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Science, Religion Incompatible? Hot-Button Debate Features Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, Dr. Michael Shermer

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Do you believe in God? Or do you put your faith in science?

Some argue that it has to be one or the other--that either you accept scientific dogma or give yourself over to dogma of the religious sort. Others see no contradiction between reason and faith, and are just as comfortable with the Big Bang as with the burning bush.

Whatever your position, it's a debate that's been going for thousands of years--and Huff Post Science isn't about to get in the way. So we invited a pair of noted experts in the field to square off on the proposition "science and religion are incompatible." On one side is Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. On the other is Dr. Michael Shermer, founding editor of Los Angeles-based "Skeptic" magazine.

Who wins the fray? That's up to you and other HuffPost Science readers, all of whom are invited to read the arguments side by side and then cast a vote. Whoever changes more minds is the winner.

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Pre-debate poll:

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Religion and science are incompatible.

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Who makes the better argument?

Michael Shermer Founding publisher, Skeptic magazine; editor, Skeptic.com

Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, I go so far as to state that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as "supernatural" and "paranormal" just provides a linguistic place-holder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest.

This is what normally happens in science. Mysteries once thought to be supernatural or paranormal happenings -- such as astronomical or meteorological events -- are incorporated into science once their causes are understood. For example, when cosmologists reference "dark energy" and "dark matter" in reference to the so-called "missing mass" needed to explain the structure and motion of galaxies and galaxy clusters along with the expansion of the universe, they do not intend these descriptors to be causal explanations. Dark energy and dark matter are merely cognitive conveniences until the actual sources of the energy and matter are discovered. When religious believers invoke miracles and acts of creation ex nihilo, that is the end of the search for them, whereas for scientists the identification of such mysteries is only the beginning. Science picks up where theology leaves off. When a theist says "and then a miracle happens," as wittily portrayed in my favorite Sydney Harris cartoon of the two mathematicians at the chalkboard with the invocation tucked in the middle of a string of equations, I quote from the cartoon's caption: "I think you need to be more explicit here in step two."

To our bronze-age ancestors who created the great monotheistic religions many millennia before the rise of science, an invisible intentional agent in the form of a god was the best explanation they could think of to explain the world. Today we can explain much (but not yet all) of the workings of the natural world, such that the realm of the unexplained requiring gods is shrinking as the sphere of science expands into the great unknown. Although an expanding sphere of science comes into contact with an ever increasing surface area of the unknown (thus, the more you know the more you know how much you don't know), recall the mathematical principle of surface area to volume ratio: as a sphere increases the ratio of its volume to surface area increases. Thus, in this metaphor, as the sphere of knowledge increases, the ratio of the volume of the known outpaces to the surface area of the unknown increases. It is only a matter of time before there will be no place left for God to stand.

Now, one may postulate a supernatural God who exists outside of space and time and is not knowable to science because He is not part of the natural world, thus obviating my expanding sphere of knowledge metaphor. But if that is so, then how are we to know whether or not this God exists? What is the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God? As corporeal beings who form beliefs about the world based on percepts (from our senses) and concepts (from our minds), how can we possibly know a being who by definition lies outside of both our percepts and our concepts? At some point doesn't God need to step into our spacetime to make himself known in some manner -- say through prayer, providence, or miracles? And if so, why can't science measure such divine action? If there is some other way of knowing, say that of the mystics or the faithful through deep meditation or prayer, why couldn't neuroscience say something meaningful about that process of knowing? If we came to understand -- as studies with meditating monks and praying priests have shown -- that a part of the parietal lobe of the brain associated with the orientation of the body in space is quiescent during such meditative states (breaking down the normal distinction one feels between self and non-self and thus making one feel "at one" with the environment), wouldn't this imply that rather than being in touch with a being outside of space and time, it is actually just a change in neurochemistry?

So the answer to the question on the table turns on what, precisely, is being claimed in the name of religion? If no empirical claim is made that science can address, then there is little more to be said on the matter. If specific claims are made in the name of God and religion then let's hear them and put them to the test.

