Irreconcilable Differences by James W. Williamson, M.D. (August 2000)

The majority view of the relationship between science and religion is that they represent entirely different approaches to understanding the universe and are complementary. Actually, when we consider the evidence, I think you will agree this view is muddleheaded and incorrect. The bitter struggles between religion and science are meticulously documented in the classic book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew White. This treatise demonstrates the repeated pattern of pronouncements by the church on how the physical universe works based on beliefs without evidence.

These beliefs were then challenged by science with evidence and turmoil always ensued. Lacking evidence, the church fought back with the weapons at its disposal: expressions of outrage, ridicule, imprisonment, torture, execution, and military conquest. Eventually the church lost every conflict with science and adjusted its doctrines to accommodate the new scientific information, except, of course, for the fundamentalists who refused to believe any amount of scientific documentation. A review of the contentious and violent history of the relationship of religion with science does give us encouragement.

Religion has never been able to permanently suppress any scientific truth. No reasonable person any longer believes that the earth is flat or that the sun rotates around the earth. If religion had stuck to making pronouncements about its supernatural world, even though science finds no evidence of such, then the fierce conflicts of the past could have been avoided. But the church, with characteristic hubris, couldnÕt resist offering its own biblical interpretations of physical phenomena that turned out to be completely wrong on each occasion.

So what is the fatal flaw with religion that has caused it to lose each and every argument with science? It can be summed up in one word: faith. Faith, which is so glorified by religious people, is the fundamental and irremediable defect. According to WebsterÕs Dictionary, faith is described as Òunquestioning belief.Ó In other words, faith is belief without physical evidence. Lack of evidence, when dealing with a claim that seems preposterous to a reasonable person, can test and enhance a personÕs faith. To believe that during communion the wine and bread are symbols of the SaviorÕs blood and flesh is not a difficult concept for a religious person to believe. But to believe that they are literally the blood and flesh does indeed require a high degree of faith. The major difficulty with faith is that beliefs can never be proven objectively, and differences in beliefs have no basis for being resolved rationally and peacefully. Science, on the other hand, reaches its beliefs based on evidence that is extensive and reproducible. This profound difference in concepts of how to reach conclusions about the physical universe is the reason religion and science will never be compatible. At best, these warring factions can only have jittery and temporary truces. The only reason we have an uneasy truce now between the parties is that religion has lost every battle in the past. Only these repeated embarrassments have made the mainstream churches more docile.

But the acceptance by mainstream churches of the major tenets of science is partly illusory since they only incompletely and halfheartedly accept and subtly undermine these positions. For example, they continue to preach the Genesis version of creation, state that God created man, and endorse the concept of miracles. The fundamentalists are a particularly stubborn and irrational group. They never seem to learn from religious past defeats. Incredibly, they are still claiming biblical infallibility. Certainly, much of the blame for the sorry state of the publicÕs knowledge of science must be placed on religion. A recent Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans believe that ÒGod created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.Ó Forty percent believe evolution occurred, but that God has overseen the process.

Will science and religion always be like an old mismatched married couple, arguing and brawling to the end? It really depends on religion. If it wholeheartedly adopts only scientific reasoning and rejects all interpretations based on faith to explain the physical universe, then we could have a peaceful but vigilant truce.

The prognosis, however, is guarded at best. James Williamson is a physician and Foundation member who lives in Florida.

Freedom From Religion Foundation