Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible

According to the New Atheists, science and religion are supposed to be incompatible.  Nonsense. To appreciate the nonsensical essence of this belief, let’s have a look at Jerry Coyne’s old USA Today article entitled, “Science and religion aren’t friends.” It is worth looking at this article as it represents the Gnu Atheists best shot at convincing the general public religion and science are incompatible.

We’ll start with the way Coyne sets up his case:

The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.

There is no need for all the extra fluff about being friends with a mutually improving dialog. Note simply that Coyne does not bother to define what he means by “compatible.” So he must be relying on his USA Today readers using a definition that would be commonplace. As such, let’s check the dictionary. Five definitions are cited and the one that I think of when this debate comes up is as follows:

able to exist together with something else:

Yep, that’s how I think of it. Two things are compatible if they can co-exist together. They are incompatible if co-existence cannot be maintained.

The nice thing about this definition is not only does it enable communication due to its widespread usage, but it is also empirically detectable. As such, we can easily demonstrate the compatibility of religion and science with one picture.


Is he one of those guys who supposedly burned all those hundreds of scientists at the stake?  Nope. His name was Gregor Mendel. Actually, he was born Johann Mendel, but he took the name Gregor when he began his training as a priest.

He is also the father of modern genetics.

It is a simple, undeniable, empirical fact that a modern genetics was birthed in a monastery. And it is rather obvious to me that this fact is incompatible with the incompatibility argument. That Gnu atheists have come up with ways to explain away this fact with rationalizations tells us that their incompatibility argument is an unfalsifiable belief or opinion. Coyne personally believes, with great conviction, that science and religion are incompatible. But he has no way of knowing whether he is wrong.

Consider his rationalization:

“But surely,” you might argue, “science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious.” One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible.

The analogy is false.  Note that he begins with religious scientists or religious people who accept science as holding “two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time.”  But then he switches from individuals (and what is in their head) to populations.  It is true that you can have a population of individuals where some are monogamous and others not.  In that sense, the two are compatible.  But at the individual level, they are incompatible.  If someone is having an affair, they are not monogamous.  If they are monogamous, they are not having an affair.  If they give up the affair, they can revert to a monogamous lifestyle.  But they can no longer say they have been monogamous their entire life.  So the analogy is defeated.  While someone cannot be monogamous and an adulterer, they can be religious and a scientist.

So why do people like Coyne deny empirical reality and insist religion and science are incompatible?  Coyne’s whole argument boils down to this:

 As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.

There’s the problem – Coyne doesn’t even seem to understand what faith is.  Faith is not a “form of inquiry.”  It is not a method.  If I have faith that someone is telling me the truth, it does not mean that I have used some method to determine they are telling me the truth.  It simply means that even though I have not determined they are telling me the truth, and I have no real method to determine if they are telling me the truth, I will accept they are telling me the truth. I will have faith.  I will choose to believe they are telling me the truth.   So faith is not some method that competes with science in determining truth.  As such, the whole basis for the incompatibility argument collapses.

The  incompatibility argument is deeply irrational.  It makes no effort to arrive at consensus about the definitions of science, faith, and compatibility and thus ends up complaining apples are not oranges.  It conflicts with empirical reality and in response to this, advocates of this irrational notion must resort to ad hoc psychoanalysis and false analogies. Given these fundamental flaws, it should surprise no one that mainstream scientific organizations reject the incompatibility claim just as they reject other crackpot notions.  Advocates of the incompatibility claim then proceed to dig their hole even deeper by insisting those mainstream scientific organizations are engaged in some dishonest politicking.  In other words, those who advocate the fringe incompatibility claims predictably stray into conspiracy theories.

All of this makes sense once you realize the incompatibility claims about science and religion are not rooted in reason and critical thinking.  They emanate from those who have an anti-religious agenda as part of an anti-religious movement.  As such, the claim is propaganda.

And I think I could make a pretty decent case that propaganda is incompatible with science.

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8 Responses to Science and Religion Are Not Incompatible

  1. GeoffSmith says:

    So…what if I really want the incompatibility argument to be true, but can’t find evidence for it? Can’t I believe it anyway and label that belief a form of science?

  2. TFBW says:

    Just assert it as though it were obviously true, and act as if anyone who says otherwise is either a deluded faith-head, or bending over backwards to not offend deluded faith-heads. You’ll find that a good dose of unwavering certainty in one’s tone, coupled with perplexed bewilderment that anyone could possibly disagree, can significantly compensate for the absence of evidence.

  3. Bilbo says:

    Geoff, where did Mike label “belief a form of science”?

  4. Bilbo says:

    Of course, scientists must have faith in order to do science. They must have faith that the universe behaves rationally and is intelligible by us. In fact, many philosophers and historians of science think that modern science prospered in Western Europe because people believed that the universe was created by an all-powerful, rational God, who also created us in his image, so that we share his rationality and would be able to understand his creation.

  5. Of course religion and science aren’t wholly incompatible, but when theists make supernatural claims, that’s incompatible with science. In addition, specific scientific evidence is incompatible with specific religious claims. For example, evolution and an old universe is incompatible with Abrahamic theology, but most never bother to attempt to reconcile these, they just are content to pretend like they can go together.

  6. Michael says:

    Of course religion and science aren’t wholly incompatible,

    You need to tell that to Jerry Coyne.

    but when theists make supernatural claims, that’s incompatible with science.

    That would depend on the supernatural claim.

    In addition, specific scientific evidence is incompatible with specific religious claims.

    Sometimes. Mostly not.

    For example, evolution and an old universe is incompatible with Abrahamic theology,

    Er, nope. If one adopts a particular version of Abrahamic theology that necessarily entails a 6000 year old earth and anti-evolutionism, then yep, that is incompatible. Of course, not all versions of Abrahamic theology have that requirement.

    but most never bother to attempt to reconcile these, they just are content to pretend like they can go together.

    Yes, I know, you need your precious stereotypes. You were a failure when it came to reconciliation, so everyone else must be too, right?

    BTW proto, everytime you drop by, you ignore the actual points I make and instead prefer to stand on your soapbox and spout dime-a-dozen Gnu talking points. Do you ignore my points/arguments because you don’t know how to answer them?

  7. Crude says:

    The claim of ‘religion is incompatible with science’ makes as much sense as the claim ‘naturalism is incompatible with science’.

    There’s a tremendous number of “naturalistic” claims that have been falsified over the years – both scientific theories and otherwise. There are even holdouts clinging to outdated claims. But for some reason this gets excused altogether.

  8. Larry Olson says:

    “And I think I could make a pretty decent case that propaganda is incompatible with science.”

    I think I could make a pretty clear case that propaganda is compatible with religion. Take a look at the movie Religulous (2008). If after watching that you see no problem with religion, I don’t know what school to send you to, or what movie to direct you to, or what book to get you to read. I disagree with Bill Maher on many things, but his religulous movie is pretty good. Not the best movie I’ve seen in my life but still a good movie. Filled with religious people brainwashing young children and adults alike.

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