Posted on 12 March 2012.
Whenever faced with the challenge that science is incompatible with faith, theists often point to their faith’s own cadre of accomplished scientists to refute this frequent atheistic claim. And they would not want of examples. Just grabbing from the Roman Catholic Church’s litany of scientists will give you many luminaries of the sciences, many with the honor of being called “father of” such and such science or their name being used as units of measurement.
- Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was an Augustinian friar.
- Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, named oxygen and hydrogen.
- Alessandro Volta was a physicist who invented the battery and is the namesake of the measurement for electric potential.
- Louis Pasteur was a chemist and microbiologist who is often regarded as one of the fathers of the germ theory of disease.
- André-Marie Ampère was a physicist and mathematician who helped discover the link between electricity and magnetism and is the namesake of the measurement for current.
- William of Ockham, the namesake of Occam’s razor, was a Franciscan Friar.
- René Descartes, most famous for cogito ergo sum, was a mathematician as well as a philosopher.
- Blaise Pascal, the originator of the Pascal’s Wager, was a mathematician and physicist, who is the namesake of the measurement of pressure, stress, and tensile strength.
- Georges Lemaître was the first person to propose that the universe was expanding, but he is more famous for proposing what we call the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe.
This is but a smattering of all the Catholic scientists who have contributed greatly to the progress of science. Some of them had overtly pious intentions for their work—in order to more perfectly understand their Creator’s work. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the biggest patrons of the sciences dating back to the Middle Ages with precisely this purpose of appreciating the design of the Intelligent Designer. With such intellectual giants who profess faith in Catholic dogma and such explicitly religious motives, how then can the atheist even suggest that faith is in conflict with science?
Is pseudoscience compatible with science?
The existence of religious scientists only proves, as Sam Harris observes, that good ideas can live with bad ideas in the same head. The proponents of the compatibility of faith-based religion with science seem to miss the fact that the acceptance of scientific discoveries of religious scientists is because these findings have survived the rigorous testing of the scientific method. Lemaître’s Big Bang theory is accepted by scientists not due to any purported theological consistency but because it is the best explanation for our observations. That he was religious was purely incidental to the value of his scientific insight.
It is also important to point out that many scientists are religious simply because most people are religious. Centuries ago, only those with the power and wealth of their Churches behind them had the luxury of spending their time reading and experimenting. Not to mention, atheists (often lumped by those in power with worshippers of foreign gods) have been persecuted since the name was coined.
When the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé said that the cyclic structure of benzene came to him in a dream involving a snake biting its own tail, his idea wasn’t accepted for its esoteric merits, it was accepted on the strength of the scientific evidence he presented after this strange epiphany.
One of humanity’s greatest minds, Isaac Newton, was quite the dedicated alchemist. He wrote over a million words on the topic. His work on alchemy was even integral to his work on optics. But, none of this suggests that the pseudoscience of alchemy has no conflict with science.
We find that to the extent that religious scientists are not dogmatic and employ reason and evidence, they are good scientists. That is, we expect religious scientists to cut away all semblance of religiosity from their output before we deem them credible. This does not speak well for the argument that science and faith are compatible.
A brief digression on Galileo
No essay on the conflict between science and faith would be complete without a mention of Galileo Galilei. Apologists dismiss the Galileo affair as a trial of his arrogance rather than of his ideas, which they found erroneous not just based on scripture, but also based on empirical facts.
Galileo published the first scientific work based on observations through a telescope. He saw that, contrary to the Aristotelian idea that all celestial bodies are perfectly smooth spheres, the moon had mountains. He was also able to discover four moons orbiting around Jupiter. From these, he contested the prevailing Aristotelian and Ptolemaic dogma that all celestial bodies revolved around the Earth. He further proposed, though none of his observations directly suggested it, that Copernicus was right that the planets, including Earth, orbited around the Sun.
Even scientists such as Tycho Brahe found Galileo’s endorsement of the Copernican heliocentric model to be misplaced, saying that it was not supported by the evidence. And, truly, there was a problem with Galileo’s science. Using circular orbits, Copernicus’ solar system relied even more on ad hoc mathematical corrections called “epicycles” to match observations, suggesting that planets would revolve around separate axes all the while traveling in a larger orbit around the sun. It was even more complex and unintuitive than Ptolemy’s geocentric model.
However, Galileo was censured by the Inquisition not because of his bad science but mainly because he contradicted the geocentrism of the Bible and the documents of his trial attest to this. Apologists tend to parade around his errors and “arrogance” in promoting the Copernican system as the central reasons behind his eventual condemnation and house arrest, but this is clearly not the truth.
The Inquisition in 1616 saw heliocentrism as “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.”
Galileo went on to write Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, which lampooned geocentrism by writing about an ignorant proponent, named Simplicio, debating with an intelligent heliocentrist, named Sagredo.
His persecutors themselves were clear that Galileo’s crimes were not of arrogance or for faulty science, but of heresy. Upon sentencing in 1633, Galileo was condemned for heresy “of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture.” He would be able to avoid penalty provided that he “abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you.” He eventually did so. Dialogue was banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo spent the last years of his life in house arrest.
The real conflict between science and faith
At the heart of the conflict between faith and science are their contradictory value systems. Science requires evidence for any and all claims looking to be accepted. Faith holds unquestionable belief even when evidence is nonexistent.
Science relies on self-correction. Scientists must admit to their errors and argue only with evidence. This is why science is the best method of knowing the human race has ever produced. No religion has ever come close; no religious explanation has ever replaced a scientific explanation.
Faith is most visibly at odds with science when religions make baseless scientific claims such as those concerning the efficacy of prayer, the origin of man, or the nature of the mind. If science finds that prayer is ineffective, that there never was a “first” man or woman, or that free will is an illusion, someone with an honest scientific mindset can only reject their preconceived notions in favor of a better understanding of the universe. The improvement of knowledge is the hallmark of science—a feature religious faith can never share.
Faith is incompatible with science because science requires freedom of thought. In principle, science has no heresies, blasphemies, or sacred cows; the only limit is reason. Science can only thrive when scientists are not intimidated or forced to shy away from difficult answers that may contradict long-held beliefs.
The example of Galileo is often shrugged off by apologists as anti-Catholic spin or, at best, that it is not representative of the Church’s relationship with science. And, to be fair, it is true that this event is atypical. The Roman Catholic Church is not antagonistic to all science, just the parts problematic to their ideology. In order to soothe the congitive dissonance caused by their enjoyment of the fruits of science, apologists must conveniently gloss over the real conflict between science and faith. Science will always be hostile to the restraints of the religious mindset. In order for faith and science to coexist, science must be neutered, declawed, and defanged.
It is only fortunate for us who live in this day that faith has fallen so far now that it has been forced to ingratiate itself with modern secular society. It no longer holds the power to execute heretics or punish those who dare to think for themselves. We must never forget how the Churches acted when their power was more than just ceremonial.
Galileo may have been wrong (or not completely correct), but so have thousands of other scientists who have never faced the wrath of the Inquisition, whose books have never been denied to the public. It was only because Galileo had the gall to challenge scripture that he faced the consequences. Faith is only chummy with science insofar as it does not challenge core beliefs. In this way, religions are not patrons of science, but of science products. They are open to enjoying the spoils of the critical nature of science without appreciating exactly what makes science worth a damn—its complete lack of dogmatism. It is the very character of the scientific attitude that makes the clash between science and faith only inevitable.
Image credit: Ies Dionisio Aguado