKIN TO INVESTIGATING A HOMICIDE BUT LIMITING THE SUSPECTS TO WHITE MEN ONLY, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT THE EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THAT HISPANICS OR AFRO-AMERICANS MIGHT BE IMPLICATED.

        Well, we’re all aware of physical evidence that murders have been committed by non-whites and non-males. Things like video tapes, photos, fingerprints and DNA.

        A better analogy would be thorough, well-meaning detectives investigating a stabbing and ruling out narwhals, simply on the basis that no forensics have ever pointed them to a narwhal in the past.

        However, you’d be right to say that if the stab wound matched narwhal DNA and there was a trail of sea water, then narwhals should be considered.

        BUT BELIEVERS DO NOT TEND TO THINK THERE IS A CONFLICT BETWEEN FAITH AND SCIENCE, WHILE ATHEISTS DO (WHICH IS WHAT THE WHOLE POST WAS ABOUT – WHETHER OR NOT FAITH AND SCIENCE ARE INCOMPATIBLE).

        You obviously associate with a very different faith community than the one I grew up in. I’m glad your results vary.

        The vast majority of atheists I know, however, are open to any possibility there is evidence for. They would say that until they see evidence of the supernatural, a naturalistic view makes the most sense.

        I GATHER YOU MUST NOT THINK FAITH AND SCIENCE ARE INCOMPATIBLE IF YOU’D LIKE BELIEVERS TO NOT BE “SCIENCE DENYING”, SO THAT’S GREAT.

        While I continue to await evidence that I’m open to though not-yet seen, I have tremendous respect for the intellect and integrity of those who fully embrace both.

      • BTM / Feb 5 2016 12:16 pm

        I’ve always wanted to know what evidence would qualify as evidence for the supernatural to someone who currently does not believe in the supernatural (forgive me if I have misunderstood your position on that)? Clearly the supernatural can’t be experienced/seen in the same way as the natural. What kind of evidence would you look for (what would convince you)? I’ve just always wondered about that.

  2. Paul Ens / Feb 5 2016 1:17 pm

    WHAT KIND OF EVIDENCE WOULD YOU LOOK FOR (WHAT WOULD CONVINCE YOU)? I’VE JUST ALWAYS WONDERED ABOUT THAT.

    If the supernatural exists, but does not interact with the natural, then it is of absolute no consequence to the life of any human.

    If the supernatural exists and interacts with the natural, as typically described by theists, then it would leave physical evidence for some of those interactions.

    If the supernatural interactions are limited to directing processes that also happen naturally, then the supernatural claims are unfalsifiable.

    What might convince me? Rather than curing an individual case of cancer (which we know happens), how about regrowing an amputee’s leg? How about appearing in plain view in a crowded venue where multiple cell phones are recording video? And during that address, give a message that contains knowledge that is not known by any human, but that can be specifically verified?

    I don’t know specifically what evidence it would take, but if the God of the Bible exists, he knows.

    • BTM / Feb 5 2016 3:10 pm

      Thanks for the reply. Well, with the exception of the cell phone part, I’d say that Jesus did do just that, it just happened at a time when you personally weren’t around (and many still didn’t believe him, as I’m sure you know). You know, it is entirely possible that someone has had their amputated leg grow back, but again, neither of us happened to be there (there are reports of miracles from all over the world, but most of us aren’t there for them, so we can’t personally evaluate them). Perhaps take up medicine, I hear that doctors experience unexplained miracles all the time! 🙂

      I suspect that God is rather more interested in having us in N Am (assuming that’s where you are from) use our intelligence to seek him out.

      I do see that evidence of physical supernatural ‘fingerprints’ and have discussed it to some extent on this blog (DNA is a great example). I’m sure you are aware of some of the evidences pointed out by theists who are scientists. I know they were much of what caused Antony Flew to become a theist – particularly big bang cosmology, fine tuning, and the need for the existence of a higher power of some sort to justify morality. Do you not think that there is at least the potential for these to contain some evidence for the supernatural?

      • Paul Ens / Feb 6 2016 6:02 pm

        WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE CELL PHONE PART, I’D SAY THAT JESUS DID DO JUST THAT

        Based on what evidence?

        PERHAPS TAKE UP MEDICINE, I HEAR THAT DOCTORS EXPERIENCE UNEXPLAINED MIRACLES ALL THE TIME! 🙂

        I am a survivor of a very rare cancer, the cause of which has yet to be explained, though there is a paper on me in the works. Reverse miracle!

        The key to what you said there is “all the time”. These are not miracles, merely outliers on the bell curve. Spending much of the last year in a hospital, I’ve discussed your very claim with my oncologists on different occasions… they sometimes see unexpected rates of healing, yes. Do they ever see anything that goes contrary to what they know about the body? No. Do they exaggerate and play along with patients of faith… yes, they admit that they do.

