Science vs Religion – An Update for Students

A Debate that Is Heating Up

Although American biologists have fought hard against being required to teach creationism in primary and secondary school, they often voluntarily do so at the university level. Introductory college texts and even specialized textbooks of evolution typically devote several pages to creationism. One reason is that students may find their religious views challenged by evolutionary biology, and this might keep them from an adequate understanding of the evidence. Another is that they need to understand the arguments and rhetorical strategies of creationists, whom they will almost certainly encounter outside the classroom. The fact that evolution takes place is a direct contradiction of the accounts of creation of humans and other organisms in several of the major world religions. These accounts date from before the development of scientific methods of inquiry, and they offered answers to existential questions. These answers for a long time were the only ones available. As late as the early 19th century there were many serious authors who believed that different species of organisms were separately created. The reason was that nobody had come up with a better explanation. By the end of the 19th century this was no longer the case. Darwin, Wallace, and others espoused the idea of gradual change in species, brought about by inheritance of slight variations, coupled with efficient removal of slightly disadvantageous variations. This process, called natural selection by Darwin, provided a rational and testable alternative to the notion of special creation. Important as this was, it was not the only holding of religion to be submerged by progress. The geocentric model of the solar system is another example. Galileo pointed out the evidence against it and he was forced to recant, but in the end the Catholic Church effectively had to abandon its position. In the ancient world, slavery was normal and was not in itself condemned, although mistreatment of slaves was not approved of (Exodus 21:20). By the middle of the 19th century slavery had been outlawed in most civilized countries, with the approval of religious authority. Thus, intellectual and moral changes, occurring in science and society, have forced religion to respond.

The fact that science has convincingly disproven the special creation of organisms, or the geocentric model of the solar system, suggests that other religious tenets are also suspect. After all, a person with a claim to authority, caught in an error, has a credibility problem. In essence he needs to produce evidence or he will rightly face skepticism. Religious people have had broadly two different kinds of response to having been shown wrong about how different species arise. In the USA, the most common response is to deny the conclusions of science. This requires rejecting huge parts of biology, geology, and astrophysics. An alternative (“sophisticated”) response is to restate the religious message to take account of the science. Thus it is argued, for example, that the biblical creation account is just a metaphor. Denial of science makes no sense; but the credibility issue remains even when the sophisticated religious thinker makes concessions to science.

One way of dealing with the issue of science versus religion is to keep the two separate. This is akin to what the founders of the US constitution did in enacting Article VI and the First Amendment, to keep religion and politics separate. The late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1999) considered that science was about the discovery of the laws governing the material universe, and religion was concerned with ethics and morality. He called science and religion non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA, and recommended mutual tolerance. This position was quickly adopted by various scientific societies, for example the National Academy of Sciences. Gould’s colleague Ed Wilson, however, had already argued that biology has a lot to say about psychology, sociology, economics, and political science (1975). These fields of study often overlap with the domain of religious discussion. Dawkins (2006) has more recently argued that religions have not left scientific conclusions alone. Religious people continue to make claims about the material world, such as that god created it, or the dead can be brought back to life, or that all different species were created independently and recently. For this reason, he argues, science has something to say about religious pronouncements.

Historically science has had a complex relationship with religion, at times in sympathy and at other times in conflict. The two modes of thought are quite different. The methods of science lead to progressive changes in our ideas about the world, but most religions, founded long before science, are concerned with preserving allegiance to pre-set beliefs and are not set up to change easily in response to challenges. This explains why changes in moral standards are caused by cultural forces other than religion, including scientific discoveries. Another contrast between science and religion is that peoples’ religions depend largely on where they were born, or who their parents were (see map here), rather than on a systematic evaluation of different religions. But the understanding of science is the same for all educated people wherever they live. The understanding of biology, by its practitioners, is equally universal to that of physics. There is no Russian geology, or French chemistry, or Islamic physics, or Christian biology. Science depends on reproducible observations, critical thinking, and a willingness to change ideas in the face of new evidence. So, everybody learns the same biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics, wherever these subjects are taught. And when these subjects change, for example in geology recently when continental drift was accepted, there have to be wholesale revisions worldwide. No scientist wants to be seen as holding outmoded views. And conversely, any research scientist worth his salt will attack vigorously any hypothesis that he or she thinks is incorrect. In this way science leaves erroneous concepts behind, with little hesitation. (Scientists are human, and may vigorously defend their views and theories when challenged; but for scientists, virtue lies in conceding defeat in the face of convincing objective evidence). The principal world religions, if not all religions, by contrast, are extremely conservative, and proposed changes often cause vigorous arguments or schisms. A current example is the dispute within the Episcopal Church over the nomination of gay bishops.

