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Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

A William James, Albert Einstein Perspective

Welcome to From Insults to Respect. Today we take up the question, can the science minded and religious minded legitimately take up an attitude of mutual respect?

There are, of course, people who fervently believe that opinions that do not rest firmly on the broad shoulders of scientific evidence are nothing more than superstition. Many of these individuals, as soon as they hear that a person is religious, give off vibes of disdain.

Meanwhile, there are religious folks who believe that science minded individuals have led to a world of atomic energy catastrophes, billowing coal chimneys, people with their noses in their devices while tending to their babies, etc. In their hearts, these religious folks angrily believe that the science minded are leading humanity down a filthy, destructive path.

Then there are people who richly agree with Albert Einstein when he wrote, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Oftentimes, these differing beliefs are embedded in hearts so bound up with barbed wire that probably nothing I can say will produce any significant change. I get that. Nevertheless, I am determined to present a view that might move a few folks from where they currently stand on this issue to where the view is distinctly more rewarding. I, myself, underwent a distinct change in attitude with regards to the respect I hold toward folks with differing attitudes on this topic, so perhaps my goal is not entirely hopeless.

We’ll begin with a quick look at the nature of science and religion from the perspective of psychologist and philosopher William James and the physicist Albert Einstein. Then, I’ll share my own views on the compatibility of the two realms of understanding. A little paragraph written by Albert Einstein will bring today’s discussion to a kind of conclusion. Of course, the real conclusion is open ended because of the discussions that will continue long after this post has been published.

The Nature of Science and Religion

William James made a distinction between two orders of inquiry concerning anything.

“First, what is the nature of it? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value…. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.”

As Einstein put it, “It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space.” With these rules, we are able to predict the behavior of phenomenon in certain domains, sometimes with incredible precision. For example, the position of the planets within our solar system may be calculated in advance with great exactitude on the basis of a number of simple laws.

Religion, in contrast, seeks to deliberately nurture the moral sense. For Einstein, “A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value.”

Now, although science and religion are two orders of inquiry that are not deduced immediately from the other, we can choose to utilize both according to our own values. Consider a married couple, Laura and Harry, along with their greatest treasures, two beautiful children.

The Laura and Harry Parable

Laura and Harry live in Syracuse, New York. It is Christmas time, so they are wondering about the wisdom of driving the family to New York City for a visit with their parents. They are aware of information acquired according to sound scientific methods that indicate an increased risk of a deadly crash in this region during this time of year.

As Christmas day approaches, at church their minister gives a stirring presentation on the importance of honoring your mother and father. Moreover, he presents a beautiful picture of families uniting during the holidays. From Laura and Harry’s religious experience at church, family values are placed alongside the driving risks that science has provided.

Laura and Harry decide to drive to New York City, but make sure that all seat belts are properly fastened because science methodology indicates that this can reduce harm in case of an accident.

From this little parable, we see that in making the decision to go to New York City, Laura and Harry chose to consider science information while also considering values that were enriched by their religious experience.

The Compatibility of Science and Religion

Did Laura and Harry make the right decision? The question may seem easy if they had a great time and came back uninjured. But what if they had had a terrible accident? Would this require that they conclude that they had made the wrong decision? Can science answer this question?

No. Science can provide a statement like the following: 22,272 families drove over 300 miles through terrain that was similar to the terrain Laura and Harry drove during the Christmas season. Of these, there were 14 families that sustained an auto accident injury and 4 deaths. Going beyond statements of this type takes us out of the realm of science. People still have to decide what is right or wrong based on their values and whatever information they believe is most relevant to them.

If some, upon hearing that the family ended up having a terrible accident, concluded Laura and Harry made the wrong decision, they would be entitled to their opinion. And if some, upon hearing that the family had a terrible accident, refuse to second guess Laura and Harry’s decision, respecting their right to choose between complete safety and seeing their extended family during Christmas, they too would be entitled to their opinion.

Some Arguments Against and For the Compatibility of Science and Religion

Now, some science minded folks well recognize that some decisions must be made before the availability of sufficient scientific evidence. They argue that in such cases, they don’t need any religion to tell them what is right and what is wrong, they can decide that perfectly well on their own. I, for one, am on friendly terms with these people. I am not seeking to force religion on them. At the same time, I know there are people who choose to participate in a religion, valuing the stirring lessons from their clergy, the social connections, and the community support for worthy causes. They choose to use some of what they experience by being a member of their religion to make some of their decisions. I, for one, am on friendly terms with them. I don’t see the sense of automatically disdaining either the science minded or religious minded.

Some people in the science camp like to point to several religious related incidents, such as planes crashing into the World Trade buildings, in order to condemn all religion. But there were people in the science camp during the religious hating Soviet Revolution that participated in the slaughter of millions. Moreover, during the Nazi regime, Hitler found plenty of science minded people willing to aid in the carrying out of atrocities.

Yes, we can find within both groups people with whom we very much disagree. At the same time, it has been my experience that as I have gotten to know religious and science minded folks, most turned out to be decent and well worth respecting.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty science minded people have with religion is that it promotes magical thinking. I hasten to point out that not all religions do so. For example, the Transcendentalists, with Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of their most eloquent writers, embraced principles of science. The Dalai Lama, as well, presents us a religion very open to what science can teach us.

Let me add as well, with regards to this magical thinking issue, that many people who view themselves as religious, well recognize the magical thinking that appears in their scriptures, but do not accept them. Instead, they view them as comforting to those who don’t have a scientific mind, then they slip by those sections of scripture to those that they more highly value. We can liken it to a guy who recognizes that his mother holds some beliefs with which he completely disagrees, but he continues to love her for all the other aspects of her life that so beautifully nourishes his existence.

