Friendly Atheist Claims Science and Religion are Incompatible. He’s Wrong.

Brace yourselves. The Friendly Atheist has shown us that Religion and Science are Incompatible:

Oh boy. Throughout Mehta’s four minute sermon, there is not one single original thought or argument.  Instead, Mehta simple regurgitates old talking points that apparently derive largely from his slavish devotion to Sam Harris.  From where I sit, it is kind of sad to see how New Atheism can intellectually cripple people. Anyway, let’s have a closer look.

Mehta:But I don’t think those two worlds are really compatible. I think if you’re a religious person and someone who accepts the scientific method, something’s gotta give.

Yes, what has to give is simple-minded, shallow thinking about science and religion.  Unfortunately for Mehta, his talking points are premised on simple-minded, shallow thinking.

Whenever science succeeds, religion loses, because a gap was just filled by something other than God.

This is nonsense.  When scientists discovered chromosomes, did religion lose because God was supposed to have created non-physical heritable material?  When scientists discovered the double-helical nature of DNA, did religion lose because God was supposed to have used a different form?  When scientists discovered that ribosomes synthesized proteins, did religion lose because angels were supposed to be making proteins? When scientists discovered the horizontal transfer of DNA among bacteria, did religion lose because God was supposed to have disallowed that?  I could go on and on and on.  The bottom line here is simple – the vast, vast majority of scientific discoveries have not caused any “losses” for the Christian religion.  Christianity never entailed the denial of chromosomes, DNA. ribosomes, horizontal transfer, etc.

Part of the problem with this idea of NOMA is that science does have something to say about morality.

More nonsense.  At this point, Mehta is referring to Sam Harris’s pseudoscience:

And, like I said, science has something to say about morality. Sam Harris wrote a whole book about it (the Moral Landscape). One of his ideas in the book is that science can show us what increases or decreases people’s pleasure and we can work to make the good stuff happen more often. I’m just exploring the surface here.

The only people who take Sam Harris’s whole book seriously are Sam Harris and his small community of devoted fans.  That this thesis resonates only among such a fringe group should tell you something.  That, and the simple fact that Harris has never been able to use science to resolve a single moral dilemma.  Look, if there was anything other than pseudscientific posturing to Harris’s crackpot thesis, he would have used science to solve a moral problem by now.  Then, scientists and philosophers everywhere would have noticed, praised him, and followed his lead.  A fruitful track record of success would emerge and Mehta wouldn’t have to appeal to some 6-year old book that has been rejected by mainstream scientists and philosophers (even Jerry Coyne doesn’t buy into it!).  Instead, he would point to the scientific community resolving the various moral disputes all around us.  But he can’t.

And religion has plenty to say about what happened and how things happen. The magisteria overlap all the time. And they can’t both be true.

I don’t think Mehta understands what “all the time” means.


Religions make claims about the natural world all the time. Not just what happens in the afterlife, but how the world actually works. 

Get ready for the same little laundry list of talking points:

Creationists do this, saying the world is only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time, and that there was a great flood. 

People who believe God performs miracles do this — they say people get healed in ways science can’t possibly explain. 

These are testable claims — and they have been tested. And the religious explanations fail every time. 

We know the universe isn’t 6,000 years old. The evidence for that is overwhelming. 

We know intercessory prayer — when you pray for people who don’t know you’re praying for them — has no statistically significant effect on them. 

We know literal miracles don’t happen; if someone’s cured of a disease, there’s either a scientific explanation for it… or, if we don’t have one, I’d bet good money we would if we just had more information.

I told you above that the vast, vast majority of scientific discoveries have not caused any “losses” for the Christian religion.  You can see that I was right.  When it came time for Mehta to show us the places where religion has plenty to say about what happened and how things happen and does so “all the time,” we get the same little list we always get: creationism and miraculous healings through prayer.

Now, yes, I would agree that if you are a young earth creationist, your views about origins conflict with modern science.  But I am an evolutionist and see no incompatibility.   As for prayers, I have previously shown the silliness of thinking that science can truly address this issue.

