Is religion always losing ground to science?

Religion and science are often presented as being in conflict, causing many people to feel that they have to choose one or the other.  The conflict is often described in terms of a historical narrative, which I will paraphrase briefly here in my own words (not following any specific author, but drawing from the observations of various people I’ve spoken with over the years who think this way):

First, there was ancient man, who was ignorant and believed in all sorts of local gods living on places like Mount Olympus, or inhabiting stone or wooden idols.  He couldn’t explain anything, and saw miracles and supernatural events everywhere.

The Norse, for example, attributed thunder and lightning to the actions of Thor. Over time, the wiser among men, through reason and observation of a common-sense but not scientific sort, concluded that there were no gods actually living on Olympus and the stone and wooden idols in fact were powerless and lifeless.  Yet the still couldn’t explain most of what they saw, so they attributed the phenomena of nature to unseen gods, and among these the Hebrews found it more elegant to simplify their hypothesis to a single God. Nonetheless, the Hebrews and others still saw miracles happening everywhere, and were quick to attribute any kind of curious event to divine intervention.

In the Christian era, the Catholic Church became the powerful standard bearer of religion in the West, and for centuries it lorded over a non-scientific system of beliefs that included a six-day creation, with Earth at the center of the universe. When science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Church became locked in conflict with it, first over this issue of heliocentrism. Galileo was persecuted for teaching that Earth revolved around the sun. As other scientific theories emerged, these were rejected as well, with the next big battle being over Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Catholic Church eventually gives in on each scientific point, worn down by centuries of overwhelming evidence, and centuries after giving it, it sometimes apologizes. The Church has even conceded on evolution, although large numbers of Protestants are carrying on the doomed fight on that front and the Catholics still hold to other superstitions. The more intelligent Christians, who accept evolution and other scientific facts, are clinging to a “God of the gaps”, who does nothing but explain and ever-shrinking set of as-yet-unexplained natural phenomena.

The entire spectacle, you can see, is one of science inexorably advancing, and religion in retreat. Because the methods of science are rational and because faith is the opposite of reason, science is always, of course, ultimately proven to be correct. Good scientific theories are verified over and over, while no supernatural claim whatsoever is backed up by any evidence. The fair-minded person, willing to face facts, must absolutely embrace science and reject religion.

The technique of describing history in sweeping generalities and discerning a pattern from it can certainly have a powerful effect on the human mind and emotion. (G.K. Chesterton used it to great effect in his masterpiece The Everlasting Man, which examines the history of world religions and argues for the distinctive truth of Christianity.) In analyzing this kind of narrative, however, it is important to ask both whether the facts being assumed are accurate and whether the conclusions being drawn from the facts are warranted. With that in mind, allow me to revisit the narrative above with a critical eye.

First, consider ancient man. It is true of course that ancient man lacked a great deal of scientific knowledge, and would tend to explain things like thunder in terms of direct action of the gods (or God). This does not, however, mean that man was quick to see miracles everywhere. A miracle is a divine intervention, but it is also an unusual event, a break in the normal pattern of things. No one is going to record a thunderstorm as a miracle. An ancient man might report an eclipse as a miracle, while the modern man would see it as an astronomical event. But both ancient and modern man alike would (if they saw it for themselves) believe that a dead man’s resurrection after crucifixion and three days in a rock tomb is a miracle. Miracle stories needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, considering both the reliability of the narrator, the possibility of scientific explanations, and any other relevant information (like, for example, whether the God revealed in such a miracle is compatible with the God one might expect to find on philosophical grounds; this figures prominently in my own belief).

Second, consider the idea that Christianity has a natural hostility to science, or that faith is the “opposite” of reason. It is true, of course, that the call to faith is a call to believe beyond what one can see with one’s own eyes. In the case of Doubting Thomas, for example, Jesus takes it for granted that direct observation of physical things is a reliable source of knowledge.  Thomas isn’t told not to trust his eyes and hands, he is being encouraged to trust his friends and his heart as well.  I can find nothing in the New Testament that disparages the use of reason or the senses (I can’t think of anything offhand in the Old Testament either, but for reasons explained here, those books play a much less important role in my faith).  I can think of plenty of words of encouragement in the use of reason, 1 Peter 3:15 for example (an inspiration for this website).

