Lawrence Krauss has an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal explaining why God and Science Don’t Mix. The article came from his participation in a panel discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City on Science, Faith and Religion. Krauss argues that “A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can’t act like one.”
There are difficulties in questioning whether science and religion are compatible. There are many scientists who are also religious, while there are also many religious conservatives who see science as a threat. Krauss wrote:
These scientists have been castigated by believers for claiming that science is incompatible with a belief in God. On the one hand, this is a claim that appears manifestly false — witness the two Catholic scientists on my panel. And on the other hand, the argument that science suggests God is a delusion only bolsters the view of the of the fundamentalist religious right that science is an atheist enemy that must either be vanquished or assimilated into religion.
Coincidentally, I have appeared numerous times alongside Ken Miller to defend evolutionary biology from the efforts of those on various state school boards who view evolution as the poster child for “science as the enemy.” These fundamentalists are unwilling to risk the possibility that science might undermine their faith, and so they work to shield children from this knowledge at all costs. To these audiences I have argued that one does not have to be an atheist to accept evolutionary biology as a reality. And I have pointed to my friend Ken as an example.
The views of fundamentalists are inconsistent with science and what we know of the real world as they reject scientific findings which conflict with religious teachings. Religious fundamentalists develop a wide variety of arguments to contradict scientific findings where science conflicts with their views on subjects such as evolution and the age of the earth. Some will argue that any evidence that the earth is older than 6000 years was planted by God to test our faith. The Discovery Institute has published numerous claims to oppose evolution which fail to hold up to scrutiny.
Science, in contrast, is constantly tested and theories must be abandoned if they are found to be inconsistent with the evidence. P.Z. Myers describes the difference between obtaining knowledge of the universe with the scientific method versus explaining the universe based upon religious dogma:
We have to look at what they do to see why. In order to probe the nature of the universe around us, science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them. We also evaluate our success by whether the end results work: it’s how we end up with lasers and microwave ovens, and antibiotics and cancer therapies.
Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be. It’s always wrong, from an empirical perspective, although I do have to credit theologians with some of the most amazingly intricate logical exercises as they try to justify their conclusions. The end result of all of this kind of clever wankery, though, is that some people say the world is 6000 years old, that it was inundated with a global flood 4000 years ago, and other people say something completely different, and there is no way within the body of theology to resolve which answers are right. They have to step outside their narrow domain to get an independent confirmation — that is, they rely on science to give them the answers to the Big Questions in which they purport to have expertise.
Krauss quotes J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, on the those who “extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.”
My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
It is not necessary for scientists to totally reject religion but scientists must be willing to abandon religious dogma when it conflicts with information established with the scientific method. Krauss found that, at least among those in this panel discussion, religious scientists were certainly not fundamentalists and were willing to accept views on religion which do not take religious teachings literally:
When I confronted my two Catholic colleagues on the panel with the apparent miracle of the virgin birth and asked how they could reconcile this with basic biology, I was ultimately told that perhaps this biblical claim merely meant to emphasize what an important event the birth was. Neither came to the explicit defense of what is undeniably one of the central tenets of Catholic theology.
Krauss concludes with noting that this conflict between science and religion is relevant to real world issues:
Finally, it is worth pointing out that these issues are not purely academic. The current crisis in Iran has laid bare the striking inconsistency between a world built on reason and a world built on religious dogma.
These issues can also be seen far closer to home than in Iran. The differences between the modern conservative movement and liberals, moderates, and the few remaining rational conservatives also come down to whether one has a view of the universe based upon religious dogma or based upon science and reason. Fortunately, while countries such as Iran are dominated by religious fundamentalists, since the Republican Party became dominated by fundamentalists it is quickly turning into a minor regional party of the deep south and Mormon belt of the west. As the Founding Fathers realized when they established a secular government with separation of church and state, religion and politics do not mix any better than religion and science.