        There’s a reason I chose the regrowing limb… that has never been seen. It could be clearly and unambiguously documented.

        I SUSPECT THAT GOD IS RATHER MORE INTERESTED IN HAVING US IN N AM (ASSUMING THAT’S WHERE YOU ARE FROM) USE OUR INTELLIGENCE TO SEEK HIM OUT.

        As a former Christian, I dedicated years to exactly that pursuit. It continues, though I do not understand those at the very head of the path who think they have found it. I suspect that the destination does not exist.

        Do you then agree God is not doing miracles in North America?

        I DO SEE THAT EVIDENCE OF PHYSICAL SUPERNATURAL ‘FINGERPRINTS’ AND HAVE DISCUSSED IT TO SOME EXTENT ON THIS BLOG (DNA IS A GREAT EXAMPLE).

        Each day science understands more about its material properties and the unguided ways it emerges and adapts. Sequencing the genome is doing more to confirm evolution than any number of fossils ever could. I named my own blog “Chromosome Two” because the genetics of that trait in humans was the straw that finally broke the back of my belief in a creator.

        What about DNA makes you site it as evidence for God?

        I KNOW THEY WERE MUCH OF WHAT CAUSED ANTONY FLEW TO BECOME A THEIST – PARTICULARLY BIG BANG COSMOLOGY, FINE TUNING, AND THE NEED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF A HIGHER POWER OF SOME SORT TO JUSTIFY MORALITY.

        Shall we compare credentials lists of the converted and the deconverted? It wouldn’t demonstrate truth, but might be an exercise.

        DO YOU NOT THINK THAT THERE IS AT LEAST THE POTENTIAL FOR THESE TO CONTAIN SOME EVIDENCE FOR THE SUPERNATURAL?

        I think there is potential, that’s why I looked so hard. But thus far, I have found only the opposite.

      • BTM / Feb 8 2016 4:37 pm

        Hi Paul,

        On the first point – this is based on eyewitness accounts in the New Testament, and the experience of an enemy-turned-follower (Paul). You may not like that evidence, but that was the standard of the day and in general is corroborated by other non-believing writers/historians of the day.

        I am very sorry to hear that you have suffered from such a difficult and rare form of cancer. You must feel quite lucky to be alive. You sound a bit like me -, I can imagine taking advantage (as it were) of my opportunity to ask those kinds of questions of doctors if I had been in your situation, albeit it was certainly not a nice situation or opportunity to have. My reference comes from a medical doctor who has discussed this very topic many times with others in his profession. I can only take his word for it, as I guess you can only take your doctor’s word for his statement. The statements of the doctor I heard this from were not given as hollow niceties to patients, but as discussions among medical practitioners of all stripes, not all of whom would call themselves believers. That being said, we must always recognize that a person – scientist or not – filters facts and data through a lens based at least in part on his belief system. I think it is very hard to escape this, to matter how hard we try. Nonetheless, many people do. I was not raised as a Christian and I managed to. You were raised as a Christian and also managed to.

        On DNA, the issue I intended to refer to is its origin – very complex information whose origin is occasionally explained through evolutionary processes from RNA (which just pushes the origin back). I have heard of no credible true origin (from nothing) for the genetic information necessary to create all the proteins that build our bodies.

        I am aware that a great many people make and walk away from faith decisions all the time and for a wide variety of reasons. I merely pointed out Antony Flew because he made his decision based on scientific evidence (possibly the same evidence which you personally find to be unsatisfactory). That’s all.

  3. Andrew / Feb 5 2016 2:43 pm

    While I wouldn’t call J Warner Wallace a ‘scientist’ I would definitely recommend his most recent book ‘God’s Crime Scene’ I assume you are referring to him as a forensic scientist as part of his detective work?

    • BTM / Feb 5 2016 2:57 pm

      Yes, that is what I mean by Wallace’s credentials. If social scientists fall under science (and they do) then surely forensic science does too. But I take what you say as well – we usually think of scientists as only in certain disciplines – but any polling on ‘how many scientists are atheists’ (like the one I include in my last post) include all types of scientists, so Wallace would have been included had he been a member of the group polled.

  4. tiffany267 / Feb 6 2016 2:29 am

    1. Most scientists, like most people, exist in a disgusting irrational culture with institutions that punish them for failing to behave in certain ways. One of these institutions is religion, which punishes individuals for failing to behave as though violent fairy tales about a sadistic murderer in the sky could indeed be false. When you psychologically torture infants and young children with the tools of faith, you get damaged adults (any brief examination of cult survivors would show you obvious evidence of this sad state of affairs). It is sadly quite a dangerous challenge in our violent and hateful religious culture to stand up and declare that the emperor has no clothes. It is no surprise that so few people are openly atheist in such a threatening environment, even within the relatively tolerant and rational scientific community, given the unspeakable scope of psychological damage involved. To say “only this small percentage of scientists are openly atheist” is simply an indictment of the violent religious culture in which we suffer.

