“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” These first words of Genesis suggest the heavens and Earth are the same age, but science tells us the universe is three times older than the Earth.
So how do we decide which to believe? Are science and religion even compatible?
To judge, we must analyze science’s ways of knowing and compare them to those of religion. Harvard biologist Steven Jay Gould referred to them as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where science documents the factual character of the natural world, and religion concerns itself with human purpose, meaning and values. Because they dealt with separate issues, Gould believed science and religion could live in harmony.
But, as Jerry Coyne argues in his book “Faith vs. Fact,” in making empirical truth claims about the origins of the universe, the Earth and humankind, religion violates NOMA. As “truth” can be defined as conformity to objective reality, the differences between the two magisteria in ascertaining truth are striking.
- Unlike religious dogma, scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional. Rather than devoutly championing a particular hypothesis with fervor, the ideal scientist’s confidence rises in proportion to the amount of supporting evidence accumulated.
- A good scientific theory is parsimonious — it invokes no more factors than necessary; the fewer assumptions the better. For example, germ theory explained smallpox with fewer prior assumptions than the previous explanation, that the disease was divine punishment for immorality. Science is married to a naturalistic philosophy, that all of nature operates according to observed mechanical regularities — natural laws. Inserting supernatural entities into the equation is anything but parsimonious.
- A theory must be falsifiable by observations or experiment. If evidence accumulates making a claim no longer tenable, it is either discarded or altered. A declaration which is not subject to disproof cannot be accepted as fact. As the late Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
- Alternative explanations also must be explored. Can they more adequately fit the data? Isaac Newton assumed the planetary orbits would be unstable without God’s intervention. A century later, Pierre-Simon Laplace demonstrated mathematically that divine tweaking was unnecessary. When Napoleon asked him why in his massive book Laplace never mentioned a creator, he famously replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” To accept the veracity of the miraculous, one has to regard the suspension of the laws of nature more likely than other possibilities — fraud, mistakes, confirmation bias, myth-making — what David Hume labeled the “default explanations.”
- Core scientific methodology is based on doubt, observation, replication and reason. Unlike religion, science transcends geographic or ethnic considerations in determining truth, and faith in the supernatural is not seen as a virtue in the lab.
- Finally, scientific truth is progressive and cumulative, and it has the added benefit of being self-correcting over time. While some theories are overturned, most are improved upon if found to lack explanatory power.
Most religious believers accept the scientific method, with good reason. In fact, we all display high confidence in science when we board a plane, train or automobile, take a medication, or have our children vaccinated. You merely have to look at your smartphone — science delivers.
Yet, some claim there are other valid methods for apprehending truth: authority of holy books and personal revelation. However, if these were reliable, the doctrines of the thousands of religions would be universal, or at least reconcilable. And unlike science, they fail to produce a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.
Believers should take a more critical look at their religion and ask themselves, “What evidence would it take for me to abandon my faith?”
Here we’ll find another way religion diverges from science: how its adherents behave when the facts don’t support their beliefs. So far, science and critical-thinking have discredited several biblical claims. The creation tale, Adam and Eve, a worldwide flood, the exodus from Egypt and the census of Augustus have all been falsified. Yet, in a 2005 poll, 64 percent of Americans said they would reject the evidence if it disproved their religious convictions. As Martin Luther once quipped, “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.”
But if your mind is closed to the facts, you’ve removed yourself from rational discourse. While conservative clergymen fight the facts tooth and nail, more sophisticated theologians reinterpret the once dogmatic assertions as metaphorical. Nevertheless, some prominent clerics are showing signs of hesitant uncertainty. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, freely acknowledges his doubts about the very existence of God. I don’t blame him, as the undetectable and the nonexistent look very much alike.
While religious faiths can’t all be right, they can all be wrong. Better to trust in a truth-finding method with a proven track record.