Scientists, Face It! Science And Religion Are Incompatible

The highly visible conflict between evolutionary biology and creationism has stimulated much com- mentary in the scientific press about the relationship between science and religion. The Scientist Science, Nature, and many other journals have given much space to tbe issue. Even the National Academy of Sciences has issued a statement on science and religion. A clear consensus emerges from this outpouring of literature. Scientists vigorously claim that no conflict exists between science and 

Sep 5, 1988
William Provine

The highly visible conflict between evolutionary biology and creationism has stimulated much com- mentary in the scientific press about the relationship between science and religion. The Scientist Science, Nature, and many other journals have given much space to tbe issue. Even the National Academy of Sciences has issued a statement on science and religion.

A clear consensus emerges from this outpouring of literature. Scientists vigorously claim that no conflict exists between science and “reasonable” religion (of course excluding fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian). The implications of modern science, however, are clearly inconsistent with most religious traditions.

No purposive principles exist in nature. Organic evolution has occurred by various combinations of random genetic drift, natural selection, Mendelian heredity, and many other purposeless mechanisms. Humans are complex organic machines that die completely with no survival of soul or psyche. Humans and other animals make choices frequently, but these are determined by the interaction of heredity and environment and are not the result of free will. No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we,have no ultimate meaning in life.

These implications of modern science produce much squirming among scientists, who claim a high degree of rationality. Some, along with many liberal theologians, suggest that God set up the universe in the beginning and/or works through the laws of nature. This silly way of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too amounts to deism. It is equivalent to the claim that science and religion are compatible if the religion is effectively indistinguishable from atheism.

Show me a person who says that science and religion are compatible, and I will show you a person who (1) is an effective atheist, or (2) believes things demonstrably unscientific, or (3) asserts the existence of entities or processes for which no shred of evidence exists.

A thoughtful attorney from San Antonio, Tex., wrote recently to ask, “Is there an intellectually honest Christian evolutionist position? Or do we simply have to check our brains at the church house door?” The answer is, you indeed have to check your brains. Why do scientists publicly deny the implications of modern science, and promulgate the compatibility of religion and science? Wishful thinking, religious training, and intellectual dishonesty are all important factors.

Perhaps the most important motivation in the United States, however, is fear about federal funding for science. Almost all members of Congress profess to being very religious. Will Congress continue to fund science if science is inconsistent with religion? Scientists are trading intellectual honesty for political considerations.

This is sad, because intellectual honesty and critical thinking are the ideals of modern science, and are in very short supply. The gullibility of the U.S. public is legendary around the world. Among the Japanese, 6% are creationists 44% of Americans are. Sixty-nine percent of people in the U.S. say that God has led or guided them in making decisions, and an even greater percentage believe in ghosts and astrology. One of our greatest national problems is lack of critical thinking. How can we hope to promote critical thinking when scientists will not even face the implications of their own work?

We must recognize what modern science has done to us and try to understand its implications for the foundation of morality and meaning in life. Although no cosmic or ultimate meaning for humans exists, we can certainly lead deeply meaningful lives. I am married to a talented and beautiful woman, have two wonderful sons, live on a farm, teach at a fine university, and have many excellent friends. But I will die and soon be forgotten—all meaning in my life is proximate. Likewise, the nonexistence of ultimate moral laws in no way prevents a robust moral and ethical basis to society. These issues are tough, but we should face them squarely.

Biologist William Provine is also a Cornell University historian of science.