Science and religion conflict

It’s popular amongst theists to claim that science and religion do not conflict. They recognize the basic validity of science, so for religion to be in conflict with it would undermine their most cherished beliefs. This is why we get these inane rationalizations from places like the Catholic Church which say that evolution is true yet it somehow can work with theology. It obviously can do no such thing, but that isn’t about to stop the Pope from pretending like the Bible supports the theory. That’s really the way they all do it: get the facts from science and then change the theology to match it. I understand the hands of believers are being forced, but their ruse is just too transparent.

But with things like evolution, it isn’t that hard to twist the theology to fit the facts. There is no method whatsoever within theology that can show any holy writ to be accurate or not, so changing it around on a whim is not that difficult. But what about more fundamental issues? If there is some fact which contradicts something that believers absolutely cannot do without, then we really could stop with these silly claims that science and religion do not conflict. Fortunately for you, dear reader, I have just the example:

Science says the laws of Nature cannot be broken. Ever. Never ever. Go on, ask any physicist or cosmologist or astronomer. Or just look at the evidence yourself. The physical laws are the physical laws and they change for no one. But what do religions say? They say God intervenes. Whether he does it by answering prayers or by directing evolution, he takes the known laws of physics and causes them to go on a path, according to all religions, in a way they otherwise would not have gone. That is not possible according to science. And, yes, every religion with a god has some fundamental dogma within it which says that its god has interacted with the Universe in a way that alters its physical laws on some level.

10 Responses

  1. I agree with your gist of this post, but the ‘laws of Nature” or the “physical laws” are not actually laws. They are man-made rules based on observations.In fact, they do change – e.g.: Newton ->Einstein -> Quantum Mechanics for different levels.

    This is stressed considerably by Victor Stenger in his latest book “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us”.

  2. As descriptions of reality, they can be clarified and refined to better agree with observed facts, but that’s not quite the same as “changing the rules.” It’s more like getting a better handle on the rules.

    As for theology: yes, it IS possible for religion to be made so intentionally vague and abstract that it no longer makes any testable claims about reality whatsoever, in which case it is fully compatible with science. Of course, that winds up being called “moral philosophy” rather than “theology,” but them’s the breaks, eh?

  3. First of all, it seems appropriate to point out that scorn does not equal criticism. Referring to ideas as inane or impossible does not make them any less valid unless you have REASON to dismiss them.

    More to the point, you seem to be ignorant of the history of interpretation of the beginning of the Bible. Noted Christian thinkers hundreds of years before Darwin questioned whether Genesis is intended as a historical account, and the idea that it should be interpreted that way is relatively recent.

    Secondly, you seem to be ignorant of the nature of science. All that science can say is that a phenomenon is consistent over repeated observations. It has no ability to detect something that does not consistently respond to stimuli, and thus cannot say if such a thing exists or not and how it might be able to interact with nature.

    Lastly, if you are interested in defending and promoting science, as you claim, why wouldn’t you embrace a trend of science acceptance in religious circles? It’s likely to be a lot easier to convince believers to accept science than it would be to convince them to reject their religion.

  4. Jesse,

    1. Don’t be a tone troll. I set up my argument and then gave a specific example. I argued my point clearly and concisely. If anything is invalid, it’s your attempt to dismiss an argument because you don’t like that mean words were used.

    1b. The onus is on the believer to provide reason, not me. Though, clearly, I have provided reason – refer to my final paragraph in the original post – the burden of proof falls on the person making the positive claim. I’m not required to tell you why unicorns don’t exist when you claim they do.

    2. Your point about Genesis has a number of issues. First, I never said one way or the other how a literal, metaphorical, or other interpretation of the book conflicts with science. What I said was that the belief that a being is able to interfere with the Universe in a way which violates physical laws is in conflict with science. It doesn’t matter how a book is specifically interpreted so long as it contends that its god intervenes.

    3. You’re the one who is ignorant of science. Clearly. We have established theories which form the basis of entire fields. Those theories tell us that physical laws are not broken. There is no cosmological prison for the transgressors of the law.

    4. Religion is a problem in the world. I’m not going to become an accommodationist because some people are too stubborn to admit they are wrong. (64% of Americans would reject a scientific finding if it contradicted a deeply held religious belief – I have no patience for that sort of thinking.)

  5. Tone troll, interesting! Never heard that term before. I don’t think it’s an appropriate criticism though. I didn’t attempt to dismiss your argument; I just attempted to neutralize it by pointing out that a smug and scornful tone does not actually improve your argument, though it may appear to. It was in my other three paragraphs that I provided counterpoint.

