Some questions are easy to ask, and also easy to answer. Take for example, peanut butter and chocolate. Are they compatible? The answer is a resounding yes, of course. Or, just as easily, enriched uranium and unprotected human tissue? That one gets you a resounding no. Other questions are easy to ask, but quite hard (or even impossible) to answer. Do you see red as the same color that I do? Not a clue. What happened before the Big Bang? Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It turns out that this might not even be a valid question, much less admit of a sensible answer. Other questions, like the compatibility of science and religion, really come down to a proper definition of terms. As with so many things, a lot turns on what we mean when we say things like “science,” “compatible,” and “religion.” So let’s take a look at what this question is really asking, and then decide what we’ll accept as an answer.
First of all, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. If you’re not interested in getting too deep, or you can’t really be bothered to think about things beyond the surface details, let me just go right ahead and answer the question for you. Are science and religion compatible? Yes, and you need look no further than Francis Collins (or any other religious scientist) for proof. Collins is a scientist, he is a very religious man, and he has not yet (to my knowledge) spontaneously combusted. He, and others like him, are walking, talking examples of the apparent compatibility of science and religion. Easy, right? You can now safely go back to church, safe in the knowledge that your faith can be reconciled with the findings of modern science.
But for those of you interested in looking a little deeper down the rabbit hole, let’s pause for a moment and see what our dear Mr. Francis has actually accomplished for us. What he seems to represent is compatibility between two different areas of human endeavor, those of religion and science. But he has only accomplished this feat by accepting a very flimsy definition of “compatible.” If by “compatible” one means to say that two things are compatible if they can occur simultaneously in the same space, context, frame of reference, or head of a person, then clearly Mr. Collins qualifies. But by this definition, enriched uranium and unprotected human tissue enjoy the same level of compatibility. Both items are clearly able to occupy the same space, regardless of the harm that one will surely do the other. Another good example would be the compatibility enjoyed by married adulterers. Is committed marriage compatible with adultery? Since there seems to be no shortage of persons who manage to be married while simultaneously engaging in adultery, the answer must be yes. There is apparently enough room in the minds of these people to simultaneously hold the thoughts “I am married” and “I am having an affair” without an insurmountable level of cognitive dissonance. And of course we could list countless examples of just this type of minimalist compatibility, from the mundane to the truly extraordinary. So clearly we must mean something more when we say that two things are compatible. What we really mean is, the two things in question don’t have conflicting interests, they share common goals or outcomes, they complement each other in some way, they are harmonious, etc. This deeper meaning of compatibility is what people like Francis Collins would like us to believe the relationship is like between science and religion. Not just capable of coexistence, but truly harmonious, without conflict.
This would be a good time to point out that there is more than one way to have compatibility between two different things. One way is to reconcile the two, as any good accommodationist will tell you has already been done. The other is to decide that there is nothing to reconcile, by virtue of the two things in question having absolutely nothing to do with each other. This second route is that of NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria. Famously popularized by the late Stephen J. Gould, this tactic simply mandated that the realms (or magisteria) of science and religion simply didn't overlap. Science tells us how the heavens go, and religion tells us how to go to heaven. It’s like deciding that the genres of science fiction and romance can’t be in conflict since they exist in different magisteria. One side gets spaceships and aliens, the other side gets swashbucklers and moonlit walks on the beach, and never the twain shall meet. Easy, right?
But here is where we run into the second problematic term of our initial question, that of “religion.” Let’s give religion a broad definition, something like “a belief system involving some combination of tradition, the supernatural, and revealed knowledge.” But it’s not like there’s just one religion, despite what some Southern Baptist fundamentalists would like you to believe. When Gould brokered him infamous peace treaty between the realms of science and religion, his rose-colored glasses must have been firmly seated in place. I can almost see him, gazing off into a future where scholarly theologians shepherded their flocks with hard-won moral instruction gleaned from the brittle pages of some ancient religious text, never daring to tread into areas that might come into conflict with the empirical sciences. Maybe there are religions out there might fit this pie-in-the-sky vision, but to say that they are few and far in between would be an epic understatement. Imagine a religion that concerned itself only with “spiritual, ethical, and moral” matters, deferring to the findings of science, never preferring revealed knowledge to peer-reviewed findings, refusing to accept extraordinary claims of the supernatural without equally extraordinary evidence, never attempting to legislate their religious views on others, ready to change cherished beliefs and traditions when they had been shown to be false. Can you imagine such a religion? If so, that is the kind of religion that Gould envisioned as being compatible with science.
