What Do We Mean When We Say Religion and Science Are (or Aren’t) in Conflict?

What Do We Mean When We Say Religion and Science Are (or Aren’t) in Conflict? May 12, 2016



A news item relating to some research on scientists’ views of religion, originally released late last year, is making the social media rounds again. The story—which, as it typically appears, is either just a direct copy or a summary of a press release from Rice University—asks

Are all scientists atheists? Do they believe religion and science can co-exist? These questions and others were addressed in the first worldwide survey of how scientists view religion, released today by researchers at Rice University.

The principal architect of the study, Elaine Howard Ecklund, is well-known for her work on this issue. The press release goes on to state that

When asked about terms of conflict between religion and science, Ecklund noted that only a minority of scientists in each regional context believe that science and religion are in conflict. In the U.K. – one of the most secular countries studied – only 32 percent of scientists characterized the science-faith interface as one of conflict. In the U.S., this number was only 29 percent. And 25 percent of Hong Kong scientists, 27 percent of Indian scientists and 23 percent of Taiwanese scientists believed science and religion can coexist

Now, when one finally finds the report itself—even the name of which is missing from most media reports, including the original Rice University press release—it’s interesting that these particular statistics are absent. This becomes a little bit more understandable when it’s realized that what was “released” wasn’t actually the real research at all, but just a sort of teaser that, at most, gives selected snippets of forthcoming research by Ecklund and her group. (“Five academic articles have been submitted for review, and many more are in development. Three books communicating findings from the project data are being written.”)

Of course, I mention this only for the sake of accuracy; and perhaps as a note of criticism about misleading media practices when reporting on science and academic research. But what I’m really interested in here is what exactly it means when scientists or anyone else interpret(s) “the science-faith interface as one of conflict” or not.

It might be hoped that more insight on this issue could be found in some of Eklund’s earlier research. Indeed, one can find an article she published with a co-author in a 2009 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, titled “Conflict Between Religion and Science Among Academic Scientists?“, which explores the results of the earlier Religion Among Academic Scientists (RAAS) survey/study.

But, like the most recent report, there’s a striking absence of actual data here—again even the article looks somewhat like a teaser of more comprehensive research. In terms of how scientists themselves understood “conflict” here, there seems to be only a single element of a single table reporting a survey question in which they were asked to deal with this specific issue. From this we learn that out of 1,558 total respondents, 506 respondents (or 36.6%) “Agree that there is conflict between religious and scientific knowledge.”

Even considering that there’s no further elaboration as to whether or not this was the exact wording used in the survey itself, though—or, for that matter, whether this was the only question asked in this regard—we might still make some important inferences here. 

First, there are dozens of ways that we might understand the phrases/ideas “religion and science are in conflict” or “religion and science are not in conflict.” Of course, from the very outset, in speaking of religion as such, both of these sentiments are virtually useless. Both place Christianity, in all its great varieties, and Buddhism and Scientology and Mormonism (etc.) in all their great varieties, on the same level as being equally permissive of scientific knowledge.

But ignoring this objection for the time being—and, for the sake of brevity, taking “religion and science are in conflict” as the exemplar here—most cautiously we might delineate three potential views here: 

  • every individual religious doctrine is in conflict with a relevant scientific finding
  • some religious doctrines are in conflict with relevant scientific findings
  • no religious doctrine is ever in conflict with a relevant scientific finding

(Or, really, to avoid essentializing, we might ideally look toward an even more specific exemplar here: like “every Catholic religious doctrine is in conflict with a relevant scientific finding,” or “no Catholic doctrine is ever in conflict with a relevant scientific finding,” and so on.)

Again, the language of the RAAS survey—”there is conflict between religious and scientific knowledge”—is unclear. It could be interpreted to mean either “there’s always conflict between religion and science” (option #1 above) or #2, “some religious doctrines are in conflict with relevant scientific findings.” It’s interesting to note, though, the specification “religious and scientific knowledge,” as opposed to simply “religion and science” itself. To be sure, this itself could be interpreted as “there’s always conflict between religious and scientific knowledge”; but it could also mean “sometimes there’s conflict between some religious doctrines and some scientific findings.”

Of course, considering that only 36.6% of the surveyed scientists agreed with this statement, we might hope that it means the former. If it meant the latter, this would mean that a full 63.4% of scientists believe that there’s never any conflict between any religious doctrine and scientific findings.

I think it’s fair to say, however, that when people say “there’s no conflict between science and religion,” this is usually just a kind of convenient shorthand for “despite that some religious doctrines are in conflict with some scientific findings, as whole they’re compatible.” (Or, perhaps even more specifically, what they typically mean is “despite that some doctrines of the religion I’m an adherent of are in conflict with some scientific findings, they’re as whole compatible.” Again, I doubt that anyone who would suggest this for Christianity would feel comfortable also granting this for, say, Scientology.)

Even if they mean the latter, though—and again, we might look toward a specific example here, to avoid abstraction or essentialism—the problem is that if a Christian doctrine which is conceived of as being integral to the truth of Christianity itself is in conflict with science, then there’s a sense here in which we might truly say, also as convenient shorthand, something like “science threatens Christianity itself”; even if what we really mean here is only “a particular scientific finding threatens Christianity itself” and not “every Christian doctrine is in conflict with a relevant scientific finding.”¹

To end here: it’s true that in our speaking of “Christianity” as one monolithic thing, we essentialize in the same way that we do when we speak of religion in general. That being said, there’s a good case to be made that when we turn toward specific varieties of Christianity itself, like Catholicism, we can fairly say that there are instances where doctrines integral to the truth of Christianity—again, at least in the eyes of, say, Catholic understanding thereof—are in conflict with science. (I’ve preliminary outlined this here, and have a comprehensive forthcoming post that focuses on the scientific impossibility of Catholic doctrine on the universal genetic inheritance of “original sin”: something indeed integral to the truth of Christianity in the view of Catholicism.)

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[1] In case this wasn’t obvious from the subsequent paragraph, we should avoid saying “science threatens Christianity itself” as such—unless it’s said in a context in which we obviously mean that a particular scientific finding threatens Christianity itself, and only if we’re indeed talking about a Christian group that delineates doctrines that are absolutely essential to Christianity—in the same way that we should avoid saying anything like “there’s no conflict between science and religion.”

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