|Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA]|
On the scientific side, progress achieved over the past few decades has been nothing short of astounding. Researchers have unlocked the code of life and read the complete DNA of many organisms (including humans), traced the history of the known universe back to nearly the big bang, and discovered a set of mathematical laws that explain, at a fundamental level, virtually all physical phenomena with remarkable precision. Intriguing new discoveries, such as the detection of the Higgs boson and extraterrestrial earth-like planets, are announced on almost a daily basis, as can be seen by scanning websites such as Scientific American and New Scientist. See also Progress-science.
From a completely practical point of view, the miracles of modern science are plain to see, ranging from airliners, computers and smartphones to modern medicine, which has extended worldwide life expectancy from 35 as recently as 1880 to 71 today, and to over 80 in most developed nations. As a single example, during the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic, medical researchers developed, tested and deployed effective vaccines in just a few months, roughly ten times faster than for any previous public health emergency, a development that many have termed "miraculous." Further, rapid progress across a range of technologies is often applied, in turn, in advance scientific research. Again, as but a single example, full DNA genome sequencing technology has dropped in price by a factor of roughly 20,000,000 from 2003 through 2021, and this dramatically improved technology is now being used to advance research studies in biology, evolution and medicine.
For reasons such as this, any movement that attempts to oppose the progress of modern science is digging a pit for itself and is certain to fail.
On the other hand, religion plays a similarly important foundation in the lives of the vast majority of people worldwide, even granting that participation in traditional forms of worship has declined somewhat in recent years. And it is not just devout believers who find inspiration in religion, at least in religion more broadly defined. For example, a 2014 study found that 59% of Americans (including 31% of atheists, 37% of agnostics and 42% of nones) report feeling a "deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being" at least once a week. Similarly, 46% of Americans (including 54% of atheists, 55% of agnostics and 43% of nones) say that they experience a "deep sense of wonder about the universe" on at least a weekly basis [Masci2016]. One colleague of the present author who hasn't practiced religion in the conventional sense for many years nonetheless acknowledges that with regards to the magnificence of the universe and the elegance of natural laws, he is a "devoted worshipper."
Religion has indisputably inspired some of the world's greatest art and literature. Michelangelo's "The Creation" painting in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel is widely regarded as the world's greatest single work of art. The Book of Job's search for meaning in suffering is one of the greatest works of world literature [Norwegian2011]. Religious motifs pervade the works of Shakespeare. Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B-Minor is one of the greatest works of music [Tommasini2011]. Victor Hugo's intensely religious Les Miserables is one of the greatest novels, and is the basis for London's longest-running musical theater production [LesMiserables2011b]. Even more importantly, religion has played an enormous role worldwide as a governor of charity and moral conduct through the ages. As historians Will and Ariel Durant explained, "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51].
For reasons such as this, any movement that attempts to oppose modern enlightened religion is digging a pit for itself and is certain to fail.
At a high level, it is clear that there is a substantial basis for harmony between science and religion. After all, science has in the past few decades uncovered a world that is far vaster and more awe-inspiring than ever imagined before, and has uncovered a set of elegant natural laws that govern all the universe, deeply resonating with the notion of a cosmic lawgiver in Judeo-Christian religion. How could one possibly ask for more? Further, from a fundamental point of view, science cannot possibly conflict with religion, as the U.S. National Academy of Science explains [NAS2008, pg. 12]:
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. ... In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.
Many in the "religion" camp in this war (mostly a relatively small group of highly vocal writers), in keeping with an inflexible belief that the Bible is complete and without error, insist that God created the Earth (or even the entire universe), complete with all biological organisms as it now stands, just a few thousand years ago. Others in this camp are somewhat more accepting of modern scientific findings, but still agree that science is the "enemy," utterly incompatible with religion, and therefore one must choose religion or science, but definitely not both. These writers often blame scientists for the moral decline of society and accuse scientists of deliberately hiding the "truth." One "religion" camp writer, in a single breathtaking sentence, blamed science for "racism, fascism, Marxism, imperialism, ... Freudianism, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality [and] drug use" (did he leave anything out?) [Morris1997].
So what are we to make of this "war"? Are all scientists hell-bent on destroying religion and morality? Are all religious believers hopelessly ignorant of modern science? Is it necessary to "check [your] brains at the church-house door," as one writer claimed? [Provine1988]. Or is there some reasonable middle ground for thoughtful men and women of the 21st century?
