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5 Conflicts Between Science and Religion

Updated on January 22, 2017
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

Darwin's evolution (left), the heliocentric universe (center), and the Big Bang (right). Many scientific advances have been resisted by religion.
Darwin's evolution (left), the heliocentric universe (center), and the Big Bang (right). Many scientific advances have been resisted by religion. | Source

How Did The Conflict Begin?

The rise of science and atheism can be attributed to a period of rapid cultural and intellectual development called the Renaissance. Beginning around 500 years ago in Europe, it led to Western, secular values dominating the world, infusing liberal and atheistic attitudes into unprepared cultures. Though many religious leaders rejected these values, some attempted to reinterpret scripture for greater agreement with science. This led to disharmony in many world religions, where those reluctant to change distanced themselves from reformers. As a result, old religions splintered into new sects, each with its own interpretation of traditional beliefs.

Over the centuries, science has consistently provided further cause for panic, provoking hostile reactions from religious believers. However, unlike traditional atheism, science never intended to threaten religion. When Edwin Hubble proved the existence of an expanding universe, the evidence was so convincing and the conclusion so irrefutable that it became the domain of common sense. When Charles Darwin recognized evolution through natural selection, the unambiguous utility of its application to all facets of the natural world gave us a tantalizing avenue to pursue our origins. With the Big Bang, evolution, and a wealth of other knowledge-based advances, science has inadvertently forced the reinterpretation of religion in places where its dogma is in conflict with overt truth.

Such a battle should concern neither side. The illimitable iteration of cause and effect will always establish an empyreal abode. For example, if the Universe started with an explosion then one could claim God caused the explosion to occur. If dinosaur fossils are found then God put them there to test our faith. If the Earth is billions of years old, then a day in the Genesis story is equal to hundreds of millions of years. These are actual interpretations of the Bible that have been forced into existence by science.

Is nature too beautiful to be a product of evolution?
Is nature too beautiful to be a product of evolution? | Source

1. Evolution vs Intelligent Design

Rather than reconcile scripture with evolutionary theory, Christians invented a new theory called Intelligent Design (ID). It claimed that living things are too complex to be explained by the randomness of natural selection. The unsupported suggestion that a creator God must therefore be the cause revealed the religious underpinning of the theory. This lack of impartiality saw Intelligent Design fail to become an established scientific theory.

Impartiality is crucial to the scientific method. Scientists look for evidence to derive answers, but creationists look for evidence to support a particular answer. It's unscientific to selectively look for and document evidence based on how favorable it is to your beliefs.

This biased search for evidence is characteristic of the psychology of religion. Religions typically include a number of comforting beliefs (afterlife, loving god, purposeful existence, etc) that believers are emotionally invested in, and dependent on. Believers are therefore motivated to find evidence that supports and reinforces their beliefs. Thus, all that opposes their beliefs is automatically dismissed, and all in favor is given utmost attention. For the same reason, believers will surround themselves with people who share their beliefs, providing further illusory reinforcement. The group becomes a source of identity and pride, and the pleasure derived from satiating this pride is reason enough to bias their approach to evaluating evidence.

Filling one's head with self-serving beliefs opens the door to unscientific thinking. As Socrates surmised, it's the emptiness of the inquiring mind that drives us towards truth. And, even if one religion has hit on absolute truth, the assumption that one knows this truth will always spur conflict with other religions making the same claim. This is why religion begets conflict, and why faith in the truth is just as damaging as faith in complete falsehood.

Intelligent Design Is Defeated In Court

2. Evidence vs Miracles

Scientists and religious believers are both attracted to unexplained, miraculous phenomena for different reasons. Scientists look for a natural cause and let their curiosity drive them towards an answer. Religious believers see an opportunity to reinforce their faith by declaring divine intervention. Such declarations support their existing belief system, thus helping to perpetuate the positive emotional states that the beliefs elicit. As with intelligent design, God is the desired cause, and this brings about a dismissal or downright subversion of natural explanations. Indeed, it's not observation or evidence that causes believers to assume a miracle occurred; it's a prior belief that God is capable of miracles.

Could a scientific cure for cancer be ignored by declaring it a miraculous act of God?
Could a scientific cure for cancer be ignored by declaring it a miraculous act of God?

Declaring miracles can be highly pernicious if it ends a search for natural causes. When a miraculous solution is required once more, there will be no way to solve the problem without one. Throughout history, miracles have been declared, resulting in a termination of scientific research and a pleasurable reinforcement of religious beliefs. However, if God gives a man cancer, and Satan cures the man to sabotage God’s plan, what is the Christian to believe? Unless the Christian can find a reason to despise the man being saved, the cure would be attributed to God and the cancer to Satan. The unfortunate consequence is that millions may have died while Christians and other religious individuals decided who they should be hating.

