David Eller, "Is Religion Compatible with Science?" An Excerpt from Chapter 11 in "The End Of Christianity"

IS RELIGION COMPATIBLE WITH SCIENCE? by Dr. David Eller (pp. 257-278). [This is a 4000 word excerpt out of 8600 words. Get the book!]

  In most of the squabbles between religion and science, religion is never defined, because, since most of the squabbles are occurring in majority-Christian societies, the assumption is that “religion” means “Christianity.” Worse yet, the assumption is usually that “religion” means “traditional Chris­tianity” or “evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity.” Substituting one of these terms for “religion” in our original question yields the highly problematic inquiry: Is traditional/evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity compatible with science?

The first problem, of course, is that even if it is not, then perhaps some other form—some modernist or liberal form—of Christianity
is com­patible with science; perhaps Christianity can be adjusted and juked to fit with science. The second and more profound problem is that even if traditional/evangelical/ fundamentalist Christianity or any version of Christianity whatsoever is not compatible with science, perhaps some other religion—say, Hinduism or Wicca or ancient Mayan religion or Scientology—is. Yet you will notice that almost no one asks, and almost no one in the United States or any other Christian-dominated society cares, whether Hinduism or ancient Mayan religion is compatible with science, since few people know or care about Hin­duism or ancient Mayan religion. The tempest over religion and science is thus quite a local and parochial brouhaha, people fighting for their particular reli­gion against (some version or idea of) science.

  If we were to try to be more inclusive and say that the dispute is between theism and science, we would still not be correct, since not all religions are theisms and certainly not monotheisms. Maybe monotheism is incompatible with science, but polytheism is not. Or maybe all theisms, all god-based reli­gions, are incompatible with science, but other kinds of religions—religions based on nature spirits or dead ancestors or impersonal forces like chi or mana are not. Honestly, a religious concept like chi or mana is more scientifically useful (and testable) than a concept like “original sin” or “heaven,” and indeed Chinese civilization has used the concept of chi in a virtually scientific or at least pragmatic way, organizing practices from medicine to diet to home furnishing (feng shui) around it. What possible practical applications can “original sin” ever conceivably have?

  “Religion” does not and cannot mean any specific religion, any more than “language” means any specific language, or “game” means any specific game. What, then, is “religion”? There have been many attempted answers, almost all of which have fallen short in one or both of two ways: they purport to define religion in terms of some equally undefined religious notion (in other words, they are circular), or they define religion in such a way as to make it indistin­guishable from nonreligion.

  The second frequently unexamined component of the religion-science com­patibility question is the “science.” Probably as much has been said and written about the nature of science as about the nature of religion, but seldom is an adequate sense of science brought to the discussion of the relationship between science and religion. Let us begin in much the same way as we began in the case of religion above: by noting the diversity and complexity of the term science

  One of the first things to emphasize is that, while there are many different reli­gions with wildly (and often incompatibly) different doctrines and beliefs from each other, there are not different “sciences.” There are, to be sure, mul­tiple scientific specializations—physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, soci­ology, psychology, and so on—but these are not different, let alone competing or conflicting, “sciences.” Rather, they are “science” applied to various topics, and of course these topics will require different techniques (you do not use test tubes to study societies or minds), will develop different concepts (“mass” and “velocity” are relevant to physics but not to anthropology), and will produce different knowledge. But these disparate scientific specializations do not con­tradict each other in the ways that each religion contradicts all other religions.

