Back in the 17th century, Galileo was a strong proponent of Copernicus’ idea that the Earth orbits around the sun. However, in going against the Earth-centric views of the Catholic Church he consequently faced persecution from them in what has become one of the most well-known early disputes between science and religion. Over the following centuries, and especially in recent decades with the advent of New Atheism, there has been a growing public perception that science and religion are somehow fundamentally at odds. Recently this debate has expanded beyond organized religion to include any form of religious faith and by some to the very concept of faith itself. The assertion that faith and science are in conflict is worthy of serious scrutiny because of the great influence each has over vast swathes of humanity. The likes of Richard Dawkins have made notable efforts in attacking faith for being incompatible with science. However, with active scientists such as Francis Collins and Christopher Isham professing faith in God, this conflict has been overstated. Individuals from both extremes of the debate have attempted to claim science as proving their views. Yet in doing so they have perpetuated some fundamental misconceptions about what science, faith and the remits of each actually are. Do science and faith truly conflict? What, if anything, does science have to say about faith in God and can scientists maintain such a faith? This article engages with some of these misconceptions and questions.
“You can call it theological, you can call it spiritual, but humans everywhere have a strong tendency to wonder about whether they’re being looked over by a god or not. Practically every person ponders whether they’re going to have another life. These are the things that unite humanity”.1 Those are the words of American biologist and humanist E. O. Wilson. Perhaps the origin of this debate is an innate question in each human being which cannot be definitively answered by anyone over whether God exists or not. Various people have attempted to use science to give an answer to this God hypothesis. However to do so is to stretch the scientific method beyond its legitimate limits. Fundamentally, God’s existence is not a question for science and never has been. Karl Popper’s criterion for a scientific hypothesis was that it must be falsifiable yet the God hypothesis fails this dramatically: God’s existence cannot be tested by any experiment. 2 It is not something that can be disproved let alone proved; Science alone leaves us all as agnostics. If any other conclusion is to be reached it must be on other, non-scientific grounds.
Science informs us about the natural world. Hypotheses can be tested by experiment and affirmed, modified or even abandoned in light of the observable physical evidence found. Current theories are simply those that best explain the current evidence. This process of refining and changing theories based on new evidence has brought terrific insights and new knowledge about reality, leading individual scientists such as Francis Collins to presuppose that a God really must exist while still others such as Stephen Jay Gould to presuppose the opposite.3,4 However, that is the full extent of science’s contribution to this question. One could certainly gather evidence to dispute the claims of certain religions about the nature of the universe, but to scientifically justify a statement about the existence of a deity is not the same and not possible. Each person and each scientist can form their own opinion on the God hypothesis because science gives no final answer. Gould himself acknowledged both theists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky and atheists as being among his contemporary evolutionary biologists saying “either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism”.4 It can be called any number of things from totally irrational to perfectly logical but to maintain a faith in God and also do science is certainly compatible.
The two most extreme views on the God hypothesis are promoted, at least in the West, by fundamentalist Christian creationists on the one side and the New Atheists on the other. Members of each group have been known to claim that God’s existence can be proved by science despite the overwhelming majority of science-religion philosophers disagreeing with them.5 Moreover, to state anything in science as “proved” is a fallacy. Unlike the self-enclosed fields of mathematics and logic, science concerns nature and empirical evidence. To be a proof something must be final one way or the other and as such cannot exist in science. Scientific theories are supported by evidence but never proved, forever being located on a scale somewhere between absolutely true and absolutely false. Some theories are far more widely accepted and have far more evidence to support them than others, yet a true scientist doesn’t talk in terms of proving theories because they know that every scientific theory is technically unproven. Overwhelming evidence in support of a theory is excellent grounds upon which to treat it as true. However that is distinct from being completely certain it is true and stating it as proved. Richard Feynman summed this up well saying “what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this”.6
At first this point may seem pedantic, especially when thinking about well-established and supported scientific theories, because there is little effectual difference between them being truly proved and having overwhelming supporting evidence. In everyday communication “prove” is used much more loosely to mean “there is evidence to support something”. However it is pertinent to this discussion because both the New Atheists and creationists have a tendency to slip into talking about religion or science being unproved and therefore false. For example, consider carefully Dawkins’ response to a question in a 1999 debate about whether science can console someone like religion does after the death of a close friend or relative. Dawkins said “the fact that religion may console you doesn’t of course make it true. It’s a moot point whether one wishes to be consoled by a falsehood”. 7,8 While perhaps entirely natural to Dawkins given his prior disposition, it just does not logically follow that because something has not been proven, it is false. Meanwhile, the creationists who confidently proclaim evolution is just a theory and not proven are unwittingly correct. Unsurprisingly though, they fail to mention that everything in science is unproven. Nonetheless, talk of proving anything in this context displays ignorance about the philosophy of science. Unfortunately such talk is all too common.