As for the Catholic Church, the idea that it is hostile to science in the ordinary course of things is an unfair charge.  A neutral and balanced survey of the history would find that the Church has long encouraged science as a general principle, even if it has had a history of butting heads with some of its conclusions.  Furthermore, long before the scientific age, the Church had been willing to look at biblical texts allegorically, rather than as literal descriptions of reality, in any case where reason suggested it.  St. Augustine (354-430) himself, an exalted “Doctor of the Church“, held to an allegorical interpretation of Genesis, and Galileo himself quoted Augustine in self-defense.  The arguments against heliocentrism from a biblical perspective seem extraordinarily weak, and in reading the history of the whole Galileo affair one cannot help but think that interpersonal and political dramas, rather than serious theology, were the driving force. (As an aside, the idea that religious leaders can be corrupt and hypocritical is a major theme of the Gospels, so the sordid history of Catholic and other Christian institutions once they were invested with earthly power should not be seen as surprising or as casting suspicion on Jesus.)

Moving along to evolution, I’ve addressed that topic in more detail here, but the short answer is that I accept the science as it regards the biological ancestry of the human body, but reject the philosophical claims that evolution shows the universe to be without purpose. Such claims, especially when coming from working scientists, are not themselves scientific and actually serve to fan the flames of division, by presenting science as resolutely opposed to all religions. Several citations of such claims coming from eminent biologists (Gould, Wilson, and Dawkins) can be found here, and physicists are often guilty of this as well, as in this op-ed by Lawrence Krauss, “A Universe Without Purpose”. Sometimes the arguments advanced in such settings rest on nothing more than wordplay. To quote Krauss, for example:

Most surprising of all, combining the ideas of general relativity and quantum mechanics, we can understand how it is possible that the entire universe, matter, radiation and even space itself could arise spontaneously out of nothing, without explicit divine intervention. Quantum mechanics’ Heisenberg uncertainty principle expands what can possibly occur undetected in otherwise empty space. If gravity too is governed by quantum mechanics, then even whole new universes can spontaneously appear and disappear, which means our own universe may not be unique but instead part of a “multiverse.”

This argument, which has also been advanced by Stephen Hawking (to similar publicity), purports to have solved the age-old philosophical problem of the “first cause” through modern science.  The “first cause” is among the primary arguments for the existence of God (it figures into my own thinking, as discussed here, although the argument from consciousness is even stronger in my opinion), so there is a great deal at stake.  But read carefully what is being claimed here.  Ultimately, the creation of the universe is being claimed to be part of a “multiverse”, governed by gravity and quantum mechanics.  This is not the same as “out of nothing”.  Gravity and quantum mechanics are not nothing, nor is a “multiverse” nothing.  All that is really going on here is that the author is confusing the scientist’s definition of “the universe” (the universe we live in, i.e. the matter/energy arising from the Big Bang) with a lay person’s definition of the universe (everything that exists in nature, including the fundamental forces of nature and any multiverse from which our specific universe sprang).  Going further and further back the chain of explanation, whether through the discovery of the Big Bang or the discovery of whatever caused that, does nothing to address the philosophical question. All it does is play with the definition of the word “universe”.  (As an aside, Krauss has recently stirred controversy over the meaning of the word “nothing”.  See this review of his recent book.)

I am not disparaging the value or credibility of whatever honest scientific work is being done as regardless “the multiverse”, nor do I claim to have the technical background to comment on it in any way.  But it is pretty transparent to me those scientists (which I would stress is by no means most or all of them) who try to use science to advance a philosophical or anti-religious perspective are either confused, or (much more likely, given the obvious intellectual abilities of such people) deliberately playing rhetorical games to advance an agenda.  They may have, in their own minds, unselfish reasons for advancing such an agenda, and it is certainly not my place to judge their souls. I suspect some of them (being scientists rather than, say, historians) have bought into the narrative with which I opened this post, and in that context, it becomes almost a moral duty to talk as many people out of faith as possible (especially if one puts scientific progress ahead of what Krauss acknowledges to be “deep human needs”).

