From Alternet, by Victor Stenger
In my previous blog I claimed that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. To reiterate, the reason I gave was their differing epistemologies. Science relies only on what we observe with our senses, while religion claims an additional inner sense that reveals another world beyond.
Now let me take a look at some specific examples where these contrasting notions on the sources of knowledge lead to incompatibilities in their comprehension of the nature of reality.
1. The Transcendent
All religions, even Buddhism, teach that a reality exists that goes beyond — transcends — the world that presents itself to our senses and scientific instruments. While science is willing to consider any evidence that comes along, so far we have no empirical anomaly that requires us to introduce supernatural causes into our models.
In this regard, it is often claimed that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. But this is wrong. If the supernatural exists and has effects on the sensory world, then those effects would be observable and subject to scientific study. A God that plays such an important role in the universe and in human lives as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God should have been detected by now. The fact that he hasn’t forces us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with those attributes does not exist.
Let me take a moment to show why I can make such a claim. Even the most pious believer has to admit that there is no scientific evidence for God. If there were, it would be in the textbooks along with the evidence for neutrinos and DNA. But then, the believer will say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
While this may be true in general, it is not true when the evidence that is absent is evidence that should be there. The absence of evidence for elephants in Central Park (droppings, crushed bushes) can be taken as a good sign that there are none.
- If the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God exists we should see evidence that he answers prayers. We do not.
- If he reveals truths by extrasensory means, we should be able to verify those truths. We do not.
- If God or the supernatural is glimpsed in religious experiences, we should be able to confirm it. We do not.
In short, the world looks just like it should look if there is no God with these attributes. True that this does not rule out other gods, such a deist god that does not act in the universe. But we can rule out the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God to a high degree of probability (see God: The Failed Hypothesis).
2. The Origin of the Universe
Fundamental to most religions is the notion of divine creation. At one time it seemed impossible that the universe could have come into existence naturally. Christians saw the success of the big bang model as a further confirmation of the biblical creation story. At least it seemed to prove that the universe had a beginning and it followed, by their reasoning, that the cause of that beginning could only be a personal Creator God.
Modern cosmology has considerably dampened this hope. It has shown that the big bang need not have been the beginning of space and time and that the universe could be eternal. At least, theological claims that an eternal universe is mathematically impossible can be proven false. It now seems possible or even likely that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of other universes.
Several plausible scenarios for the natural origin of our universe have been published by reputable scholars. While we cannot say exactly how our universe came about, these scenarios, which are completely worked out mathematically and consistent with all existing knowledge, at least prove that a divine creation is not required.
Many theologians and others have claimed that the parameters of physics are so delicately balanced that any slight changes in their values and life would not have been possible. Therefore they conclude that a creator must have fine-tuned these parameters so that we, and our form of life, would evolve.
This claim can be refuted on several fronts. The most popular explanation among most physicists and cosmologists is that many universes exist and we just happen to live in the one suited for us.
However, even if only our universe exists, adequate explanations within existing knowledge can be found for the values of the most crucial parameters. Others can be shown to have ranges that make some form of life probable (see The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning).
4. The Argument from Design
For centuries theologians have argued that the observed order we see around us is evidence for divine design in the universe. However, the universe does not look at all as if it were designed by a perfect, all-powerful, benevolent God. It is too imperfect, too filled with evil and suffering. And, as time has gone by, science has provided plausible explanations for the observed order.
Proponents of intelligent design creationism argue that complex structures require an architect and builder, and that natural processes cannot generate increasing complexity. They are wrong. The generation of complex systems from simpler systems can be seen in many physical situations, such as the phase transitions in which water goes naturally from gas to liquid to solid in the absence of external energy. In the physical and biological worlds, simplicity begets complexity.
The reason for much of the mistrust of science is the fundamental incompatibility of science and religion and the religious know that. At least evangelicals are honest about it. They recognize science as the enemy. Liberal and moderate believers, on the other hand, are fooling themselves if they think that can be both religious and scientific without being schizophrenic.