Several years ago, several months B.B. (Before Blog), I addressed our Humanist Group, sometimes known as the Humanist Roots Group, which has a potluck one Saturday evening a month followed by a discussion of an interesting topic. The description I sent out to the Humanist Roots Group was:

Science and Religion: What’s the Problem? What’s the Solution?

When we talk about the conflict between science and religion, what do we mean by religion? Both those who see them as hopelessly conflicting AND those who try to show they’re compatible often get it wrong, in our presenter’s opinion. Their trouble is that they don’t know about Unitarian Universalism!

I’m moved to post my presentation now because I just read a quote from Sam Harris, who is emphatically not my favorite “new atheist”; I think he is arrogant, illogical, and Islamophobic (he of course says there is no such thing as Islamophobia). Others can take him on about his views of Islam (as Glenn Greenwald has done), and arrogance is I suppose a matter of taste. However, I have a lot to say about the logic.

“Your problem is with fundamentalist witchcraft. It’s much more nuanced than that. There’s no conflict between witchcraft and science.”

Now, replace witchcraft with religion, and you have the kind of criticisms I receive. (Source: “Sam Harris Makes an Excellent Analogy for Religion,”

I do not agree that “witchcraft” is an excellent analogy for religion, and while I was fuming about the shame that one of atheism’s most prominent representatives is this irrational and impermeable to evidence, I realized I’d written out my thoughts on the subject way back when I had my lovely evening with the Humanist Group, on February 7, 2009. The presentation itself was not given from a word-for-word text. What follows is the text I used. I wish I had a record of the Q & A and discussion that followed, but alas, I do not.


It’s Evolution Weekend, at least here at UUCPA. Most of the 900 congregations that are involved are celebrating it next week, but among other considerations, I wanted to make my Feb. 8 sermon match up with the Humanist potluck. Besides, this way we’ll all have done our profound thinking about Darwin and Lincoln BEFORE their bicentennial this coming Thursday.

I have long been interested in the supposed conflict between science and religion. I say supposed not because it isn’t real, because it obviously is. Look how many people don’t accept the basic truth of evolution by natural selection—and it’s not because the idea is so difficult to grasp, or that there isn’t plenty of evidence, or that the rival ideas that first challenged it are fighting for prominence (such as that changes in species come mostly from creatures’ passing along acquired characteristics). It’s that they feel that they need to choose between accepting evolution and accepting the teachings of their religious traditions—and with good reason, because there are a lot of religious voices out there telling them exactly that. The reason I say the supposed conflict is that while some religion is implacably opposed to science, or some of the findings of science, it is a grave mistake to assume that religion per se is in conflict with the scientific method per se. And yet you hear that from both fundamentalists and scientists.

Exhibit A: any creationist you care to name. Religion is about faith; it shouldn’t try to follow the scientific method; and when it comes to discerning reality, it trumps science.

Exhibit B: Richard Dawkins, who routinely says things like “Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science” by way of dismissing all religion. He really seems not to know that there might be religions that are as skeptical about miracles as he is. I know he is partly posturing when he makes assertions like “What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (“The Emptiness of Theology,” Free Inquiry, Volume 18, Number 2) but despite his assertions, I don’t think he knows what happens in a theology class.

Or, to a lesser extent, Daniel Dennett, who despite working at a Universalist university doesn’t seem to know about liberal religion. He touches on its potential briefly at the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which is an improvement, but the book is 500 pages long and he gives it a few dismissive paragraphs at the end.

My solution lies right here, at this church, and at any Unitarian Universalist church. I think we are living proof that religion and science are compatible because they use fundamentally the same approach to knowledge and have fundamentally the same aims. And because where this is not true—where they diverge in their aims—those aims are in separate spheres that are not contradictory or incompatible.

So, to delve into the conflict, let me give an imaginary dialogue to illustrate what happens. You can take notes about which principles of scientific method are being trampled along the way.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A creationist [I don’t like their dodge terms, such as “creation science” or “intelligent design”]—a creationist makes the following argument.

The world and all its creatures were created several thousand years ago, in six days, by divine fiat. Evolution of humankind by natural selection is simply impossible; it would have taken millions of years. [As an aside: I know there are “old earth” creationists. Their arguments are just as invalid, but this one is the quickest to refute.]

Scientist says: But what about fossils?

Creationist says: Fossils could easily have been placed there by God. God can do anything, you know.

Scientist: Why on earth would God do such a thing?

Creationist: The Lord works in mysterious ways. Who are we to fathom the mind of the Creator?

The scientist, now on the verge of tearing out what hair he has left—everyone knows scientists are men with more bald spot than hair—says, then that’s not a falsifiable theory. You could always say God changed the evidence and covered his tracks—it explains everything and therefore nothing.

The creationist says, Look, friend, “We do not know how the Creator created, what processes He used, for he used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as Special Creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by the Creator.” (Evolution — The Fossils Say No! 40)

Aha, says the scientist. You see, you’re not doing science at all. You’re just looking for the “facts” that fit your beliefs, and when you’re presented with facts that seem to contradict them, you say, right, we can’t do this via science. So are you a scientist or aren’t you?

The creationist counters, We are both searching for truth. You find it in your carbon dating and your paleontological digs; I find it in the holy word of the Lord God of heaven and earth. You lose.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Around this time the scientist is ready to throw the creationist out a stained glass window, and the whole church, every church, every religion ever, out after him. Which is where I’d like to step in and say a word for a different kind of religion. But first, a little analysis of what just happened here.