What are the merits of the negative religious response to scientific challenges? There is no shortage of works that dispense with the arguments of garden-variety creationism, or its disguised avatar, Intelligent Design theory (see Coyne, 2010 for a readable and up-to-date account of evolution). Most evolution text books give good but brief accounts as well. In this article, therefore, I will leave creationism aside. But do the “sophisticated” religious get to retain their credibility?

On this issue scientists are not unanimous. The best scientists, i.e. those recognized as such by their peers, such as the members of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, are overwhelmingly atheistic (Larsen and Witham, 1998). However there are some prominent scientists, including biologists Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, who are religious believers. Few readers, however, will be satisfied with an appeal to authority. What are the arguments?


Why do people believe in religion? The testimony of believers like Collins and Miller cites the importance of personal feelings, a way of dealing with difficulty, or a means of ethical searching. Other believers think that religion is the basis of morality. Indeed often people – even nonbelievers – credit religious teachings for helping them sort out moral or spiritual dilemmas. Also, people believe what their parents teach them. (Of course there are always exceptions). Religious belief sometimes helps compensate for the hard experiences of life. This is related to the fact that as belief in religion declines the measure of education and wealth increases (see this blog entry by Jerry Coyne). This should not be controversial in itself. After all, the scripture says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The sociological reason for this inverse relationship between prosperity and religion is not settled, but it seems likely that prosperity reduces the psychological need for religious support, or that inferior education, correlated with poverty, leads to broader acceptance of religion. Some people cannot conceive how the universe could have come into existence without planning and foresight by an unimaginably great intelligence. Whatever the reason, rich or poor, very many cultures have religions, and each one is different. I don’t know whether this is itself due to gradual transformations of religion from its most ancient form in ancestral humans in Africa about 200,000 years ago, or even earlier, or if all these religions originated independently of one another. But the presence of religion in all cultures indicates a need for a common set of existential beliefs within a human community.


What about reasons to disbelieve in religion? As mentioned earlier, science has an uniform world view everywhere, but each religion is largely confined to its culture of origin. There are exceptions due to cultural factors, such as missionary activity, commerce, or war. The history of religious conflict is well known. The latest manifestation, violent Islamic jihad, has precedents involving many religions, including Christianity. Historically, religion has served as a cohesive force within communities, but as a wedge to separate different communities or cultures. The latter fact provides fuel for criticism of religion. This criticism is telling – it has produced a response by churches in fostering ecumenism.

Religions are amazingly easy to create. A major example is Mormonism, founded by Joseph Smith in the 19th century; another is Scientology, founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard; and there are the many “cargo cults” of the South Pacific, one of which began as recently as the mid-20th century. Thus, the age of a religion does not necessarily affect whether people believe in it. Other critiques of religion are that free will is an illusion, and that mystical religious experiences are easily explained as hallucinations or frauds, or non-reproducible phenomena that cannot be studied systematically. Also, biology explains clearly, through four different mechanisms, how morality can evolve independently of religion (Dawkins, 2006).

The ease of founding new religions, and what we know of the origins and sociology of religion certainly leave open the possibility that religions are based on explanations invented in past societies and passed on, with slight variations, to succeeding generations. This is not to deny the importance of religion, but it strongly suggests that individual religions are not true in detail. After all, the propositions of one religion often differ markedly from the next. Which is correct? It is a challenge to ask of one’s own religion, is it objectively more or less sensible than other religions?

The God hypothesis

Why do so many religions (but not all) invoke the existence of at least one supernatural being? We may never know for sure. There is of course the answer that God reveals himself to people. But is there a scientific hypothesis to explain the existence of religion? Here, I present an interesting example adapted from Dawkins (2006): for clarity, envision primitive people, who certainly did not believe in any modern religion. In the tribal culture, it is absolutely critical that children obey their parents. As children grow, their habit of obedience can easily be transferred to a higher authority, that of the shaman or priest, and ultimately to the deities that the priest represents. On this view, the reason primitive people obeyed the priests is that they believed from childhood that the gods willed it. The underlying sociological or even evolutionary reason for this could have been that questioning parental authority would have led to premature death of the individual or doomed the tribe to disunity, fragmentation and ultimately extinction. In this model, it has taken thousands of years before humans could begin to do without the gods and put their trust in their own laws. If this model is correct, it should be borne out by studies of the culture of indigenous uncivilized peoples – what are their children taught, how do their ideas change with time, what is the structure of their religious institutions, and so on. A related idea is that religion is even more ancient than we think and may have a foundation in the animal world. There is evidence that elephants take more of an interest in the bones of elephants than in those of other creatures, and that chimpanzees show great excitement in the presence of storms and waterfalls (see my post here). I do not know whether these tendencies have a genetic component. They could be cultural, even among animals. Nevertheless it is an intriguing thought that some elements of religious emotion might have come naturally to animals above a certain level of intelligence.

