SCIENCE AND RELIGION have had a long, rich history of conflict, most famously with the case of Galileo, who was found guilty of heresy for discovering one of the basic truths of our solar system. Likewise, Charles Darwin has been vilified for the last 150 years for discovering a fundamental concept that underlies all of biology and medicine and unifies all of the life sciences. Certainly, there was a time when almost all scientists were theists. But that was also a time when almost all people at every level of society were theists. To publicly disavow the existence of God was, at best, to ensure ostracism and, at worst, to be forced to choose between death and renouncing the evidence compiled through a life’s worth of work.
Certainly, this is no longer the case, and many scientists today don’t believe in God in a traditional sense. (According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 41 percent of scientists don’t believe in God or a higher power). But the issue at hand isn’t one of belief, which by definition is subjective and prone to intense biases.
Instead the issue is an epistemological one: Can science and religion be reconciled, or are they contrasting concepts at their very core? A quick Internet search will yield hundreds of articles falling on either side of the issue. Most notably, Stephen Jay Gould—the renowned paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and the 2001 Humanist of the Year—argued that the two comprised non-overlapping magisteria. In Gould’s view science and religion were mutually exclusive, the former dealing with the natural world and the latter with questions of a spiritual nature, and thus the two shouldn’t be in conflict. There are currently many science communicators who take a similar view, which I suspect is a function of their desire to see science more widely accepted by a religious populace—one that may not be well educated in the field and is likely to have some resistance to it.
My contention is that, ultimately, the existence of a deity is a question of science. Some may be surprised by this because they recognize that science is the systematic study of phenomena in the natural world while religious belief deals with the supernatural, or powers and entities outside the spectrum of what we would consider our natural reality. Yet this is not the case. All religions, particularly the “big three” Abrahamic religions, make claims about the natural world that clearly fall under the purview of one or more fields of science. For instance, almost all religious traditions involve a creation myth regarding how the universe came into existence. We have scientific disciplines devoted to investigating such questions, e.g., cosmology, astronomy, and physics. Almost all religious traditions include stories of how life originated and how life forms came to be as they currently are. Again, we have biology, abiogenesis, chemistry, and physics to methodically address such questions.
Beyond the questions of the origin of the universe and of life, all religions make claims that their deities influence events in the natural world. A “miracle” is believed to be just that—when a god or a saint intervenes in some way in the natural world, and thus science can gather evidence as to the accuracy or the lack of legitimacy of those claims.
At a more mundane level, most religions assert that their deity regularly intervenes in daily occurrences by choice or in reaction to followers’ prayer requests. This may transpire when their god influences the outcome of a natural disaster or a life-threatening accident, which would require a manipulation of physics (a tree not falling on the bedroom where someone is sleeping, for example, or a car crash that destroys the vehicle but leaves the driver’s area intact.) The intervention may come in the form of someone recovering from an illness or disease, which would require the deity to tamper with biology and/or chemistry. Just the act of prayers being answered in any way suggests that the person is using thoughts in the form of language (cognitive psychology) produced by chemical and electrical activity in the brain (neurobiology) to telepathically communicate with a supernatural being who will then alter events in the natural world by influencing physics, biology, chemistry, and so on.
As much as theists would choose to deny it, all of these are questions of science, because even if their deity is a product of a supernatural realm, possibly an alternate universe that we cannot detect or measure, once that entity begins to interact with our reality—our natural universe—then it becomes a question of science.
Theists cannot simultaneously insist that they have answers to fundamental questions regarding natural phenomena while also insisting that their claims cannot be examined by science. If such claims are examined, theists can’t reject the findings because they’re inconsistent with their subjective beliefs. And of course, religious assertions have never stood up well to scientific scrutiny. Never has a scientific theory, or even a hypothesis, been replaced with a more viable supernatural explanation. You won’t find any studies on intelligent design published in any credible scientific journal anywhere. Its proponents don’t even have testable hypotheses. Thus, intelligent design doesn’t come close to qualifying as science, nor can its explanations be viewed as legitimate in any objective way.
Some claim that research has shown that prayer is beneficial to people’s psychological well-being. While there are correlational studies that may conclude this, let’s not forget there are many activities that have been shown to be positively correlated with psychological health or cognition in some way, such as solving puzzles, learning a new language, sleeping, reading, exercising, and so on. So theists shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that such findings are evidence of a supernatural being.
