January 9, 2014

Big Question 6: Can Science and Religion be Reconciled?

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...
Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With this post, we have reached the last of the six big questions that divide atheists. Whew! Additional questions may be considered at some point in future posts, but aside from a final post containing links to all the posts in the series, this is the last I initially planned to write when I set out on this task.

The sixth question is a fairly old one but one that has managed to linger and divide over the years. At times, it has looked almost as if it has been settled (at least within the atheist community) and the matter can finally be laid to rest; however, I do not think that is the case. It continues to crop up, particularly when the subject of discussion turns to science, the importance of science to humanity, and how scientists should communicate with the public on matters of religion or human morality. Should the scientist make an effort to steer clear of religion altogether, or should he or she be completely unconstrained to address it as it becomes relevant?
How should we understand the relationship between science and religion (i.e., accommodationism)? Is there a common ground between religious believers and those of us who are scientific and methodological naturalists? Many atheists who take more of an accommodationist position see science and religion as being compatible. Others may not necessarily agree that science and religion are truly compatible but suggest that we should pretend that this is the case so as not to lose public support for science. They note that many religious believers accept science and that they should not be subjected to the same sort of criticism we might direct at creationists. They suggest that it is valuable for atheists to work alongside religious believers to pursue shared goals and that an individual's religious belief is irrelevant unless it becomes harmful to others. Those who oppose accommodationism (i.e., anti-accommodationists) see science and religion as fundamentally incompatible and are willing to say so publicly. They may seek to undermine religious belief because it is viewed as standing in opposition to science. They typically regard faith as irrational and may interpret efforts to work alongside believers as a form of enabling delusion.
By the time I started Atheist Revolution in 2005, this question had been debated for some time. While still far from settled, the debate seemed like it had started to die down a bit. It was my impression at this time that a majority of those active in the online atheist community were on the anti-accommodationist side of the question, believing that science and religion are at odds and that it is acceptable to say so. In retrospect, I am not at all sure that this impression was correct, but that is how it seemed to me at the time.

By the time the mainstream news media latched on to "new atheism," the debate came roaring back. While it seemed to me that most of the atheist community fell into the anti-accommodationist camp, it was apparent that there were still plenty of people who did not feel this way. The issue had not yet been resolved.

Science and Religion

For me, science and religion have always been fundamentally incompatible. Science deals with reality (i.e., natural phenomenon); religion deals with fantasy (i.e., made-up supernatural phenomena). I am a naturalist in the sense that I have yet to see evidence convincing me that anything supernatural exists.

And yet, there is so much more to this question. For starters, there is the question of whether science has any relevance to religion or whether they are so distinct that science cannot possibly be used to inform our understanding of religion (i.e., Gould's non-overlapping magisteria). Personally, I find this one fairly easy to resolve because many religious claims are testable and some have been reasonably well falsified (e.g., intercessory prayer, psychic powers, the age of our planet). The moment religion offers testable predictions, it makes perfect sense that we would use science to test them. And when they fail the test, we discard them.

There is also the tactical question of how scientists should discuss matters of religion in the public sphere. By publicly placing science at odds with religion, even if this is really what we believe, might we end up harming public acceptance of science in the process? While I believe that scientists have an obligation to educate the public, even if that means providing information the public might not like to hear, I recognize that this is a question on which reasonable people can (and do) disagree.

For me, one of the most worrisome aspects of modern religious belief is the manner in which it has impeded scientific progress. Examples include religiously-based opposition to stem cell research, the use of contraception to prevent HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, reality-based sex education, and vaccines. Again and again, we have seen how ancient superstitions restrict scientific research and medical science. This is unacceptable, and I believe we must not allow it to happen.

Scientists Undermining Religion

My answer to the question of whether scientists should work to undermine religious belief is that it depends on whether the religious belief is causing real harm. I do not see much of a need for individual scientists to go out of their way to assail religion simply for the sake of doing so; however, I do believe that scientists should be ready and willing to respond when science is threatened by religion. When religion fuels public health crises through opposition to sex education or contraception, I expect scientists to weigh in. When religion prevents potentially life-saving research from taking place because of opposition to the use of stem cells, I expect scientists to weigh in.

Atheists are fond of noting that if religious believers do not want their beliefs to be criticized that they should not have such ridiculous beliefs. When religions make ridiculous claims about testable phenomena, I welcome scientific research into the veracity of such phenomena. Many such claims are harmful, and the public good is served by debunking them. I believe that the cost of feigning respect out of a desire to protect public perceptions of science is too high in these cases.

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