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Are Religion and Science Incompatible?

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 26 · 22

Are Religion and Science Incompatible?

I say, “Yes! And Ne’er the Twain Will Meet!”[i]

Some might read the title of this post and think, “That’s a bold statement, explain please!” Others might read it and think, “Bullshit! There’s no real reason science and religion can’t get along just fine!” So, before we come to blows, let me try and explain what I mean. Still others might think this is a topic they just don’t have an interest in. To them I say, please read on, because it’s a subject that affects you, too, if you are someone who cares about truth. Why? Well, because both science and religion make claims about the reality we all share and they can’t both be right. One claim is true and the other isn’t.

I will explain some of the claims religion makes about reality and how they differ from science in a moment, but first I want to deal with the fact that right out of the gate, religious claims are based on very different standards of evidence from science.

To set the stage for this exposition and with no intent to be pejorative, here are a couple of assumptions that we should all be able to agree with up front:

  1. Science demands physical facts and evidence as “proof,” for its claims.
  2. Religious claims are based on beliefs a.k.a. faith.

No argument here so far, right? If we can’t all agree on these two assumptions, then we are both wasting our time on this post.

To me, “physical facts and evidence” is rather self-explanatory. However, I find myself wondering whether everyone has the same definition of what is meant by “faith”? Just to put us all on the same page, let me try to define the meaning of faith.

Don’t worry. I am not going to dream up my own definition of faith. Uh, well, okay, I may tweak the general definition some. You can be the final judge as to whether the definition I arrive at is accurate or not.

So, towards this effort, I did some research. I spent some time reviewing different religious websites and even several dictionaries to see how they defined faith. I did this mostly because I wondered myself whether my own thoughts about faith were accurate. In the end, what I found on these sites can easily be boiled down to the following definition:

“Faith is the right to believe anything based on no evidence at all.”

That’s faith in a nutshell, folks! Sift through the metaphors and yada-yada you find on this subject on virtually any religious website and they all say more or less the same thing. (I did this so you don’t have to, but feel free to explore…). Sure, you will occasionally find religious sites that talk about having evidence on which they base their faith, but you probably know what “evidence” they are referring to, right?

Yep – the Bible; but if you’d said, Quran, you’d be right, too. The Bible is a Christian go-to example often cited as evidence for religious claims because they believe that the Bible is the word of God handed down to mankind, so it’s got to be true. In the case of the Moslem religion, they go even further. Their bible, the Quran, is said to be the “perfect” word of God and cannot be altered (or mocked), under penalty of death!

We all know, of course, even Christians, that the Bible was not actually written by God, it was written by human men, some of whom believed they were merely recording what God told them to. So, any way you look at it, the Bible, Quran, or whichever holy book, is actually once-removed from God. No burning bush required. These books are artifacts, written by humans.

Thus, using the bible as the “evidence” to justify their faith is rather poor reasoning, isn’t it? Think about it: “Why do you have faith? Because the Bible tells me so.” or “Why do you believe the Bible is the word of God? Because the Bible tells me so.” This type of circular logic is a common pitfall for Christian apologists.[ii] The Bible or Quran can be used as evidence for a number of things that I can think of, but using it to justify believing in a divine anything strains credulity. To cover this point, I think the definition of faith should be modified slightly to say:

“Faith is the right to believe anything based on poor evidence, or worse, no evidence at all.”

For those who hear or read this definition and are thinking, “Wait a minute. A basic tenet of my Christian religion is that when it comes to faith, we should “be like little children.’” When I was growing up this was always said in reference to doing the unthinkable: questioning your faith. All I can say when I hear this is, I get it. I really do. I know that feeling.

As a Catholic, I was taught specifically not to question my faith and I don’t know how many times I heard the New Testament reference that when it comes to our faith we should “be like little children,” meaning we should just accept what we are taught about my religion and push all my questions to the side. I think it’s worth revisiting the origin of this phrase from the Bible, Matthew 18:1-5:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

At least, this is what it says in the English version of the Bible (ESV). Interestingly, in the international Bible there is an additional sentence attributed to Matthew:

Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (NIV).

Call me crazy, but I think the addition of that one sentence changes the meaning of what I and everyone else in my Catholic school were taught about this statement attributed to Christ.

Like most everything Christ is quoted as saying, it is open to interpretation. But, seriously, in this case Christ was NOT saying we should think or believe like little children. He’s instead saying that we should assume the “lowly position” of a child. In other words – and you can Google this phrase just like I did – Christ is talking about humility. He wants people to have the humility of a child, to recognize that they have no control over their own lives, that they have a low position in society and that the only power they have is that granted to them by adults. In a similar sense it is also a statement about pride as Christ is implying we should not be proud, but instead be humble like a child.

This is still, in my opinion, a fucked up thing to tell his followers as it was extremely manipulative. He wanted to get them to willingly capitulate to a higher power, God. But no way was he telling them to accept everything they are told on face value, to not use their brains, to “believe” like a little child who is afraid of the dark. Nor was he saying that children were somehow wise or mature, because any adult certainly knows this is not the case.

So, if this isn’t what Christ was telling his followers, why do Christians churches distort what he did say and tell children to not use our brains when it comes to faith; to accept what our church leaders tell us without question? In Catholicism, of which I was a devout follower at one time, we were specifically told “do not question your faith!” We are specifically taught, “Accept your faith as true, like a child, like Christ told us!”