There are also experimental studies, the type of studies that can identify cause and effect, that have tested the power of prayer using control and treatment groups to see if there was some measurable impact due to prayer. Without exception, those studies have found no effect of prayer, and those individuals in the control groups who weren’t prayed for actually had better outcomes in most cases. Beyond that, the hard sciences have consistently falsified a long list of claims from religious texts: the age of the universe and of the earth; the origins of humankind; the orientation and structure of the solar system; the possibility of stars falling to Earth; the possibility of a snake talking; the possibility of a worldwide flood and all the animals on Earth descending from pairs that were placed on a boat together just a few thousand years ago; and the list goes on.
But because the existence of a god is ultimately a question of science, one should not mistakenly think that it’s incumbent upon scientists to disprove all religious claims. Just as it is inappropriate (not to mention illogical) to ask for empirical research to prove the nonexistence of mythical creatures such as leprechauns, mermaids, and ogres, it is likewise inappropriate to claim that science must prove the nonexistence of a god. The burden is on the believers to provide valid replicable evidence for their contentions, and neither faith nor their holy book qualifies as meeting the threshold for that evidence. This is a point that has been emphasized ad nauseam in a variety of forums, and one theists often simply refuse to acknowledge because doing so would leave them with two options, both unpalatable to their belief system: they would either have to provide verifiable evidence for their claims or they would have to question and/or abandon them.
A common tactic of apologists is to find an area of science that has been shown to be inaccurate or that we have yet to figure out and then argue that it’s evidence of God. This is different from the “God of the gaps” in a subtle way. Most commonly, the God of the gaps argument suggests that for each phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the possibility exists that a god is hiding somewhere in that vacuum of knowledge and that this god is ultimately responsible for those unexplained occurrences. But as human knowledge increases, those gaps decrease, ensuring an ever-tightening window for the possibility of supernatural forces. For example, because scientists can merely speculate about what occurred, if anything, prior to the expansion of the universe (or Big Bang), theists who don’t reject the science outright hold out hope for the possibility of a deity who got the ball rolling, so to speak.
But a more ominous extension of the God of the gaps, and here’s where the subtle difference lies, is when theists argue that a gap in scientific knowledge not only allows for the possibility of a deity, but is direct evidence of one. In this scenario the theist attempts to find a flaw, a single incorrect data point, such as a long debunked hoax in the historical fossil record for evolution, and assert not only that that single error invalidates a scientific theory that has been verified by several different fields of science, but that the only other plausible explanation is that an invisible, undetectable deity is responsible for all of existence due to some unexplained mechanism such as using mental telepathy to create all life and matter. As absurd as this logic would appear to the rational thinker, it lies at the core of a great deal of denial of scientific evidence—not just for evolution, but for the expanding universe, for climate change, for the very definition of a scientific theory. And once denial has set in, then confirmation bias takes hold and the denier begins to search for pieces of information, no matter how lacking in credibility, that will support his or her worldview. This is the essence of indoctrination—to be convinced of an absolute truth sans evidence of any sort and then to retain those views at all costs in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. If the theist is to accept the findings of science in general or certain fields in particular, then he or she would be confronted with the cognitive dissonance of their belief system not matching the reality that they accept.
Ultimately, there is no conflict between religious claims and science. The conflict is in the mind of the theist who desperately attempts to preserve his or her belief system. Because religions make claims about the natural world and their god’s manipulation of it, science can test those claims just like any others. We can test whether prayer works, or the age of the earth, or whether a person could breathe for days inside a large fish. When science tests these claims it does so objectively, with accurate findings as the only goal. Yet over the history of humanity, religious claims have been shown to be spectacularly lacking. If, however, a claim cannot be tested, if there is no testable hypothesis, such as the claim that in my attic lives an invisible magic dragon that is entirely undetectable to humans by any means available in the natural world, then such a claim should have no place in rational discussion and should not be given credence as having any relation to reality. It is a prospect not worthy of serious consideration.
Science will continue to advance. Predictions will be made and conclusions drawn, many that are accurate but others that will be in need of revision as further evidence is compiled. Humans will continue to gather information about every aspect of the natural world, and if findings don’t correspond with or support religious beliefs, as has happened throughout history, then the theists do themselves and humankind a disservice by denying objective evidence. The scientific process is neutral; it is objective and seeks only to discover new information, and thus is not in conflict with any entity besides itself as it self-corrects and achieves greater accuracy over time. If there is indeed a conflict, that conflict was fabricated by those whose agenda is driven by subjective beliefs and who fight to preserve positions that are no longer tenable in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.