Okay, it took me 15 seconds to show science is not incompatible with my Christian views.  Look, if you believe the Earth is 6000 years old and you believe that everytime you pray for a miracle, God will grant your wish, then yes, those beliefs are incompatible with science.  But that does not mean Christianity, let alone, religion, is incompatible with science.

So what’s next?

The point is that science and religion don’t occupy these different worlds. They’re in this together.

Yes, and they entail different approaches, perspectives and points of emphasis.  There isn’t a person on this planet who relies solely on science to make sense of all reality around them.

And I believe we have to choose one or the other.

No one has successfully made the case that an either/or choice is necessary.  Mehta is free to believe what he wants.  But if he insists on imposing this need to make some either/or choice, he will have to begin the process of justifying his belief.

Do you put your faith in evidence… or faith? The choice seems obvious to me.

Huh?  If we followed Boghossian’s definitions, does this mean we are supposed to pretend to know  we have evidence when we don’t know?  Or pretend to know that evidence will lead us to the truth when we don’t know that?  I think this is one place where Mehta confuses his talking points.  Faith is always supposed to bad.

Don’t get me wrong: There are brilliant scientists who stick to science in the lab but still believe in God… they accept the evidence for evolution but believe God started the whole process. They accept the Big Bang, but say God put it all into motion. They run controlled tests in the lab… but believe in God because of a feeling they have. I think all of that is intellectually dishonest and it only gets the more devout you are with a specific religion. 

So the Friendly Atheist decides to lash out at religious scientists by accusing them of being theists “because of a feeling” and being a theist makes them “intellectually dishonest.”  How friendly of him.   I can understand Mehta’s need to attack religious scientists, but the only intellectual dishonesty I see comes from the man who is trying make money off these baseless smears of religious scientists.

I don’t think you can actually believe Jesus was born from a virgin mother if you actually understand and accept how biology works.  You can’t believe Jesus rose from the dead if you understand how death works; it doesn’t work that way.

I have long refuted this shallow-minded talking point.

You get the idea. The idea that science and religion are truly compatible is an idea that’s well past its expiration date. You can say you believe in both, but don’t expect people to take you seriously if you do.

This part is ridiculous.  There are only two groups of people who think religion and science is incompatible: a) the militant atheists of the Soviet Union and b) the New Atheists.  And the Soviet atheists are no longer with us.

Mehta is oblivious to the fact that the only people who take the Science Is Incompatible with Religion claims seriously are the New Atheists.  It’s the position that tags you as a militant atheist.  And it’s certainly not the position of mainstream scientific organizations.  Look at it this way.  Jerry Coyne tried to mainstream this idea with his last book, Faith vs. Fact.  Since today is the one year anniversary of the book’s publication, how did it do?  Put simply, it was a flop.  It was essentially ignored by the academic community just like someone might try to ignore the latest conspiracy theories of their crazy uncle at a family gathering.  Among the handful of reviews it received, the only positive reviews came from Coyne’s New Atheist allies.  On Amazon, it is currently ranking around 100,000, meaning it’s selling about one or two copies a day.  Coyne himself is celebrating the release of the paperback version by giving two talks, one to a Humanist group and one to a FFRF meeting.  One year later, instead of presenting his thesis at scientific meetings and conferences, Coyne is still preaching to the same old choir.

You get the idea. The idea that science and religion are truly incompatible is an idea that’s well past its expiration date. It should have died with the Soviet Union, but has been kept alive by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her intellectual successors – the New Atheists.  You can say you believe science and religion are incompatible, but don’t expect people outside the New Atheist Movement to take you seriously if you do.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in atheism, God, New Atheism, Religion, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Friendly Atheist Claims Science and Religion are Incompatible. He’s Wrong.

