FAQ articles on this site are collections of questions or arguments that I have seen various people use in regard to scrutiny of religious beliefs. The purpose of these lists is to present my response to these arguments so I can refer people to them any time, or so that anyone interested in these arguments can see another perspective.
Please note that of course not all Theists or people sympathetic to religion share all the same views. My responses here are simply in regard to these arguments themselves. Also, since my purpose is to address people’s actual concerns and arguments, I have no intention to misrepresent any arguments. If you think I have misrepresented or misunderstood a particular arguments, or perhaps think it requires a note about context, then please make a note in the comments, contact us on our Facebook page, or email us using the contact form on this website.
This FAQ looks at questions and accusations people tend to have about the relationship between science and religion and the differences between them. I will be adding to it periodically.
“Science and religion are compatible!”
What is true is that they can coexist and be simultaneously held in a person’s mind. That is what gives rise to the claim that they are compatible.
But when these two concepts/methodologies address the same topic or material then they conflict directly and one must take complete priority over the other. And that is a big problem since they obviously have a tendency to have opinions on many of the same things.
In an article about the Christian and scientist Francis Collins, Sam Harris compared the relationship of science and religion to marriage and infidelity. I think it is a good analogy:
“The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible. Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity? The two regularly coincide. The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc—does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great,” and greatly discrepant, religions.”
“God created science!”
(context: Christian trying to credit Yahweh with the development of the scientific method and its accomplishments like modern medicine and computer technology. It also seemed to be an attempt to say that if you believe in the reliability of science then you must believe in God)
“God created science” doesn’t make sense even if you believe God exists. What does it even mean to say that God “created science”? Science isn’t a “thing”. It’s a methodology, and it’s one that wasn’t very well practiced for millennia.
And all this time it was through the passionate drive of human beings developing this methodology, not a God that handed down the idea. His holy books never described the scientific method. Instead that God apparently decided to just tell people about sprinkling goat’s blood on sacrificial alters and to butcher people for not worshiping him.
The only option seems to be that you mean God just created everything including the human mind which in turn devised the scientific method, but by that logic God created anti-science dogma too, as well as superstition, hate, evil, nuclear bombs, etc.
“Does science have a bias against supernaturalism?”
Science doesn’t have a bias against so-called supernaturalism. It just doesn’t deal with it due to logical necessity, for these reasons:
1) The word “supernatural” doesn’t actually describe anything. It is only defined by what it supposedly isn’t, so unless we literally know everything that is “natural” then there is no way to identify anything “supernatural” – even if we assume it exists. The word is trying to create an artificial boundary in reality and declaring the two sides “natural” and “supernatural”. But it doesn’t explain what distinguishes them from each other.
Furthermore, we need to remember that we do not know how all of nature works. So anything that occurs and we observe is simply classified as “nature”. So no matter how strange anything is, in what sense is it not “natural”? I see no basis for distinctions between different parts of reality. Any classification between “natural” and “supernatural” seem useless.
2) Science only looks at the evidence and accepts what happens and learns from it. And evidence is only reliable if it can be validated in some objective way. If it can’t be validated then it isn’t meaningful evidence.
For example, people in fields of science don’t just declare “natural laws” then ignore anything which contradicts them. Natural laws themselves are only observations based on evidence. If there is verifiable evidence for something you call “supernatural”, then professionals in fields of science will gladly take an interest and learn about it – but it would just be another thing science learns about. How would it not be “natural”?
So the bottom line is that science only seems to have a bias against supernaturalism to some people, because there isn’t any reliable evidence for the sorts of things people call “supernatural”.
“At least religion has answers!”
(Regarding that science has not or cannot tell us everything about the universe)
No, just making up conclusions and presumptions does not constitute “having an answer”.
That’s like if someone asked you the answer to a calculus problem then based on no demonstrable explanation at all you say with total confidence “The answer is 4.” Then when they point out that you made no logical attempt to come to that conclusion, and you haven’t shown how you know it’s true, you say “well I have an answer, unlike you!” That isn’t a useful answer and there’s no reason to think it’s correct.
People are often attracted to confidence regardless of the actual substance of what they say or why they say it. But if we want to learn the truth, what really matters is how people can support their beliefs – not how confident they personally are. Confidence that is not based in valid reason is just delusion.
Note: What constitutes valid reason to believe something is a conclusion from objective evidence and demonstrably valid logic. What that means is the evidence must be able to be shown and verified by non-subjective means; and one’s conclusion must follow logically from that evidence. Logic itself are principles of thinking which are demonstrated to actually lead to answers which match facts that can be independently verified through other means. Principles of logic are therefore objective.
“Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Newton, Kelvin, Mendel, Boyle were all great scientists and devout Christians.”
(Context: Christian trying to prove that Christianity is scientifically valid)
Yes, they were all devout Christians. But to imply that Christianity is scientific and rational since some great scientists were also Christian is a non sequitur, because those people did not apply the same scientific standards toward their belief in God and Christianity as they did toward their secular discoveries.