Nonetheless, what might a reader of such an op-ed take away from it?  If the reader is a person of below-average education and reading ability, he or she might draw the conclusion that science has an alternative explanation for everything about the origins of life, and the origins of the universe, and that one has only two choices – follow science (and evolution and all that) and reject God, or follow God and therefore reject science (and evolution).  Such a person (through no fault of their own), may lack an educational background either in the scientific arguments for evolution (especially if they only encountered these at a grade-school level), or in the existence of an intellectually credible third option (theistic evolution, of which Francis Collins is probably the most well-known proponent among the scientific community). Faced with this false dichotomy, such a person will often choose a fundamentalist view of creation rather than “a universe without purpose”.

Better-educated readers of musings such as Krauss’s are likely aware of the solid science behind evolution and reject the alternative theories that are floating around mostly from non-scientific quarters. They are likely aware of theistic evolution as an alternative point of view, even though it doesn’t get nearly as much press as full-throated young-earth creationism. Very few have the technical background to analyze the physics of the “multiverse” one way or another, but what they do observe is that the people most vigorously opposed to the scientists are making ignorant arguments (and sometimes discrediting their community in other ways). And they desperately do not want to be lumped in with people like that, so it is awfully tempting to accept the philosophy of those most vehemently dismissive of such people. Adding to this of course is the observed negative correlation between IQ and religious belief (which is self-reinforcing, as I discuss at some length here).

The result of inflammatory claims by those such as Krauss, Hawking, and the aforementioned biologists – as well as the attacks on science from creationist quarters – appears to be a widening polarization on the question of evolution, with polls showing theistic evolution losing ground to both extremes. We live in a media-saturated age, and moderate voices claiming to see that each side has a point are finding it hard to get attention. It saddens anyone who views science and religion, properly kept in their appropriate spheres, as very positive things.

Next, a few words on the “God of the gaps”. Is it really true that scientifically-minded believers are clinging to a God whose domain is ever-shrinking? I don’t believe so. The domain that is being shrunk (invoking God’s direct action to explain natural phenomena) is not the one with which faith concerns itself.  God’s kingdom is not only “not of this earth” (a phrase Jesus used, which I think should be borne in mind more often by anyone who would mix church & state), but it isn’t located in the natural universe at all.  One can travel to the ends of universe (or Earth orbit, see interesting nugget about Gagarin & Khrushchev here) and not find God.  I never saw lightning as evidence of God, and I am just as willing as anyone to look into a distant future where unresolved scientific questions are steadily resolved.  For example, I’m hesitant to wade into arguments about whether (in the context of theistic evolution), God might have intervened at a few critical junctures (e.g., the origin of life), or whether puzzles at the frontiers of physics or biology provide evidence of a divine hand.  In principle, these are physical phenomena and could someday have an elegant physical explanation.  But there are philosophical barriers (such as the first cause, or the so-called “Hard Problem of Consciousness“) that cannot be crossed by persistent application of the scientific method, and are likely to perplex man until the end of time.  (On the other hand, I may be making a somewhat artificial distinction between different subcategories of what might generally be thought of as “God of the gaps” arguments; see this paper for an intelligent examination of why such arguments in general are still useful.)