C’mon. Really? There’s only one good reason we had this repeatedly drummed into our heads growing up: control. Let’s face it, there are many questions religion cannot answer, and this is a highly effective way of nipping such questions in the bud, by telling children not to think. Well, all I can say is that I think this lie is not just wrong, it’s evil.

Let me return now to what I said earlier about religion and science both making claims about the reality we share. Since I was raised in the Catholic Church and am most familiar with its doctrines, I’ll restrict myself to its claims, but what I say applies to any organized religion, I think.

Consider one of the most venerated beliefs espoused by the Catholic church – the virgin birth of Christ.[iii] This is an incredible claim to be sure. Yet, to be a Catholic, you must accept this claim as fact, even though there is not one shred of evidence to even suggest it is true. Make no mistake about it, this is not just a religious or spiritual claim. It is a claim about something near and dear to all humans, regardless of religious belief or lack of belief… biology.

Essentially, the virgin birth of Christ is a claim that purports that 4 billion years of evolution on our planet were tossed aside one warm, starry night in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, as if they didn’t matter. Honestly, to believe Christ was born of a virgin is, in fact, to deny most everything we know about mammalian evolution and the very biology that makes us all human. Let’s face it, in our universe, virgin births just don’t happen. (Well, okay, Parthenogenesis does happen naturally to a variety of insects, fish and small animals like birds, but not in mammals.) Thus, one can’t in good conscience believe in the virgin birth of Christ and also claim to believe in science. They can’t both be right. As neuroscientist Sam Harris has pointed out on numerous occasions:

Religion and science are in conflict because there is no way to disentangle religious and scientific truth claims.[iv]

Of course, in this particular case, the virgin birth of Christ was not a rare event, was it? History, we know now, is rather rich with claims of virgin births. Interestingly, they all supposedly happened before Christ was born.[v] You’ve gotta love the Iron Age! What a magical time!

Here’s another: The claim that Christ died and then rose from the dead after 3 days so that he may later return to the Earth and escort the “saved” to heaven. Again, this isn’t just a religious claim, it is a claim about human survival after death. It is another thing that Catholics must believe to be called a Catholic.

History is full of stories about people other than Christ who were raised from the dead. It’s amazing, really. The prophet Elijah seemed to pop people out of the ground like so many zits and stories say he brought several people back from the dead. You remember hearing about Lazarus, right? Good ol’ Lazarus. I find it very curious that Lazarus came back from the dead and then went home to his family and never said anything more about it to anyone that we know of.

One thing people often forget is that we are told that Christ was not alone the day he rose from the dead. Nope. He had lots of company! Here’s what Matthew 27:51-53 had to say on the subject:

Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints[vi] who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

I’m not sure which is more fantastic, a bunch of dead people being seen wandering about the town, or the fact that the day this mind-blowing event happened, no one, not one single person let alone a historian, thought to mention it in anything they were writing at the time! Did the dead crash any parties? Did they return to the homes of their now remarried spouses and their new families? Awkward! Surely people witnessing this sight would have been talking about it for years, spreading the news, even dreaming about it. One wonders whether the nightmares would ever cease. But nope. Complete radio silence, until decades later.

Speaking of raising the dead, we mustn’t forget about raising the dead on the final day of judgement. Think about it. Every dead person that ever existed is going to be raised and made whole again, as they were in life, only “fixed” somehow so that any maladies don’t exist. This is a belief that is shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As to which scientific laws are broken by this claim, I again defer to Sam Harris:

One is tempted to say, “All of them!” If the basic claims of religion are true, then science is completely blind to the underlying reality and the laws of nature are so susceptible to supernatural modifications, as to render the whole enterprise of science, ridiculous. If, on the other hand, the basic claims about religion are false, then most of the people on this planet are profoundly confused about the nature of reality, and beset by quite irrational hopes and fears, and many people are wasting their lives, spreading a lie and spreading a delusion, often with tragic results. It seems to me that no thinking person can be indifferent between the two sides of this dichotomy.[vii]

At the end of the world, of course, the newly risen dead are supposed to ascend into heaven with Christ. Again, this is not just a religious claim, it is also a claim that human flight is possible without the use of technology! Spoiler alert: I’m unwilling to participate in any flight of fancy (pun intended) that involves humans flying around without wings, as cool as that would be. Sadly, our universe just doesn’t work that way, no matter what the Good Book says.

I hope that I’ve successfully explained myself and made a case for why I do not think science and religion are compatible. I’ll even go a step further and say that not only are they incompatible, they are in fact, directly opposed to each other.

So, believers are caught in the horns of a dilemma. One cannot in good conscience believe two opposing claims. Something must give, because they can’t both be right.

[i] From Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’ ( 1892 ).

[ii] For the time being I’ll ignore the fact that the vast majority of people who believe that the Bible or Quran is the word of God grew do so because they were told this by virtually every adult they ever trusted. Thus, both Christianity and Islam are simply reenforcing beliefs that children are essentially forced to learn growing up.

[iii] Virgin birth is also known as: Parthenogenesis.

[iv] From a compilation of Sam Harris Youtube videos.

[v] Some examples of historical virgin births you might recognize: Babylonian King Nebu-Kuder-Usur; Ishtar, mother of the Babylonian god, Tammuz; Horus, the Egyptian; Hercules, Romulus and Remus; Zoroaster, Mithra; Krishna; and many more. So, in Christ’s time i.e., the Iron age, a virgin birth probably wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows.

[vi] In those days, “saints” was another term for “true believer.”

[vii] From a compilation of Sam Harris Youtube videos.

 

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.