  1. Ryan Shue says:

    If science has so definitely proven Christianity wrong, where is the peer-reviewed scientific paper that comes to that conclusion? I know, the idea of a peer-reviewed scientific paper proving Christianity to be false is ridiculous… But why is it ridiculous? Quite simply because the question is outside of the domain of science, just as the question of ‘who is the greatest composer?’ or ‘who is the greatest Latin prose stylist?’ cannot be answered by science, although many people with the appropriate expertise would say Bach and Cicero respectively. These are not questions of science, but of religion, musicology, and Latinity.

  2. R.E says:

    Science and Cinderella are compatible if you allow them to be

  3. TFBW says:

    Now, yes, I would agree that if you are a young earth creationist, your views about origins conflict with modern science.

    I’ll venture to take the argument one step further, and argue that even this does not bring one into conflict with science per se. It brings one squarely into conflict with two things: the dominant theory of origins, and the dominant philosophy of materialism. Of course, if you are the kind of theist who admits to the possibility of any kind of intervention by God, then you are already in conflict with the latter, so let’s consider only the former issue, interesting though the latter may be.

    Does being at odds with generally accepted theories such as long ages and gradual evolution put one in conflict with science in general? New Atheists like Dawkins (and Mehta, I gather) like to frame the acceptance or rejection of “science” as a supremely clear-cut, black-and-white issue, and frame acceptance of Darwinian evolution as a touchstone of that position. Might I point out how fundamentalist this is, in all the bad senses of that word? More specifically, it entails the following flaws.

    First, science is not a philosophy: it is a field of study — a set of questions, and possible approaches to answering those questions. Time and time again, New Atheists (and soft-atheist incompatibilists like Neil deGrasse Tyson) will frame science as a philosophy — a way of thinking about the world — drawing the line of incompatibility between that and the alternative “religious” mode of thought. And by “science” as a mode of thought, they mean methodological naturalism. And by that, they imply that philosophical naturalism is a necessary belief in order to obtain truth. I said I wasn’t going to go there, but it’s hard to avoid, because it’s thoroughly baked into the incompatibilist framework. It’s arguably the root of all incompatibilism. If anyone is citing “miracles” as being a reason for Total Incompatibility, then philosophical materialism is almost certainly factoring into it one way or another.

    Second, no one scientific theory is science, and no opposition to any given scientific theory makes one anti-scientific. To assert otherwise, as New Atheists frequently do when classifying non-Darwinists of any stripe as “creationist” (and anti-scientific by implication), is just one enormous, glaring logical fallacy of composition/division. The reasoning is, “you are opposed to this scientific theory, therefore you are opposed to science.”

    Having been called out on such fallacious reasoning, the incompatibilist may back-pedal a little and re-frame it as a matter of wilfully disregarding evidence. Young Earth Creationists, you see, disregard all the overwhelming evidence which makes long ages and Darwinian evolution indubitable to the reasonable, open mind. It is to emphasise this overwhelming overwhelmingness that New Atheists routinely refer to it as a “fact”, and Dawkins has tried (and failed) to get a second made-up word into the language with “theorum”. It’s not a scientific theory in a sense that allows it to be reasonably doubted, you see. Thus, the inevitable “Flat Earther” slurs.

    At this point in the discussion, two problems arise. If the problem is rejection of long-age-evolution in particular (the usual go-to example), then you can only claim Total Incompatibility if you resort to the composition/division fallacy (“you reject evidence in this case, therefore you are opposed to science in general”). Alternatively, you can narrow the claim to a slightly more specific one than the one made by Michael, quoted at the top of this comment: to wit, “if you are a young earth creationist, your views about origins conflict with modern science in this narrow area.”

    Assuming one opts for this latter alternative, then there are two observations to make. First, this is no longer an argument for Total Incompatibility, but only Specific Incompatibility. No doubt many small-a atheists and small-i incompatibilists are fine with that outcome, but Total Incompatibilists are out in the cold at this point unless they can point out a flaw in my reasoning. Even someone who is aiming for a claim of specific incompatibility, however, faces a couple of thorny questions.