Until then, I believe that it is time to step out of our religious traditions and embrace science as the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works, and to work together to create a social and political world that embraces moral principles and yet allows for natural human diversity to flourish. Religion cannot get us there because it has no systematic methods of explanation of the natural world, and no means of conflict resolution on moral issues when members of competing sects hold absolute beliefs that are mutually exclusive. Flawed as they may be, science and the secular Enlightenment values expressed in Western democracies are our best hope for survival.

Kenneth R. Miller Professor of biology, Brown University

Any suggestion that science and religion are incompatible flies in the face of history, logic, and common sense. Modern science developed in the context of western religious thought, was nurtured in universities first established for religious reasons, and owes some of its greatest discoveries and advances to scientists who themselves were deeply religious. From Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who pioneered the scientific method, to George Lemaître, the 20th century Belgian priest who first developed a mathematical foundation for the "Big Bang," people of faith have played a key role in advancing scientific understanding.

Given such history, why does the stereotype of incompatibility arise so often in our culture? One reason is that like all stereotypes, it has a basis in fact. All too often, the word "religion" has become identified with those promoting a frankly anti-scientific view of nature and of our place in the natural world. In misguided efforts to find support for doctrines of creation, divine action, and human purpose they have repeatedly opposed and suppressed scientific inquiry. In place of science, they have constructed pseudosciences such as "creationism," "intelligent design," and, in the past, geocentrism, to justify narrow interpretations of scripture or to support specific religious claims.

For years, like my friend Michael Shermer, I've fought against these religiously-motivated efforts to twist, distort, and muzzle science. Being a biologist, I've written books and essays defending evolution, debated the critics of Darwinian theory, and even testified in court on behalf of scientific integrity. So, if religious faith seems to go hand-in-hand with science denial, why not admit that science and God just don't mix? Because it simply isn't true.

Look carefully at modern anti-science movements and you'll see that many of the most important cases of science denial have nothing to do with religion. Industries and even democratically-elected governments have tried to control climate scientists and rewrite their findings when they found them inconvenient. For decades, tobacco companies mounted campaigns of disinformation and junk science to counteract the clear evidence linking cancer and heart disease to smoking. And big pharmaceutical companies have actively covered up scientific studies harmful to their products. Should we take such things to mean that free market capitalism is "incompatible" with science? And if we do, what are we to make of three decades of suppression of the science of genetics within the Soviet Union, all in the name of a leftist ideology? Is socialism incompatible with science too?

Science is a revolutionary activity. It alters our view of nature, and often puts forward profoundly unsettling truths that threaten the status quo. As a result, time and time again, those who feel threatened by the scientific enterprise have tried to restrict, reject, or block the work of science. Sometimes, they have good reason to fear the fruits of science, unrestrained. To be sure, it was religious fervor that led Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake for his scientific "heresies" in 1600. But we should also remember more recently that it was science, not religion, that gave us eugenics, the atomic bomb, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

The deeper issue, the only one that really matters in this debate, is whether there is a genuine incompatibility between science and the concept of God. What science surely tells us is that the origins of our universe and the creatures within it are found in natural processes that can be observed and studied. In other words, that our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world. Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of our universe. To a theist, God is nothing less than the source of the profound rationality of nature. Naturally, a non-believer seeks another reason for that rationality. Yet despite these differences, both can embrace the systematic study of nature in the project we call science. That is the ultimate source of compatibility between science and religion. To be sure, there are and always will be conflicts between science and particular religious sects. But on a personal level -- and I will state this plainly -- it seems to me that any faith that might require the rejection of scientific reason is not a faith worth having.

What do working scientists actually think of the relationship between science and religion? A 2009 study by Elaine Howard Ecklund and Jerry Z. Park concluded that "in contrast to public opinion and scholarly publications most scientists do not perceive there to be a conflict between religion and science." Unlike my friend Michael Shermer, I think that the majority of the scientific community has got this question right. Science and religion are different ways of thinking, to be sure. But to insist that conflict is unavoidable is to ignore the common history of science and religion as well as the reality of scientists who see their vocation as perfectly consistent with their faith.

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Religion and science are incompatible.

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