Science ≠ Atheism

There’s a post over at Pure Pedantry about the dangers of presenting science and atheism as equivalent or too closely connected; suggesting, for example, that atheism is the natural or inevitable end result of a scientific mindset.

It’s understandable that they sometimes get run together. There is a connection; it’s not a coincidence that scientists are disproportionately likely to be atheists. And because the atheist of the moment, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist by training, much of the coverage of his book and the ensuing controversy has framed it as an argument between science and religion, even though very little of The God Delusion is about science.

I really think this is a mistake, though. And I really think it would be unwise for scientists and atheists to encourage it. Partially this is for the strategic reasons that Jake Young gets into in the post I linked to above: if you link science and atheism, it is likely to make religious believers more suspicious and hostile towards science. It will also make people who for whatever reason dislike science—or are just bored by it—less receptive to atheism. Even if you are keen to promote both science and atheism, blurring the two ideas together is probably counterproductive.

But it’s not just a marketing issue. I’m keen to treat the ideas separately because I actually think they are separate. I’m not making the argument that science and religion are inherently different kinds of idea which operate in parallel (Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’), because I think that’s a cop-out; a way of ducking the question.

No, it’s that, with the glaring exception of Genesis, I can’t see any conflict between science and scripture. Or much connection at all, really. Scientists are obviously going to be sceptical at stories like Christ turning water into wine, but as it happened (or didn’t) two thousand years ago, it’s not really open to testing. Science can point out that’s it’s impossible to turn water into wine or walk on water, but that’s beside the point; everyone knows it’s impossible. That’s why it’s a miracle. Scientists may find the idea awkward, but if a God who works miracles does exist, science will just have to live with it.

When a religion does make a scientifically testable claim—that prayer can help recovery from illness, perhaps—by all means test it, and if, necessary, challenge it. The big one, in this context, is the claim that God made the Earth in seven days. As long as there are a significant number of people who believe in the literal truth of Genesis (or any other pre-scientific creation myth), there is a real and substantial conflict of ideas between science and religion, and I would expect biologists and geologists to argue their case accordingly. And if someone comes forward today who says he can turn water into wine and walk on water (or bend spoons with the power of his mind), then test his claims.

But most of the time, that doesn’t apply. The subjects don’t generally overlap. A mathematical model for the internal structure of the proton is no more in conflict with the sermon on the mount than Aristotle’s idea of catharsis is in conflict with a recipe for fairy cakes.

Of course there is a natural tension between science and religion. The scientific emphasis on scepticism, logic and measurable evidence sits uneasily with ideas of revelation, faith and subjective religious experience. Religion’s apparent view of humanity at the centre of creation sits uneasily with the idea of evolution as a contingent, undirected process. As an atheist with an interest in science, I find the two things complementary, but they are not equivalent or inseparable.

And the main arguments against God are not scientific arguments. They may be in a similar intellectual tradition, but they certainly aren’t the result of scientific research or scientific knowledge; I imagine they had been thoroughly argued over well before most of modern science existed. The broad-brush arguments are philosophical, and the arguments against details of scripture are mainly drawn from history, archaeology, textual criticism, comparative theology and so on. Science, by providing enormous explanatory power without reference to religion, may have weakened the authority of religion, but largely without directly contradicting it (with, again, the glaring exception of Genesis).

If I was trying to convert someone to atheism, I can’t think I’d even invoke science at all. Assuming they weren’t a creationist, it just wouldn’t seem relevant.


  1. 13 September 2007 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    A very sensible post, Harry. Thanks.

  2. 13 September 2007 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Not only sensible, but sensitive to the diversity within religious points-of-view — something I’d like to see more often in these kinds of arguments. I got very frustrated this past weekend with a friend who’s now an atheist, and who assumes that the majority of Christians subscribe to the kind of fundamentalism that he once professed.

  3. 14 September 2007 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    What they said.

    I really like this post, and the one you linked to. And I agree; the big arguments about the existence of God are philosophical, rather than scientific. I don’t see much conflict between the two myself.

  4. Harry
    15 September 2007 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Glad you all liked it :)

  5. Brian
    1 July 2008 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    This peace caused me think. And what I think is simply that science is a method of thinking. Religion is not really a method. It is more of an entity. Faith on the other hand, I can see as the method with which religion, not very much like science, comes to conclusions about the cosmos. So in that sense, I agree that religion and science are not in conflict. Science and faith however are directly in conflict, as they always have been. Thank you for causing me to think.

  6. Brian
    1 July 2008 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Wow. I just realized how long ago you wrote this. Hopefully it provides some insight on something you haven’t looked at in a while? Hopefully.

  7. Harry
    1 July 2008 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    That’s OK, old posts never die, they just drift off the front page :)

    Science and faith however are directly in conflict, as they always have been.

    Yes, I agree with that. As I say, I do think that science and atheism are complementary; there’s a natural sympathy between them. But they aren’t the same, I think, and it seems like an important distinction to make.

  8. mike
    25 July 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I want to challenge the “Science v Genesis” assumption. If you remove the bits about “evening and the morning” then the actual sequence is remarkably close to the scientific view.
    In fact if you imagine trying to explain the present-day scientific view to members of a desert tribe of (say) 3000 yeas ago, and that they then wrote down what they thought you had said, the result might be very much like Genesis.
    Maybe reliigion and science are not that incompatible after all ?

  9. Harry
    25 July 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid I disagree. The creation of sun, moon and stars after the creation of plants is the worst error, but the creation of birds before land animals is also strikingly wrong. To describe it as ‘remarkably close to the scientific view’ seems like special pleading. And there’s more to Genesis than Book 1: there’s still the problem of Adam and Eve, the flood and so on.

    Most modern Christians have abandoned a literal reading of Genesis and so that particular conflict is avoided. And that’s fine; you can treat it as symbolism or metaphor or folk myth or whatever.

    But I don’t think you can have it both ways: Genesis is not an accurate or even approximately accurate account of the origins of the universe, Earth or living things.

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