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A more detailed overview of
conflicts between science and religion:

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Why science and religion sometimes clash:

Scientific findings and religious beliefs are normally quite separate fields of study: 

  • Science deals with the study of nature, its forces, processes and development. It is based on the analysis of evidence largely based on measurements. Scientists assume, as a working hypothesis, that processes and events happen due to natural causes, not through divine intervention. They rarely intrude into matters of morality, the existence and nature of one or more deities, spirituality, etc. However, this exclusion is in a state of flux as neuroscientists, biologists, physicists, cosmologists investigate topics like deriving moral codes, 1 how the universe started, etc., which many faith groups consider to be their "territory."

  • Religion deals with matters of faith. Its main foundation is often a revelation from a deity -- typically orally transmitted from generation to generation, or recorded in a sacred text, or revealed to individuals through prayer. Most religions teach the existence of one or more deities who created the universe, and continue to play a major role in managing it -- sometimes bypassing the laws of nature to create miracles. A main function of religion is to teach moral principles, mankind's relationship to the god(s) or goddess(es), behavior towards other humans, spiritual matters, etc.

The main battles between religion and science are in areas in which they overlap. Here, the two areas of "truth" often hold conflicting positions. Consider two examples:

  • Some Christian groups teach that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, as shown by a literal interpretation of the first part of Genesis in the Bible. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2012 estimated the age of the universe to be 13.772 billion years, with an uncertainty of ~+mn~ 59 million years. These two estimates differ by a ratio of one million!

  • Many past religious-science conflicts have involved topics that are ultimately traced to human DNA, and which are outside of the control of each person. One example is sex. Women, whose DNA does not normally contain a "Y" chromosome have frequently been discriminated against by some religions. Men whose DNA normally does contain a "Y" chromosome have frequently been given preference. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not allow women to become priests; they limit the priesthood to males.

One of the main driving forces behind the conflict between science and religion is that many people feel that their own religious denomination, sect, or faith group within their religion has the "fullness of truth." whereas scientific findings and the teachings of other faith groups within the same or other religions are deeply flawed, and invented by error-prone humans. This attitude often fuels religious conflict, sometimes escalating into mass crimes against humanity and genocide. The result is that members of different religious denominations or sects, belonging to the same or different world religions, sometimes battle each other, as well as often disagreeing with the findings of science.

It is important to realize that Christianity alone consists of tens of thousands of different denominations, faith groups and sects. Thus, even if one faith group does have the fullness of truth, the average probability that a given person's specific Christian group is that that one is slim.

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Areas of overlap and conflict:

Some examples of the areas where science and religion overlap, and make conflicting claims, are:

  • Cosmology, geology, astronomy, etc. Many Christian evangelicals and other believers within the conservative wing of Christianity claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years of age. They interpret the creation and universal flood stories in the Biblical book of Genesis as being literally true. The vast majority of scientists reject a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. They generally believe that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, that no world-wide flood has happened, that humanity and other species evolved from a common ancestor, etc.

  • Climate change/global warming: People tend to have strongly held opinions on this topic:
    • Some say it is not happening. President Trump has claimed multiple times that it is a hoax created by the Chinese government in order to harm U.S. businesses.

    • Others say that change is happening, but that climate has always fluctuated in the past, so it is nothing to be concerned about.

    • Still others believe that it is happening due to natural causes -- like due to the sun warming up -- and is thus beyond our control.

    • Finally, some believe that it is happening, is being caused by human activity, and is a major threat to humanity. A survey of 12,000 peer reviewed science articles on climate change:

      "... found that just over 4,000 papers took a position on the cause of global warming, 97.1% of which endorsed human-caused global warming." 4

    It is extremely rare for scientists to be closer to a 100% absolute consensus about any topic.

    Unfortunately, some people mistake weather for climate. In the middle of a bitter Winter cold snap they will poke fun at people who believe in global warming/climate change.

  • Linguistics: Most conservative Christians claims that the Tower of Babel story in the Biblical book of Genesis describes precisely a past event in the Middle East in which humanity abandoned a single language. They then abruptly separated and became many different cultures, with different languages. Scientists generally disagree that languages developed in this manner.

  • Medicine: There are many conflicts in health related topics:
    • Some faith groups promote methods of healing using prayer and spiritual techniques that they believe are superior to modern medicine. Physicians tend to trust medication, surgical operations, etc. rather than prayer.