Even now there are Christians who are scientists who submit their work on various topics to the process of peer review and the scrutiny of consistent logic and evidence. Yet there certainly are not many of them who try to prove that their *religion* is true in that same way. Upon scrutiny of the evidence I think you will find that the explanation for this is quite simple:
There are not scientific reasons to believe in Christianity.
“Scientists don’t like to change their mind.”
No one changes their mind easily. But scientists change their minds more easily than anyone else due to the nature of the scientific method which their careers are based around. So it’s misleading to say scientists don’t like to change their minds.
Have you ever tried convincing a “spiritual” or religious person of something, no matter how well supported, demonstrable, or outright proven? It’s usually impossible. But try convincing a scientist of something supported by evidence and it works if you present a reasoned, well-supported position.
That is why science advances and changes so quickly in history – and accomplishes so much – but fundamental religious conceptualizations of reality change very slowly, and often only when and to the extent that they have been absolutely forced to adapt due to the advances of science – and that is why religion accomplishes so little by comparison.
“Science has to observe something to know about it.”
(This is a fundamentalist argument often accompanied by “Were you there?” in reference to the Big Bang and hominid evolution)
Yes and no. Yes, in science we must make observations; but no, we do not need to witness an event itself to learn about it. In cases where we did not observe the event itself, we can observe evidence that still remains and from that we can learn what happened.
An analogy is often made to a detective at a crime scene. People working in law enforcement, forensics, etc have evidence to study. And from that evidence they can learn about what happened.
“Yes, telepathy and remote viewing are currently unverified, but so were gamma rays, dark matter and black holes in our recent past. So it would be irrational to dismiss such phenomena.”
(This is not necessarily a religious claim; just an irrational one that I have heard personally)
It’s common for people to make comparisons like that in order to make them appear equally rational to believe in. However, they are not comparable. Those false comparisons are made so that the believer can lend unwarranted credibility to an idea.
The latter things (gamma rays, black holes, etc) are phenomena/objects that lie outside our normal experience that had to be discovered through more advanced technologies, while things like telepathy and remote viewing are claims of human abilities which can be easily tested with very little or no technology involved and yet cannot produce significant enough results for even their staunchest believers to take advantage of and affect our lives at all.
And on that evidence we can conclude that it is overwhelmingly unlikely that such phenomena exist within human capability.
“Religion and science are just different methods of investigating reality. Science addresses physical reality and religion addresses spiritual reality.”
No, that is false.
The concept of science encompasses all ways of reliably learning about objective reality. It can be used for anything which can be observed and tested and verified in an objective way. Any methods which can demonstrably be used to produce reliable results fall under the definition of “science”.
There is no separate process of logic and verifiable understanding that only applies to religious claims. There is a reason that there is no such thing as “Hindu physics” and “Christian chemistry”, and that there is only “physics” and “chemistry”. That is because science is able to be objective and has self-correcting mechanisms. Religion cannot be objective and has no self-correcting mechanisms. Religion imagines and assumes; it does not learn about any objective reality. Religion is ultimately just bad science.
So if there are things which science cannot learn about, then that means we have no way to objectively learn about it at all. When science has limits on learning about objective reality, that’s the end of it. Any claims after that are necessarily assumption. We must simply admit that we currently don’t have the ability to learn about it yet (or in some cases, even suppose it exists at all).
If religion worked in terms of achieving reliable understanding of any aspect of reality then it would be classified with science and we would actually have real objective knowledge of religious claims an subjects. But we don’t, because religion doesn’t do that.
So religion is not a way of discovering truth. It is a way of believing a particular thing regardless of the truth or lack of evidence to reach any conclusion at all.
It is dishonest to claim that religion is an equal of science simply intended for particular subjects.
“When a plane crashes and a baby survives, or a person survives an assault, or someone with a terminal disease recovers to full health and science cannot explain why, then how can you say that is not a miracle from God?”
Something is only a miracle if there was no possible way for it to happen. But when you have multiple plane crashes, millions of violent crimes, and millions of people with disease, and some people survive and millions don’t, then nothing unexpected is happening.
Also, when we do not know how something has happened, like the example of someone who recovers from a terminal illness, remember two things:
1) We do not have any logical basis to jump from that information to “God”. That would be a non sequitur, an example of false reasoning which leads to wrong conclusions. If you don’t know something, that does not mean you do know it was a god. It just means you don’t know.
2) Science is not a complete compendium of all truth and knowledge about the natural world sent to us from an all-knowing source. It is a process of learning about the world, and it’s knowledge consists of what we currently can be reasonably sure of based on available evidence. So this means that if something cannot be explained “by science” then that is just to say we don’t know about it yet, or perhaps that we lack the ability, knowledge, or resources to learn about it.