Many of their criticisms must be acknowledged. It is undeniably true that there are numerous translation errors, internal discrepancies, historical difficulties and instances of violence in the Bible (see Bible-inerrant). Sadly, numerous wars throughout history have been fought in the name of religion. Many claims of "miracles," both historical and modern-day, almost certainly have more prosaic explanations. Even on topics of social morality, science can often provide productive insights, which some religious writers are reluctant to acknowledge. In general, it is true that many religious movements need to rethink some of their teachings and practices in light of advances in modern science. But the writings of the "new atheists" provide few new insights on these topics. Instead, the best scholarship on the above topics comes from scholars who are respectful of religious beliefs and values.
Scholars who have analyzed the writings of the "new atheists" have identified serious flaws in their work. For one thing, their "scientific" arguments against God do not have any credibility, since science, by its very definition as noted above, cannot say anything one way or the other about the existence or nature of a supreme being. Another weakness is that these writers presume that the empirical world studied by modern science comprises all of truth and reality. It may be easy to dismiss religion from this worldview, but it is just as easy to dismiss art, literature, music, philosophy, ethics and many other fields that span the human experience. If nothing else, the blustery style of these writers, painting a broad spectrum of opponents with the same black brush, is unbecoming of serious scholarship. If any of these writers were to use this sort of polemic, judgmental rhetoric in a scientific paper, it would be immediately rejected for that reason alone.
Published reviews of the "new atheist" writings by prominent scholars in the religious studies field have been generally rather negative. Karen Armstrong, for instance, wrote [Armstrong2009, pg. 303-305]:
Like all religious fundamentalists, the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem never to have heard of the long tradition of allegoric or Talmudic interpretation or indeed of the Higher Criticism. ... This type of reductionism is characteristic of the fundamentalist mentality. ... [One of the atheist writers] is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations. It was only in the modern period that theologians started to treat God as a scientific explanation and in the process produced an idolatrous God concept.
Even more importantly, the atheist literature typically ignores the hugely important charitable services of modern religion. As Nicholas Kristof writes [Kristof2006]:
Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.
In any event, the writings of the "new atheists" are, for the most part, not published in peer-reviewed journals in the religious studies field, and so cannot be taken seriously by professional scholars. For further discussion, see Atheists and Peer review.
"Creationism," as the term is used here, refers to those who hold that the Earth and all of its life (or even the entire universe) was created in essentially its present form just a few thousand years ago, in accordance with a highly literal reading of scripture, and who reject a broad range of modern scientific thought (see Creationism). Creationism is quite popular: a 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years." [Newport2014]. In recent years, a movement known as "intelligent design" (see Intelligent design) has arisen which generally accepts the old-earth worldview of modern science, but still rejects the notion that the creation could have proceeded (and is proceeding) via natural processes. Many creationists and intelligent design writers are not content to simply state their beliefs, but instead insist that there is solid evidence that proves that science is wrong and they are right. But as Carl Sagan once observed, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" [Sagan1998, pg. 60]. So have creationist and intelligent design writers produced solid evidence to establish their claims?
With regards to traditional creationism, the answer is clear. Modern radiometric dating, which has produced very consistent and reliable dates for the various epochs of the Earth's development, overwhelmingly contradicts the central creationist tenet that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago. Indeed, the young-earth creationist worldview is no more tenable today than is the ancient notion that the sun, planets and stars are only a few miles (or a few thousand miles) above the Earth -- both reckonings are off by factors of millions and billions. And evolution, at this point in time, is much more than a "theory" in the colloquial sense of the word, having been confirmed in hundreds of thousands of exacting studies (see Evolution evidence). Indeed, the latest DNA sequence data (produced thanks to a dramatic drop in the cost of DNA sequencing technology) all but scream "common ancestry between species" -- there is no other reasonable way to interpret these data (see DNA). Research continues, and many new discoveries and adjustments will doubtless be made, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the basic notions of evolution and geology will ever be found to be enormously in error, as creationists insist (see Creationism).
