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Don’t Fool Yourself

I recently started listening to Sam Harris’ podcast, “Waking Up”. It’s an interesting mixture of stuff which varies from the somewhat odd (his ideas on the use of drugs and meditation) to extremely perceptive and compelling.

Harris is a well known “militant atheist” and critic of religion, especially Islam, so his ideas fit in well with a lot of mine. That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he says, or accept every point, just because it reinforces my own ideas of course, but it does mean his style of thinking and debating matches mine.

The topic of a recent podcast – featuring evolutionary scientist and writer Jerry Coyne – which I want to comment on here is whether science and religion are compatible.

Many people would say they are, first because (they claim) that science and religion have different purposes and are used to achieve different goals, second because many scientists are also religious, and third because the two use different methodologies to achieve similar ends. These all seem fairly reasonable at first, but are they really?

Well no, they’re not. I don’t think science and religion are compatible at all, and I’ll explain why.

What about the claim that the two seek to examine completely different areas of knowledge? Traditionally the view, which goes back to 1920s, is that science is concerned with the general conditions regulating the physical universe, and religion examines moral and aesthetic values. This is wrong on two counts.

First, almost every religion makes truth claims about the physical universe. They tend to have creation myths, for example, which undoubtedly conflict with science. Not every believer takes these stories seriously, but a lot of them do, and until the stories were shown to be wrong everyone believed them. They are definitely an important part of religion. So that’s one obvious source of conflict.

The usual justification for this is that those stories aren’t “real religion”. For some reason Stephen Jay Gould held this view, for example, but surely this is a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, and even most theologians reject it.

Additionally the second part of the claim is untrue. I don’t believe that the purpose of religion is to examine moral and aesthetic values. That is philosophy’s role, surely. So religion really has no purpose because it tries to usurp science’s role in truth-based areas and philosophy’s in others!

Moving on to the fact that many scientists are religious. Francis Collins is often given an example, who is a well respected geneticist but also an evangelical Christian. Surely if he exists in both the scientific and religious worlds like that they must be compatible?

Not necessarily. Many people compartmentalise their lives and live almost as if they have two personalities. I have heard Collins try to justify his religious beliefs in rational terms and to be perfectly honest it was pathetic. Clearly that aspect of his life is completely separate from his science. I’m fairly sure, for example, that he has never written a paper justifying a scientific discovery because Jesus told him something in a dream or that it says so in the Bible.

Equally I’m fairly sure he has doesn’t use scientific logic and rationality in the religious component of his life (as I said above, the interviews with him on that topic make that abundantly clear).

Coyne compare it with the Catholic church. It’s like saying that Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because some members of the church practice both. If they want to use that logic to associate religion with positive things like science, then they have to use it to associate it with bad stuff too. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t seem to work that way!

There’s one other point here too. That is that religious belief becomes less as people become more senior in science. Also, according to surveys I have seen recently, even though a large fraction of scientists identify as Christians, only a small number think a personal god exists. You really have to wonder whether most of them are “real Christians” or just use the label through habit or to avoid the difficulties that non-religious people face in some countries.

Finally I will tackle the idea of different methodologies. Broadly science uses observation and experiment and religion uses faith and revelation. It’s no secret that I think that the very idea of religion’s epistemology is completely absurd and I can’t see how any intelligent person could give it even a moment of serious consideration. But the point is, that even if you can take it seriously, it is completely contrary to what science uses so surely this counts as a point of conflict.

On that subject I need to mention Richard Feynman, who is possibly my favourite scientist of all time, and who said this about science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Clearly that doesn’t apply to most areas outside of science.

So it seems totally indisputable to me: religion and science aren’t just incompatible, they are practically opposites. Anyone who disagrees is apparently not following Feynman’s advice!

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