Oil and water: Are science and religion in conflict?

“Science respects the power of the human intellect; religion belittles it,” claims the former Oxford chemist Peter Atkins. Atkins adds, “Religion is armchair speculation well fitted to adipose brains.”

Fellow Oxonian Richard Dawkins says religion is “redundant and irrelevant.”

Scientists like Atkins or Dawkins who express skepticism and incredulity towards religious belief are not uncommon. In fact, according to surveys the majority of today’s scientists are also non-believers, with only seven per cent of the American National Academy of Science and 3.3 per cent of the Royal Society believing in a god.

This trend raises an important question: Are religion and science in conflict on a philosophical level? Those such as Atkins or Dawkins would claim yes. However, there are many scientists who do not see a necessary conflict between the two, including the late Stephen Jay Gould who proposed the idea that science and religion encompass non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).

“The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise – science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives,” says Gould.

Though this view is convenient, it is ultimately untenable.

Religion often does cross into the realm of science, each time a truth claim about the natural world is posited – most notably the claim that life was created in the past 6,000 years. This claim is easily verifiable by the scientific method, to which it is consistently proven false; the Earth is 4.5 billion years old according to the best dating methods, to say nothing of the evidence for biological evolution.

The next criticism would be of the privileging of religion “in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” Now it is obviously true that this is exactly what religion fulfills for billions of people. However, it is necessary to ask whether faith is justifiable. Those who hold only the scientific method capable of producing truth would say it is never justified, for faith is belief in the absence of evidence, a position inconsistent with scientific reasoning.

To justify faith, one would have to either claim there is good reason to believe in something without evidence or would have to suggest that there is evidence for their particular belief. However, if there was evidence, it would no longer be faith and instead a matter of science. An example of such evidence might be the “finely-tuned” physical constants necessary for the emergence of life, which might suggest a designer.

Granted that many accept scientific explanations of the world in accordance with their religion, should there be room for faith? Philosopher William Clifford had claimed that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” This would be the view of many scientists.

William James, in the same century as Clifford, had argued that faith was reasonable in cases where the matter could not be resolved by scientific inquiry or evidence either way, and the decision met his criteria of being genuine. For James, faith becomes an act of the human emotions, something ultimately irrational but necessary in the same way it is necessary to respond to a moral dilemma before accepting a proof.

Science and religion are in conflict only so long as religion attempts to explain the natural world and the nature of the cosmos, for science will continue to erode away false depictions of the universe. Just as the geocentric model of the solar system and the creationistic account of life have been overturned, so too may future gaps in knowledge be filled, displacing god each time.

Yet, given that faith retains its definition as belief in the absence of evidence and as a glimmer of hope for humanity in a confusing world, then science, despite its neat philosophical assumptions, its merits and loud achievements, can never fully replace it and the hunger for purpose realized through religion.