  Second, we should distinguish between “science” and “technology.” This is not a simple task, but it is a vital one, since virtually no one asks if religion and technology are compatible: even the most extreme fundamentalists still gladly use cell phones, satellite dishes, and the Internet—and certainly fire and the wheel—to do their religious business. While science and technology are most assuredly intimately related, they are not the same thing. There has been tech­nology since the day when humans first bashed two rocks together to make a stone tool; this was long before anything we can call “science” existed. The dis­tinction is sometimes expressed in terms of the ancient Greek concepts of techne and episteme, which give us the English words technology and episte­mology, respectively. Episteme is generally construed as “knowledge,” especially “theoretical” or even “disinterested” knowledge—knowledge for the pure sake of knowledge; techne originally meant something closer to art, craftsmanship, or know-how. Scientific knowledge indisputably can lead to technological advancements (like cell phones) and also depends on technological advance­ments (like microscopes), but there is a real, if contested, difference between the two. Interestingly, while we cannot substitute “technology” for “science” in the question of religion versus science, and while most religionists take tech­nology as much for granted as any atheist, there often are frictions between particular religions and particular technologies—say, Christianity and cloning technology or stem-cell technology.

 Third, science is not the same thing as “experimentation” or any other specific method. An experiment is a particularly effective way of collecting a cer­tain kind of information, but not all efforts at accurate and systematic knowl­edge can conduct experiments (they are highly difficult in astronomy and largely unethical in anthropology), but these fields are no less scientific for that reason. Experiments are, in a word, valuable but not essential components of science. Likewise, science should not be conflated with any particular set of instruments (like test tubes or Bunsen burners) or any particular theoretical stance (like quantum theory or string theory): Einstein rejected quantum theory but was not less of a scientist for it. But some “instruments” and “theo­ries” are clearly not scientific (like dowsing rods and intelligent design)—and not actually instruments or theories at all.

Fourth (and finally, for the moment), science is not to be understood as any particular body of data or knowledge. Laypeople often think of science as “what we know today,” but the knowledge of the day is only the results and findings of science sofar. Naturally, people who take this attitude often end up scoffing at science for changing its conclusions and refuting its previous claims. However, to be fair and accurate, the state of scientific knowledge at any moment is the consequence of the questions that have been asked and the facts that have been collected. Tomorrow’s questions and data will lead to new claims and conclusions, often debunking earlier ones.

What, then, is the “science” in the religion-science controversy, and how does a proper understanding of science help us settle the issue? If I may be incredibly terse, I think the essence of science lies in two premises, just as the essence of religion lies in its “supernatural” premise. The crucial premises for science are detectability and doubt, and it is these that separate it from just any old explanatory system or manual procedure. Detectability means that science will only consider that which it, and we as scientists, can detect in some fashion, because it can only consider what we can detect in some fashion. The premise of detectability departs importantly from the oft-mentioned criteria of observability or of “naturalism” or “materialism.” 

Some critics of science try to use the notion of observability against it, as if science will only count what is available to the eyes or the senses in general; this is a trivial complaint, since there are many phenomena that are not available to the naked eye or the unenhanced senses, from microscopic life-forms to distant galaxies. But there must be some way in practice to detect a phenomenon, including indirect ways, like the trace or reaction that an invisible neutrino makes. Further—and this is decisive—we must be able to detect some evidence convincingly as evidence of some phenomenon and not any other. That is, people will often argue that recov­ering from an illness or winning the lottery or simply the beauty or the very existence of the universe is detectable evidence for their god, but although these things are detectable, they could (and almost certainly should) be inter­preted as other than the actions of a god. In other words, if there is no com­pelling reason to take the detectable facts as evidence for some particular thing—especially when some other explanation works better—then we are not allowed to use it as evidence for that thing.

The question of “compatibility” of reli­gion and science can be answered in various and contradictory ways. Smart people from both camps answer yes, no, maybe, and sometimes, but usually without specifying what they mean by “compatibility” or—more profoundly—why we are asking in the first place. Even more disappointingly, a close inspection of the notion of “compatibility” does not settle the matter. Webster’s defines compatibility in several related ways: as capable of living together in harmony, capable of cross-fertilizing freely, capable of forming a homogeneous mixture that neither separates nor is altered by interaction, and being or relating to a system that may receive another system without special modification. If we take these four criteria separately, we will see that the solution to the compatibility of religion and science is .. . yes, no, maybe, and sometimes.