Yet, another issue regularly arises when the science versus religion issue comes up. This one has to do with the wisdom of remaining skeptical until we have sound science evidence to support our position. I can see some merit in that. At the same time, in real life circumstances, a question comes up regarding just what is the point at which our opinion should be coerced by the existence of sound science? Bear in mind that there was not so very long ago a procedure known as lobotomies. This brain surgical procedure was viewed as being backed by such solid scientific evidence that powerful people were able to involuntarily subject less powerful folks to the scalpel. It didn’t turn out well, at least not for those who had part of their brains gouged out.

Then there were scientists who assured us that the Fukushima nuclear power plant was safe. In the end, it poisoned a beautiful sea side section of our planet. So, there are good people who are hesitant to accept what science folks tell us. Is it wise to treat them with disdain, or to remain on friendly terms with them while respectfully disagreeing?

In his essay titled, “The Will To Believe,” William James, despite considerably lacking himself the religious sentiment, brilliantly defends his father’s religious beliefs. James points out that in most areas of human life, science simply has not come far enough to determine with any great precision what is the most favorable road to travel. The variables that in a controlled lab seem somewhat predictable frequently become entangled in so many other variables out in the more natural world that we must make decisions as best that we can, guided by nonscientific lights. Having some faith, even without sufficient scientific evidence, may be helpful.

“Do you like me or not?—for example. Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation. The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt […] ten to one your liking never comes. […] The desire for a certain kind of truth here brings about that special truth’s existence; and so it is in innumerable cases of other sorts.”

For James, some people possess a strong religious sense, others less so, and others find a void in that section of their brain. Where is the evidence that any one of these types are somewhat less human, or less worthy of respect? Perhaps there is some value in having some diversity within the human species.

In concluding this post, I leave you with a quote from Einstein, who encouraged us to “not only tolerate differences between individuals and between groups, but we should indeed welcome them and look upon them as an enriching of our existence. That is the essence of all true tolerance; without tolerance in this widest sense there can be no question of true morality.”

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

William James on Child Discipline
Is Life Worth Living?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

8 Comments

  1. Yes, science errs in many instances of history. It does so by having ignorant people that place economic interests above reason, like those who developed the Fukushima plant, the oil industry, and those who are climate change deniers.
    However, pure science is founded on reason and experimentation, devoid of politics and economics. Most religions, with the exception of Buddhism, Taoism, and a host of others that do not posit a supreme deity or fictional historical legacy like Christianity, are based on a delusion and capture their followers in a folie à deux or mass delusion. Pure and rational science does not take that route

    • Much thanks for your comment, Jasenn. I think that for some, the idea of a delusion may be apt, but I prefer to view the “fictional history” aspect of religion as an effort to provide a useful narrative to explore moral issues.

  2. Dr. Rubin: Good and balanced post. Just to add a thought to it: The concept of religion referred to in the text is more related to a moral perspective, the perspective of good and bad. But religion in its purest sense, belongs to a region that is BEYOND morality. The choices of good and bad is more of a consequence of connecting to that plane beyond the good and bad. In other words, morality is not causal, but is more consequential. Having said that, both science and religion have their relevance for human life and their scope often intersects. They are not binaries, anyway. A truly scientific mind ends in religiousness and vice versa. A major difference would be that science focuses primarily on causality whereas religion focuses primarily on teleology, and since these beginning points are different, their courses of journey are also different; and isn’t it wonderful to have both perspectives guiding us!

    And just to add a comment on Jasenn Z’s comment on “fictional historical legacy”: Don’t we look at scientific theorems as “whether it works or not” and not as “whether it is true or not?” Fictions do help. The universe is not only made up of atoms (science), but of human stories (religious view). Both works!

    • Hi Paulson Veliyannoor,
      I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comment. In case some of my readers are unfamiliar with the term “teleology,” here’s what it means:

      1. philosophy
      a. the doctrine that there is evidence of purpose or design in the universe, and esp that this provides proof of the existence of a Designer
      b. the belief that certain phenomena are best explained in terms of purpose rather than cause
      c. the systematic study of such phenomena
      See also final cause
      2. biology
      a. the belief that natural phenomena have a predetermined purpose and are not determined by mechanical laws

      In addition to providing this definition, let me also add a comment about your idea that religion, in a sense, belongs to a region that is beyond morality, or beyond good or bad. I know people who find this idea feeling right to them. For example, they say that it is wrong to pray to god seeking something good will happen to them, such as becoming rich, or getting a new job that they crave. Instead, praying should be done to help you serve god-rather than that god should serve you by giving you the thing you are praying for. I wonder if this touches upon the point you are seeking to make.

      In any case, thanks for the comment, and I hope to hear more comments from you in the future.

  3. Is that an actual quote from Einstein at the beginning of the text or a misattribution? I’ve closely read Einstein’s essays on religion and do not recall him making such claims.

    Do you have references to the primary texts for each quote?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Mark Collins. The “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” quote is from Einstein’s book, Albert Einstein: Out of My Later Years, page 26. All of the quotes are from the first 30 pages of that book. If you need another specific reference page for a quote, please let me know.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. If this is a topic of interest for you, you might want to pick up Lord Jonathan Sack’s “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” where he explores this topic in greater length.

  5. Forgive me if this has already been said, but the message is very significant. When we take science to the most extreme state, such as when explaining about the Big Bang (or for that matter some other theory about the start of our universe), we find ourselves entering into a religious topic. From where did the Big Bang originate except from an entity that was both timeless and all-powerful, in other words from God. And how do we explain the results of evolution which we see today in nature, except by some kind of Eternal Plan.

    The trouble with religious faith is that it must be 100% true, and the trouble with scientific knowledge is that it ain’t!

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