Dawkins (2006) argues that most probably there are no gods. First of all, there is no empirical evidence for them; some people think that God can intervene in the world and change the laws of physics at will. But there is no evidence that these laws behave capriciously. Even in the area of quantum mechanics, we have good equations that allow experimental results to be predicted. Rigorous scientific experiments have found no evidence that prayers are answered. (As to other supposed benefits of prayer, these studies have nothing to say). Some people think there could be gods that do not intervene in the world; this would account for the lack of evidence for gods, but it also leaves one little incentive to be interested in such uninvolved beings. Many think that the universe must have been created by a god; however that ignores the question where the god came from. To say the god always existed is arguably more complex than simply to say there is no such thing. A being complex enough to create the universe could not have formed all at once, if evolution is any guide to how complex beings arise. And it is such a guide – evolution by natural selection is the only known mechanism by which complex beings are produced from simpler ones. God, as generally conceived by the world’s principal religions, is far too complex an entity to be the first thing going on. Dawkins concedes that science cannot prove for certain that gods do not exist. But he thinks God is highly improbable- certainly more improbable than the evolution of bacteria from simple organic chemicals on the early earth. A kind of last-ditch effort at saving the God hypothesis is to attribute to the deity the laws of physics themselves. Countering this, the statement that God brought them about is mysterious and discourages inquiry, and really does not add anything substantial to the evidence, while the statement that they occurred naturally invites experimental investigation. Maybe such an investigation cannot provide a definitive final answer, but it almost certainly will provide something interesting.

According to a story quoted by Ashley Montagu (1945), the wife of an English cleric, on hearing the nature of Darwin’s theory, told her husband: “Descended from the apes? My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

This lady’s hopes and fears were shared by many. The religious response to the discovery of evolution has been largely outright denial, with some “sophisticated” accommodation. The response of the religious to the more recent arguments against the existence of God has also been universally negative. Still, since the Renaissance religion has had to make concessions to scientific discovery. Is this just a “new kid on the block” phenomenon? Or does science have a real advantage over religion? Those without belief in religion, or those “on the fence” now have arguments by Dawkins and other writers such as Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Since I first posted this, a new book, “The God Argument,” by A.C. Grayling has appeared that addresses this issue. These works are relatively few compared to the number of religious books and organizations. What matters to the debate of course, is not relative numbers but the merits of the arguments.

It is likely, however, that a large part of the skepticism about religion is not based on intellectual arguments. Religion has been and continues to be a major factor in numerous wars, for example in Europe, an understandable reason for its decline there. An additional reason is the obvious success of science and technology. People with money to spend and good health care are not very likely to seek comfort in churches, mosques and synagogues. There are some who think that this guarantees the ultimate ascendancy of science. But technological success comes at a cost. It has done a lot of damage to the planet and its ecosystems. Ominous trends include environmental degradation and the recent slowing of economic development. The human population, expanding exponentially for some decades, has begun to grow more slowly, perhaps heading for a plateau or a crash. The population somehow is detecting limits, probably by a variety of mechanisms (UN, 2004). This suggests that an era of scarcity may be upon us. Recall the negative correlation between economic well-being and religiosity mentioned earlier. If living standards fall, and social programs and educational programs begin to suffer, we may yet see a resurgence of religion and a decline in the respect for science and technology.

Literature Cited

Coyne, JA (2010) Why Evolution is True. Viking Press, New York

Dawkins, R (2006) The God Hypothesis, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Gould, SJ (1999) Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Ballantine Books

Grayling, AC (2013) The God Argument. Bloomsbury Press.

Larson, EJ and Witham, L. (1998) Leading scientists still reject God Nature 394, 313

Montagu, A. (1945) Manʹs Most Dangerous Myth: the Fallacy of Race 27

UN (2004) World Population 2300 United Nations, NY

Wilson, EO (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Harvard University Press,S


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