Is There a Conflict between Science and Religion?

Michael Shermer in his book How We Believe describes a three tiered view of the relationship between science and religion:

(1) The Conflicting Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion is in conflict. They are different views of the universe and they come to irreconcilably different views. If one is right then the other is wrong.

(2) The Same Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion are not in conflict. They are different ways of looking at the universe but they both are valid. Since “truth” cannot contradict “truth”, they cannot be in conflict. Any apparent conflict then is due to our lack of understanding what the real “truth” of at least one of those views is.

(3) The Different Worlds Model. This model says that science and religion is not in conflict for the simple reason that the world of science is completely separated from the world of religion. Religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.

At one time or another in my life I have advocated all three views. After giving it a great deal of thought I believe the Conflicting Worlds Model is ultimately correct. The only way to avoid conflict is to change religion or science into something that we not call religion or science now.

First, let me deal with the Different Worlds Model. This view was championed by a person I have a great deal of respect for, Stephen Jay Gould. Gould called it NOMA for Non Overlapping MAgisteria. Gould said that science deals with mechanisms of how the universe works. Relgion deals with ethics. Quite a few scientists and theologians have advocated this. I call this the Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along” appeal. I think it is too simplistic.

Certainly science does deal with explanatory mechanisms behind the workings of the natural world. But science can in principle investigate any phenomenon affecting the natural world. So when religion says that God answers prayers, for instance, science can investigate that claim. If religion says that it is possible for a human male to be born of a virgin, science can investigate that. If religion says that the earth was created in 6 days, science can test that too. If religion tells us that God must have made the universe then science can investigate that too.

Furthermore, I see no reason that ethics necessarily be conceded to the sole province of religion. I think non-religious institutions, including science can yield useful insights into ethics.

Some people say that science cannot prove God existence one way or the other. That is too simplistic. Suppose that on December 24th there the bright red star in the constellation of Orion, Betelguese (pronounced “Beetle Juice”) undergoes a supernova (as astronomers say it will one day in the not too distant cosmological future). Suppose also we turn our telescopes toward it and see in perfect Times Roman font “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men – Love God” written in the cosmic dust of the explosion. I doubt if any proponent of the NOMA philosophy would claim that isn’t evidence that God actually exists.

Already some theists have speculated about doing DNA analysis on the supposed blood stains on the Shroud of Turin. What if it shows that there is two sets of DNA. One with an X chromosome that looks just like normal everyday human chromosomes and another that includes the Y chromosomes in which there is no excess DNA. The genes don’t have introns, pseudogenes, ALU repeats, endogenous retroviruses, or any of the other apparent junk normally found in our genome. That would be scientific evidence not only for Jesus’s existence, but for his supernatural paternity as well.

So it is certainly possible to get scientific evidence supporting God’s existence. What about evidence for God’s nonexistence. That can be done as well.

Really?? Isn’t proving a negative impossible? Yes and No. I will agree that we cannot possibly rule out the existence of all conceivable Gods, but we can rule out the existence of certain Gods. Anytime one says something about God’s character, then there are logical ramifications that can be subjected to scrutiny. If the characteristics do not stand up to scrutiny then a God with that type of characteristic can reasonably be ruled out. The only god that science can say nothing about is one that has no interaction with the universe what-so-ever. If such a god exists then at best it is irrelevant to anything in our lives.

So then we are left with either the Same Worlds Model or the Conflicting Worlds Model. I have many friends who are atheists and I have many friends who are theists. Every theist I am friends with would support the Same Worlds Model, every atheist would support the Conflicting Worlds Model. Interestingly there are theists who support the Conflicting Worlds Model too. These are the fundamentalists and I am not on particularly good terms with them. While I reject religion in favor of verifiable science, they reject the science in favor of religion. Even though we are diametrically opposed on most things, I do give them credit for holding a logically consistent position.

The problem I have with my theistic friends is that their apologetics seem to be ad hoc and strained. Let’s take the Genesis 1 account of creation as an example. Genesis 1 says the earth was created in 6 specific days. My theistic friends say that must be read allegorically. “Evening and morning, the [first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth] day” doesn’t REALLY mean a 24 hour day. It means an unspecified length of time that could really be billions of years long.

Why do they say that? The answer is because if you think of it as a 24 hour day then it is obviously wrong. A few of the more studied theists say that even the early church fathers didn’t view “day” as being 24 hours long either. That actually is true. They thought of it as being a period of a thousand years. Why? Because in Genesis 2 there is a second story of creation … the Adam and Eve one.

In that story God tells Adam that if he partakes of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil that in that day he will die. Adam does eat of it but lives another 930 years. So to overcome inconsistency they said that when God said “day” he meant “1000 years”. That must have been among the first of the ad hoc apologetics to come along.

But even if you believe as the early church fathers did you get the age of the universe at 12,000 years instead of 6,000. You are still off by a factor of a million.

Even if you let “day” be meaningless, then you have the problem of coming up with something meaningful as to what creation of light (day 1), creation of firmaments (day 2), creation of dry land and plants (day 3), creation of Sun, Moon, and Stars (day 4), creation of fish and birds (day 5), creation of land animals and humans (day 6), and rest (day 7) mean.

My theistic friends are able to do it. They do it a number of different ways. They do it by making things mean what no one would normally thing they mean. I find this intellectually dishonest. They are intentionally fooling themselves. It is clear what the intent of the author of many biblical stories was. It has also become clear that the bible is wrong in many instances. The only reason to claim otherwise is to reconcile obvious wrong findings.

I think religion DOES make specific testable claims about the nature of the universe. I think science says many of these claims do not withstand scrutiny. The claims that do not withstand scrutiny are numerous enough and of sufficient importance that I think science and religion is basically incompatible. If one is right then the other is wrong. I choose science.

[Note: I origninally wrote this blog here.]


4 responses to “Is There a Conflict between Science and Religion?

  1. I understand how the religious can preach their doctrine and want to claim it as science.There can be ignorance there. Even I see that and I am one of the religious.

    But if science hasn’t proven how the world began, why can’t it get along with religious views that do not contradict current proven theories of evolution.

  2. I meant to end with..I tend to lean towards #3, but haven’t really thought it out too much.

  3. In terms of global warming, every religion is in conflict with “science.” (global warming isn’t really science). Religion isn’t so separated from scientific matters. Check out how most religions disagree with GW at

  4. I looked over your ideas and noticed you are approaching science from a very strange angle. For one thing science cannot prove anything ,it all depends on your starting point, For example God or no God – Evolution or creation – both views are based in a faith. But real operational science lines up with the Bible 100%. for example (DNA-Fossils-Astronomy ,Why we are Here and the purpose of life – all origins are found to line up with but not prove the bible. God seeks a relationship with him based on beleif not religion. Why do we have a seven day week ? Exodus 20:11 24 hour periods earth standard time

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