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Are Science and Religion Compatible?


Paul Kurtz

Volume 26.2, March / April 2002

We need separations between religion and science, ethics, and the state. But there is an appropriate domain for religion, and in this sense science and religion are not necessarily incompatible. That domain is evocative, expressive, emotive. Religion presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, and dramatic expressions of existential hope and yearnings.

There have been many conferences recently discussing the relationship between science and religion. The Templeton Foundation, for example, has supported numerous conferences on this theme. Many of those participating in these discussions apparently assume that science and religion are compatible. They argue that there is no contradiction between them, and some even maintain that science confirms the basic principles of religious faith. I suspect that most of the participants of this conference, made up predominantly of skeptics and nontheists, do not agree.

There are many areas where religionists and scientists make radically different truth claims. Some of them are:

  1. Does the soul or consciousness exist, as a separate and distinct entity; or is it a function of the brain?
  2. Does science provide evidence for “intelligent design,” or does evolutionary biology suffice without it?
  3. Is it possible to influence the healing of persons by praying for them at a distance, or are the tests performed completely unreliable?
  4. Is there empirical evidence for the claim that “near-death experiences” enable us to reach “the other side,” or are there alternative physiological and psychological explanations for these experiences?
  5. Can mediums under certain conditions communicate with deceased persons, or are the protocols of such tests too loose?
  6. Does the Big Bang hypothesis in astronomy point to God as the cause of the universe, or is the latter claim beyond science and purely speculative?

In dealing with the above topics various questions emerge: Are coherent theories and testable hypotheses presented? If so, what is the evidence for them? Do paranormal- spiritual-religious explanations survive critical scrutiny?

Skeptics have focused on the examination of paranormal claims. They do not deal with religious claims per se, unless they can be examined empirically. Secular humanists, on the other hand, do wish to deal with religious claims, testing them as best they can. Interestingly, in recent years the borderlines between the paranormal and religion have blurred and it is often difficult to tell when we are dealing with paranormal or religious phenomena. Thus spiritualism, near-death experiences, and communication with dead people interest both paranormal and religious investigators. Similarly for the appeal to intelligent design-a classical philosophical argument-now introduced within evolutionary biology and cosmology.

I have proposed that we use the term paranatural to refer to religious claims that are capable of some empirical resolution and are not transcendental or supernatural. In this sense they are similar to testable paranormal claims.

A good example of the overlap is in the popular belief that mysterious intelligent and beneficent extraterrestrial beings are visiting earthlings and floating them aboard spaceships. This is a quasi-religious phenomenon reminiscent of angels, and other divine or semi-divine beings of earlier ages. The disappearance of the Roswell aliens is not unlike the empty tomb of the New Testament!

In order to analyze the relationship between science and religion, we need to define and characterize each domain. Many consider that religion offers a special kind of higher spiritual truth. They maintain that there are two truths: (1) the truths of science, employing the methods of scientific inquiry, and testing claims empirically, rationally, and experimentally; and (2) the truths of religion, which transcend the categories of empirical fact and logic. Skeptics are rightly dubious of this latter claim.

The most reliable methods, they insist, are those that satisfy the objective standards of verification and justification. The historic claims of revelation in the ancient sacred texts are insufficiently corroborated by reliable eyewitnesses or are based upon questionable oral traditions. These were compiled many decades, even centuries, after the alleged death of the prophets. Many miraculous claims found in the Bible and the Koran-for example, the claims of healings and exorcisms, within the New Testament or the creationist account in the Old Testament-are unreliable. They express the primitive science of an ancient nomadic and agricultural people, and do not withstand contemporary scientific scrutiny.

Unfortunately, some proponents of the historic religions have often used their creeds in order to block or censor scientific inquiry. Freedom of inquiry within science is essential for human civilization; any effort to limit scientific research is counterproductive.

A good illustration of this is the present effort of some to restrict embryonic stem-cell research on moral or religious grounds. It is argued that if a cell begins to divide, even if only six or eight cells, that a “soul” of a person is already implanted, and that any effort to experiment with this is “immoral.” The postulation of a soul to prohibit scientific inquiry is reminiscent of the suppression of Galileo and the teaching of Darwinism. Thus insofar as religion claims to provide some overall imprimatur for scientific research we need a separation of religion and science.

A second area concerns the relationship between science and morality. I raise this question here because many people think that the main function of religion is moral. Stephen Jay Gould in the Skeptical Inquirer talked about two magisteria, science and religion, which he says do not compete and do not contradict each other1. The domain of science, deals with truth, he says, that of religion with ethics. I think that this position is mistaken. Indeed I would argue that there also ought to be a separation between ethics and religion. Religionists have no special competence in framing moral judgments. I say this because a great effort has been expended in the history of ethics-from Aristotle to Spinoza, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey-to demonstrate that ethics can be autonomous and that it is possible to frame ethical judgments on the basis of rational inquiry. There is a logic of judgments of practice, rules of effective decision-making, and ethical knowledge that we can develop quite independently of a religious framework. Science has a role to play here, for it can expand the means at our disposal (technology), and it can modify value judgments in the light of the facts of the case and their consequences. Many people today mistakenly believe that you cannot be moral without religious foundations. Ever since the Renaissance, the secularization of morality has continued quite independently of religious commandments.

A third area which has been hotly debated in the modern world is the relationship between religion and the state. Most democrats today defend the separation of religion and the state; they say that, though religionists have every right to express their point of view in the public square, religion should be primarily a private matter. Religions should not seek to impose their fundamental moral principles on the entire society. Democratic states should be neutral about professing religious principles.