    1b. When it comes to tone, I hold the position that it really only matters when dealing with ideas that DO have reason behind them. Ideas that are promoted without evidence, or especially without plausibility at least, should not be expected to be received without ridicule.

    2. My point was in response to your statement that theists change their theology to match science. Are you denying that you made this claim?
    Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why this would seem like a negative thing anyway. You won’t dispute that scientists change our theories to match new evidence that was in contradiction to the previous version; this is a good thing. Why would it be not good if theists changed their understanding of theology to incorporate empirical evidence?

    3. More like, YOU’RE ignorant of science :P All we have are theories that tell us that physical laws have never BEEN broken, under our observation; to prove that they could never be broken, we would need to understand the nature of the universe a lot better than we do.
    Think about it this way. Put a person in front of a button. Observe them for years, even decades; they never push the button. According to you, in that case, science would have proven that it is a law of nature that the person will never push that button, because it has never been observed that they pushed it.

    4. If, as you claim, it is so easy for people to change their theology to accomodate science, why would it be difficult to change the thinking of those alleged 64% of Americans? It seems like you’re the one being stubborn here.

  6. I’m going to respond to this later. I’m preparing for a trip right now and I won’t be able to devote much more time to blogging for another week. However, I would like to briefly note the fact that I appreciate that you are able to think ahead more than a single step in your arguments. That is in direct contrast to the current mook (Roxeanne) running around my comment sections.

  7. I appreciate your kind words. Also, take your time; it will give me a chance to become more well-rested (or more sleep-deprived, depending on how things go).

  8. 1. “Tone troll” refers to a person who focuses on the tone of the arguer as opposed to the argument.

    1b. Again, I gave reasons for my argument. That I also mocked certain ideas is irrelevant.

    2. Theists certainly do change their theology to match up with science, albeit usually quite slowly. They also change it for other reasons, of course. I don’t disagree that Christian theology has evolved in ways which are independent of scientific progress. It has. But it has also had to often abandon positions because of our advancing knowledge of how the world works.

    It is good that people are willing to change based upon new evidence. The problem lies in the fact that it is always independent means by which people make these changes within theology. That is, science offers us as objective a basis as we can ever have for deciding what is true. When we modify our models, it is because we are using a specific methodology. That is not so in theology. There is no objective way – indeed, there is hardly an attempt to create an objective way – in which to interpret holy texts. That would be like saying there is an objective way to interpret Shakespeare, as if a few hours wouldn’t yield thousands of different scholarly takes on <emHamlet.

    3. The theory that the laws of nature cannot be broken in the observable Universe is as established as the theory of gravity. No, we can not ever prove either of these things – science has never proven a single thing whereas that is not in its nature – but that does not mean we should therefore conclude that unevidenced things (such as an apple falling up) are therefore reasonable.

    4. It is logically simple to interpret theology in a way in which is matches up with just about any idea, but that does not mean it is simple to change the minds of the religious.

  9. 1. Oh. Well, it still doesn’t apply, because I focused on both.

    1b. Ok, that’s your right, but it does make you sound biased. Maybe that is not a concern. Looking back at my original comment, I realize that I probably actually commented on your tone for the sake of any who might be reading this post and might otherwise have been unduly influenced by it.

    2. Certainly theology does not have the same clarity and reproducibility as science. That’s not to say that it isn’t ever possible to come to solid theological conclusions on which a majority of scholars can agree. It is common for there to be interpretations that are more likely and less likely, though unlike in science it is not possible to do repeatable experiments to provide more evidence one way or the other. What we have is what we get, for the most part. There are of course some fringe groups that disagree with the consensus of theologians, but the same can be said about scientific ideas; for example Peter Duesberg and his denial of HIV as the causative agent of AIDS.

    Again, I agree that theology does not match science in clarity or reproducibility, but I don’t think this makes it worthless or anything. Many other non-science areas of research, such as history or criminal investigation, are mostly stuck with a limited amount of evidence that they have to interpret as best they can.

    3. If it’s such a well-established theory, can you refer me to some studies that show that laws of nature cannot be broken?
    If that request doesn’t make sense though, I have a feeling we’re still not on the same wavelength.

    4. Isn’t that mostly because they don’t have a good understanding of science and its reliability? There’s nothing inherent in religion that separates it from other deeply-held ideologies, but only an understanding of the scientific perspective can protect one from such unreasonableness. And there is nothing that I know of, at least in some religions, that should prevent such an understanding of science.
    Of course there will be people who won’t accept it, but they’re not going to be swayed by any attempt you might make. The ones who are important are the ones who are open to learning.

  10. Kicking this to the top of the pile as a reminder to myself. A response is coming, but I’m feeling lazy at the moment.

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