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Religion vs Science – the Non-Debate. May 10, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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In the religious debate the sides of the debate are often said to be science and religion. In this post I aim to show that this dichotomy is nonsense. In future posts I will explore different ways that the religious theory is undermined by science but this post focuses on establishing the real “sides” of the debate.

The November 2006 issue of the time magazine is entitled God vs. Science and contains a spirited debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. The main article opens with the following passage:

We revere faith and scientific progress, hunger for miracles and for MRIs. But are the worldviews compatible?

This typifies exactly the problem in picking the two sides of the debate as science and religion. MRIs are not mutually exclusive to faith, scientific progress does not occur at the expense of miracles (well a case could be made it does, but assume for a moment that miracles are real and you will see my point).

Let us try and narrow down the actual meaning of these supposed sides of the debate. We will start with science. While I generally steer away from the wikipedia as a source of information, its article on science starts with a poignant description of science that I would struggle to better so here it is:

In the broadest sense, science (from the Latin “to know”) refers to any systematic methodology which attempts to collect accurate information about reality and to model this in a way which can be used to make reliable, concrete and quantitative predictions about future events and observations.


Science achieves this through a process of proposing hypotheses, testing them, establishing theories, continuing to test them and then operationalising the theory once it has shown to work. This nature of a theory working is an important one – it is not necessary for a theory to explain why it works for it to be successful. In fact the very question of “why” is almost a non-question in science. Science is really much more interested in how things work and how they relate to each other. Supposedly if enough detailed “hows” were known, the “why” may become apparent but there is no need to suppose anything has any reason to exist or work in a particular way.

The other “side” of the debate is religion. Religion is best described as an organised belief in a deity (or deities). In a more sensible phrasing of the same concept, religion is a theory about how the world works. As Dawkins states in several places, a world with a god (or gods) would be a very different world to one without.

It should now be apparent that a theory of how the world is versus the mechanism for explaining the world are not logical opposing sides of an argument! Religion is a theory and it is subject to science. It is really that simple.

Now I suspect you thinking that there is a real debate going on. So what is the debate? It is quite simply the debate between those that think religious theories of how things are match reality, and those that don’t. As it happens the majority of serious scientists sit in the “those that don’t” camp but that is perhaps an indicator of the robustness of the religious theories – it is not an indication that science itself is against religion which would just be sloppy use of language.

I will conclude with a couple of relevant points for the sake of completeness, both of which I hope to return to in detail in future posts.

Firstly the religious theories are far from complete and in my view it is no coincidence that religious theories are confined to the gaps in knowledge not already well explained by other fields of study. There are well established theories of gravity, cosmology, mechanics, biology and numerous other fields. You rarely hear religion offering counter-explanations to the theories within those fields of study (the evolution debate is an exception which I will explore in depth later). This is the “god of gaps” concept and is very weak.

Secondly, religion offers poorly constructed theories for the most part. Most of them ultimately end up making claims that cannot be tested or that rely on “faith”. These theories are very weak because they answer the why questions and not the how. As discussed above, the why questions are fairly meaningless – they offer answers to questions that necessarily don’t need answers!

Finally, religious theories that are not subject to science are meaningless theories. If one day it was shown that god exists, science would have a lot to say about it so the common statement that the domain of religion sits outside the domain of science is complete rubbish.

Thats me for this post.


1. SkuLLFyRE - May 10, 2007

But if religion isn’t real then where will i get my precious morals from. How could an understanding of right and wrong and the concept of compassion be possible without the aid of a magic book?

2. Ginarley - May 10, 2007

Morals are a whole different ballgame 🙂 I’ll get to that soon because its a very important point!

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