In history lies the realization that religion is nothing but a collection of assumptions about the unknown that disappear with the advancement of human knowledge. The only evidence a religionist possesses for a miracle is a lack of evidence to the contrary. At the dawn of mankind, if we'd ascribed fire to a miraculous cause, we’d still be living in caves huddling together for warmth and wondering why God won’t fire a lightning bolt into the forest to spark another flame. People who believe in miracles do not deserve to live in a world of medicine and computers.

Religious people often say they're happy to accept natural explanations when presented with them. However, in a world of religious folk, such an explanation would never be found. Society would assume there's nothing more to learn because the only relevant knowledge is inside a holy book. Intellectual development would come to a complete halt. Religious people sometimes respond by saying God provides or inspires answers when needed, and yet, throughout history, they've persecuted scientists who've supposedly received this inspiration.

Imagine If Doctors Accepted This Explanation

3. The Big Bang vs Genesis

The Big Bang is the theory that the universe began with an extremely dense singularity before rapidly expanding over the course of 14 billion years into what we see today. Edwin Hubble provided crucial evidence for the theory in 1929 when he discovered that most of the matter in the universe is moving away from us (red-shifted).

A number of poorly supported theories have been proposed about what caused or occurred before the Big Bang. The proper scientific position is that we don’t know what caused it (if there even was a cause). While this uncertain position is most favorable to the search for an answer, it's the least desirable position to occupy. This is because uncertainty produces unpleasant feelings of anxiety, and these tend to usher people into beliefs that assuage the anxiety.

Religious beliefs appear to provide such comforting certainty. Many believers claim the universe is 6,000 years old, while others have been compelled by science to reinterpret scripture in less ridiculous ways. However, many religious people claim scientists have beliefs that are equally ridiculous, such as thinking the universe just `popped into existence'. This criticism is surprising because religionists believe God made the universe pop into existence. Though some scientists might consider the `pop' theory, few to none would believe it without sufficient evidence. Nevertheless, religious people find it difficult to conceive of an opposition that doesn't believe in something to the same absolute degree they do.

Religious believers like to think they possess evidence for God creating the universe. The value they attribute to this evidence is another source of conflict between science and religion. For example, some would say God created the universe because he is omnipotent and eternal. However, these attributes are given to God in response to the prior belief that he created the universe. They are not observed attributes that led to the belief. The believer deduces that God must be all powerful and eternal to have created the universe, and therefore God created the universe because being all powerful and eternal makes him capable of doing it. This is clearly a circular argument. Furthermore, is omnipotence necessary for the creation of the universe? Perhaps a larger, denser, universe would have required more power.

The greatest moment in science? Edwin Hubble discovered the universe is expanding.
The greatest moment in science? Edwin Hubble discovered the universe is expanding. | Source

4. Absolutism vs Skepticism

On a fundamental level, science and religion come into conflict because science is incompatible with faith. A scientist trusts in the likelihood of constants and equations, but he doesn't have faith in them. The Big Bang and evolution are still only theories, and their popularity is a function of how well their predictions replicate the world we live in. In other words, certainty isn't real in science. Newton's theory was amended by Einstein's, and Einstein's theory will have to endure the same fate.

Conversely, uncertainty isn't real in religion. There is no debate in Islam about the holiness of the Koran or the prophecy of Mohammed. There is no question in Christianity about the purpose of Christ's resurrection. In this way, one can say the philosophies of science and religion are mutually exclusive.

As alluded to earlier, religious believers too often see science as another religion with another set of absolute truths. However, science holds no beliefs in such high regard and its neutrality is unaffected by religious claims. This dichotomous thinking may arise from the absoluteness of religious beliefs and a lack of familiarity with probability. If a person doesn't agree with a believer, the person is automatically assumed to have disagreed. There is no middle ground for a person who wants to withhold judgment until better evidence is available.

Though science is neutral in this way, some prominent atheists also seek to dispense with the middle ground in their arguments with believers. Richard Dawkins has claimed agnostics possess a belief about whether or not an answer will be found to the question of God's existence (The God Delusion, Chap. 2). Yet, why should agnostics have to make such an absolute statement? Presumably, Dawkins assumes this about agnostics to tarnish them with the same criticisms he levels at believers.

