Positive Atheism Forum
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The Philosophies of
Science and Religion
The Bean Bag Philosophers
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From: "Positive Atheism"
To: <Ejenhipp@aol.com>
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, December 12, 1999 5:41 AM

The Philosophies of Science and Religion

First, I do not have a philosophy degree, but I will be happy to tackle these questions for you. Secondly, I have reformatted your questions slightly.

Though many scientists are religious, I will try to point out that any relationship is one of differences, not similarities. First, though, we must address that these question presuppose that we agree on what religion is. The truth is that we have not defined religion for purposes of this discussion. Without such clearly stated definitions, you might as well ask me the differences between science and alogieu (something I typed in at random and then edited to sound remotely French to an American ear).

Therefore, for this discussion, I will define religion as pertaining to belief in the supernatural: belief in a realm said to be somehow "above" or "beyond" the natural universe. This naturally includes any entity (a god) who is said to have created the natural universe or any entities who are said to be intervening in the natural universe. It also includes entities said to have a consciousness, but (as the claims go) appear to maintain this conscious awareness without the benefit of a nervous system or some other physical means (e.g., spirits; ghosts; earth-as-"person").

Another popular motif varies significantly among its practitioners, but boils down to two things: (1) claims that information or knowledge can get from outside the reach of the senses to within a person's mind through unexplained or unverified means (telepathy; also obliquely includes faith); (2) claims that energy can get from within a person's mind to affect the physical world (psychokinesis; also obliquely includes faith).

Please note my use of the phrase "said to have" done such and so, because many such claims are just that: claims. We cannot go further than to call them claims, because what is claimed is untestable and thus unverifiable. Most people making claims like these eventually admit that they are obtaining their knowledge through faith, not through the commonly used scientific methods of investigation and verification.

Science is the method for obtaining knowledge through observation, discussion, and reason. Faith is often said to be an alternative means for obtaining knowledge. Faith's adherents usually attempt to make their case by pointing out that science and human reason are fallible; therefore, they tell us, faith picks up where science leaves off, where science cannot tread.

However, science is not simply one of many tools in the toolbox: science and reason is the entire toolbox. If science and reason cannot provide the answers, we do best to suspend judgement and hope that the answers come eventually. Though it is not the only reason we best suspend judgement, it is the most important. Joseph Lewis said: "Is it not better to place a question mark upon a problem while seeking an answer than to put the label 'God' there and consider the matter closed?"

We must also realize that true knowledge is not simply having the correct knowledge. I can tell you that I know the winning lotto numbers. I can even go so far as to place money on those numbers. Even if I end up being right, however, I still did not have a basis for that knowledge. Science is the practice of developing a basis for knowledge.

So, far from being a hopelessly flawed method for obtaining knowledge (due to our fallibility), science and reason is the very response to our fallibility. Science and reason is how we attempt to overcome our fallibility and how we will obtain what little knowledge we can obtain.

Science and religion have one thing in common: they both claim to be methods of obtaining knowledge. This is where the similarity ends, though. Science can demonstrate its wares and discuss them openly; religion is secretive in that one must take alleged knowledge "on faith" or hope for a clearer picture in the future.

Historically, science and human reason have eventually discovered verifiable truths about things which were previously "known" only through faith. As it has happened so often, science and reason have contradicted, in a verifiable manner, the previous claims of religion.

When the religions bodies run the state, this friction results in denunciation or even persecution of the scientists making the disputes: Bruno, Galileo, Franklin; Paine; Darwin. Science, as a quest for truth, does not care where the truth takes us; science and reason follow truth wherever it may lead. This has caused untold anxiety for those who make their living marketing comfortable myths, and such people have a history of reacting, sometimes very violently.

Both claim to be methods for obtaining knowledge, but the similarity ends there. As methods the two are entirely incompatible. Richard Dawkins said it best: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

The main reason science and faith seem to be compatible, is because everybody incorporates elements of both in their thinking. The most faithful among us uses reason and experiment in their everyday lives; nobody lives entirely on faith. The most profound of scientists have followed inexplicable hunches and have ended up being right. (We can verify that their hunches were right only through science.)