What then is the proper domain of religion? Is anything left to religion? My answer is in the affirmative. This may surprise skeptics, but I think that religion and science are compatible, depending of course on what is meant by religion. Religion has performed an important function that cannot be simply dismissed. Religions will continue with us in the foreseeable future and will not easily wither away. No doubt my thesis is controversial: religious language, I submit, is not primarily descriptive; nor is it prescriptive. The descriptive and explanatory functions of language are within the domain of science; the prescriptive and normative are the function of ethics. Both of these domains, science and ethics, have a kind of autonomy. Certainly within the political domain, religionists do not have any special competence, similarly for the moral domain. It should be left to every citizen of a democracy to express his or her political views. Likewise, for the developing moral personality who is able to render moral judgments.

If this is the case, what is appropriate for the religious realm? The domain of the religious, I submit, is evocative, expressive, emotive. It presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, performative ceremonial rituals, which act out and dramatize the human condition and human interests, and seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose. Religions-at least the religions of revelation-deal in parables, narratives metaphors, stories, myths; and they frame the divine in human (anthropomorphic) form. They express the existential yearnings of individuals endeavoring to cope with the world that they encounter and find meaning in the face of death. Religious language in this sense is eschatological. Its primary function is to express hope. If science gives us truth, morality the good and the right, and politics justice, religion is the realm of promise and expectation. Its main function is to overcome despair and hopelessness in response to human tragedy, adversity and conflict, the brute, inexplicable, contingent and fragile facts of the human condition. Under this interpretation religions are not primarily true, nor are they primarily good or right, or even just; they are, if you will, evocative, attempting to transcend contrition, fear, anxiety, and remorse, providing balm for the aching heart-at least for many people, if not all.

I would add to this the fact that religious systems of belief, thought, emotion, and attitude are products of the creative human imagination. They traffic in fantasy and fiction, taking the promises of long-forgotten historical figures and endowing them with eternal cosmic significance.

The role of creative imagination, fantasy, and fiction, should not be dismissed. These are among the most powerful expressions of human dreams and hopes, ideals and longings. Who could have imagined that J.K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series of fictionalized books or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would so entrance young people, or that so many humans would be so fascinated by fictionalized novels, movies, and plays. The creative religious imagination weaves tales of consolation and of expectation. They are dramatic expressions of human longing, enabling humans to overcome grief and depression.

In the above interpretation of religion as dramatic existentialist poetry, science and religion are not necessarily incompatible, for they address different human interests and needs.

A special challenge to naturalism emerges at this point. I think that most of us might agree that methodological naturalism is the basic epistemological principle of the sciences; namely, that we should seek natural causal explanations for phenomena, testing these by the methods of science. Scientific naturalism, on the other hand, goes beyond this, because it rejects as nonevidential the postulation of occult metaphors, the invoking of divine forces, spirits, ghosts, or souls to explain the universe; and it tries to deal in materialistic, physical-chemical, or non-reductive naturalistic explanations. The frenzied opposition to Darwinism today is clearly based upon fear that scientific naturalism will undermine religious faith.

If this is the case, the great challenge to scientific naturalism is not in the area of truth but of hope, not of the good but of promise, not of the just but of expectation-in the light of the tragic character of the human condition. This is in stark contrast with the findings of neo-Darwinism, which recognizes that death is final, not simply the death of each individual but the possible extinction some day in the remote future of the human species itself. Evolutionists have discovered that millions of species have become extinct. Does not the same fate await the human species? Cosmological scientists indicate that at some point it seems likely that our Sun will cool down, indeed, looking into the future, that a Big Crunch may overtake the entire universe. Others talk about a deep freeze. Some star trekkers are inspired by science fiction. They say that one day perhaps we will leave Earth, inhabit other planets and galaxies. Nonetheless at some point the death not only of the individual, but of our species, our planet and solar system seems likely.

What does this portend for the ultimate human condition? We live in an epoch where the dimensions of the universe have expanded enormously on the micro and on the macro level. We are talking about billions of light years in dimension. Much of this is based on speculative extrapolation. Nonetheless, we can ask, Does the naturalistic picture crush human aspiration? Does it destroy and undermine hope? Does it provide sufficient consolation for the human spirit? From this perspective, the central issue for humans is the question of human courage. Can we live a full life in the face of ultimate human extinction? These are large-scale questions, yet they are central for the religious consciousness. Can scientific naturalism, insofar as it undermines theism, provide an alternative dramatic, poetic rendering of the human condition, offering hope, and promise? Countless numbers of brave individuals can live significant lives and even thrive accepting the possible far death of the species and our solar system. But so many other humans-perhaps the bulk of humankind-cannot bear that thought. They crave immortality, and religion satisfies their need. Many others do not stay awake nights worrying what will happen five, ten, or fifteen billion years from now. They find life worthwhile for its own sake here and now.

In conclusion, let me say that we are living through a period of exacerbated religiosity in the United States. There seems to be a new spiritual paradigm emerging, contesting both scientific and methodological naturalism. The United States is an anomaly in this regard, especially in contrast with the decline of religious belief in Europe. Recent scientific polls of belief in European countries-France, Germany, England, and others, even Japan-indicate that the level of belief in a theistic being and the institutionalized practice of organized religion have declined considerably; yet these highly secular societies exemplify good moral behavior, and are far less violent than the United States. The view that without religion you cannot have a meaningful life or high motivation is thus thrown into question. We should not take the current religious bias regnant in America today as necessarily universal for all cultures.


  1. Gould, Stephen J. 1999. “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Skeptical Inquirer July/August 23(4).

Paul Kurtz

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Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI's former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.