Dawkins on Agnosticism

It's unclear why some atheists suffer from the same dichotomous thinking as religious believers. One theory would be that the ridicule atheists aim at believers is indicative of a certain degree of pride. This pride likely comes from a belief that their position is intellectually superior, i.e. it's a position held by some prominent scientists and philosophers they revere. Thus, any middle ground, such as agnosticism, would serve to marginalize that position by making it look extreme. If their position looks extreme and unreasonable, their source of pride is damaged. To protect it, they generate asinine criticisms against agnostics and uncommitted atheists.

5. Significance vs Insignificance

Cosmological data has spectacularly demonstrated our insignificance in the universe. We exist on a tiny blue planet, orbiting an ordinary star, in one of billions of galaxies that make up the universe. Though we haven't found life yet, it likely exists on some of the trillions of planets that litter the cosmos. While our place in the spectrum of terrestrial life is of great comfort, we may be mere fish in the sea for visitors from further shores.

The apparent truth that humanity is an insignificant speck of dust in the vastness of space and time conflicts with the comforting religious notion that we're the centerpiece of God’s plan. One can easily see how wishful thinking could create such a notion. After all, it's far more difficult to accept a large, empty, lonely universe than it is to accept one in which God holds our hand and protects us from being swatted by the next asteroid to come our way.

Summary

Even though some religious believers see themselves as facing an assault, science is not intentionally targeting them. Religion and science are mutually exclusive philosophies that are seeking to answer the same questions. Just as the Pauli Exclusion Principle tells us that no two particles can occupy the same quantum state; religion and science are similarly prevented from occupying the same epistemological space.

There is no requirement or overwhelming desire in science to destroy religion. The only will is to answer questions about the unknown. However, religions have addressed these questions poorly in the past, causing millions of people to become emotionally invested in the veracity of their answers. This has made religion into an inevitable and unintentional casualty of scientific progress.

© 2013 Thomas Swan

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      buddhaanalysis 4 years ago

      It is not necessary that all religions believes in God/creator and supernatural power.

      Jainism and Buddhism are part of shraman tradition of India and can be said one of the oldest religions who denies existence of creator and super natural power.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
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      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Many people don't define Buddhism as a religion. The most common definition of religion is a faith-based belief in something supernatural, whether this be a god, ancestor spirits, ghosts, or some form of afterlife or reincarnation. From what I've learnt of Buddhism, I would define it as a philosophy.

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      buddhaanalysis 4 years ago

      Buddhist believe that there highest aim is to end cycle of rebirth. They believe living beings take birth after death due to karma.

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      Oztinato 3 years ago from Australia

      Science and religion have mutually evolved together. All science (and indeed all culture) evolved out of religions.

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      Dral29 2 years ago

      This article is all based in christianty and their mentality... there is "An other religion" are you aware?

    • Thomas Swan profile image
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      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Yes, and more than one! Christianity seems to be at the center of the conflict though. I do mention Islam in the article, so yes, I am aware of other religions :)

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      anng 2 years ago

      'Religion' is a word covering very many different things. Like Mysticism, meditation, living a compassionate life, etc. There are religious people and religions who have overcome your 5 "conflict points". The main one is by regarding the Holy Book as mediated by frail humans who misinterpret and garble God's messages. By that reading, the 1st chapter of Genesis starts with a void like the birth of a galaxy. Then gives a punctuated eolution of sun, moon, water, plants, animals and people.

      Unfortunately, the 2nd chapter is influenced by a Babylonian legend which was probably inserted by strong, willful males. It is unfortunate that humans love bossing other humans around so that whenever people share a similar spirituality, one of them will rise to be the major conduit for knowledge e.g. Witch Doctor, Medicine Man, Pope, Chief Rabbi, etc. He will create rules for others to follow (hopefully they will be so busy doing that so they have no time to challenge his authority).

    • Thomas Swan profile image
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      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks anng for your thoughtful comments. I agree with what you've said, though I'd say a "religion" with no unsupported beliefs is not a religion at all. I'd call it a philosophy.

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      anng 2 years ago

      Thomas,

      Agreed. Lots of people say that Buddhism isn't a 'proper' religion along with Confucianism, Bahá'í from Persia, and so on.

      There is a movement within Anglicans (such as the Sea of Faith) which believes God is a human creation, representing the ground of our being.

      I first met these ideas from the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, around 1964. He was quoting ideas from German theologans Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And I wouldn't surprised if the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with his "the Bible's stories are narratives to live by". I think there's a strand in Judaism as well.

      Fundamentally, people practice religion for the experience. As Karen Armstrong says "It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness."

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      anng 2 years ago

      Beliefs can be quite modest. The basic Christian belief is that if they show compassionate love for all creation, then they will be rewarded with the 'Holy Spirit'. The Bible is read for narratives that enlighten the sort of things that can occur in this world - and the differing ways it's possible to respond.