    • Most people who review the scientific definition of "life" will agree that a human ovum and spermatozoon are not forms of human life because they miss one factor possessed by all living things: they cannot reproduce. That is, one ovum cannot split and become two ova; one spermatozoon cannot split and become two spermatozoa. They will agree that human life begins during the conception process when an ovum and spermatozoon merge to become a zygote. Sometimes a zygote will split and become two zygotes. This starts the process of producing identical twins.

      However, there is little agreement about when, in the process of pregnancy, a pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, or newborn first becomes a human person. Some faith groups teach that personhood begins at during the conception process. Upon this belief they base their assertion that abortion at any stage of pregnancy involves the killing of a human being, a human person, a human baby. They believe that abortion is a form of murder and should be seriously restricted or banned entirely. Others teach that human life becomes a human person much later in pregnancy. One example is that a human life becomes a human person about 24 weeks gestation when the higher brain functions of the fetus first turn on, and the fetus begins to be aware of her or his surroundings to some degree. They conclude that abortion is a moral choice in certain circumstances. Traditional Jewish teaching has been that full personhood is only attained when the fetus is half-emerged from her or his mother's body.

    • Some faith groups believe that only God gives life and only God should take it away. They oppose physician assisted suicide. a.k.a. MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying). Others believe that when a terminally ill person is in intractable pain, has no chance of improvement, and wishes to die that physicians should be allowed to assist them in dying.

  • Religious practices:
    • A common Pentecostal practice is "speaking in tongues" where one believer will speak in what appears to be gibberish to the casual observer, while another believer interprets the meaning of the speech for the congregation. Pentecostals and investigators have reached different conclusions over the significance of speaking in tongues.

    • Most theists believe that they can assess the will of God. The sponsors of this web site have conducted a pilot study which appears to indicate that determining God's will through prayer is not possible.

  • Religious events: Various faith groups make certain claims about historical events. 
    • One example is the belief by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, that there were three mass migrations from Palestine to North America circa 600 BCE. This belief has been rejected by essentially all non-Mormon scientists who have researched the Jewish and North American indigenous peoples' DNA.
       
    • Another is the Shroud of Turin which many believers regard to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Many scientists disagree, having carbon-dated its material in the shroud to the middle ages at a time of its first appearance/reappearance.

  • Human sexuality:
    • Many conservative Christian groups teach that homosexual behavior is not normal, and is unnatural, chosen,not genetically determined, and can be changed through prayer and counseling. Researchers into human sexuality generally believe that homosexual orientation is normal for a small percentage of the human race, natural, and not chosen. Many researches have found that one's sexual orientation is at least mainly predetermined long before birth by epigenetics, and cannot be changed through prayer and counseling. [Epigenetics is the study of a layer that coats a person's DNA and is capable of turning genes on and off.]

    • Many conservative Christians believe that transgender persons -- those whose current gender identity conflicts with their birth-identified sex -- are simply gender confused and in need of therapy and counseling. Researchers have found that human brains contain structures that come in two types. They are usually larger and contain a higher neuron density in males than in females. They also found that MTF transgender persons -- those identified as male at birth and who now identify otherwise -- have female brain structures, and vice versa. Thus the common expression by transgender persons that they have "a female brain in a man's body" is literally true.

Generally speaking, in these areas of overlap:

  • When religious claims are evaluated using scientific methods, they are found to be false.
     
  • When scientific claims are evaluated using the methods of faith, they are found to be false. 

The result is stagnation. Neither side can easily or quickly convince the other of their truth. Sometimes, the conflict continues over centuries before being resolved. Some conflicts, like abortion access, may be permanently irresolvable.

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How science and religion adapt to change:

Science and religion have different methods of adapting to change:

  • Science generally welcomes change. Many false hypothesis are proposed and later rejected or modified as new data becomes available. This is the method by which science continually advances. It is ultimately self-correcting. All scientific beliefs are subject to being falsified if new evidence is uncovered. One example is the cause of stomach ulcers. For decades, physicians treated patients with ulcers by using long-term stress relief programs, permanent dietary changes and continuing medication to reduce stomach acid. They achieved only moderate success. Then an Australian doctor proved that many forms of stomach ulcers were caused by a bacterium that could be eliminated with a single shot of antibiotics. He single-handedly triggered a revolution in patient treatment.

  • Religious beliefs, particularly those based on a sacred text, change much more slowly. In fact, many faith groups stress the unchangeable nature of their beliefs. There are at least three methods by which religions modify their teachings. In Christianity, for example:

    • Some Biblical passages that were once considered to be literally true are now interpreted symbolically. Heaven is no longer necessarily considered to be somewhere "up there.Hell is no longer believed to exist inside the earth. Over the past century, Bible passages that describe torture methods inflicted on Hell's inhabitants (worms, pain, flogging, heat, thirst, darkness, unbearable heat and flames) have been downplayed and often treated as symbolic. Many view Hell as simply being isolated from God.

