Science versus religion

Link to BSCE

Link to NCSE

Stephen Jay Gould was wrong to to claim that science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. Religion often encroaches on science's magisteria!

This page contains some personal views on the overlap.

Non-Overlapping MAgisteria

The relation of science & religion

Examples of lack of conflict

Is science compatible with religion?

Some religious scientists claim that it is. Such scientists are useful when there is a need to persuade religious people to accept science. For example, they are useful as witnesses in US courts in cases about keeping Creationism & Intelligent Design out of science classrooms.

I believe those scientists only retain their religious views by compartmentalising worldviews that are inherently incompatible.

Science is slowly showing that we can understand the nature of the universe without invoking any of the gods that people believe in. The "eye" was claimed to need god. Now its evolution can be explained without gods. We are gradually understanding the evolution of the immune system and the flagellum. We are gradually finding that a universe with gods appears to be indistinguishable from one without gods. This is changing religious views about the roles of gods.

Creationists think that kinds of animals were created. ID proponents claim that god helps with areas that they believe evolution can't account for. Some ID proponents such as Michael Behe even accept common descent, although it was clear in the Dover courtroom that he was out of date with science. Theistic evolutionists accept there are no such problem areas, but appear to believe that gods steers thing, that would have worked anyway, in a different direction.

Decade by decade, the opportunities and roles of gods get smaller. Science has already addressed the question "does intercessory prayer work", and found that it doesn't help with patients undergoing heart surgery. Probably more research addressing effects claimed by some religious people will be done.

Twenty years ago I used to say "if gods exist they don't affect us". (The gods I was talking about were not the Christian God, or Allah, or the Hindu gods). In other words, I didn't (and don't) deny the existence of irrelevant gods. But I found, when talking to religious people, that they had no interest in gods that didn't affect us. Their God affected us! And gods that affect us can be tested by science.

The universe may not be godless. But they would be irrelevant gods.

Scientific and religious processes

I am not a philosopher. I am not even a scientist, although I have a degree in Mathematical Physics. I am an engineer. My summary is "sooner or later, science works".

Herb Silverman
"Science works whether you believe in it or not."

Motto of the Royal Society
"Nullius in verba" ("Take nobody's word for it")

Here are 3 major obstacles to extending our knowledge and understanding of anything complicated, such as society or the universe:

  1. There are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right.
  2. Knowledge and understanding come in dribs and drabs, not all at once.
  3. The inquiry is conducted by fallible human beings.

If we systematically address each of these obstacles, we end up with "the scientific method". Evidence-based reasoning; open publication; arguments to force more research; models & paradigm shifts; scepticism; peer review; etc.

If we fail to address these, we end up with out-of-date incompatible religions (plural). The "religious method" often resolves conflict by suppression, including force & censorship, or by spawning new religions. Incremental knowledge can meet resistance for centuries.

Religions start as failed sciences, and continue as hobbies.

Christopher Hitchens:
"What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence"



Alan Cromer: Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science
“ All nonscientific systems of thought accept intuition, or personal insight, as a valid source of ultimate knowledge. Indeed, the egocentric belief that we can have direct, intuitive knowledge of the external world is inherent in the human condition. Science, on the other hand, is the rejection of this belief, and its replacement with the idea that knowledge of the external world can only come from objective investigation - that is, by methods accessible to all. 

Understanding ...

Sooner or later, science works

Consciousness-raiser: "Natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a "God hypothesis" - the illusion of intelligent design - in explaining the living world and the cosmos."


At any time scientists are arguing and disagreeing about lots of science. Some religious people interpret this as evidence of the fragility of science.

But, fifty years later, although scientists are still arguing and disagreeing, it is about different things. The conflicts of fifty years earlier have typically been resolved, by better models, better evidence, or new hypotheses. The revised version of that earlier science has typically become commonplace, and technologies based on it are in everyday use. That doesn't mean the later version is the final position, but within its scope it is of practical use.

(Newton's Theory of Gravity was wrong, and Einstein's is better, although not perfect. But you can still navigate space-craft around the Solar System using Newton's version!)

What scope?

What are the boundaries of science? What topics will it never be able to tackle? I don't know!

Once it was said that it wouldn't be able to tell us anything about the composition of stars, but that phase passed. Then consciousness was claimed to be beyond science, but aspects of it are under investigation. Morality was claimed to be the realm of religion (or other fields), but science can inform us about aspects of altruism. Science has examined intercessory prayer, and is starting to investigate religion itself.

Can science say anything about the existence of god(s)? Science can state confidently that certain types of god don't exist, that certain other types of god are unnecessary, and that certain things supposedly done by god(s) were not.

Among the hard tasks are finding the right questions, and then identifying the right tools (in the most general sense) to answer them. Science often has to approach a topic from an unexpected direction, not from the direction of earlier, poorer, questions.

What about evolution?

Dara Ó Briain:
“ Random things happened, and the useful things hung around. 

The quality of the evidence for evolution

It cannot be over-emphasised just how well-established the science of evolution is, how much evidence there is for it, how modern and up-to-date that evidence is, and how fast, and to what depth, the science of evolution is enriching our understanding of the life on Earth over the last few billion years.