      See the 2 commandments in Matthew 22:35–40 and Mark 12:28–34 to obey:-

      "The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."

      I think this fits the Wikipedia definition of religion:-

      A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life, the origin of life, or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
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      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Anng, it’s certainly hard to define religions. The definition I’d write would be: “a cluster of beliefs that cohere with each other in a self-supporting way, but which are unsupported or poorly supported by alternative ways of seeking truth. These beliefs concern the existence of supernatural concepts or beings, and are held as either absolutely true or likely to the point of warranting faith. Religions become popular when they utilize cognitively attractive ideas, such as disembodied minds, counterintuitive beings, and ritualistic behaviours. Gods are commonly employed in religions for this reason. Religious ideas become worthy of belief, commitment, or `faith’ when they utilize comforting ideas, such as an afterlife, a purposeful existence, or a level of order or connectedness in the universe. Creation stories and notions of `oneness with the universe’ are commonly employed for this reason. Religions are able to hijack and encourage moral inclinations by making the penalty for transgressions greater, and the idea of perpetual surveillance (via watchful gods) possible. This has traditionally given religious societies an advantage over secular ones. Most religions employ rituals or collective worship/meditation because it encourages cooperation, and reduces anxiety generated by concerns that only a god could influence. Not all religions will have each of the characteristics described here, but they’re common because the evolution of the human mind has given us cognitive mechanisms that are universal, and which therefore produce reliable forms of behaviour. This behaviour has been moulded in limited ways by cultural and environmental influences, producing the variety of religions we see today.

      I’ve seen signs of that movement within Anglicanism. I’d call it an erosion of religion as it removes at least one of the beliefs concerning supernatural concepts/beings. Whether it’s still recognizable as a religion is difficult to say without more familiarity with it. The idea that Bible stories are just narratives to live by makes me think it’s more of a philosophy than a religion, though “intimations of holiness and sacredness” suggests beliefs in supernatural ideas that transcend what we can observe.

      Regarding your second comment, I wouldn’t say that’s the basic Christian belief. My understanding is that Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ for the purpose of forgiving our sins; the teachings of the Bible; and the consequences of having those beliefs for the next life. Compassion is merely one of the teachings of the New Testament. In my experience, a majority of Christians do not behave lovingly or in a charitable way. Churches are often expensive structures full of riches that, if I understand the New Testament correctly, would be given away to the poor by Jesus. The traditional support of right-wing political parties by Christians also flies in the face of this call for compassion. The compassionate Christians might say “this isn’t Christian behaviour” but unless the majority listen, it isn’t going to change what the religion has become today.

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      John T. Hutchinson 24 months ago

      "Impartiality is crucial to the scientific method. Scientists look for evidence to derive answers, but creationists look for evidence to support a particular answer. It's unscientific to selectively look for and document evidence based on how favorable it is to your beliefs."

      You are propagating a naive fantasy to dupe to stupid, naive and gullible to suggest the impartiality of scientists. They are neither innately superior nor inferior, by nature, to any other individual with regard to ethics, including intellectual integrity. And considering the stench of mendacity that permeates this era, most scientific research is of that same flavor.

      One can pretty well dismiss all soft sciences, including economics, in which one can anticipate their results based on the researcher/sponsor's prior stated commitments. I must remain an agnostic about AGW after my personal study into dendrochronology and other methods of proxy determination of past climate patterns over the last millennia, so stinking are they with the many methods of statistical deceits, methodologies endemic slanted to give the results desired, & the inherent impossibility of confidently isolating the temperature factor from about 2 dozen or so possible factors.

      Even your cognitive science and the studies that are approved are premised on a philosophical presumption of physiological determinism (a.k.a. medical model of mind, mind states = brain states as the Churchlands most explicitly subscribe to). Evolution itself emanates out of a pre-Socratic attempt to construct a kosmos without deity. It is a philosophically necessary tenet of Hellenistic and modern naturalism and physicalism.

      So please spare us the B.S. about the relative lack of confirmation bias, partiality, the internal politics that only spawns research towards those ideological dispositions that are pre-existing in the scientific disciplines.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
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      Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for your comment John.

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      TrippyEggos 13 months ago

      I'm really not sure why you're saying that Evolution or the Big Bang is "just a theory" when a theory in Science is something completely different than the every day meaning of the word.

      A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.

      The Big Bang and Evolution are the best answers to those particular aspects of science without bringing in "God did it" by the creationists. Is it just me or are you trying to make Atheists look pretentious?

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