Science & Religion Unfriend Each Other

The religion-science relationship is in a strange place.

It can seem like those involved are either trying to inflame the tensions like bystanders egging on a bar fight, or insisting sweetly that it’s all a misunderstanding, and religion and science are really as compatible as sunsets and wine.

The conversation around a new book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (which I haven’t yet read), exemplifies this polarized tendency. The authors, sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle, conducted surveys and found that, contrary to stereotypes, religious believers see much common ground between science and their beliefs. These findings supposedly show that the conflict between religion and science—a clash many believe extends back to Galileo and beyond—is vastly overblown.

But are these findings really grounds for celebration, or are they dancing around deep and substantive fault lines? The fact is that a fully scientific worldview really does seem to rule out many religious truth claims, from the efficacy of prayer to personal immortality. The culture of science—at an informal level—reflects this incompatibility: American scientists are much less likely to believe in God than non-scientists. Pretending that everything is sun and roses does not seem like a reasonable option.

I’m not a neutral observer to this debate. In my day job, I’m a social scientist who uses cognitive and evolutionary methods to understand religion, ritual, and culture as natural phenomena. I reduce them to their parts, their evolutionary backstories—no supernatural explanations allowed. But in the rest of my life, I’m a person of faith, and I’m not talking about a kind of vague deism or Easter-and-Christmas cultural Christianity, either. I start and end each day with prayers, attend services once—and sometimes twice or more—per week, and take Lent seriously. I take the whole thing seriously.

And the fact is, the religious aspect of my life—which is really the central one, the one I’d give up last if I were forced to choose—is in stark tension with the work I do as a scientist and social theorist.

No matter what comforting assurances Ecklund and Scheitle offer, my peers and professional colleagues are overwhelmingly nonbelievers. When I occasionally mention at conferences or other meetings that I’m religious, the reactions from new acquaintances are typically some kind of more or less obvious, if polite, discomfort. In informal conversation, scientists I’ve only just met often say unpleasant things about religion. Many of my most respected mentors are positively infuriated by the fact that anyone thinks prayer could work.

In short, I’m a working scientist and a fairly strong believer, and I certainly feel a strong tension between religion and science. Ecklund’s and Scheitle’s work therefore seems to be missing something critically important about what’s actually happening on the ground, in the halls of science and temples of faith. If the conflict between religion and science is just a discredited narrative, why is it that the scientists I respect, befriend, and hang out with are generally irreligious? Why is it that many of the most committed religious believers in the United States reject modern evolutionary theory?

Scientists Really Are Less Religious

This isn’t just my personal experience. Scientists objectively do tend to be less religious than average. A large Pew study in 2009 found that only one-third of American scientists believed in God, compared with 83% of the general American public. More strikingly, a full 40% of scientists believed in neither God nor any kind of higher power—compared with only four percent of Americans at large. In other words, American scientists were ten times more likely than Americans in general to be atheists.

There’s more. Seventy-five percent of the American populace in 2009 were Christian, compared with only 30% of scientists. And while only 16% of the general population were atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” a full 48% of scientists identified with one of those categories.

No one needs a crash course in statistics to see that these are very big differences. They demonstrate concretely that scientists as people have very different responses, on average, to religious doctrines than non-scientists.


No truly scientific picture of the world will ever include spirits, souls, God, answered prayers, or an afterlife.

The blurb for Ecklund’s and Scheitle’s new book at the publisher’s website neatly illustrates this problem, unconvincingly assuring readers that “religious people love much of science. They perceive conflicts only with the forms of science that seem to have implications for God’s role in the world and the value and sacredness of humans.”

This is like saying that Red Sox fans are perfectly comfortable with all Yankees fans except the ones who follow baseball. It asks us to rest easy, knowing that religious people are content with all forms of science except evolutionary theory, biology, physics, geology, genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, biomedicine, and climate science. Because all of those forms of science have implications for God’s role in the world and the sacredness of humans.

The World: A System or a Story?

It comes down to one inconvenient fact: science rejects teleology, or the idea that nature has purposes or goals. Thinking in terms of purposes and goals helps us to understand the world as a narrative. But the founders of modern science, such as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and René Descartes, argued that the world—or at least the non-human world—wasn’t a story, but instead a collection of physical things. As such, the right way to understand it wasn’t through narrative, but by thinking physically or mechanically. Their prescriptions turned out to be useful, and they influenced all of subsequent modern science. For example, Darwin’s theory of natural selection banished the concepts of purpose and intentionality from biology, thereby naturalizing our understanding of life itself.