    For one, how do you determine that evidence is objectively overwhelming? At one point, I started reading Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, specifically because I wanted him to hit me with his best shot on that front. As I went, I wrote a detailed analysis of each part, explaining the problems with his argument. I didn’t finish the task, because I had to return the book to its owner, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by the force of evidence in the substantial portion which I did read. I have also read quite a few popular science books by creationists, and their work isn’t all that overwhelming either, frankly, but it compares favourably as far as I’m concerned. So why can’t I reasonably doubt Darwinism? This isn’t denial of evidence: it’s my considered evaluation of as much evidence as possible. Can I be accused of being anti-science, even in the specific sense, if I think the balance of evidence supports creation? The Specific Incompatibilist has a case to prove here: mere assertions of overwhelmingness do not suffice. I don’t particularly care how persuaded anyone else is: I have a mind of my own.

    But suppose someone were to say, “scientific evidence be damned: I know what the Bible says on this matter, and I trust it over the pronouncements of scientists.” It would be fair to say that this person has indeed rejected the empirical approach to answering the question, and I’m happy to let “science” be sufficiently synonymous with “empiricism” that a special case of anti-scientific thinking has been demonstrated. But so what? On what basis must we say that every possible question, or even this question in particular, must be addressed by science? Dawkins and his ilk take it as given that science trumps everything else, but why should it? The success of science in producing technology does not mean that it is also the right tool to reason about morality or the divine. If it is anti-science to deny that science is competent to answer specific questions (such as origins, morality, or the existence of God), then anything other than scientism is anti-science.

    In short, Young Earth Creationism in general is not incompatible with science in general, and even in the case where it is held for non-scientific reasons, so what? To the extent that incompatibilism isn’t an argument over philosophical materialism, it seems to be an argument over scientism rather than science as such.

  4. Do you remember where Coyne disavows Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” love to read that!

  5. Shecky R says:

    You’re expending a lot of breath playing semantic games… “religion” and “science” are broad, ambiguous, largely indefinable words. In actuality, the belief systems people call ‘religions’ are themselves INCOMPATIBLE with one another because they all differ on significant points from one another. Thus, AT MOST, only one religion, out of the 100s worldwide, could ever possibly really be true… but even each religion involves differing, contentious interpretations, so you’d have to get down to a single, unchanging interpretation of a one religion… not likely. The books of the Bible are not compatible with one another, nor with the scriptures of other religious traditions. Consistency and compatibility simply are NOT hallmarks of religion.

  6. Kevin says:

    “Science and Cinderella are compatible if you allow them to be”

    Were you intending on making a point with this?

    Shecky R,

    Even if all of that is true, it still doesn’t keep the Friendly Atheist from sounding like an idiot with this video.

  7. Doug says:

    @Shecky,
    You keep using that word (“compatible”) — I do not think it means what you think it means.

  8. “And the Soviet atheists are no longer with us.”
    Thank God!

  9. SteveK says:

    “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”
    – National Academy of Sciences (http://www.nas.edu/evolution/Compatibility.html)

  10. FZM says:

    In actuality, the belief systems people call ‘religions’ are themselves INCOMPATIBLE with one another because they all differ on significant points from one another. Thus, AT MOST, only one religion, out of the 100s worldwide, could ever possibly really be true…

    Is this even true? There are religions which only claim to be relevant to particular ethnic groups and don’t seem to have much to say about what people outside of these groups aught to believe; there are polytheistic and syncretic religions which can include many different gods, kinds of worship etc.; then there are religion/philosophies like Buddhism and Confucianism which appear compatible with various kinds of polytheistic and ‘ethnic’ religions..

    I have a feeling that the majority of the 100s of religions that exist are mostly of the above kinds, even though the number of followers they actually have is mostly smaller than the ones making clearer, exclusive ‘universal truth’ claims.

  11. Dhay says:

    Robert Woodside > Do you remember where Coyne disavows Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” love to read that!

    There’s various, but the most recent is in a blog post by Jerry Coyne on the Apple phone unlocking controversy, back in February.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/harris-vs-myers/#comment-11514

  12. Doug says:

    Compatibility is in the eye of the beholder.