As mentioned above, "intelligent design" writers are relatively more accepting of modern science than creationists. Michael Behe, for instance, has declared that he has no problem with an evolutionary process over many millions of years and the common ancestry of related species, including between humans and chimps [Behe2007]. He and others of this movement mainly question whether natural selection and other natural processes could have been the sole driving forces behind evolutionary advance, arguing instead that nature must have been "designed" by some intelligent agent. But given Behe's approach, one might ask, "What is the point of intelligent design?" If essentially all of the principal assertions of evolutionary theory are granted from the start, and the only question is whether the creation exhibits "design" in some vague, unspecified sense, then there seems little to be gained from intelligent design, scientifically or theologically.
Further, there are significant difficulties even with this more limited agenda. In general, attempting to exhibit "design" in nature as evidence for God is problematic in light of the many features of nature (including numerous features of the human body) that are clearly deficient. At the least, "design" must be thought of in a high-level sense, not in specific low-level mechanics as argued by most intelligent design writers (see Intelligent design). With regards to the technical arguments raised by creationist and intelligent design writers, such as attacks on fossil finds (see Fossils), criticisms of radiometric dating (see Radiometric dating and Reliability), irreducible complexity arguments (see Complexity) and probability arguments (see Probability), the overwhelming consensus of knowledgeable researchers in the field is that these arguments are deeply flawed. They do not remotely rise to the level to pose a significant challenge to modern scientific theories.
In any event, creationist and intelligent design writers have not published their material in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, so they cannot be taken seriously by leading scientists (see Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent design and Peer review).
Creationists inevitably look for God in what science has not explained or in what they claim science cannot explain. Most scientists who are religious look for God in what science does understand and has explained.
One fundamental difficulty with both creationism and intelligent design can be seen by considering the following "thought experiment." Suppose a major international society announced that it had received a communication from a super-intelligent Entity, and the authenticity of this communication could not be denied because it included, say, solutions to mathematical problems that are utterly beyond present human knowledge and computer technology. Suppose also that this communication disclosed that this Entity had initiated or created life on Earth. The next day inquisitive humans would then ask questions such as "What time frame was required for this creation?," "What processes and steps were involved?," "Can we replicate these processes and steps in a laboratory?," "Why was the Earth appropriate for life?," "Was life similarly initiated or created elsewhere?," "Who created this Entity?," "Who created the universe?," etc. In other words, virtually all of the fundamental questions of existence that have intrigued scientists and theologians alike for centuries would remain unanswered. In this light, the creationist-intelligent design approach of merely asserting "God did it," and resisting deeper investigation, is tantamount to a "thinking stopper," reveling in ignorance instead of thirsting for knowledge. Surely there is a more productive approach to harmonize science and religion.
The last straw for many observers is the notion (actually taught by some creationist writers) that the world may appear to be very old, governed by natural laws and the product of a long evolutionary development, but this is only because God deliberately created the world to look that way, perhaps as a test of faith. In other words, when we analyze a rock, it may appear to be millions of years old, based on careful scientific analysis, but in reality it was created just a few thousand years ago with a set of altered radioactive isotopes to make it look old. Or when we view a distant galaxy or supernova explosion in a telescope, those photons reaching our eyes may look exactly like they came from a galaxy or a supernova millions of light-years away, but in fact they were created by God in-flight headed to Earth in suggestive patterns and with a suggestive spectral shift, all just a few thousand years ago. In short, these writers teach, in effect, that God is a Great Deceiver, which is an absurd and indeed blasphemous notion that goes against the entire tradition of Judeo-Christian thought (see Deceiver).
It is also worth pointing out that even from a theological point of view, there are several distinct advantages of a scientific worldview, as opposed to creationism or intelligent design (see Advantages). For one thing, science offers a fairly reasonable solution to the "problem of evil": evil exists, not because God explicitly created evil in the world, but instead because in a world driven largely by evolution and natural law (essential for human free agency and progress), evil inevitably will appear. And more generally, which is a more elevating notion of God: a Being of caprice and mystery, or one who is pleased when humans discover the magnificent universe and its elegant laws and seek to make the world a better place?
Some of this literature, such as the writings on the philosophy of science by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, has significant merit and relevance to modern science. Popper emphasized the importance of falsifiability in science, which remains an important consideration to this day, effectively distinguishing the scientific enterprise from numerous other forms of scholarship. Kuhn observed that science does not advance in a linear fashion, but instead often moves from one "paradigm" to another. Issues such as ensuring that scientific contributions of non-Western societies (such as the ancient mathematics of India and China) are properly credited, as well as dealing with the chronic under-representation of women, racial minorities and indigenous people in scientific research, are certainly important and worth discussing.