If the question is “Are religion and science capable of living together in har­mony?” then the answer is yes, no, maybe, and sometimes: for some people (like Behe and Ross) they seem harmonious, while for others (like Dawkins) they are mortal enemies. Further, it depends on which bit of religion or science you mean: most forms of Christianity are in harmony with atomic theory or gravitational theory and with technologies like metallurgy. But these things are, as we established above, neither “religion” nor “science.” And Christianity is most definitely not in harmony with evolutionary theory or big bang theory, and so on. If the question is “Are religion and science capable of cross-fertil­izing freely?” the answer is “Surprisingly widely freely.” ID and Reasons to Believe allow them to cross-fertilize (or rather, allow science to fertilize reli­gion). More significantly, though, in cross-fertilizing they sometimes produce weird hybrids, even bizarre mutations, like Christian Science, theistic evolu­tion, creation science, and Scientology.

This only proves that religion is a malleable and adaptable species (see my earlier chapter in this book) that can absorb almost any influence—but that itself mutates as a result. Some Christians accept the scientific calculation of the age of the universe without abandoning their faith in creation (e.g., old-earth creationists versus young-earth creationists); the Catholic Church has even accepted the fact of biological evolution, simply adding to it that God intervened to introduce the human soul at some unknown moment. This sheds light on the third criterion of compatibility: true, religion and science may form a mixture, but each is altered by the interaction, in which case the answer is “no” to the question of compatibility. Religion after people add sci­ence is not the same, nor is science the same after religion is added. This applies to the fourth criterion as well: when one system (religion) receives another system (science), there will and must be a “special modification” in at least the religious system (as evinced by the fate of Galileo’s or Darwin’s work). Once science demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, the Christian cosmology had to change to accommodate this proven fact; other aspects of that cosmology could persist, perhaps later forced to accommodate other facts. 

From the point of view of science, it does not matter: if Weinberg is correct (and he is) science has no regard for anything except that which is detectable. Science is not out to help or to harm religion; it is funda­mentally indifferent, ideally blind to anything except the facts. Individual sci­entists, as human beings and often religious believers, may care, but science as an enterprise does not and cannot care. So the subject of the compatibility of religion and science only matters to religion, more specifically to those who want to promote and protect, even shelter, religion from the adverse effects of facts and theories that contradict and destabilize religious claims and doctrines—and from the scientific premises and mentality that underlie those facts and theories.

Since in actual practice the question of the compatibility of religion and sci­ence amounts to a mission to rescue religion from science, the next thing to ask is “When does religion need rescuing from science?” That is, the original question about “compatibility” really disguises a deeper question: When, and in what way, does science threaten religion? The “when” is easy to see: science threatens reli­gion when science disagrees with specific assertions (“beliefs” or “doctrines”) of religion. As we stated earlier, no religion disputes or rejects all aspects of science; conversely, each religion disputes or rejects different aspects of science. Chris­tianity, as is too well-known, has a particular problem with scientific claims about human origins (the dreaded evolution idea), the age of the universe (the dreaded idea that Genesis cannot be literally true and without error), and the origin of the universe (the equally dreaded big bang idea). Hinduism, on the other hand, has much less objection to the scientific finding of an old universe, since Hinduism holds a much longer view of time; Buddhism tends to have less trouble with human evolution, since evolution’s conception of each form leading to new form sounds a bit like Buddhism (this is one reason why Japanese scientists, for example, have often been better able to see the continuity between humans and apes than Western, Christian-influenced scientists).

So religion only regards itself as “incompatible” with science when science is in disagreement with religion; when science agrees with religion, or when reli­gion has no opinion on the matter, the issue of “compatibility” never arises. This suggests a rather facile way in which the “incompatibility” of religion and science can be removed: religion can drop or change its claims. And in truth, religion has done this very thing repeatedly throughout history. Christianity objected to the heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the solar system, but when it was proven true, Christianity relented and accepted it. Christianity objected to the discovery that the earth moved through space, but no sane Christian argues against this fact anymore. Even the pope, as mentioned, con­ceded that the human body had evolved from ancestral species. Therefore, since religion is an almost infinitely malleable scheme—because it is an entirely imaginary scheme—it can adapt to just about anything that is thrown at it. All it must do is reimagine.