Trying to defend specialised religious beliefs against evolution is equivalent to trying to protect your house against a lava flow by standing in front of it!

Abiogenesis or "the origin of life"

Many scientists exclude abiogenesis from the scope of evolution. I disagree with that attitude.

PZ Myers makes a good case for including abiogenesis with evolution. He refers to Nick Matzke's summary of scientific progress on this topic: "What critics of critics of neo-creationists get wrong".

This is a respectable area of science in which progress is being made. It is a gap that is slowly being filled, and not suitable for a god!

Microevolution and macroevolution

A classic erroneous Creationist / ID statement is that microevolution may exists, but macroevolution doesn't. A useful example of how microevolution accumulates into macroevolution is the realisation of the "ring species". Creatures are in a geographical ring, and adjacent creatures can normally inter-breed. But there is a discontinuity, where adjacent creatures don't inter-breed, and so are different species. So:

A inter-breeds with B, B with C .... Y with Z, but Z doesn't inter-breed with A.

In effect, B, C ... Y are transitional variants between A and Z. But they are all still living!

Evolution and atheism

Contrary to lots of opinions on both sides of the "atheism versus belief in gods" debate, there is no necessary correlation between evolution and atheism. Many atheists have little understanding of evolution. Many religious people and organisations accept the science of evolution. Some leading scientists working in fields related to evolution are religious, and see no conflict. There are two significant connections:

  1. Acceptance of the science of evolution (and others such as astronomy) removes the need for gods as explanations of many features of the universe. This makes it easier to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. It doesn't force a person to become an atheist.
  2. Specialised versions of certain religions, especially Islam and Christianity, adopt views of the universe that contradict the views provided by science. Therefore, they necessarily refute those aspects of science that contradict their specific religious views. (There are several contradictory versions of Creationism, and possibly of Intelligent Design, and they refute different aspects of science. All of them appear to refute parts of evolution).

Most scientifically-literate atheists (and many religious people too) are unimpressed by arguments against evolution. People who resort to attacking evolution typically display both desperation and scientific-illiteracy.

The war between science and religion

Is there a war?

Yes. This is a "war" of enlightenment being fought across generations, with several different "battles": "god versus no god"; "religion - good or bad"; "science - right or wrong"; "where should we find our ethics/morals"? For each battle, we need to advance where we can, and at least hold ground where we can't advance.

Creationism and ID

During debates between evolution (or science in general) and Creationism, there are often two totally different arguments going on at the same time.

One side is trying to show that science (especially evolution) is correct. The other side is trying to show that there must be a religious flavour to education, science, and government. I have suspected that some of the ID "theorists" don't really care a lot about whether evolution is correct. (The "Wedge" document didn't worry about the issue. It was concerned about the "materialistic worldview"). If evolution is correct, that is an inconvenience to be overcome. What matters is whether they can give the impression that it is wrong so that religious politicians and teachers have a platform.

The religious reaction to science

"There was a time when the creeds of most religions could be accepted as unvarnished truth - "taken on faith" - by most of the flock without much cognitive dissonance, simply because humankind didn't yet have a wealth of well-evidenced alternatives to the traditional answers.

"However, since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, it has been downhill for literalism. After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.

"The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals - all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.

"So what's a religion to do? There are two main tactics:

  1. Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.
  2. Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed - not even your own."

Barbour's four categories for relating science and religion


Galileo's clash with the Church concerning his view of the solar system was a historical well-known example of the conflict model between science and religion. A current major example is Creationism. Religion made some statements when our knowledge of the universe was far less developed. Science has shown that those statements are out of date, and simply wrong. Creationism will inevitably lose this conflict for those seeking genuine knowledge:

Trying to defend specialised religious beliefs against evolution is equivalent to trying to protect your house against a lava flow by standing in front of it!


This is Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). The National Academy of Science expressed a similar view in a controversial 1981 policy statement. But religion often encroaches on science's magisteria! The sort of god that isn't in conflict with science is the sort of god that doesn't affect the universe.

Religious people typically want their god to affect the universe! They want prayers to work, and miracles to happen. NOMA is rejected by both typical scientists and typical religious people.


The dialogue model looks for methodological parallels between science and religion. It seeks mutual support on certain topics without resolving fundamental conflicts elsewhere.


The integration model of relating science and theology is sometimes called the "mutual support model". In practice, these cases are often those where religions adapt to science. There appear to be 3 options:

  1. One type of religion stands well clear of science, and therefore most of the time is not threatened by science. If science extends its scope and threatens this religion, the religion will reduce its claims so that it is once again unthreatened. Some types of Buddhism appear to be like this.
  2. Another type of religion seeks gaps in the current state described by science, then claims "god did it". This is the "god of the gaps" theory. Obviously the gaps get smaller over time, so this sort of god gets smaller all the time.
  3. Yet another type claims that the laws identified by science are the methods chosen by God to achieve his aims. In effect, science is simply revealing God's own methods.