But other sectors of this literature in recent years go much further, often explicitly denying that science progresses towards truth of the natural world, and charging that since the entire scientific world is in the hands of oppressive white male regimes, we can safely reject all of its findings. In general, these writers express utter contempt for scientists and the scientific enterprise. Knowledgeable scientists respond that these postmodern writers are hopelessly misinformed, but nonetheless these writers are seriously promoted in some left-wing academic circles (see Postmodern).
In a curious turn of events, these postmodern science writings, by undermining scientists' claim to objective truth, have provided arguments and talking points for the creationism, intelligent design, anti-vaccination and climate change denial movements [Otto2016a]. The far left has met the far right!
Some researchers have tried to explain these facts by proposing a huge ensemble of universes, saying that the reason the Earth and universe are so fine-tuned for life is because if they were not, we would not exist to be here to observe the universe and discuss the meaning of our existence (see Anthropic principle and Multiverse). But even these explanations, which many scientists regard as both vacuous and highly speculative, still fall short of answering the fundamental question "Why does the universe harbor intelligent life?" As physicist Paul Davies observes [Davies2007, pg. 231]:
[H]uman minds, at least, are much more than mere observers. We do more than just watch the show that nature stages. Human beings have come to understand the world, at least in part, through the processes of reasoning and science. ... Nothing ... requires that level of involvement, that degree of connection. In order to explain a bio-friendly universe, [this theory] merely requires observers to observe. It is not necessary for observers to understand. Yet humans do. Why?
Closely related to the inexplicable fine-tuning of the laws and constants of the universe is Fermi's paradox: If life is, as many presume, abundant in the universe, why do we not see evidence of even a single extraterrestrial civilization? At the least, the latest evidence suggests that advanced, technological life is exceedingly rare; in fact, we may be the only technological society in the Milky Way galaxy, if not beyond. Either way, this means that human life is far more singular and signifiant than anyone dreamed even a few years ago (see Fermi's paradox).
As intriguing as these ideas are, however, they still leave many religious-minded persons with a certain emptiness. Does the "God of the big bang" truly coincide with the compassionate, weeping God described in Psalms, the Gospel of John, and in other religious works (e.g., the LDS Book of Moses)? Did Johann Sebastian Bach have the "God of the big bang" in mind when he composed the Mass in B Minor and over 1,000 other inspiring works? Is this the same being that inspired Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Ghandi and Mother Teresa to surrender their careers and fortunes, and instead devote their lives to the poor and downtrodden? Is this the same being that even now inspires countless millions to lead moral, charitable, purposeful lives? Should one base one's personal sense of charity and spirituality on the outcome of some extremely esoteric investigations into physics and cosmology? Probably not.
In any event, the lessons from the creationism-intelligent design controversy are clear: claims that one can "prove" God via arguments based on probability, apparent design or seemingly inexplicable phenomena in the natural world are likely to disappoint in the long run. And invoking a Creator or Designer every time unexplained phenomena arise is a "thinking stopper," burying the grand questions of science and religion in the inaccessible, inscrutable mind of some transcendent Being. At the least, considerable caution is in order (see Big bang theology).
Closely connected with this concept of linear, progressive history is the Judeo-Christian belief that God governs the world based on a system of rational laws. British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that modern science, as it developed in the West, was based on this faith in rationality [Whitehead1967, pg. 17-19, 27]. Similarly, British-American physicist Paul Davies wonders whether modern science would ever have evolved in the absence of Judeo-Christian theism: "Without minds prepared by the cultural antecedents of Greek philosophy and monotheism (or something similar) -- and in particular the abstract notion of a system of hidden mathematical laws -- science as we know it may never have emerged." [Davies2010, pg. 74-75].
In the early twentieth century, French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued that human progress was inexorable, virtually mandated by the natural laws of the universe. He further saw the idea of progress as the one theme that could re-unify science and religion: "To incorporate the progress of the world in our picture of the kingdom of God ... would immediately and radically put an end to the internal conflict from which we are suffering." [Teilhard1975, pg. 96]. Similarly, scholar Robert Wright describes a vector of progress, consisting of ever-widening extensions of human cooperation, extending over several millennia, and encompassing both religion and modern science [Wright2001, pg. 17, 332]:
[I]f ... we talk about the objectively observable features of social reality, the direction of history is unmistakable. When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the "great men" who have strutted on the stage of history, you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And, looking ahead, you see where it is pointing. ... Maybe history is ... not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity.