Science clashes with creationism (and other wrong, religion-based ideas) on several points:

-In science, hypotheses have to be falsifiable. (This is, by the way, a place where we do science education quite badly. I bet not one-quarter of the high school graduates in this country could tell you what falsifiability is or why it’s a positive, not a negative, term. But I digress.)

-Repeatability (I actually think this may be a tricky one for our religion but I think I’m not going to go there tonight. It is a minor point.)

-They have to follow reason.

-They have to gather evidence without being biased by their hypothesis, and discard a hypothesis when evidence contradicts it.

(All of these are ideals in science, too; there is actually documentation of a disturbing level of faked data. But I think the point remains, in that all scientists would agree that faked data is a violation of science.)

The type of religion our fictional scientist is grappling with doesn’t give a fig leaf for falsifiability, reason, etc. Just look at the dialogue.

Falsifiability: that business with fake fossils. They’re to test our faith, or something. Keep us guessing. Whatever. It’s certainly possible that there is an omnipotent being out there messing with our heads, but it’s completely unfalsifiable. God as Q, if you’re a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Reason: “God can do anything,” so there’s no need to worry about whether an assertion makes sense.

Evidence: Evidence is ignored when it contradicts the conclusion they’ve already reached. (This is a tempting one for scientists too, but at least we have the ideal that they’re WRONG when they give in to it. Instead of that “faith in things unseen” is what science is ABOUT.)

What (my) religion and science have in common.

My fictional creationist was right—religion and science are both ways to truth. But his religion doesn’t lead there, in my view and I’m sure all of yours.

But religion is about discovering truth, and that’s a major reason I go to church, and furthermore, I apply the scientific method to all of the ideas I consider.

Is it reasonable?
Is it falsifiable?

For example, I am very interested in the question of whether God exists, or rather, what kind of God could exist and be compatible with reason and the evidence of my senses. And so I have long ago concluded that there cannot be a God who is Creator of all that is, omnipotent, and good. They are mutually exclusive. IMO.

What truths does religion give us that science doesn’t?

(1) Metaphorical and mythological truths—what I would classify with poetry and literature.

Fundamentalists deny this because they think it’s an insult to their source of revelation to suggest that it is “just a story,” or just a record of human history; they’re even more insulted when it’s given equal space on the shelf with the Buddhist Sutras, The Lord of the Rings, the collected works of Emily Dickinson, the Norse myths, etc. All of which I value highly as sources of spiritual insight.

Dawkins, by the way, is also completely dismissive of this, distinguishing it from science this way: “At the present we think DNA really is a double helix. If ever that’s found to be false we throw it out of the window and we start again, and we don’t try to rediscover some inner symbolic meaning, which is exactly what they’re trying to do with things like the Book of Genesis. They have thrown it out as historical fact, which is what it always was thought to be, and which many of its authors presumably intended it to be — and they have now replaced it with a symbolic meaning: the true meaning of the Book of Genesis is this that or the other. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. I think that it is a waste of time. I think it’s nonsense” (PBS interview). Well, I don’t, and if he has a tin ear when it comes to myths and symbols, fine, he doesn’t have to listen. But I think much of the richness of religious traditions is that they preserve those stories.

Clearly he thinks it’s just a dodge, and often it is; but it isn’t always.

I think he is right in saying what science would do with the double helix, and I think that that’s what science should do. But I wouldn’t want to then throw out the spiritual significance of the spiral—which also means a lot to me.

By the way, I hear this quite a bit in UU churches as well. People who are perfectly happy to hear me spin a sermon off a metaphor in a Robert Frost poem get very nervous when I do the same thing with the story of a Greek god. As if because that piece of human storytelling came out of a religious milieu, it should be struck from our lexicon, or at least confined to a museum–as if there is the remotest danger that someone there is going to start believing that some supernatural beings are actually hanging around on top of Mt. Olympus, or that I’m advocating that we believe it. I sympathize with those who are allergic to religious language, but it’s part of my job to recognize that not everyone has or should have the same sensitivity.

(2) Morality. (The biggie)

Science is not sufficient for living our lives because it is purely descriptive. Evolution, particularly natural selection, is an interesting case—people have used it to justify all sorts of human behavior. No sooner was there Darwinism than there was Social Darwinism: the attitude that because the weak fall away (on average, you understand) in the process of natural selection, in human society it is wrong for the strong to sustain the weak. This is not only pernicious and evil, it does not follow.

Hume again: “’Tis impossible that the distinction betwixt moral good and evil can be made by reason.” (Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3, Part 1) You can’t reason from is to ought, from what is a fact to what we ought to do. We need facts to make ethical decisions, but they aren’t sufficient.

We don’t NEED religion in order to make moral decisions, but it does illustrate why science is not enough. And it’s another reason I go to church—to help me sort out what I ought to do and ought not to do.

There are of course many other reasons for religion: to gather in community, to have ways to mark important life passages, to unite to work for social change, etc. I’m not really focusing on them because I don’t think they are the crux, and since I’m not trying to debate Richard Dawkins (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I’m not giving a justification for religion. Another time.

Crucial note: these go under what Stephen Jay Gould called NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria. Religion deals with morality; science doesn’t.

Some things people commonly say religion entails (whether they say it as a compliment or an insult), but I disagree:

(1) Supernaturalism. (Esp., supernatural explanations.) Religion does not have to have any element of the supernatural.

(2) The “why” behind origins. Why is there life instead of no life? For what purpose were we created? Some religions try to answer this, but my own view is that those are not important questions, and I don’t come to church to try to find answers to them. Dennett thinks this is what religion is trying to do, so he starts his book with “Tell Me Why”: “Because God made the stars to shine,” etc. That is a sweet little song, but has zero to do with my religion, and is in fact really bad theology.