Next, let’s consider the persistent claim that science is backed up by “evidence”, while religious belief is not.  This is not entirely true.  Science deals with scientific evidence, and properly carried out it limits itself to questions that scientific evidence can answer. Reasoned religious belief looks at evidence too, but of a different sort. For example, I directly observe that I make choices, and I take this (both the choices and that there is any “I” there to observe them) as evidence of something incompatible with fully materialistic accounts of reality. A computer can be programmed to be intelligent in many regards (in many ways, on a more advanced level than humans are capable of).  It cannot, however (and here I speak with some level of technical experience), be programmed to make real “choices”, nor to “feel” or “observe” itself making choices in the way I am quite sure that I do (and the way I suspect you do too, dear reader, unless of course you are one of those Googlebots parsing this text…. in which case, thanks for stopping by, and please rank this page highly, thank you!).  Of course, I cannot prove any of this to you, and it is not “science”, precisely because my feelings, choices, self-observations, etc., are all “first-person” phenomena; you cannot replicate what I feel, and reproducible results are the hallmark of the scientific method. You cannot disprove it either. Attempts to do so (like the Libet experiment) fail to impress me, because they necessarily rely on first-person accounts as inputs, as is true of most of the science of psychology. Such science (like other social sciences) is good and useful, in the same way economics is; it deals with correlations and patterns that have predictive value.  It is one thing to say that my socio-economic background, or which part of my brain is stimulated with a magnet, or how much sleep I’ve had lately can impact my choices.  It is another thing entirely to say that I am not really making choices at all.

To me, these “choices” and other first-person experiences are admissible as evidence in forming my beliefs, even if they are not admissible in forming yours.  From this vantage point, I can then consider all of the other evidence that can inform religious belief.  For example, the Gospels provide us with accounts of what Jesus said about us, and about Himself, and also with accounts of miracles He performed. If the miracles are true, then these add support to what He said about Himself, and this has enormous implications for how I should live my life. The Gospels, as testimony (presented in all seriousness by the authors) are “evidence”, in the same way sworn testimony at a criminal trial is evidence. I don’t have to accept it, but I can form opinions on the credibility of the testimony. Other historical documents, from Christian and non-Christian sources, all become “evidence” to be considered. The strength of similar cases offered by other world religions is evidence. Finally, the compatibility of the evidence with .  This is the approach I prefer not just in dealing with the broad choice of a religious faith (or lack thereof), but also in analyzing questions within that faith. In analyzing the books of the Bible, for example, I find that their historical origins are very different, and the level of credibility of each book varies greatly.

Of course, science has nothing to do with this kind of thing. The scientific method, by its very nature, excludes both “first-person” explanations of things as well as supernatural explanations, since neither one is reproducible. This is all extremely proper of course, and following this method has enabled very fruitful collaboration. If scientific publications were full of first-person observations of the inner life, or speculation that maybe God intervened in their experiment, they wouldn’t be worth reading as science (and there are plenty of great books outside the sciences that already deal with these things). This methodological naturalism is effectively a model of the world saying “assume God doesn’t exist or never intervenes, and assume that your first-person inner life is irrelevant, or, if you choose to analyze it, is simply the result of natural processes”. One can see how a scientist living by these rules in the workplace, day after day, comes to actually believe the assumptions. The same phenomenon is seen, for example, where someone pours their life’s work into a financial model and puts an inordinate amount of credence in it. And something like this can be found in almost every other field of human activity (see here). This, combined with that long and troubling history of Galileo and others, is probably why scientists suffer from a low level of religious belief relative to the general population (and like the correlation with IQ, I’m afraid this one is self-reinforcing as well). It would be wrong to take that as reason for conflict between science and religion, and right to help people find common ground, and to pray for scientists, for creationists, and for reconciliation too.

4 thoughts on “Is religion always losing ground to science?”

  1. My admiration for a thoughtful article in which you explain why you feel there is evidence of a Christian god and the number of sound arguments you made against such assertions. Though, it didn’t really speak to the question of “Is religion always losing ground to science?”. Instead, you chose to focus on how one cannot disprove the existence of god regardless of what scientific method does or does not have to say about such matters. And, despite the balanced way in which you present this information, ultimately you concede that your belief in god is based on the facts that: 1) Christianity (religion) does exist) and 2) Humans have the ability not only to reflect on the emotions of themselves and others, but how and why they do so in the first place. To create and promote an omnipotent deity because of this is amazing to me. It’s like putting the cart before the horse just because we have something to haul.
    Of course there could be a god! But, why and which one? Is always being able to ask one more question reason enough to believe? I can’t prove that I’m not dreaming right now, but for those repeating indications that I have excepted as reality telling me I am awake. We are pattern seeking beings that try to interpret, analyze and predict the value or outcome of all we encounter (well, hopefully most of the time) to our benefit. Clouds that look like faces aren’t actually clouds with faces, though I couldn’t prove it. You claim that evolution is real, but deny the fruits of which has allowed you to maintain your blog.
    The way I see it the more logical and relevant question is, Why god? Not, Why not god? I loved before I thought there was a god. Since my childhood, through my youth and into the mid years of my life I have given it much thought. And, while, I don’t claim to be your intellectual equal. It is my considered opinion that there is no reason to think such a being would exist. I think it’s much more likely that everything arose from nothing. And, I still manage to love others, and experience awe at the natural world. Frankly, I think religion does a disservice to everybody not just the reasonable.