Still, science and religion are fundamentally incompatible methods for obtaining knowledge.

Science is being truthful when it points out that observation, experiment, reason, and open discussion are the only methods for obtaining verifiable knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, is being untruthful in positing the "alternative" method of faith as being compatible with science and reason, and when it claims that faith is a reliable method for obtaining knowledge.

Some theologians are beginning to admit this. The brilliant Anglican scholar Michael Donald Goulder shocked his peers in 1980 when he renounced his faith and became an atheist. He said that the God of the past "no longer had any real work to do." This is because science has explained, demonstratively, what were previously "explained" with articles of faith. German Lutheran scholar Gerd Lüdemann renounced his faith earlier this year (1998) for similar reasons.

Others, such as American Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong are still faithful, but are asking hard-hitting questions in books such as Spong's Why Christianity Much Change or Die (New York: 1998). Spong boldly admits that the question should not be how the two should relate; rather, that we should see and admit that the two are incompatible. Spong goes on to contemplate how people who have faced this dilemma would continue in their faith.

The single most overlooked point is that the two both claim to be methods for obtaining accurate knowledge.

When science faces this fact, it rejects faith as a method for obtaining knowledge (unless, of course, someone can demonstrate faith's reliability and then attempt to explain why). Science, then continues to pursue knowledge through observation, experiment, reason, and open discussion.

Another widely overlooked point is that we tend to assume that we agree on the definitions of the words we use, such as God, religion, faith, and science. We must do the best we can to know we are both talking about the same thing.

When I talk to people about problem drinking, I absolutely refuse to use the word alcoholism. This is because in a room ful of people you cannot get very many to agree on what the word means, so I don't use it. Rather, I describe what I am talking about in clear, simple language, being careful never to overstate my case and never to draw conclusions that are not warranted by the premise. If this means that I cannot avail myself of the convenience of buzz-words and other modes of shorthand, so be it. This way, at least, I can know that I am being understood, which is much more important than whether people agree with me. In a discussion, being understood is even more important than being right.

Why should we be limited to one question? That is my question.

We must remember that knowledge has two essential components: First, knowledge is truth; falsehood does not constitute knowledge even if we think it is truth. If it is not true, it is not knowledge. Secondly, knowledge is not only true, but is truth that has a basis for being known. A lucky guess does not constitute knowledge, even if it is right.

In this sense, the sources for knowledge are always the same.

The main difference between now and the middle ages is that inquiry and discussion and communication were suppressed and even persecuted during the middle ages by the church-state alliance that ruled the day. I agree with author and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson who, when discussing the free information exchange provided over the Internet, said, "I think information is the most precious commodity in the world." The information Wilson describes, though, is accurate information: knowledge.

Another difference (that is not as important as some would think) involves the obvious advances in technologies that have occurred during the past several hundred years. These advances are important, but never would have occurred like they did without freedom of speech.

This becomes clear when we realize that 600 years before Christ, science could demonstrate that the earth was a globe. Over 200 years before Christ, science could discuss the earth's diameter with relative accuracy. Why, then, did Galileo and others need to struggle against the flat-earth doctrine during the middle ages? The church-state alliance suppressed knowledge and burned libraries of knowledge. Islamic hordes destroyed the vast collection of the Library in Alexandria, suppressed speech and inquiry, killed and persecuted dissenters, and replaced the accumulated knowledge with its own faith-based scenario.

Again, knowledge is not simply information, but must be true information to constitute knowledge. In addition, knowledge is not simply the truth, but has a basis for knowing the truth. A lucky guess must be verified before it is knowledge.

Science is pursuit of knowledge through observation, experiment, reason, and open discussion. Every time someone thinks they have discovered something, they write about it and submit that report to a scientific journal. This gives other scientists the opportunity to ponder and even disprove the first scientists claims.