We are still left with the rather frustrating circumstance of yes/no/maybe/ sometimes to our initial question. Yes, religion and science are incompatible when they disagree; no, they are not incompatible when they agree; maybe and sometimes they can be made compatible if religion can absorb scientific facts or modify or reinterpret its beliefs in light of the facts (since beliefs are changeable but facts are not). But a question that resists straightforward answering after all of the analysis we have subjected it to must be a question that is asked wrong— or the wrong question to ask. Since nobody cares about the compatibility of reli­gion and science except those who feel the menace of science for religion when it contradicts religion (in which case it is menacing), “compatibility” is not really the issue. The real issue is: In what essential way is science different from religion, and what does this difference mean for their coexistence?

 As in the case of science, the central premise entails a number of sub-premises. For religion, these include

 · Authority: There must be some source for individuals’ “knowledge” of the putative spiritual beings, and members of the paradigm take tradi­tion or scripture or whatever is offered by the religion as the basis for making these knowledge claims.

 ·  Subjective experience: Contrary to science, which values repro­ducibility and the openness of knowledge, religion often stakes its claims on the unreproducible and unverifiable experiences of “adepts” who have access to knowledge that others do not. Even rank-and-file members advance their personal and interior experiences or “feelings” as evidence of and/or source of their beliefs.

 · Miracles: While the term miracle has a specifically Judeo-Christian pedigree, all religions share the notion that the world is not entirely reg­ular but that the putative spiritual beings may intervene in it at any time and change things—from one’s health or wealth to the very laws of nature themselves.

 · Participation: Religion does not encourage and often does not allow neutrality. One must take sides, one must commit oneself—often heart and soul—to a particular belief system. This typically forces one to make a choice in what is really a false dilemma (Pascal’s “wager,” Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” William James’s “will to believe”) between the “true belief” and all other actual or potential beliefs.

 ·  Faith: Accordingly, religion does not encourage and often does not allow questioning or skepticism. The truth is already known; only minor details are left to work out (like how many angels can dance on a pin, or the precise dimensions of heaven). Even if questions do arise, the member should hold tight and not let them change his/her mind. But questions for the most part should be avoided.

That this religious paradigm is intensely unscientific and antiscientific. The early Church father Tertullian actually said that religion and reason, belief and investigation, “Jerusalem” and “Athens,” have nothing to do with each other: “After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe any­thing else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe.” Protestant founder Martin Luther was an equally virulent opponent of the scientific paradigm, calling reason “the devil’s bride,” a “beautiful whore,” and “God’s worst enemy”: “There is on earth among all dangers no more dan­gerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason,” therefore “[r]eason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed” and “faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding.”

It is also important to note that although religions all share the basic par­adigm of animism or nonhuman intentionality, they vary extraordinarily in how they develop and what they add to this premise. Some religions populate the world with “nature spirits,” while others posit supernatural “forces” like chi or mana or karma. Most religions maintain that human beings themselves have one or more supernatural components.

And then there are the gods. Some religions have god-concepts (theisms) and some, like Buddhism and most tribal religions, do not (nontheisms or atheisms). Of the theisms, some have one god (monotheisms) and some have more than one god (polytheisms). Within theisms, some gods are believed to be all-powerful and all-benevolent, and some are not: some have specific and limited power (say, power over thunder or the oceans or war), and some are partially benevolent or capricious or indifferent or malevolent. Some are utterly distinct from humans, while others are close to humans or even former humans. There is no standard, universal conception of “god” across religions, and many religions function perfectly well without any such concept. In short, while all religions operate under a basic shared paradigm of nonhuman agency, within that paradigm are many subparadigms: the “nature spirit” subparadigm, the “ancestor spirit” subparadigm, the “impersonal religious force” subpara-digm, and the “god” subparadigm. And within each subparadigm are sub-sub-paradigms: the god subparadigm contains the monotheistic sub-subparadigm and the polytheistic sub-subparadigm, and the monotheistic sub-subparadigm includes the Jewish and Christian and Muslim sub-sub-subparadigms, and the Christian sub-sub-subparadigm includes the Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox sub-sub-sub-subparadigms, ad infinitum.

