03/07/2012 01:16 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Science And Religion: Incompatible?

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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