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Michael Shermer Vs Kenneth Miller: Are Science & Religion Incompatible?
Posted March 17, 2012 by TTownsend

About one week ago, the Huffington Post published an article tackling the question of whether science and religion are compatible, that is, if the two can coexist harmoniously, or are they inevitably diametrically opposed to one another.  It was certainly a very good read, but not because of any input from the author.  Some of the first sentences of the article that presented the topic can be an immediate turn off for people who value scientific endeavors and inquiry.

It starts off by saying “Do you believe in God?  Or do you put your faith in science?”  This can only lead many to assume that the either the writer doesn’t understand that science is evidence based, which is the opposite of faith, or that the writer wanted a catchy introductory question.   Whatever the case, what made the article so great is that two of the most well respected people worthy of speaking on the subject went head to head.

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic Magazine, and author of many great works on science and skepticism, argues that religion has failed miserably every time it has tried to explain phenomena about the natural world and that it has been science that has succeeded at what religion has failed at.  Science is our best tool for explaining the natural world and we need to let go of primitive superstitions that have been shown not to get us anywhere.  He also briefly elaborates on how the concept of God is not scientific because it does not operate in the natural and that the many claims made about God are nonempirical and therefore immeasurable.

Micheal Shermer
Kenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist, who is infamously known for laying waste to creationist science, (and I mean “infamously known”) argues that suggesting that the two are incompatible is to deny history.

“Any suggestion that science and religion are incompatible flies in the face of history, logic, and common sense. Modern science developed in the context of western religious thought, was nurtured in universities first established for religious reasons, and owes some of its greatest discoveries and advances to scientists who themselves were deeply religious. From Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who pioneered the scientific method, to George Lemaître, the 20th century Belgian priest who first developed a mathematical foundation for the “Big Bang,” people of faith have played a key role in advancing scientific understanding.”

He argues that people too often have the misconception that religion equals anti-science due to its history of trying to hinder and suppress it.  He then goes on to explain that if we are going to deem religion as incompatible, then we should also deem other scientific suppressors as incompatible.

“Look carefully at modern anti-science movements and you’ll see that many of the most important cases of science denial have nothing to do with religion. Industries and even democratically-elected governments have tried to control climate scientists and rewrite their findings when they found them inconvenient. For decades, tobacco companies mounted campaigns of disinformation and junk science to counteract the clear evidence linking cancer and heart disease to smoking. And big pharmaceutical companies have actively covered up scientific studies harmful to their products. Should we take such things to mean that free market capitalism is “incompatible” with science? And if we do, what are we to make of three decades of suppression of the science of genetics within the Soviet Union, all in the name of a leftist ideology? Is socialism incompatible with science too?”

He concedes that religion has been responsible for a lot of evil, but points out the evils that science has been complicit in as well.

“But we should also remember more recently that it was science, not religion, that gave us eugenics, the atomic bomb, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.”

He opines that there are many religious scientists whose faith presents no conflict with their science, and he makes it clear that he believes that there will always be conflicts between religion and science and says:

“It seems to me that any faith that might require the rejection of scientific reason is not a faith worth having.”

To end, he cites a study in which the opinion of most scientists is that there is no conflict between religion and science which is contrary to public opinion.

“Unlike my friend Michael Shermer, I think that the majority of the scientific community has got this question right. Science and religion are different ways of thinking, to be sure. But to insist that conflict is unavoidable is to ignore the common history of science and religion as well as the reality of scientists who see their vocation as perfectly consistent with their faith.”

Now, to offer an opinion on this discussion.  I think its safe to assume that there are no quarrels with science here, the issue has arisen because of religious nutjobs who want to censor science, so I think that its appropriate to look at this from that angle.  I wish that the religious population as a whole (or even as a majority) viewed science as beautifully and as complementary to their faith in the way that Dr. Miller does, but sadly, this is simply not the case.  Religion posits answers (many that are demonstrably false) and science seeks answers and accepts the humility of not knowing.  Little by little, science has eroded the demonstrably false, primitive superstitions found within archaic religions.  If everyone were like Dr. Miller, or were at least in favor of the scientific enterprise, I would say that the two are completely compatible.  I see compatibility as simply being able to accept science without any problems.  Normally, if you are religious, you believe in a soul, but of course, all of the scientific evidence points to such beliefs being merely an illusion.  This is an example of something that some may define as incompatible, but when I talk about compatibility here, I’m speaking in the sense of being able to live peacefully without conflict, so I wouldn’t define this as incompatible within the context of this discussion.  My opinion is that science and religion are incompatible in the end.  Every supernatural explanation attributed to things we could not explain will eventually be explained by science, I assume.  However, I don’t think that science and all religious people are incompatible.  Dr. Miller and many others are well respected defenders of science who show that its easily possible for some to reconcile their religious beliefs with their science.

Huffington Post Article

T Townsend is a member of FAAMSU.

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