PZ Myers on the Incompatibility of Christian Faith and Science

PZ Myers on the Incompatibility of Christian Faith and Science June 27, 2009

Related to the issues in my recent posts objecting to religious moderates and intellectuals, here are a few remarks from an excellent piece worth reading in its whole about why science and religion are not compatible from PZ Myers.  I encourage you to click the link and read the whole thing, but here are a couple key passages I mostly endorse and would welcome replies about.

religion is wrong. It’s a set of answers, and worse, a set of procedures, that don’t work. That’s the root of our argument that religion is incompatible with science.

in a debate about the compatibility of science and religion, we have to put the argument in an appropriate context and define a specific shared purpose for both science and religion — it’s the only legitimate ground for discussion. In this case, what we’re trying to do is address big questions (remember, the Templeton Foundation says they’re all about those “big questions”) about the nature of the universe, about our history, about how we function, and then we encounter a conflict: religion keeps giving us different answers. Very different answers. They can’t all be right, and since no two religions give the same answers, but since science can generally converge on similar and consistent answers, I know which one is right. And that makes religion simply wrong.

We have to look at what they do to see why. In order to probe the nature of the universe around us, science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them. We also evaluate our success by whether the end results work: it’s how we end up with lasers and microwave ovens, and antibiotics and cancer therapies.

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be. It’s always wrong, from an empirical perspective, although I do have to credit theologians with some of the most amazingly intricate logical exercises as they try to justify their conclusions. The end result of all of this kind of clever wankery, though, is that some people say the world is 6000 years old, that it was inundated with a global flood 4000 years ago, and other people say something completely different, and there is no way within the body of theology to resolve which answers are right. They have to step outside their narrow domain to get an independent confirmation — that is, they rely on science to give them the answers to the Big Questions in which they purport to have expertise.

So what theistic scientists have to do is abandon the operational techniques of religion and use science to address those questions. The “theistic” part of their moniker is nothing but useless baggage which, if they take it at all seriously, would interfere with their understanding of the world. That is what I mean by an incompatibility between the two.

I got Alexander to agree that he does not use religion in the laboratory — I don’t know anyone who would say that they do, other than creationist kooks — but it didn’t seem to sink in that that is an admission of incompatibility. Religion doesn’t work to answer questions in science, which always leaves me wondering…if you accept that, why do you go on thinking it might be giving you correct answers in ordinary daily life? It has an awfully poor track record.

Now one way the defenders of religion like to get around this empirical problem is to change the game in mid-play: one moment we’re talking about tools for understanding the world, where there is a conflict, and then they switch to a completely different purpose, that of establishing a common morality, or appreciating art, or falling in love. I would be the first to admit that science does not and should not dictate morality: the cases in the past where this has happened (eugenics comes to mind right away) have been disastrous. Science is good at explaining what is and how it works, and not so great at telling us how it should work. I also wouldn’t use the scientific method directly to determine whether I like some music or poetry or not.

However, I’m going to have to say that religion doesn’t do a good job at that either. SJ Gould tried to partition the domains of authority for science and religion by explicitly setting a boundary, and saying religion should have the job of defining what is right and good…but I think he failed, because he gave far too much credit to religion for being able to discern and act on a reasonable morality. It’s foundation on authority and its role in defining in and out groups means it is too exclusionary, too narrow and inflexible, and also too willing to ignore empirical evidence. It’s why we have religion behind such immoral acts today as trying to restrict civil rights to people who have only a certain range of sexual behaviors, or facilitating the spread of sexually transmitted disease in Africa by damning sex education and condom use.

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