The idea of progress certainly resonates with many contemporary scientists, such as Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress [Pinker2018], and Oxford physicist David Deutsch. Deutsch writes [Deutsch2011, pg. 221-222]:
Optimism ... is the theory that all failures -- all evils -- are due to insufficient knowledge. ... Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors. There may have been many short-lived enlightenments in history. Ours has been uniquely long-lived.
For additional details, see Progress.
The consensus of knowledgeable scholars who have explored these topics is simply to recognize that while both science and religion are committed to a quest for basic truth, nonetheless at the present state of human ignorance they are better treated as two distinct worlds, since they address mostly different questions with different methods [Gould1999, pg. 4-5]. Recall in the Christian New Testament when Jesus was asked whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus replied, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" [Matt. 22:21]. Similar advice could be offered here: "Render unto science the things which are scientific; and unto religion the things that are religious." In other words, those of religious backgrounds should grant technical questions of the natural world, such as exactly when the Earth was created and how its natural world has evolved, to the field of scientific research, and stop insisting that the Bible or other scriptures are scientific textbooks (they aren't). And those of scientific backgrounds should grant questions of the ultimate meaning of life and moral conduct to enlightened philosophy and religion, and stop insisting that science can displace art, music, literature, ethics, philosophy and religion (it can't).
Along this line, it is worth recalling a lesson from the great ancient mathematician Euclid. According to an ancient account, when Pharaoh Ptolemy I of Egypt grew frustrated at the degree of effort required to master geometry, he asked Euclid whether there was some easier path. Euclid is said to have replied, "There is no royal road to geometry." [Durant1975, vol. 2, pg. 501]. Today we see new attempts to find "royal roads" -- quick, easy paths that short-circuit the long, difficult process necessary to master a field. Some criticize and dismiss religion, even though they have never practiced religion and have never made any in-depth study of theology, philosophy or religious history. Others criticize and dismiss prevailing theories of biology, geology or physics, even though they utterly lack the specialized expertise required to make such sweeping judgments. Both groups are equally guilty of stepping beyond their expertise, and, quite frankly, often only make fools of themselves in the public arena.
Modern science is the most powerful tool known to explore the physical laws and processes that govern the universe. Yet it can say next to nothing about charity, moral values or the ultimate meaning of existence, nor were its methods ever designed to probe such fundamental questions [Boudry2018]. Similarly, religion through the ages has addressed morality and meaning, and is a powerful force for charity worldwide, but scriptures and theology alone provide no clues as to the mass of the electron, the equations of general relativity, or the date of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. There is nothing in modern science that is fundamentally anti-religious or in any way negates the many positive aspects of living a moral, charitable, purposeful life; and there is nothing in modern enlightened religion that is fundamentally anti-science or should by any means stand in the way of scientific progress.
One final note: Just as it is important for science to stay scientific, focused on studying natural laws, processes and empirical data, so it is important for religious movements to stay focused on religion and not embrace, as their central belief system, some particular scientific theory or worldview. As Holmes Rolston observed, "The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow. ... Religion that has too thoroughly accommodated to any science will soon be obsolete." [Rolston2006, pg. ix].
More importantly, both scientists and devotees of religion can stand in awe at the majesty of the universe, which is now known to be much vaster, more intricate and more magnificent than ever before realized in human history, and that human life and civilization are far more singular and significant than anyone dreamed even a few years ago. These developments should be cause for great reverence and celebration among people of all nations, philosophies and walks of life.
Some readers may recall the movie "Contact." When Eleanor Arroway (the lead character played by Jodi Foster) saw a spiral galaxy from her spacecraft, she exclaimed, "They should have sent a poet. [It's] so beautiful!" In a similar way, one reads in Psalms, "The heavens declare the glory of God." [Psalms 19:1].
Albert Einstein understood this principle well, even though he personally rejected many of the traditional Judeo-Christian notions of God. He once wrote [Einstein1930]:
On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. ... Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength.
The astronomer Carl Sagan expressed this same idea in the following terms [Sagan1994, pg. 52]:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.