    2. I’m sure that, when you brought up the definition of faith, instead of “no one practices” you meant to say “no one agrees with” (we don’t ‘practice’ definitions; the phrase doesn’t even make sense). But to say that no one agrees with the definition of faith is just honestly a silly statement – even my religious friends firmly agree that faith is about accepting as true things which have no evidence of being true (they just view this activity in a positive light, when of course it should be viewed as wrongful and unnatural). Just because YOU are uncomfortable knowing that faith is, as Mark Twain eloquently put it, “believing what you know ain’t so”, doesn’t mean that it’s not the definition of faith.

    3. You are correct that rational atheists, including scientists, have a presupposition, i.e. consider it axiomatic, i.e. they start from the position that – there is no god. The only things which exist are things which exist. There is no reason to start an experiment with the question of whether a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater might foul up the experiment, because no such creature exists. If there were ever evidence of the existence of such a creature, then scientists would be forced to grapple with the physical reality of that creature and adjust their experiments accordingly. In other words, to accuse scientists of not being thorough because they haven’t started from the position that we can read minds, or that there are ghosts among us, or that we are actually all robots, or that there is a god is simply ridiculous and to be honest it is bad-spirited.

    4. Science does not exist to explain origins, although one day it might be useful for such a project. Science exists to explain the present and the known, measurable past. Personally, it is my conviction that the universe has no origin, that it has always existed and that humans are wrong to assume that there was some finite point at which existence began. But origins are really a pointless concern, since they are by definition immeasurably distant from the reality of human life. That’s why religions have been so quick to play on them – nothing can so easily distract humans from living and thriving prosperously in reality as a man threatening them with stories of origins which are impossible to know and which cannot logically have anything to do with the reality of those people’s lives.

    5. The quest for truth, as you know, is ground in reality which means it must only allow answers that are true, that are real, that are verifiable, that are not based on faith. As you also know but would never admit, this is not any kind of shackle; it is of course the opposite.

    • BTM / Feb 8 2016 5:08 pm

      Hi Tiffany,

      I find it very interesting that you feel scientists are muzzled by ‘religion’! I am also extremely surprised to hear that you feel that so few people are openly atheist in our culture. But perhaps you are not referring to the so called ‘western’ culture. I personally see no evidence of what you say on that count. I am truly sorry if your experience has been quite different from mine on this count.

      Your statement “The only things which exist are things which exist.” is very well put. However, it does not prove anything about whether or not ‘a god’ exists, you only claim this to be true (elsewhere in your comments) rather than prove it, so I hope you’ll understand my feeling that this comment is lacking substance.

      I most certainly cannot agree with you on the point that science does not concern itself with origins and that origins are unimportant to people’s lives. I can’t think of something much more important, but I mention that as an opinion, which surely your statement must be as well. The strong focus on origins in science in the media at minimum (which, I will also say, are not one-sided by ‘religious people’) are clearly important to many.

      Regarding your statement: “Personally, it is my conviction that the universe has no origin, that it has always existed and that humans are wrong to ASSUME that there was some finite point at which existence began.” This is certainly NOT an assumption (I did add the emphasis on your statement), but based on scientific discoveries which I am planning to detail in my next post and these discoveries were considered very inconvenient to many (I do not mean to sound insulting here, it is just a fact). Having no origin and having some finite point in the past are inconsistent – either it had no origin (and NO finite point) or id did. Right now, science shows that it did have an origin. You are certainly more than welcome to disagree with the vast majority of scientists and claim that the universe has always existed, but you certainly can’t expect many people to join you based purely on your opinion (nor, possibly do you intend to, but I just wanted to politely point that out).

      There is much more I could say in response to your responses, but let me just finish by saying that I appreciate your coming by this blog and sharing your thoughts with me.

      • Andy / Feb 22 2016 2:50 pm

        As an atheist and a former business person living in the ‘western world’, I can tell you that coming out as atheist in my community would have spelled the demise of my business. I know for a fact that business people have suffered boycotts of their establishments because their lack of belief was made public.

        Regarding the origin of our universe, I agree that it’s possible it has always existed in one form or another. Whatever phenomenon it was that caused it to expand from a single point is more likely to be natural than supernatural since all phenomena we know and can examine are natural.

      • BTM / Feb 24 2016 11:18 am

        I certainly know how it feels to be boycotted (or ridiculed) based on your beliefs alone and it isn’t nice. Perhaps that is one thing we do have in common – we’ve just been boycotted for different beliefs! I believe that we should be tolerant of each other – which means that we are free to disagree, but it should be done with respect for the person. If we could quit calling each other names and indemnifying the person behind the beliefs, so much would be better for all of us.

        On the universe, the evidence right now is NOT that it began as a small, single point, but that it began out of NOTHING (no time, space, or matter – not even a little bit of it). Today’s post will deal with this to some degree.

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