Second, the entire project of science depends on the regularity and pre­dictability of nature, and supernatural agency makes nature irregular and unpredictable. By definition, agency or will is not completely determined by preexisting conditions; agents are “free” to act according to their own interests or intentions. Therefore, we do not and cannot know what they will do. The exact same conditions can lead to completely opposite results if the agents so choose; there is no connection between causes and effects. This precludes the possibility of ever knowing with any degree of confidence what will happen next or what connects to what. Human knowledge is displaced by supernatural mind reading—literally, often trying to “divine” the thoughts and wishes of invisible and probably nonexistent beings.

The difference between the scientific paradigm and the religious paradigm could not be clearer or more urgent. Science does not and cannot operate on the premises of authority, subjective experience, miracles, participation, and faith; to allow such premises would stop science in its tracks. But most funda­mentally of all, science does not allow the central premise of religion, the super­natural agency premise, and it cannot allow this premise; a seriously held notion of nonhuman/superhuman agency makes science impossible—indeed, it para­lyzes all human knowledge. It has this unavoidable effect for three critical reasons. First, nonhuman/superhuman agents and their minds or wills or intentions are always arranged in practice so as to be impossible to detect in principal, and so they violate the first and most basic premise of science. Even religious believers admit that their alleged beings are inscrutable, “work in mys­terious ways,” and are “unknowable.” The believers are correct: we cannot know if these beings are at work, what exactly they are working on, or even whether they exist. And every “evidence” of their existence or action can be explained— and can be explained better—in nonsupernatural ways.

Third, while modern religionists mostly try to deny it, the supernatural premise of spiritual agency actually does destroy the notion of cause. Science strives to explain facts and events in terms of cause, which means antecedent con­ditions: if X is true or occurs, then Y will be true or occur. But agents, including human agents, do not act just in terms of causes. They act in terms of motives; that is, their goals or purposes or ends, which are idiosyncratic and future-ori­ented. The motives of agents are fundamentally “teleological”: our “reason” for doing something is to achieve some objective that lies in the future. And since the future has not happened yet, any knowledge of it is prima facie impossible.

 We can conclude, then, that the crucial and incontrovertible difference between science and religion—that which makes them incompatible at their core, even if they happen to agree on some details—is the basic premise from which each arises and therefore the “kind of answer” that each wants to offer. Religion functions on the personalpremise that some or all facts and events are the results of the motives of (supernatural) agents. Science functions on the impersonalpremise that facts and events are the effects of antecedent and nona-gentive—and therefore knowable—causes. In other words, when science explains a hurricane in terms of temperatures and winds, and so forth, none of the components has any “will” or “purpose” or “intelligence.” They are com­pletely determined by natural, nonpersonal factors. Even the sciences of man (sociology, anthropology) study a detectable agency that is in turn explainable causally (human desires have causes in biology and evolution, for example, and in detectable circumstances of their environment). When religion explains something, that “explanation” by definition depends in some way on an entity that has will or purpose or intelligence—sometimes an “ultimate” intelli-gence—which is fundamentally unknowable to us humans.

Of course, religion can always come along and add a personal and agentive layer to scientific explanations: “The tsunami was caused by an underwater earthquake, and it is the will of God for the purpose of punishing/teaching/testing blah blah blah.” However, this extra explanatory layer is undetectable and untestable scientifically (which means “actually”), could refer to any god/spirit/supernatural force, and in the end explains nothing. Sci­ence does not need the religious “explanation,” and, if religion had any merit at all, religion would not need the scientific explanation. In a word, science has no obligation to be “compatible” with religion and could not care less about its “compatibility” with religion.