Often two highly qualified will make claims that appear to be mutually exclusive. It is times like this that we must suspend judgement pending further investigation. This is precisely why the scientific journal is indispensable in the pursuit of knowledge.

Can you calculate the temperature of Hell or the climate in Heaven? Are we still looking for a mechanism for the "soul" to interact with the brain? Does this question exist because of theology or because some evidence warrants our asking it?

Science can address some of the questions raised by religion, but the two are mutually exclusive when it comes to methods for obtaining knowledge. If I can prove something, it is no longer faith. Why rely on faith over things that we can verify?

Science is the clear winner when it comes to obtaining knowledge: it is the final arbiter; it is the entire toolbox. As such, it should be subservient to nothing.

If we do discover a superior method for obtaining knowledge, we will know it is superior only through scientific discovery. In this case, it would be difficult to say that such a method would be superior to science, because we would need science itself to verify and validate this new method.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

From: "Positive Atheism"
Subject: Re: WebMaster:_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Sunday, December 12, 1999 12:06 PM

Please remember that an atheist does not necessarily state "There is no God." The traditional definition for "atheist" is one who lacks a god-belief (for whatever reason). In this sense, if one is not a theist, he or she is an atheist.

You can see this view defended quite handsomely in George H. Smith's article, "Defining Atheism." and I suggest that you at least puruse this piece and its companion so that you don't fall into the trap that many theists (and agnostics) do in defining atheism as the positive belief that no gods exist. Such atheists exist, but these are but a small fraction of us.

My whole point (and Smith's) is that the theist must make the case for theism or else the listener rightly defaults to atheism.

For another view, see "Skeptic" Magazine's publisher Michael Shermer's rebuttal of my December 1999 editorial at: In it, Shermer advocates (among other things) that atheists and nontheists best point out the origins of faith, myth, and superstition.

However, I still think it all boils down to theism being a set of abstract statements (claims) which some believe and others reject.

In either case (Shermer's or Smith's), theism is learned and atheism is the default.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule


Dear Bean Bag Philosophers,

I myself am not a bean bagger, unfortunately, having only acquired a B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota. True, someday I hope to rise through the ranks of the Bean Academy to snuggle comfortably into my own vinyl-encased bliss but for now I can only offer these comments to your questionnaire.

You've heard from Boethius that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. The Church would still very much like to preserve this quaint bit of teaching. If a scientific hypothesis conflicts with an article of faith guess which one the Church rejects? Since Descartes, however, an uneasy truce exists between science and religion that might be characterized as, "you stay on your side and I'll stay on mine." This has caused friction over the years as science takes occasional forays across the line. But generally speaking, it has worked out just fine. My feeling is that science and religion do not contradict one another IF we understand that each seek to look at the world in two different ways. I'll clarify that below.

As a Wittgensteinian, I think the main causes of conflict are a profound misunderstanding between the two enterprises. Science uses an empiricist method of investigation to interpret the world. Its propositions are testable facts. Religion attempts to codify limiting questions such as "why are we here?" and "what is the purpose to my life?" -- its investigation into these questions has nothing whatever to do with the world. Its propositions are metaphorical truths. The two do not conflict on their own terms. The conflict arises when we misunderstand the intentions of one and begin to speak about it in terms of the other. For example, the Native American creation myth that a Great Mother gave birth to the cosmos is meant to be understood as a metaphorical truth. The story supplies the religious need to explain one's origins. The atheist sometimes errs when he or she does not accept the story as metaphorical, instead receiving it through the lens of science and mischaracterizing the myth as an empiricist hypothesis seeking to explain the world. Here's another example. The biologist investigates data and determines that the evolutionary theory best explains that data, thus all humans evolved from simpler hominids. The Creationist hears this explanation and exclaims, "That can't be right! What is the purpose of my life if everything evolved from goo?" The Creationist has mischaracterized the empiricist proposition advanced by the biologist in terms of the religious question, "why are we here?" even though that question has nothing whatever to do with the scientific enterprise.