Now ask yourself, what sort of religious person would be satisfied with such a religion? If you’re taking your poll in Tennessee, or any part of the South, the answer would be precious few. Even a religion that only concerned itself with matters of morality would find itself increasingly crowded out by science, since huge inroads are being made into the biological underpinnings of the brain. Once we understand (and can manipulate) the mechanics of morality, what role will be left for religion? No, NOMA is merely a holding action against the stunning success of science, an attempt to wall off some small portion of human endeavor as “sacred.” The reality is that science has been biting off chunks of religion’s magesteria for hundreds of years now, and religion knows it. In the never-ending contest to provide better and better explanations for the world we see around us, science is winning, and winning big.
But what is “science,” in the context of our initial question? Is it just people with lots of letters behind their name, busily shuffling test tubes and launching telescopes into orbit? Is it only the “hard” sciences, like genetics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics, or engineering? Not necessarily. For our purposes, a much broader definition of science will do just fine. We could define it as “rational and empirical investigation, coupled with a skeptical approach towards facts.” So with this definition of science, just how compatible is Francis Collin’s day job with his weekend activities? Just how much skepticism can something like the crucifixion of Jesus stand up to? How compatible is a belief system involving the supernatural with a scientific mindset?
Since I've already acknowledged that there are many different forms of religion, and since I've already been picking on Francis Collins, let’s just keep on with Christianity as our test subject for scientific compatibility. The first thing to notice is how quickly most religious people will point out the improbability of other religions actually being true. Christians will go on and on about how perfectly apparent it is that God created the universe (maybe even in six days,) breathed life into non-living matter, inserted an immortal soul into every person, destroyed the earth in a worldwide flood, sent his son to earth to serve as a human sacrifice to atone for sin, and that he now sits in Heaven where he watches each and every one us every single day—all while orchestrating a Master Plan for us, where we all have a divinely mandated purpose that may or may not include violent death and dismemberment at any given time. And if we somehow manage to successfully act out our part of this Plan, we will spend an eternity in paradise singing God’s praises. If we fall short, however, we can look forward to an eternity of unimaginable torment in a lake of fire, also lovingly prepared by God. Not a shred of evidence is presented to back up these extravagant claims, apart from a few ancient manuscripts handed down from a time of pre-scientific barbarism. But the same Christian will have no trouble at all dismissing something as obviously ludicrous as an elephant-headed god, or the idea that the universe was woven together by a deity from threads of chaos, or even a whole panoply of gods who live in a mansion on a mountaintop. Those things are just silly, and where’s the proof? What, all you have is just some collection of old stories? Suddenly skepticism is the easiest thing in the world, and rightly so. But somehow when the religion in question is held by a majority of one’s peers, and the social pressure for conformity is high, skepticism is hard to come by.
Obviously, the vast majority of believers did not arrive at their religious beliefs as the end result of some process of skeptical evaluation. Certainly Francis Collins did not. Like many believers, his journey was one of emotional resonance that had little or nothing to do with facts, evidence, or rationality. Religion provides comfort and easy answers for billions of people, in a way that science has a hard time competing with. Somehow, the knowledge that we are the latest link in an unbroken chain of evolved life stretching back billions of years into the past lacks the same emotional connection provided by many of the world’s religions. One solution to this problem is to (you guessed it) attempt to make science “compatible” with religion. By liberally interpreting both religion and science, you can come up with a religion that isn't threatened by science and a science that doesn't threaten religion. On the contrary, you can simply attribute all the wondrous discoveries of science to the mysterious workings of some god or other. Has science piled up an overwhelming amount of evidence that evolution is a fact? No worries, just insist that evolution is the mechanism that God chose to bring about humans. Has science shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe is over 14 billion years old? No biggie, just interpret the book of Genesis as a metaphor. If a religious believer is convinced of the truth of their beliefs, they can be endlessly creative in the reinterpretation of those beliefs to fit the present facts. In this delicious display of irony, we can trace the evolution of religious belief as it has been forced to adapt in the face of a relentless assault by science.
So, how should we answer the question: are science and religion compatible? If we define our terms in such a way as to do justice to both concepts, the only honest answer has to be no. There is no scientific support for the supernatural (a necessary component of any religion that we would recognize as such,) and religion has continually given ground in the face of scientific advances. To be clear, science can never rule out supernatural claims. But then again, science doesn’t rule out anything. It merely makes provisional conclusions based on the preponderance of evidence. And based on the evidence, there is no reason to believe that religion is anything more than an outdated explanatory model that has outlived its usefulness. A politically powerful, socially acceptable, longstanding explanatory model, yes. But none of these attributes attest to whether or not religion has anything to say that has any scientific validity, or whether or not science and religion can enjoy anything other than proximity—not compatibility.