    Suppose, for example, one eye-witness to a crime claims “two people entered the building at eight o’clock”. Further suppose that a second eye-witness to the same crime claims “one man entered the building just after eight o’clock”. According to Gnu logic, these two claims are “incompatible”. According to common sense (compatible with Gnu logic? — you be the judge 😉 ), these claims are quite compatible. If the second witness only saw the second person (who happened to be a man) enter the building (slightly after the other), there exists a scenario in which both claims are entirely accurate.

  13. hopdavid says:

    I will give Mehta credit for taking a hard look at Tyson: <a href="http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/09/17/if-we-cant-trust-neil-degrasse-tyson-who-can-we-trust/"If we can't trust Neil deGrasse Tyson Who Can We Trust

    But it was very brief. Now he seems back to putting Tyson on a pedestal, Tyson’s numerous errors notwithstanding.

    I confess I mock and ridicule Tyson’s fans as well as the IFLS crowd. As many mistakes as Tyson makes, how can anyone with numeracy and scientific literacy swallow Tyson’s material? I’m compiling a list of Tyson flubs Fact Checking Neil deGrasse Tyson

    As you say the IFLS folks like to ridicule some of the hard core religious fundamentalists. But there are certainly clueless folks among the IFLS crowd.

  14. Michael says:

    Shecky: You’re expending a lot of breath playing semantic games… “religion” and “science” are broad, ambiguous, largely indefinable words.

    Correction. I’m responding to someone who is expending a lot of breath playing semantic games… “religion” and “science” are broad, ambiguous, largely indefinable words. I pointed out this problem a long time ago. So why doesn’t Mehta bother to define “religion” and “science?”

    In actuality, the belief systems people call ‘religions’ are themselves INCOMPATIBLE with one another because they all differ on significant points from one another.

    In other words, now that one of the core arguments of the New Atheists has been destroyed, it’s time to change the topic. Not so fast. Let’s pause and bask in the total collapse of this lame atheist argument. 😉

  15. Vox Maximus says:

    We know literal miracles don’t happen; if someone’s cured of a disease, there’s either a scientific explanation for it… or, if we don’t have one, I’d bet good money we would if we just had more information.

    Notice as well how Mehta comes to “know” that miracles don’t happen: by the old, “Tails I win, heads you lose” game….which, in atheist language, is called the “Ask for a gap-style miracle then claim that ‘god-of-the-gaps’ reasoning is illegitimate” game. My goodness, it must be easy getting to “know” things with this fool-proof system. No evidence or analysis required…you just “know” it did not happen! Promissory atheism wins again.

    Maximus
    http://www.voxmaximus.blogspot.com

  16. Kevin says:

    This was my favorite:

    “I don’t think you can actually believe Jesus was born from a virgin mother if you actually understand and accept how biology works. You can’t believe Jesus rose from the dead if you understand how death works; it doesn’t work that way.”

    In other words, because God does not exist, these things cannot happen. Thus we know God does not exist.

  17. dognillo says:

    I’m an atheist, or at least an agnostic, and I have to agree with Maximus and Kevin here. It is absurd for Mehta to be saying that we “know” that miracles don’t happen because, well, we don’t know. We don’t know that miracles don’t happen any more than we know that they do happen. And if Mehta would say that, according to our current understanding of biology, we shouldn’t believe that Jesus was born from a virgin mother or that Jesus rose from the dead, then he would have something. But I’m not all that confident that we really understand everything about how death works. We could be missing a thing or two.

  18. FZM says:

    Kevin

    This was my favorite:

    “I don’t think you can actually believe Jesus was born from a virgin mother if you actually understand and accept how biology works. You can’t believe Jesus rose from the dead if you understand how death works; it doesn’t work that way.”

    In other words, because God does not exist, these things cannot happen. Thus we know God does not exist.

    I think this ‘argument’ is borrowed from Sam Harris. When I read it coming from Harris’ I remember thinking that it amounts to asserting that ‘Science proves that God can’t perform miracles’.