But this naturalization is very hard to reconcile with many religious claims about the soul or psyche. Evolutionary theory treats the human mind as a natural entity assembled by natural selection. Most forms of religious thought treat it as a spiritual agency—that is, as a character in a story about the world. Characters have goals, hopes, and agendas, while purely natural entities are just physical processes, slowly working and mechanically themselves out. These views about the nature of the human person are simply not easily compatible.

Educated readers of faith may protest that naturalism—the claim that reality is explainable solely by mechanistic and impersonal natural laws—is only a useful methodological assumption, not a metaphysical commitment. This is true, but it highlights exactly the point I’m making—methodologically, modern science assumes from the outset that (1) events obey general laws, and (2) that these laws are impersonal. In order to think scientifically or do science, you must agree first to these assumptions. You must stop thinking of the world as a story.

As such, no truly scientific picture of the world will ever include spirits, souls, God, answered prayers, or an afterlife.

“God did it” isn’t a viable scientific hypothesis. Biologists, geologists, and astrophysicists alike—no matter how pious they might be in their private lives—must exclude ideas about God’s purposes from their scientific models, or risk being laughed out of their professions. Of course, after hanging up their lab coats at the end of the day, they can go home and pray to God. They can even expect an answer. But if they do, their scientific assumptions about how the universe works are in tension with their religious beliefs about how God works.

Of course, we all switch between different cognitive modes all the time. The mental tools I use to follow a loved one’s funny anecdote are different than the tools I use to, say, interpret my electric bill. So, in theory, scientists at worship could always simply “switch off” their scientific assumptions and activate their religious assumptions instead. But habits have an effect. When you’re obliged to spend eight to ten hours each day treating the world as an inert physical system governed by impersonal, mechanistic laws, it’s actually very challenging to then switch seamlessly into a completely different cognitive mode, one in which the world is essentially a grand story, events have hidden purposes, and humans are not mere biological machines but immortal spirits. Not impossible—but very challenging.

The Limits of Science

It’s very unfashionable to say that science has limits. Science has been so successful, so effective at increasing our control over the world, that the idea that it might not be all-encompassing is a kind of modern heresy. But if you believe seriously that God exists or that prayers are answered, then, by definition, you’re committed to a worldview in which science does not account for everything. There’s no getting around that. You’ve rejected the idea of a fully causally closed universe—one in which every physical event is fully explained by the physical events immediately preceding it. You’ve cast your lot with a different worldview.

In fact, even simply believing in free will puts you very much in tension with a fully scientific outlook.

Remember, doing science methodologically requires us to assume that all events are explicable by reference to natural laws, which operate in one direction: from the past to the future. If you apply that reasoning to the human mind, then all neurological processes—decisions, emotions, and subjective feelings—are just as inflexibly determined. So if you affirm free will, you’re in effect denying that natural laws extend into every nook and crevice of reality. You’re committed to believing that some things, at least, are beyond nature.

In reality, we all live as if this were true. Nobody really lives as if her will were completely determined by natural laws. Everyone makes decisions, weighs the moral consequences of actions, tries to live up to standards. The assumptions that we need to make in order to do science—that reality is rigidly determined, causally closed, and rationally explicable—remain more or less isolated from most practical settings in our lives.

But in modern, educated circles, it takes courage to admit that you really believe that the universe isn’t a causally closed, deterministic system. Ours is a civilization based on the belief that we can maximize our control over the chaotic world by rationally uncovering the laws of nature and using them to our advantage. If you admit that you think prayer works, that God really led the Israelites out of Egypt, that the angel Gabriel really dictated the Quran to Muhammad in the cave at Hira, or that Christ was really resurrected, you are rejecting some of the basic assumptions that underlie modern, technological civilization. You are saying that the universe is, in its basic essence, more like a story than like a system. It’s never going to be completely captured our mental models.

This is why I’m skeptical of attempts to paper over the tensions between religion and science. If you’re religious, you can—and should—accept naturalistic assumptions within the methodology of your research. But you’re equally committed to rejecting them as comprehensive descriptions of reality. To be religious is to affirm, in the final analysis, that the universe is a narrative in which purposes play a central role, not a collection of parts mindlessly knocking against each other.

At some point, you have to decide what you think the universe really is. The decision you make is up to you (or the causal chain that led you to it). But once you’ve made your decision, there will be consequences for all areas of your life. Most non-scientists understand this. So they resist any scientific story that depicts the inner, subjective life as just another causally determined mechanism, because they’ve decided that life is essentially a story. When “science” disagrees with them on this point, they part ways with science. No matter how many surveys and op-eds argue otherwise, they know that you can only live in one kind of world.

(Images: Shutterstock)
Research Associate, Center for Mind and Culture