    1. Hi Marc,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. If I might respond to a few of them:

      (1) To say my belief in God is based solely on the existence of religion and the ability of humans to reflect on emotions is not quite accurate. My reasons are more fully explained here. Of key importance to me is the difference between a mechanical ability to reflect (i.e. as in a chess computer “reflecting” on its next move) vs. consciousness as the experience of being alive at all. Admittedly, it’s a difficult distinction to put into words, and I suppose I have yet to do a very good job with that. I guess my contention is that one cannot, even in principle, build a machine that is really alive in this sense. The raw material of the body – stardust, as they say – is dead. And I just don’t believe that dead things come to life just by rearranging them, not without the intervention of something supernatural. Now as to exactly what that supernatural thing might be, I am not inclined to create or promote anything; I have had no revelation of my own. I am simply on the lookout for this thing (to which we usually give the name God). And that makes me more receptive to the testimonial evidence of God than someone who sees no reason to expect anything supernatural to exist would be.

      (2) As to the “which one”, I’ve discussed that question here. But I would agree that the whole thing must sound outlandish to someone who isn’t already persuaded of the likely existence of some kind of supernatural being, generically speaking. That’s why I try to separate my posts into those dealing with God generally and those dealing with Christ specifically. Too often those topics are blended in conversation in a way that might be helpful for believers, or even for interfaith dialogue, but doesn’t allow for productive engagement with atheists and agnostics.

      (3) It is very true that all of us, myself and yourself included, are pattern-seeking beings. Working around a lot of statistical data (as an investment quant and an actuary), I recognize the value of being acutely aware of that tendency. Having agreed to that, I don’t see how this means I am denying the fruits of evolution. I recognize that the fingers doing the typing and the ability of the brain to process language are fruits of the long process of mechanical and computational progress that has been inferred from the fossil record. But evolution can only work with the raw materials found on the earth – carbon, silicon, etc. – so it can’t build anything that man cannot in principle build in the lab. Yet man can’t build a living soul, not even in principle. Nonetheless, I observe that I have one.

      (4) I suppose your working hypothesis that “everything arose from nothing” is flexible enough to incorporate any and all observations, just as the God hypothesis is. So I admit I cannot argue you out of your view. Ultimately you and I are making judgment calls, and beyond that we are making real choices based on the implications of these judgment calls. I can respect your right to make these choices, and welcome you on this blog for dialogue anytime.

      (5) If you can still manage to love others, I am pleased to hear that. I would agree that this is more important than whether you believe what I believe. Love, not lip service to God, is the essence of my faith (Matt 7:21, James 1:27, Luke 10:25-37, etc). Having said that, I suppose it must be hard to love extravagantly (e.g. loving one’s enemies, acting as a Good Samaritan) if one embraces a view of people as solely biological beings, fully explained by evolution; it is hard enough to walk this path even with faith. It’s also hard, on a naturalistic basis, to uphold love as any being inherently better than any other ideal (e.g. financial success, number of offspring, racial purity); indeed, love seems more alien to Darwinism than these alternatives. To me, this is a clue that (as Shakespeare suggests) there is a big chunk of reality not accessible to scientific thinking.

      (6) “Religion does a disservice to everybody”. This is an excellent idea for a topic for another full post on this blog. I’ll refrain from commenting directly here, but if you check back in a few weeks I hope I’ll have something on the site by then.

      Peace be with you,


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