An Atheist and a Mormon Debate: Are Religion and Science Compatible?

The fourth installment in a debate series between a young atheist and devout Mormon.

It doesn’t get much different than a Mormon and an atheist — so that’s precisely who we have engaging in a monthly debate on matters of spirituality.

Donna Carol Voss is a Berkley grad, stay-at-home mom, former pagan and devout Mormon. W Cassity-Guilliom grew up with interfaith parents and landed as an irreligious apatheist, which evolved into atheism and skepticism with education.

In this installment, the two debate whether religion and science can be reconciled.

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W Cassity-Guilliom:

The scientific method requires a hypothesis, a testable truth statement or model that can be falsified. Testing that hypothesis and trying to prove it wrong is how it’s strengthened, killed, or morphed. The most-tested hypotheses, ones with an undeniable degree of truth from many lines of evidence and many trials, become lauded as Scientific Theories, which is the graduation point of science. Nothing is better proven than a Theory.

By this method, religions aren’t necessarily incompatible with science, so long as they don’t make testable claims. Of course there are some testable claims made on behalf of various religions, such as the moon splitting in half, the age of the earth, the composition of space and the stars, etc. The extent to which a religion doesn’t make such claims is the extent to which that religion doesn’t conflict with this technical definition of science.

However, one necessary pillar buttressing science is the skeptic’s mindset, in the epistemological sense of the word skeptic. Skepticism is the fair and consistent subjugation of all beliefs to reality. It’s the idea that claims require evidence to be justified, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As Bertrand Russell said, “The wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Science is ineffective or even counter-effective without this rigorous, evidence-based ideal. Faith is the opposite of skepticism, being the willing, even joyful acquiescence to self-deception in the absence of sufficient evidence. Faith and skepticism can exist in the same mind only by highly meticulous compartmentalization. The skeptical foundation of science conflicts strongly with virtually all of modern organized religion, though not necessarily folk religion as it has no concept of faith. After all, faith evolved only after knowledge had grown sufficiently to encroach on the factual claims of religions.

Large portions of modern religions are incompatible with the technicalities of science: myths like Noah’s flood and Muhammad splitting the moon. All of modern religion is incompatible with the skepticism that underlies science.


Donna Carol Voss:

At first glance, it would seem that science and religion cannot be reconciled. Though there is a caveat: not all religious claims are equivalent, and deeper study reveals perfect correspondence between the two. After all, they’re both true, and no truth conflicts with other truth.

Some ground rules for the pondering:

  • Religion and science serve different purposes and operate in different but overlapping realms.
    • Religion deals with why; science deals with how.
  • There is not a single, provable fact of science that true religion disputes; it is science that attempts to refute religious claims simply because there is no proof.
    • Proof is a language spoken by science but not religion; if science requires religion to prove itself with something (evidence) that exists entirely outside of it, religion will never be able to do so.

If you try to express concepts that do not exist in your native language, you can express them generally but not in the powerfully evocative way that a single word achieves.

The words schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else’s pain) and doppelgänger (a person’s exact double in the world) exist in German but not English. When an English-speaking person uses the phrases “taking pleasure in someone else’s pain” or “a person’s exact double in the world,” they are referring to concepts that can be generally understood within their own culture. Those same concepts expressed singularly are part of what defines German culture.

You don’t truly understand another language by translating it into your own — only by learning the language itself is your thinking free to travel down paths your own language obscures.

Trying to understand religion from the point of view of science is futile because the limits of proof make understanding the language of religion (transcendent, personal experience) impossible.

On the other hand, understanding science from the point of view of religion is not difficult. A true theist accepts empirical science as proof of God’s existence, not an obstacle to it.

One of the most obvious apparent differences between science and religion is the age of the earth. The creation story in Genesis allows six days, while science has dated the earth to many millions of years. How can both be true?

Different religious claims resolve this apparent conflict in various ways. Mormons offer perhaps the simplest resolution. We do not believe God created the world ex nihilo, but that he formed the earth from pre-existing elements, some of which were millions of years old. We say the earth is 6,000 years old in its present form, but that doesn’t mean all of its elements are that young.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an applied physicist and theologian with undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT, offers the most complex resolution. In his book Genesis and the Big Bang, Schroeder quotes a preeminent Jewish philosopher and astronomer from the twelfth century:

“Study astronomy and physics if you desire to comprehend the relation between the world and God’s management of it.” — Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed

Genesis and the Big Bang includes a chapter called “Stretching Time” in which Schroeder explains (almost above my paygrade) how the six days of creation in Genesis and the 15 billion years of earth’s history both started and ended in the same instant. His theory is based on the relative distance of objects from the calculation of time.

When looked at deeply enough, religion and science reinforce each other beautifully.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

I do not accept your ground rules. Both religion and science walk the territory of why and how, and religions have long tried to prove their claims. Not meeting success in this endeavor doesn’t mean they haven’t tried, nor that they don’t have to try. Just review the rest of your response: quoting a physicist making a scientific defense of his beliefs while trying to deny that you will do this or that you must have justified belief. Beliefs are justified by evidence, there’s no avoiding this fact. You can believe whatever you like, but it’s only justified when the evidence in support of it is sufficient.