Compatibility can take place when the religionist realizes that science does not seek to usurp God, but rather to explain the natural world.

They cannot relate. Their practitioners can only understand the intentions of the other.

As above, the religious mistake of thinking that science is about metaphysical insights and the scientific mistake of thinking that religion is about empirical truth.

If I die, meet God, and he sneezes, what do I say?

Without a doubt, the translations by the Sephardic Jews in the twelfth century of the Arabic writings of Aristotle and others in the ancient world that led to the medieval synthesis.

The medieval synthesis was the beginning (or the rediscovery) of knowledge in the West, lost after the Holy Roman Empire turned its back on learning in the fifth century.


It is not so much an issue of whether they ought to be kept separate as it is the question, "how could they possibly be synthesized?" As long as find truth in a simple parable we will always have theological musings. For its part, science has been so wildly successful at explaining the natural world with its own premises, there is no need to introduce an alien criterion on them.

Well, for most of Christendom, it was science (philosophy) that was to be subservient to theology, but the two enterprises have long since parted company. But the question assumes that one should be the handmaiden of the other, which I think begs a deeper question, "why should this be so?" Especially given, as I have suggested, that neither contradicts the other there is no need to consider one as less or better than the other. They are two entirely different endeavors.

Hope this helps. When do I get my very own bean bag chair? And why do they call them bean bag "chairs"? They have no legs! Does a chair need legs? What if it only has three legs? (A stool?) Can we still call a chair that is missing a back and legs a chair? What if it has no seat? I guess I fall down.

Graphic Rule


The title "The Philosophies of Science and Religion" in my estimation is an anomaly.

Religion is a philosophical search for the answers to the mystery of life and the universe, its beginning and end, principally through abstraction and symbolism. Religion is based on the concept of another world, a world of spirits started in the ignorance of the past and fueled by many cultural myths, stories, superstitions and legends that have persisted over time as believable for those particular cultures. The ancient gods have all been consigned to mythology, which is where the current crop of religious beliefs also belong in spite of updating with new philosophical "truths" and "revelations."

The evidentiary search for knowledge through science is fueled by doubt and skepticism. Every theory brought forth must be tested and retested by fellow scientists and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Physical evidence is used or there must be a consistency about the evidence such as gravity which is the same throughout the universe. A theory remains just that until is can be proven. Evolution, which shoots holes in the creation story of the Bible, is supported by more and more physical evidence which is being discovered.

Religious beliefs do not meet that criteria as they vary from culture to culture and there is evidence that parts of the religion of one culture had been borrowed from another and distorted by translation and interpretation.

Religion and science do not have "competing sources of knowledge" to be brought into harmony. Science is not in competition with religion and does not attempt to prove or disprove a spirit world which exists only in myth, story and faith. The problem exists, and has existed for religious philosophers throughout the ages, for the need to change their dogma as new scientific knowledge supported by physical evidence is brought to light. At one time the earth was believed to be flat, floating on the water and the center of the universe

In my estimation there are no "causes for compatibility" between science and religion. Science belongs to everyone through knowledge and education, religion belongs in the church and home to the believers through faith alone. The problems begin when religious belief is nationalized and an attempt is made at rationalization.

Science is as puzzled about the beginning of life and the universe as is the religious philosopher, however there is no search for life after death as there is in most religions. Through faith, the believers say they have the answer to the beginning and to life after death. In order to do this spiritual trick there must be belief in a symbol of a spiritual creator or god.

I am disturbed by your last question about science being subservient to theology. It just does not compute that theology is on a greater plane that science, which has physical substance, something provable before it has any acceptance among the knowledgeable. Theology can be sold to any person through faith and belief. Why not believe in the "Big Bang" theory of the scientists which has supportive physical evidence???

