Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America’s fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.
But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a “New Atheist,” there are many others attacking the “movement” and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident. The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.
As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.
“But surely,” you might argue, “science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious.” One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.
Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.
Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. AsStephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.
Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.
And this leads to the biggest problem with religious “truth”: There’s no way of knowing whether it’s true. I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can’t rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It’s the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you’re right if you can’t tell whether you’re wrong?
The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible “truths” about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as savior, you’ll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God’s son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there’s no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity’s miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.
In contrast, scientists don’t kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.
But don’t just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it’s amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book, Science vs. Religion. Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We’re No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they’d reject that science in favor of their faith.
In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.
Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.
And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!