Religion vs Science

Sam Harris writes, “Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the Earth, more than half the American population believes that the entire cosmos was created 6,000 years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue” (Harris). What could possibly cause a person to make a surmountable error with such confidence? Are many Americans denying solid evidence in lieu of religious beliefs or are they ignorant about basic scientific knowledge? People such as Stephen Jay Gould have argued that science and religion are not in conflict because they are separate areas of discourse that do not overlap. I will argue that science and religion overlap and are in conflict, religious claims can and should be tested by science, and scientists (and everyone else) should use scientific methodology to evaluate their own religious beliefs.

Science demands solid evidence, peer review, observation, revision, and experimentation that studies our natural and physical world. Religion is a belief system and way of living for some that also makes claims about our natural and physical world, yet involves metaphysics, divine revelation, and dogma to explain our existence, the world, and the unknown. Religion is primarily based off of faith claims while science is based off hard facts about reality.
Religious ideas and scientific ideas are clearly in conflict because both systems of knowledge make overlapping claims. If religion proposes specific claims about our universe (virgin births, resurrections, miracles, prayers can work, or that the world was created by an intelligent designer), these claims can be tested by science. Any claim about our natural and physical world, according to the definition of science, ought to be subjected to scientific examination. For example, the mere idea that humans were created in their present forms less than 10,000 years ago is a claim that directly opposes what we know about cosmology, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, and archeology. If this claim were true, all of what we know about the world through the lens of science would be demonstrably false and we would have to revise everything. Fortunately, this is not the case. Fossils and radioactive dating show that the earth is significantly older than six thousand years. Science has shown that intelligent design and creationism are false and has found no sufficient evidence to attest to the claims of prayer, virgin births, resurrections, or miracles.

Many theists feel that science and religion are separate because science cannot “test” religion and that science can not “disprove” God. Science can certainly test religious claims through its own methods. Science can't not disprove God – and no one can disprove anything – because it is impossible to do so. An infinite amount of possibilities such as unicorns, trolls, celestial teapots, Santa Claus, and faeries can't be disproven, but do we say that science can not disprove them and continue to believe? Do we say that because they can be possible that we should not cease belief? Do we say that we need to or should have faith in the celestial teapot? We do not believe in faeries because there is no evidence of faeries and the arguments put forth by fairy believers are insufficient.

The issue is not whether religion is comfortable or useful, but rather whether its claims are true or not. I can make a religion right now that has one precept: teach a child scientific methodology and findings for one hour a day or you will not get an eternal reward when you die. This religion would certainly be useful, but this does not make its claims true. I can also argue that the before mentioned religion is comfortable because the believers must spend time with children every day and increase literacy and critical thinking, but this still does not make the claims true.
Science rejects established tradition when old theories and ideas are revised and new evidence arises to show that our old ideas were wrong or incomplete. Religion does not tend do this (at least easily), but holds on to beliefs in spite of contrary evidence and secular opinion.

Science rejects authority because it demands solid evidence and peer review. A leading biologist, for example, may make a claim about the genetic structure of seagulls, but scientists will evaluate this claim and not immediately accept it because it must be verified regardless of the claimant. Religious authority figures may typically make claims that are immediately accepted by followers and are not subjected to debate. Scientists have various popular books, journals, and old ideas, but all are subject to revision upon new evidence. Religious individuals typically assert that their holy books have been divinely inspired by a god and that the words are infallible.

Science demands solid evidence, intellectual discussion, peer review, and honesty. Science puts hypotheses to rigorous tests using the scientific method and represents our best way of knowledge about the world we live in. Can religion do this for us? All or most religious ideas simply stop at hypotheses and claim “you have to have faith.” Why should we have faith? Why should we believe in something based on no or insufficient evidence? Why is this considered noble to do so? If we don't have evidence to support something, the rational response should either be “this is not true” or “I don't know.” Science immediately discredits hypotheses that are either wrong or backed by no evidence, yet religion says that belief without evidence (faith) is virtuous. Why shouldn't scientists apply scientific methodology to their religious beliefs? Scientists would never claim that you had to have faith about anything in a laboratory and would never include faith in a scientific context.

A key concept of science, Occam's Razor, suggests that when we have competing claims we should choose the claim that includes the least amount of complexities, all other things being equal. If we could sufficiently explain evolution through Darwin's theory, why should we add a divine being that guides it? Occam's Razor clearly suggests that we ought not to invoke gods or the supernatural when concepts are sufficiently explained without doing so. When people suppose that the universe (and everything else) had to be created by a designer, they fail to apply this concept to the being that they propose created it. In order to avoid this infinite regress, theists typically say that the divine being is outside of space and time and is eternal. If the theist then says that the being is eternal, why not just use Occam's Razor and propose that the universe is infinite...or just honestly claim that we don't know at the moment?

I believe that the idea that science and religion are separate came about because scientists want to remain religious even though they are scientists. Religious scientists can practice science from Monday to Saturday accepting that there was no intelligent designer and include nothing about religion in their work, but on Sunday, they can attend church and believe that God created the universe or set evolution in motion. Religious scientists will not have to defend their faith or really have to concern themselves with it at work if it is accepted that science and religion are separate. I also understand that religious individuals like the tradition, community, and customs of religion and thus may want to remain religious as a scientist. These individuals can still participate in religious services and take what they want from religion, but why would they still believe in a god when science does not show any evidence that such a being exists and actually shows much evidence attesting that he almost certainly does not?

According to polls and surveys featured in Richard Dawkins' newest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, 44 percent of Americans in 2008 believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. 42 percent of Americans in the same year also believed that all life on earth has existed since the beginning of time in its present form (Dawkins 429-430). Popular evolution deniers such as Kirk Cameron, Ray Comfort, William Dembski, and Kent Hovind and organizations such as the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis have wide audiences and perpetuate the idea that evolution is false regardless of all the evidence.

Scientists should be intellectually honest and apply the tools of science to their own religious beliefs. It is very clear that science and religion are in conflict and that many claims made by both areas of knowledge contradict. This conflict is not only a procedural issue or limited to science, but it is placing a stranglehold on public policy and opinion. Stem cell research is a very promising and life-saving technology that we can utilize to eradicate a great deal of human suffering and perhaps extend the lives of many. Religious influence, though, is halting the process with this research. Scientists can be arrested for experimenting on cells and face a great deal of reprisal or red-tape regarding this research even with cells that are not embryonic. Some religious individuals believe that life is found in all cells originating from conception and that we should not “play god” with human life. Religion, as previously mentioned, may also be a barrier to scientific knowledge because some individuals refuse to accept evolution, the age of the earth, and other findings that oppose religious doctrine. It's high time for scientists and everyone else to be intellectually honest and examine religious claims with scientific reasoning.

Works Cited

Harris, Sam. "A Dissent: A Case Against Faith."Newsweek 2006: n. pag. Web. 15 Oct 2009. .

Dawkins, Richard. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press, 2009. Print.