I will end this with a quote which I believe explains in one paragraph what you are looking for:

"Scientific education and religious education are incompatible. The clergy have ceased to interfere with education at the advanced state, with which I am directly concerned, but they have still got control of that of children. This means that the children have to learn about Adam and Noah instead of Evolution; about David who killed Goliath, instead of Koch who killed cholera; about Christ's ascent into heaven instead of Montgolfier's and Wright's. Worse than that, they are taught that it is a virtue to accept statements without adequate evidence, which leaves them a prey to quacks of every kind in later life, and makes it very difficult for them to accept the methods of thought which are successful in science." -- J. B. S. Haldane

Graphic Rule


To the "Bean Bag Philosophers" who requested feedback on the connection between the "philosophies" of science & religion:

Is science a philosophy?

Is religion a philosophy?

If so, what is "philosophy?"

It seems to me that the connection between science & religion is that both are attempts to forge access routes to discovering the truth.

Before science developed into the advanced systems we now take for granted, people relied on religion for answers to the mysteries of life. Religion attempted to teach people what was "real."

Science is built on evidence that can be verified objectively. And since religion is based on "faith" and beliefs which can only be proven intuitively, science crashed down hard on the "supernatural" belief systems offered through religious dogma.

In response, to "prove" the validity of their indoctrinated beliefs, religious affectionados refer to the impact of a "Higher Power" missing from men of science via an invisible condition termed "grace."

Each faction clings adamantly to the "rightness" of their reality, which can only be assured by making the other camp "wrong." Thus the conflict between religion & science.

This dualistic thinking is the cause of much dissention and contempt. From a holistic perspective, "All Things Are True." There is truth to science, proven by evidence. There is truth to religion, proven by acts of faith. It isn't necessary to insist that one can only be true by proving the other false. In fact, the need to be right at the cost of proving another wrong is at the source of wars and great suffering.

In a perfect world, science would fulfill its job by solving physical mysteries through a methodology that could be proven by laws of evidence. Religion would do its job by offering insight into mysteries that cannot be solved by scientific means. Head & heart do not have to exist in conflict. Reason & passion are both components of the human being.

Check out eastern philosophies for a non-dualistic approach to "meaning of life" issues.

Graphic Rule


The Bean bag philosophers

Progress and conduct of Science has to overcome the constant obstacles raised by religion because of the opposing mental attitudes towards knowledge required for science. The conflict has been more violent in the Christian countries because of the Bible tells that the fruit of the tree of knowledge should be avoided. While religious institutions make use of these fruits to advance their stupidity they advice their flocks not to observe the rules of science.

Faith is the basis of religion. Proof and verifiability are the requirements of Science. Science will not accept faith as a condition.

The two will always be incompatible. Therefore the answer is none.

Religion should shut up and listen to science.

The fact that "every page torn from the scripture is a progress made", as George Bernard Shaw put it.

Why should women, especially Catholics, listen to the Pope when he treats them lesser than men based on his narrow bible scholarship?

Painstaking recording of events and observations from experiments and teaching them to others.

Development of tools that can analyze things further down.

Experimentation, observation, verification and synthesis.

Theology can be kept in the museum.

Theology requires no discipline. Theology survives because science has created tools that it can use to advance its dogmas. If it subserves theology it will be killed soon.

Graphic Rule


Religious beliefs are created by people when they see things in their environments which they can't explain (the stars/planets) or which scare them (death). Science figures out what these things are and eliminates reasons for various religious beliefs.

Science relies on proof through experimentation and the scientific method. Religion relies on "blind faith" which cannot or should not be questioned, making it difficult to prove or disprove religious beliefs.

It might be interesting to do research on the intelligence level of Christians compared to Atheists -- but that is the only way that science might be able to be compatible with religion ... studying it.

Those who believe in a god should say, "I believe in god and I realize that there is no way to prove it. It is just something I believe," and leave "proof" or any kind of science out of it.

Perhaps they are stated in my other answers???

Authority figures -- kings, queens, priests -- and a requisite belief that everything was designed by god, was perfect, and shouldn't be questioned.

There is technology and freedom today allowing people to study the universe as they wish. If something is presently unexplained, it can be researched by scientists until it is understood. Even the layperson has access to TV, cable, newspapers, radio, and the Internet.