Religious claims are not special claims. They’re truth statements about reality that are either true or false and require a degree of evidence proportional to the size of their conflict with currently understood reality.

If you say, “I got a pet dog yesterday,” that’s a mundane claim requiring almost no evidence. If you say, “The earth is six days old,” that’s an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. It’s entirely irrelevant whether that claim came from a random word generator or a 2,000-year-old book collection; it still requires the same amount of evidence given its conflict with currently understood reality.

In logic, the author of a statement has no causal impact on its truth. Religion is no exception. It’s not another language, it’s just more ideas about the facts of reality that have evolved multiple defense mechanisms to put themselves outside regular consideration and criticism.

“You will live eternally after death” is a claim about the facts of reality, not a secret language that needs to be learned, as is the claim “there is an infinitely powerful and infinitely beneficent person who exists.”

What you call the learning process, I call the indoctrination process — learning to think these claims are special and don’t require evidence, or learning how to word it so that it’s vague enough to not be a claim at all, avoiding the precision and evidence normal honesty demands.

Note the above paragraph doesn’t mention science. The tenets I laid out are some of the fundamentals of epistemology, which makes a significant portion of the skeptical view, which is a necessary component to science. Although religious claims frequently conflict directly with science, the faith that is foundational to modern religions conflicts with the skepticism underlying science, not directly science itself.

As for the various explanations for a 6,000-year-old earth: those aren’t evidence in support of truth, they’re a reformulation of the claim so that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. “This idea is not self-defeating” is a very long way from “this idea is justified by the evidence.” Claims don’t resolve problems.

Addendums to a claim necessarily make it less likely. “This nerdy accountant plays in a jazz band in his off time and plays computer games” is necessarily less likely than “This nerdy accountant plays in a jazz band in his off time.” Every time you tack on another extension to your claim about the age of the earth, it becomes weaker. If finding these extensions in order to keep your beliefs alive is what you mean by “looking deeply enough” at science, then I disagree with your definition of “looking deeply.”

When a religious person examines science in a directed search for support of their beliefs, they will find that science reinforces their religion beautifully. Cognitive biases disallow any other result. When a religious person examines science in a vigorously self-honest way, they find conflict that changes their mind — ask any ex-creationist. The honest mind follows the evidence where it leads; it doesn’t search for evidence to support itself.


Donna Carol Voss:

You write, “Cognitive biases disallow any other result.”

You and I are operating from different cognitive biases; therefore, we each reach the expected (and conflicting) result. You are so sure that science crushes religion, and I am so sure that religion puts science in its place.

You are by far the more scientific of the two of us, so I grant you special dispensation to answer this question before you make your final statement. What why does science address? Honest question.

I beg to differ that religious claims are “truth statements about reality.” If they were, I would have to agree with you that they “are either true or false, and require a degree of evidence proportional to the size of their conflict with currently understood reality.”

Religious claims are humanity’s wholly inadequate attempt to describe a transcendent (as opposed to empirical) reality. By virtue of the fact that transcendent reality is simultaneously subjective and indefinable, religious claims cannot be evaluated as true by reference to empirical evidence.

I’m sure it’s my failure and not yours, but you don’t seem to address my contention that religion CANNOT follow “the precision and evidence that normal honesty demands” because to do so would make it science.

The whole point of faith is to risk believing something that may not be true. If it were provable, no faith would be required and therefore no religion would exist.

You say that “the faith that is foundational to modern religions conflicts with the skepticism underlying science, not directly science itself,” but I see skepticism as a vital component of faith. Rational theists would almost all admit skepticism from time to time in their beliefs in general or in parts of their faith’s doctrine. The value of doubt and skepticism is that it serves (or can serve) to reinforce faith.

Did you ever see the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks? When he makes a contraption to sail away from the island, the hardest part is breaking through the surf into open ocean. The surf batters him and his contraption again and again. At last, he utilizes his “sail” made from a porta potty door to lift him up and over the swells.

Doubt and skepticism act as surf that threatens to overcome belief. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Some people fight skepticism, some let it push them away from God. Most theists experience aspects of this struggle throughout our lives. The pearl of great price is fighting through the doubt to the other side, emerging stronger, humbler, and more faith-filled from the usually searing effort.

And yes, I can already sense you thinking, “See? See? Theists irrationally reject their doubts so that they may continue to believe.”

Guilty. That’s why they call it faith.


W Cassity-Guilliom:

Science answers why questions in the same way religions do. Provide an example of a why question in religion and you will be able to find an analog in a scientific field, typically social science, psychology, or neurology.

I don’t address your contention that “religions cannot follow the precision and evidence that normal honesty demands” because I believe religious claims are claims about reality, in which case your contention is false.

Large portions of religions are incompatible with the technicalities of science, but all of modern, faith-based religion is incompatible with the skepticism underlying science.


Donna Carol Voss:

Why do we exist?

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