I listened to Weekend Edition on NPR radio one day in January, 2012 and thought for a moment I was tuned to the wrong station. Rachel Martin’s interview with Alvin Plantinga was such a pile of softball pandering to Christian mythology I found myself smacking my forehead in disbelief.
Plantinga, a self-proclaimed Christian, begins by professing his discomfort with science being at odds with his religion – essentially admitting his goal is to find some way to defend his faith by contriving an accomodation of its preposterous contentions within a discipline of factual knowledge. He then proceeds with a straw man argument that it is ‘naturalism’ as a philosophy, rather than ‘science’, per se, that is in conflict with religion. He proceeds to argue that scientific theories can address only ‘closed systems’ and how, if you consider ‘open systems’, it is entirely conceivable for some ‘god’ to create a horse out of thin air in the middle of Times Square. Sorry, but the last time I checked, open systems were not only well within the realm of scientific analysis, but also subject to physical laws.
So as a professional scientist (and, full disclosure, an avowed atheist) let me set a few things straight. In fact, the multiple incarnations of religion have done more to stifle the intellectual advancement of humanity than any other cultural force in recorded human history. Science, by comparison, provides the best available means of approximating the truth because it is testable – it has proven religious contentions to be false on countless occasions. We can start with earth not being the center of the universe, but the examples are endless. The inverse is clearly invalid. No religion has ever proven science to be false on any matter – ever – not even once. Furthermore, science is infinitely more influential than any religion because it is useful and has predictive power, hence the anguish and discomfort of the pious. The creation myth generates no mechanism for understanding life processes, whereas evolutionary biology provides a unifying famework for comprehending the infinite variety of living things, and their logical analysis.
So here are four basic reasons why religion is completely irreconcilable with science, and always will be.
- “The Word of God”. Montheistic religions are all linked to some ‘sacred text’ whose teachings are sacrosanct and immutable. By definition, the ‘truth’ is contained therein and cannot be changed or improved upon. There is no room for advancement of knowledge (modification of assumptions, refinement of theory, elaboration of mechanisms, enhancement of understanding). This is complete anathema to the enterprise of science, which cautiously avoids assertions of truth and speaks only of the consistency of observations with hypotheses.
- “God did it”. The concept of ‘creation’ of the universe by some omnipotent diety is not a theory of any kind, but a non-explanation that is untestable and leads immediately to a pointless, infinite regression (if so, who created god, etc?) It fails Popper’s first essential requirement of a scientific theory because it is both unfalsifiable and untestable. Furthermore, it is a proposition of no practical utility because it provides no framework for elaborating understanding. It has no predictive power and no useful applications, all properties we demand from actual theories.
- “Have faith in god”. The contention that one should accept anything as truth without evidence is contrary to the essential logic of science, and yet religions demand faith in their doctrines without evidence of their veracity. The substitution of faith for reason requires that one stop thinking critically and analyzing data. Faith amounts to an abdication of intellect and is clearly incompatible with the basic tenets of scientific inquiry.
- “God’s will”. All doctrines of religion seem to hinge on the assumption that god has some design or divine purpose for the world, the human race, and even individual humans, and demands particular codes of behavior and forms of obeisance (often involving self-abasement, self-mutilation, blood-sacrifice, ritualized cannibalism, and other primitive rites) so that outcomes will be favorable for the pious. Herein lies the fundamental reason why believers feel compelled to reject evolutionary biology – it requires an element of chance, or ‘contingency’ in evolutionary parlance. No matter how many times you might re-start the evolutionary clock on earth, you would always obtain a unique and different result because many chance events influence outcomes. The idea that events unfolding under natural laws are in any way subject to an element of chance is precluded by belief in the will of any god. Religions require, nay demand, a teleological world view – everything must happen for a reason, and all processes are ‘guided’ toward some predetermined outcome by an ‘invisible hand’. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for teleological processes – not in biology or in any discipline of science. That’s why we have Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics – the position of an electron in an atomic orbital can only be described as a probability function – we are forced to accept a degree of uncertainty as to its actual location at any time. That’s why we must account for stochastic processes such as genetic drift and founder effects in evolutionary biology, and accept that singular chance events such as asteroid impacts may have had dramatic and irreversable effects on the evolutionary trajectory of life on earth.
In summary, whereas the existence of religion is competely superfluous and inconsequential to the enterprise of science, religion cannot afford to be oblivious to the obvious intellectual power of science. Thus, proponents of religious beliefs have always sought, and will always continue to seek, validation for their mythological delusions within the realm of science.