Religion is based on blind faith and science is based on research; therefore, the two can never be brought into harmony.

I think that as more scientific discoveries are made, there will be less and less reason for theology. Eventually, there will be no need for theology. A synthesis between science and theology is impossible.

Theology should be subservient to science.

Graphic Rule


This may be sort of late to be of any use for you. I was out of town last week and haven't had any time to sit down and speak at some of this until now.

The focus of these questions seems a little more academic than I'm used to in my day to day musings. For instance, I wouldn't really have a lot to say about historical perspectives in science and religion. I couldn't really say what the chief sources of knowledge in the middle ages were, except to note parenthetically that what we think of as science today was given a tremendous shot in the arm in the middle ages by the Arabic alchemists. Where would modern science be without Arabic math and the invention of the zero? I suspect that the business about "lead into gold" was more about "funding" -- more for the consumption of the king, anyway. Altho it is ironic that the process started by the alchemists DID lead to the transmutation of metal. I don't really have a good feel for what reality was to the average person in the middle ages. There seems to be a good deal of presumption in the superstitousness of those times, but I suspect that modern people are no less credulous than they were then. It is certainly apparent from the most casual observation that people today are abundantly willing to accept as true an astonishing variety of contradictory absurdities.

"What is true?," would be the question fundamental to both science and religion, or more poetically, "What is so and how do I know?" It's the "how do I know" part that most separates the two. "Religion" is a very general term, "science" a very specific one. The difference between science and religion CAN be purely semantic. In so far as I rely on science to determine the smartest way to live my life -- the smartest way to behave -- is the degree to which science IS my religion. In practice, however, the difference between science and religion is generally profound. Science demands that you accept nothing as true until you have exhausted all other possibilities. Accept nothing as true until you absolutely have no other choice. Religion, on the other hand, often demands that you "believe" without any temporal evidence whatsoever. That the evidence is "spiritual." I have to think that, in this case, these two methods for determining "what is so" are mutually exclusive.

When science IS religion the two are not "competing sources of knowledge." They are one in the same. You could say they are in complete harmony. In fact, in this instance, the term, "religion" seems superfluous. But what about when religion diverges from science, when it asks you to accept as so things that science cannot substantiate? Can religion provide us with knowledge that science can't. Can religion provide us with suggestions for living smarter lives, happier lives, that science could not? Here it is again, that crucial question. How do I know? In the mythologies of the world (most people seem to see all religions but their own as mythology; I'm no exception), in the mythologies of the world is there lore that provides esoteric insights to the cosmos and human nature, insights hidden to science. How could I confirm that these insights are true? How could I explore the reality of creation, the existence of fairies, angels, gods, the Great Flood, extra terrestrials, bigfoot, virgin birth, transubstantiation ... dinosaurs? Physical evidence? Yes, yes, physical evidence, of course. Prayer? Hmmm. I can't say it's ever worked for me. A "still, small voice inside my heart?" I can't really imagine how a "feeling inside myself" is confirmation of the existence of anything (with the possible exception of heartburn). A vision from God? I've never had one. Ask a priest? That presents you with the problem, "how does he know?" which is even thornier than, "how do I know?" "How does he know?" is "how do I know?" once removed. So let's see. I've got "physical evidence" in the lead; science. How are you doing?

Maybe it's not that religion is so useful on a personal level for determining what is so and what is a good life plan. It may be that even if science IS the only reliable method for sifting fact from all the possibilities, that there still is a practical function for religion. Maybe on a larger, societal level. Maybe religion reigns in the bestial side of our natures and makes civilization more orderly. I wonder. I don't know. When one thinks of all the religious wars and sectarian hatred one really has to consider the possibility that exactly the opposite is true. That religion is more a cause of stupidity, brutality, and chaos than a check. I don't know. I'd say the jury is out on that one. Religion certainly remains unconfirmed as a positive force for individuals or groups.

So. How do I know what is so? Belief, credulousness, and superstition -- OR -- rigorous examination of the physical evidence. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Graphic Rule

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