    In the specific examples given here Mehta seems to be saying that biology shows us that the Christian God, creator of the universe and everything in it, omnipotent etc. couldn’t cause himself to be born without a human father if he chose to become incarnate as a man. Then, that the knowledge biology provides us about death tells us that if God had become incarnate after all, and had died in a human state, God couldn’t bring his human body back to life again.

    This particular line of argument against miracles just seems slightly bizarre to me.

  19. Kevin says:

    It’s just a huge circular reasoning exercise. Science proves that miracles – by definition a divine act which violates normal natural law – cannot happen because they would violate natural law. Miracles can’t happen because that would be miraculous.

    Or, as you say, God’s creation is so powerful that even he can’t bend or break the rules at will.

    If I was an atheist, I’m pretty sure I would not use such a terrible argument.

  20. Dhay says:

    Robert Woodside > Do you remember where Coyne disavows Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” love to read that!

    There’s also:

    I put “review” in quotes above, because Michael Shermer’s precis of Faith versus Fact in the latest Scientific American isn’t really a review at all, but a further plumping for his claim that—as Sam Harris also espouses—science can hand us objective moral truths.

    Well, how about using reason and philosophy, as well as innate preferences, to determine meaning and morals? I won’t go into my objections to the science-can-tell-us-moral-truths fallacy (yes, it’s a fallacy), as I’ve laid them out before. Suffice it to say that at the bottom of all “scientific” schemes of determining morality are preferences that lie outside science’s ambit. Certainly science can help us determine the best ways to realize our preferences, but can Shermer tell us, for instance, whether it’s immoral to shoot coyotes that are suspected of eating livestock? How do you weigh the different varieties of well being (if that’s your currency for morality), and balance them against each other? How can that ever be more than a judgment call?

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/michael-shermers-review-of-faith-versus-fact/

    As should be clear, Jerry Coyne is here attacking the views-in-common of Shermer and Harris.

  21. Dhay says:

    Robert Woodside > Do you remember where Coyne disavows Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” love to read that!

    As I said, there are several disavowals by Jerry Coyne of Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, scattered among Coyne’s many blog posts. Here’s my comment on, and link onwards to, yet another of them:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/neuroscientist-sam-harris/#comment-10270

  22. James says:

    ‘Whatever scientists discover, God created that!’

  23. Dhay says:

    I see that the Friendly Atheist blog, in a 29 September 2017 post entitled “Ex-Google Engineer Starts Religion that Worships Artificial Intelligence” and written by David McAfee has now about-faced and accepts that science and religion are compatible.

    It’s Hemant Mehta’s blog, so we can be sure the guest writer’s work has Mehta’s tacit approval.

    Anthony Levandowski, the multi-millionaire engineer who once led Google’s self-driving car program, has founded a religious organization to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.”

    Levandowski created The Way of the Future in 2015, but it was unreported until now. He serves as the CEO and President of the group, which seeks to improve society through “understanding and worship of the Godhead”…

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2017/09/29/ex-google-engineer-starts-religion-that-worships-artificial-intelligence/

    There you are, then, Mehta’s changed his mind and now accepts that science and religion are not incompatible after all — provided the religion worships Artificial Intelligence.

    *

    I doubt that Levandowski is serious about worshiping Artificial Intelligence — how do you worship AI? why is it worthwhile your worshiping AI? what’s it to AI if you do or don’t worship it? which particular instantiation(s) of it should you worship, and why? [**] It’ll be a tax wheeze, or a publicity stunt, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster type satire of an atheist rather than a serious religious person; or perhaps some combination of these.

    (** Why has a religious studies graduate not asked or discussed these most basic of questions? Has he even thought of them? If he has not, what sort of religious studies graduate can he claim to be.)

    *

    “As a religious studies graduate …”, opines McAfee, “… when a religion is created based on [Artificial Intelligence’s] worship, it’s worth paying attention.”

    There’s an obvious question which a religious studies graduate should have asked and answered, and that’s “Just why is it worth paying attention?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s