Three arguments you’ll face on why faith and science are incompatible
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:
- Forty-one percent of scientist members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science were atheists;
- That still leaves 59% who were religious in some way, or uncertain (agnostic);
- These results haven’t changed in 100 years – since James Leuba’s 1914 survey ;
- A study conducted by Rice University (Texas) researchers found that more than 50% of scientists in India, Taiwan and Turkey were religious. In Hong Kong, they found that faith among scientists was greater than in the general population (39% vs. 20%).
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.”
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?