Science and religion: natural adversaries?

Today’s topic: Biologist Stephen J. Gould famously observed that religion and science deal with different but compatible realities. Was he correct?

A god definable by science is no god
Point: Michael Shermer

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: One deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created about 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life.

Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: Subjects in the non-prayed-for group did just as well (or poorly) as those in the prayed-for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs -- in other words, a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people, even scientists, keep them separated in logic-tight compartments. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40% of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: A 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68% of Protestants and 69% of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any god explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A god definable by science is not a god at all.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the author of, most recently, “The Mind of the Market.”

Science and religion answer different questions
Counterpoint: Francisco J. Ayala

Science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. Indeed, if science and religion are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because they concern different matters. Science and religion are like two different windows for looking at the world. The two windows look at the same world, but they show different aspects of that world. Science encompasses the processes that account for the natural world: how planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and adaptations of organisms and so on. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to the creator and to each other, the moral vales that inspire and govern people’s lives and more. Apparent contradictions only emerge when either the science or the beliefs, or often both, encroach into one another’s subject matter.

Science advances explanations concerning the natural world, explanations that are subject to the possibility of corroboration or rejection by observation and experimentation. Science as a mode of inquiry into the nature of the universe has been immensely successful and very consequential. The technology derived from scientific knowledge penetrates deeply into our lives: the high-rise buildings of our cities, highways and long-span bridges, rockets that take men and women into outer space, telephones that provide instant communication across continents, computers that perform complex calculations in millionths of a second, vaccines and drugs that keep microbial parasites at bay, gene therapies that replace DNA in defective cells and more.

Science is a wondrously successful way of knowing, but it is not the only way. Knowledge about the world also derives from other sources, such as common experience, philosophical reflection, imaginative literature, art and, for people of faith, religious experience and practice. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus asserted that we learn more about ourselves and the world from a relaxed evening’s contemplation of the starry heavens and the scent of grass than from science’s reductive ways. This may have been literary exaggeration, but it resonates with a witticism I once heard from a friend: “In matters of values, meaning, and purpose, science has all the answers, except the interesting ones.”

To some people of faith, geology, astronomy and the theory of evolution are incompatible with their religious beliefs because scientific knowledge is inconsistent with the creation narrative in the book of Genesis and other biblical texts. A literal interpretation of Genesis is indeed incompatible with the gradual evolution of humans and other organisms by natural processes. But that incompatibility emerges only when religious tenets transgress their proper domain. Most biblical scholars and people of faith do not consider the Bible to be an elementary textbook of geology, astronomy or biology; rather, they seek in the Bible religious truths about the meaning and purpose of life and about moral and other spiritual values.

Just as many other religious authorities have said, Pope John Paul II put the matter correctly when he asserted that the “Bible itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its make-up in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. ... Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.”

I do agree with you, Michael: A god definable by science is not God.

Francisco J. Ayala, a biology professor at UC Irvine, is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2001.