It is worth noting that faith itself is not something foreign to the life of any scientist. On one level every scientist maintains a faith in the intelligibility of the universe as science simply cannot be done without presupposing this. Furthermore, there is faith in their fellow scientists and their results. While work published by peers and the evidence provided by them can be critically considered, unless one has actually carried out the experiment personally or is in possession of the same evidence, to believe their peers based on this written work is itself faith. This faith may be utterly reasonable and well founded. Yet it is faith nonetheless. 9
More specifically though, the conflict refers to whether faith in God is compatible with a scientific worldview. The answer depends largely on how the term “faith” is defined. According to Dawkins, faith “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”.10 Such a definition could hardly conflict with the methods of science more, nor make faith as a concept more open to ridicule. Science deals with testing, modifying and adapting theories based on evidence. If faith means ignoring evidence as Dawkins suggests then it would be very hard for any thinking person maintain any faith with confidence. To trust science and also have faith would require someone to ground their opinions with evidence whilst simultaneously holding opinions which rely on ignoring evidence. Such paradoxical thinking does not hold up. The same evidential reasoning supporting the scientific opinions rejects those based on faith. To maintain both sets of opinions is logically bankrupt and, since faith is untenable, the science wins out.
So in this sense, science and faith do certainly conflict and debate with people of faith is surely futile. However, there are two vital points in the above argument demanding further consideration: how faith is defined and the nature of evidence. Firstly, consider again Dawkins’ definition. As much as it may suit his anti-faith agenda, it simply does not bear resemblance to the declarations of faith made by any Christian denomination and it is unfair to condemn them based on it.8 None would claim that their understanding of faith is to ignore evidence. It is not difficult to discredit faith as defined by Dawkins but it is up to him to demonstrate that it accurately reflects what faith means to religious people. To slander something which is actually different by merely labelling it as the same is invalid. Compare Dawkins’ definition to one more typical of Christian writers given by W. H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924), “[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct”.8,11 This is a fairer definition to apply at least to Christianity. It holds the core tenets of the Christian understanding of faith but still depends on “adequate evidence”. Faith is not science. It involves more than objective empirical evidence and is something personal. To have faith is not the same as to believe a scientific theory thus the two need not be irreconcilable. Overall, saying that to have faith in God is to lack or ignore evidence simply rings false to the ears of those to whom the term really concerns.
This is where the second vital point beckons for attention. While faith can ask for “adequate evidence”, it has already been discussed that scientific evidence is insufficient for questions like the God hypothesis. Therefore, for the atheist and religious convert alike there must be a leap of faith away from an agnosticism based on science. However, that need not be an irrational leap because such faith may be based on other types of evidence, reasoning and philosophical considerations. It must be remembered that scientific evidence is not the only form of evidence just as scientific truth is not the only form of truth. That is not to say truth is relative; science would not work on that foundation. Rather, that there are for example also mathematical truths, historical truths, logical truths and psychological truths none of which are scientific. To say only scientific evidence is valid in ever pertaining to truth would render the entire legal justice system without basis. This doesn’t make much sense with many atheists also recognizing the errors this scientism presents and rejecting it including Gould and H. Allen. Orr who writes “Gould has, all along, been on the right side of this skirmish. Scientism is naive and it is hubristic. But, most of all, it’s just plain wrong”.4 Science is not the only valid way to comprehend the world. Asking whether it’s reasonable to have faith in God is not like asking whether the Earth is flat. One can look at the photos of Earth from space and conclude it is not. It is more like asking whether democracy or totalitarianism is better. Science cannot resolve an answer but that does not prevent people from making their own judgements. 8
Properly understood, science and faith do not conflict. They do not tackle the same questions of life nor are they rival methods. Fundamentally God’s existence is a matter for philosophy far more than it is for science and to claim scientific proof on the matter is foolish talk akin to that of those who dismiss the findings of science completely. Science and faith each have a stake in truth but neither can ever claim a monopoly on it. While debate on the implications of science on faith in God will surely rumble on, one does not need to be religious to see that it is not a choice of one or the other. To be a scientist and have faith in God is perfectly compatible as evidenced by the lives of many researchers. People of faith should never dismiss the workings and findings of science and nor should scientists fail to contemplate faith for themselves. They may find no case for it. Yet to disregard those innate questions simply because they are not scientific should not satisfy anyone so concerned with truth.
- Penny Sarchet, O. Wilson: Religious faith is dragging us down, New Scientist, 2015. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530050-400-e-o-wilson-religious-faith-is-dragging-us-down/
- Kate Becker, Does Science Need Falsifiability?, PBS, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/physics/2015/02/falsifiability/
- Francis Collins, The Language of God (London: Pocket Books, 2007).
- Allen Orr, Gould on God, Boston Review, 1999. http://bostonreview.net/archives/BR24.5/orr.html
- David Bailey, Is God a scientific hypothesis?, 2017. http://www.sciencemeetsreligion.org/theology/god-hypothesis.php
- Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning Of It All (London: Penguin Press, 1998), pp. 27.
- Debate between Richard Dawkins and Steve Pinker at Westminster Central Hall, London on 19 February 1999, chaired by Tim Radford, science correspondent of the Guardian.
- Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 84-96.
- John Lennox, Can Science and Faith Coexist?, Scientific American, 2015. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/can-faith-and-science-coexist-mathematician-and-christian-john-lennox-responds/
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 198.
- H. Griffith-Thomas, The Principles of Theology (London: Longmans, 1930), xviii