This blog post explores whether or not science and religion are compatible. I use the term religion in the usual sense, to mean a system of faith, worship and sacred rituals or duties. Religions typically consist of an organized code or collection of beliefs related to the origins and purpose of humanity (or subgroups thereof), together with a set of practices based on those beliefs. Can such belief systems be compatible with science?
Since this topic is controversial, I only reluctantly decided to write about it. Being a physics professor and a research scientist, I decided not to flee debate on this issue (which is like the third rail of science). Instead, here I detail my thoughts in writing.
Actually, I spent decades trying to reconcile science and (organized) religion, however I made little or no significant progress. Eventually, after much hesitation and discomfort, I was forced to conclude that full reconciliation between science and organized religion may not be possible, even in principle. Although this realization was initially surprising (and unpleasant) to me, I soon discovered new and more fulfilling ways of approaching issues such as ethics, morals and the purpose or meaning of life, which religion has traditionally monopolized.
1. Short answer: science and religion are incompatible
`Religion is a culture of faith and science is a culture of doubt.’ This statement is usually attributed to Richard Feynman. Faith and doubt are indeed antagonistic, like water and fire. How can it be possible to fully reconcile religious views, which are based on faith, with the systematic doubt and the skeptical questioning that are intrinsic to the scientific method? Like many scientists, I too have concluded that full reconciliation of science and religion is not possible.
One caveat: obviously, if one removes the element of dogma and faith from religion, then reconciliation might be possible. But religion without dogma is more like a social club than a traditional religion. What would become of Christianity without faith in Jesus Christ? Can you imagine Islam without faith in the Koran? So, by religion I always mean organized religion, with a set of teachings or dogmas.
Nevertheless, this caveat actually points to a possible way forward at reconciliation of science and religion: if religions do become more like social clubs and less dogmatic, then disagreement with science can be minimized or even avoided. I see some movement in this direction. There is growing realization, even among people of faith, that the arbitrary divisions of race, ethnicity and religion, for example, do not have a clear and well-established scientific foundation. In this context, it is admirable that the new pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has defended interfaith dialogue. He has said, for example, that even atheists can be redeemed. This concession is a major advance, compared to the old threats about burning in hell in eternal damnation! Moreover, by claiming that he would baptize even Martians, he has (perhaps inadvertently) signaled an openness to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence (i.e., aliens). Similarly, his emphasis on raising awareness of climate change is also most encouraging. These are all welcome developments. Other religions have also responded positively to the challenges brought on by science. The Dalai Lama is good example: a Buddhist religious leader who has shown interest in and kept an open mind about science. He has stated that “…if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and many others like them have contributed positively towards the reconciliation of science and religion. They are forward-thinking and broad-minded religious leaders. Maybe, in some sense, they have more in common with liberal social and political leaders than with the dogmatic defenders of religious orthodoxy and closed-minded conservatism. So I do see a ray of hope. While I welcome the positive change in attitudes brought by religious leaders like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, on the other hand the fact remains that their religions are still based on dogma. Religions still have too much dogma, too much superstition and too much bigotry. So, even considering the above caveat, overall I still feel generally pessimistic about science and religion being compatible.
Below I explore these issues in some detail.
2. Dirac and Feynman on religion
In the list of the all-time greatest physicists, Newton and Einstein invariably take the top positions. Paul A. M. Dirac, of Dirac equation fame, is considered to be an intellectual giant, ranking just a few notches below Einstein or Newton. And Feynman, who usually ranks just below or comparable to Dirac, has rock star status in the physics community.
It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.
If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards — in heaven if not on earth — all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.
I do not accept arguments from authority. But it is nevertheless interesting to read about what these eminent physicists had to say.
3. Scientists abandon God and religion
Most scientists are non-religious. Many are atheist. A Pew survey from 2009 found that while over 80% of Americans believed in God, less than 50% of scientists believed in God. The percentage was actually 33% in that particular survey. These numbers are typical. For instance, among the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, more than 60% of biological scientists had disbelief in God (i.e., were what most people call `atheists’) according to a study from 1998. In the physical sciences, 79% had disbelief in God.
This issue is relevant in society because most politicians and people in leadership positions are, at least outwardly, sympathetic to religion if not actively religious. So there is at least this one important difference between the majority of scientists and the rest of society. Whereas most people are religious, most scientists are non-believers.
More worrying is that many politicians actively campaign against science and science education. We have all heard about attempts by the religious to eliminate (or water down) the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. At least in the West, these attempts have largely failed.
Fortunately, the voting population does not particularly crave a return to the dark ages. It is easy to understand why. The experience of the last few centuries has shown that social and economic development is only possible when there is political support and commitment to science research and education. Science is responsible for the invention of the Internet, cell phones, radio, TV, cars, trains, airplanes, X-rays, MRIs, the eradication of smallpox, etc. Rich and socially developed countries are precisely those in which science education and research are well funded. Economic pressures have thus led to investment in science and in science education.
At the same time, science has led to unintended consequences. The more a person is exposed to science, the less religious they are likely to become. (Possibly as a consequence, wealth is also negatively correlated with religiosity. In other words, on average the richer you are, the less religious you are likely to be.)
Especially among those with less science education, there is a fear that exposure to science and to “subversive” ideas such as Darwinian evolution will infect the minds of young people and turn them into “Godless infidels.” In fact, fear is a constant theme in religion: fear of God, fear of divine punishment, fear of hell, fear of forbidden knowledge, etc. Science education dispels such fears, and replaces it with the cultivation of curiosity, wonder, questioning, doubt and awe. Since fear is often used as an instrument of control and power, the loss of fear can be a setback for the power structures of organized religion. In this sense, science and science education sometimes directly threaten some religious movements.
Consider, as an example, suicide bombing as a form of jihad by Islamic militant organizations. It is perfectly fair for us to ask: is it even remotely plausible that these hapless suicide bombers correctly understood the scientific method? This is a rhetorical question, of course. A genuinely curious and scientifically literate potential candidate for suicide bombing would immediately ask questions, especially when faced with death by suicide. Is life after death a sure thing? Will Allah really reward a suicide bomber? How it is possible for the big-breasted and hot Houri girls and women to recover their sexual virginity every morning? The young man may then go on to ask: is there a remote possibility, perhaps, that such ridiculous claims are not a sign of pulling the wool over the eyes of the naïve young men in their sexual prime who crave sex and intimacy with women, but who are forbidden by religion to engage in casual sex? And why is recreational and free sex allowed in Paradise but not on earth? A scientifically literate young man would probably say `Thanks but no thanks, I’ll let you go first to set the example!’ Hence the fear and loathing of doubt, curiosity and questioning. Indeed, scientific illiteracy makes people gullible and easier to manipulate.
There is no denying the statistics: exposure to science is correlated with loss of religious faith. This raises two questions: (i) why does this happen and (ii) is this good or bad? I am mostly concerned here with question (i) and only briefly touch upon point (ii).