    • Some Biblical passages are ignored. We no longer execute prostitutes. When a woman who has married for the first time is found to be a non-virgin, she is not automatically stoned to death. Women engaged in sorcery are not tried, and executed if convicted. When a husband dies, a childless widow is no longer required to have sex with his brother in order to produce a child. Sections of the Bible that condoning and regulate slavery are rarely if ever quoted. The Bible contains dozens of passages that are profoundly immoral by today's secular and religious standards of behavior. These verses are largely simply ignored today.

    • Still other passages are interpreted as perhaps being valid for the culture and age for which they were written, but not binding in a different society or era. Male control over women, treating wives as property, restrictions on female ordination, prohibiting women from certain professions, etc. have being largely rejected as sexist, at least by mainline and liberal Protestants.

Change eventually happens. Most people no longer believe that:

  • The earth is flat. 
  • The sun revolves around the earth.
  • Lightning and thunder are caused by Satan and his demons.
  • Mental illness, epilepsy, etc. are caused by demonic possession.
  • God expects that a certain number of children will die young; thus we should not inoculate our children against childhood diseases.

But there are still many points of major conflict between science and religion. In each case, only one will eventually win public support. The historical record indicates that religion wins very few of these disputes.

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Stages in conflicts between science and religion:

In 1898, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), a professor and co-founder of Cornell University, wrote a rather notorious book called  "A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom." 1 He tracked many religiously-based conflicts, and showed that they often take decades or even centuries to resolve. Although his book exhibits a heavy -- sometimes vicious -- bias and opposition against religion, he did document a pattern in these conflicts: they often go through eight stages before being finally resolved:

  1. Some individual or group will propose a new belief system that is in conflict with established religious beliefs. The official religious institutions generally ignore this.

  2. A growing number of people will start to disagree with church teaching.

  3. Churches issue statements which condemn the proposal, citing Biblical passages as justification for their stance.

  4. Support for the proposal continues to grow among the public.

  5. Churches issue statement pointing out that belief in the proposal negates the entire Christian message, or attacks a fundamental Christian principle.

  6. Public support continues to grow.

  7. Churches begin to ignore the proposal, and sometimes ignore the Biblical passages that it once quoted in opposition to the new idea.

  8. Many decades or centuries later, churches may incorporate the proposal into their beliefs and teachings.

Since the advent of the modernist/fundamentalist divide in Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberals have tended to readily accept scientific findings and incorporate them into their theology and morality. Thus White's eight step process now mainly applies to religious conservatives.

The theory of evolution is a classic case. "A scientific theory of evolution [was] first proposed by Charles Bonnet (1720 - 1793)...The theory was developed by Charles Lyell (1797 - 1874)." 2 But there was minimal theological reaction until Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859. At the present time, evolution of the species has been accepted by the Roman Catholic church, by liberal Christian denominations and by many mainline faith groups. Some have integrated the theory of evolution into their educational programs. Conservative Christians generally retain belief in one of the literal interpretations of the biblical creation story in Genesis.

Of course, there are many scientific theories that never pass through these steps. Psychological hoaxes like the recovered memory movement, multiple personality disorder, abuse in former lifetimes, etc. are introduced, gain some acceptance, and collapse due to lack of evidence, typically within two decades. Eugenic and race-based quasi-scientific theories similarly did not endure.

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Current status of science and religious conflicts:

Many Americans hold two very different views about science and religion. According to a Pew Research Center survey:

  • 59% of U.S. adults believe that science and religion are often in conflict vs. 38% who feel that they are mostly compatible. In 2009, 55% believed that they were in conflict. In particular, white evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Catholics feel that science and religion are largely compatible.

  • Only 30% believe that their own religious beliefs conflict with science; 68% believe that they do not conflict. Those sensing conflict has been declining over time. they were 36% in 2009. 5

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Related menus on this web site:

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Reference:

  1. A.D. White, "A history of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom," Prometheus Books, (1896; Reprinted 1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe, "New religions as global cultures: Making the human sacred," Westview, (1997), Page 96. Read reviews or order this book
  3. Sam Harris, "The moral landscape: How science can determine human values," Simon and Schuster, (2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. , "Survey finds 97% of climate science papers agree warming is man-made," The Guardian, 2013-MAY-16, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
  5. Cary Funk and David Masci, "5 facts about the interplay between religion and science," Pew Research Center, 2015-OCT-22, at: http://www.pewresearch.org/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-NOV-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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