Is There a Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Is There a Conflict Between Science and Religion?

Last week I wrote a surprisingly critical review of David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu’s 2022 book Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World. It was unfortunate that my opinion of the book ended up being so negative, because I really enjoyed about 70% of it.

Before I wrote that post, I had actually wanted to include a whole deep dive on my own opinions about the conflict between science and religion. After writing it, however, I realized that after tackling the book in so much detail, my own conclusion about this perceived contradiction warranted its own separate post. This is that post.

History vs. myths

Much of the reason why people see science and religion as so deeply at odds is the long history of the war between clergy and scientists. This history of conflict is being proclaimed every day by so many people, but the problem is that it isn’t true.

What I liked about Of Popes and Unicorns is that it dispels so many widely disseminated atheist myths about the history of the conflict between science and religion. (Think Galileo and Bruno.) The problem was that near the end, the book took a sudden turn into preaching that science needs Christianity to survive.

Admittedly, more and more people are figuring out all the time what historians are well aware of, that the Church has not just historically hated and persecuted scientists merely for doing science. My readers, at least, might know this already from posts like my review last week or a post I wrote last year debunking the historical claims in Sagan’s Cosmos. Importantly, both of my posts link to plenty of sources (like Of Popes and Unicorns and History for Atheists) which disseminate the historical truth to even wider audiences.

Faith vs. fact

Even so, I simply can’t agree with the book’s conclusion that without the historical tensions, there is absolutely no conflict between Christianity and science whatsoever. I definitely don’t agree that “no other body of thought has ever been of greater benefit to scientific thinking than the central tenets of traditional Christianity have—in the whole of human history.” As an atheist who loves ripping apart Answers in Genesis articles for fun, how can I?

As a general rule in life, the answer is probably not going to be at one of the extremes. It’s unlikely that science and monotheism are entirely codependent like some think, but it’s equally unlikely that science and religion are wholly incompatible, and cannot in any way coexist ever, case closed, done.

Jerry Coyne is a famous proponent of the narrative of incompatibility between religion and science. Our first clue is his 2015 book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. In this interview, he explains that he wrote this book after he received feedback on his earlier book Why Evolution is True from people saying they wished they could accept evolution, but their faith held them back.

Coyne vs. Hutchings and Ungureanu

In the interview, Steve Paikin asked Coyne how he can be so sure that religion and science are at odds when we have so many religious scientists.

I would say that [religious scientists are] in a state of cognitive dissonance. That when you go to church, you leave at the church door all the habits of rationality, criticality, and doubt that you that you use when you enter your laboratory. And when you enter your laboratory, you abandon all the supernatural beliefs that you hold in church. So you’re using two different kinds of evidence for what you believe: one for your scientific beliefs and one for your religious beliefs… That’s my notion of what incompatibility is.

Jerry Coyne, Interview on The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

It was this line of thinking that got Coyne in trouble with Hutchings and Ungureanu in Of Popes and Unicorns:

[Kurt] Gödel was a committed Christian and—like Cassiodorus, Anselm, Abelard, and Bayes—he applied his logic to his faith. At one point, he even wrote a formal symbolic proof for the existence of God. Its last line is: “Theorem 1. (A1), (A2), (A3) prove necessary actual existence of a godlike being, i.e. □ (∃Eu) G(u).”


Religious academics, then, do not switch off their minds when “doing God.” They don’t throw down one set of tools to pick up another. In fact, a Philpapers survey in 2009 found that over 70% of professional philosophers of religion—people who, by definition, use logic and reasoning to analyze beliefs—are themselves theists. If Coyne was right that believing folk do not subject their faith to any kind of formal, rational study, then we would expect this figure to be rather lower than it is. In fact, we would expect it to be zero.


Whether or not Gödel’s proof really works, even its existence shows that in reality, people do not operate using either 100% faith or 100% reason. In that same interview, Coyne remarked that “In religion, faith is a virtue, and in science, faith is a vice.” But if religion always relied entirely on faith alone, then there would be no religious apologists.

I’m not saying that people who try to show “scientific proof of God” are right, but the fact that people even point to the cosmological argument or to the fine-tuning argument means they’re not operating on faith alone. They have faith as well, but their own belief in God is bolstered by their conviction that there is scientific evidence for his existence. Like Gödel, they see the two as greatly overlapping.

(Actually, it’s ironic that people think scholars of the Middle Ages were such anti-scientific theologians. They were theologians, but they were ultra-logical theologian-scientists. There was no line dividing natural philosophy and theology. They were doing science… religiously.)

Dawkins vs. Gould

Speaking of these overlapping magisteria, I have been thinking about Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) since I first read about it in The God Delusion five years ago. For how often I think of it, I still haven’t fully decided whether I agree with the concept or not. Looking back at my notes in the margins of The God Delusion, I must not have been impressed with Gould’s idea when I first read it. However, I now see just how scathing and polarizing Dawkins’ view of it is. Near the beginning of the section, Dawkins shares the following quote from Gould’s essay, “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”:

The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion determine how to go to heaven.

Stephen Jay Gould as Quoted in The God Delusion (Note: There are minor changes of word choice between Dawkins’ Quote, the essay linked above, and the version printed in Steven Rose’s compilation, The Richness of Life)

A couple pages after sharing that, Dawkins balks at the idea that there is anything but cotton in the brains of theologians:

Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science. Maybe quantum theory is already knocking on the door of the unfathomable. But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can? I suspect that neither the Cambridge nor the Oxford astronomer really believed that theologians have any expertise that enables them to answer questions that are too deep for science. I suspect that both astronomers were, yet again, bending over backwards to be polite: theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will. Unlike my astronomer friends, I don’t think we should even throw them a sop. I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.

Similarly, we can all agree that science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 56-57

Other than being plain mean and dismissive to the point that it’s impossible to take him seriously, Dawkins kind of brings up a half-decent point. Is morality in the turf of religion?

Gould vs. the pope

Gould does mention morality lying outside the realm of science a couple of times, but his essay’s prime example of what lies outside of science is the existence of souls. He focuses on souls specifically because the entire piece was inspired by a then-new proclamation that Pope John Paul II accepted evolution as true. Gould was puzzled as to why this decree even made headlines until he saw Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis of 1950 in which Pius begrudgingly accepted that evolution may be true as long as it didn’t encroach on the Church’s belief in ensoulment. Gould came up with NOMA as a way of saying, “Oh sure, that won’t be a problem. Anyways, thanks for believing in evolution!”

I also found Gould’s psychic powers funny when he predicted exactly what Dawkins would say. And of course, Dawkins said it anyway.

Just as religion must bear the cross of its hardliners, I have some scientific colleagues, including a few in prominent enough positions to wield influence by their writings, who view this rapprochement of the separate magisteria with dismay. To colleagues like me—agnostic scientists who welcome and celebrate the rapprochement, especially the Pope’s latest statement—they say, “C’mon, be honest; you know that religion is addlepated, superstitious, old-fashioned BS. You’re only making those welcoming noises because religion is so powerful, and we need to be diplomatic in order to buy public support for science.” I do not think that many scientists hold this view, but such a position fills me with dismay….

Stephen Jay Gould, Non-Overlapping Magisteria

A similar point was made at the end of Gould’s essay, in a blog post by a scientist which I mentioned last week, and in the Jerry Coyne interview: sometimes scientists concede that religion and science are compatible so that they can win souls for science. And can we blame them?

Conflict and independence vs. dialogue and integration

One well-known method for describing the relationship between science and religion comes from Ian Barbour’s 2000 book When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? Barbour’s book lists four possibilities for the relationship: conflict, independence, dialogue, or integration.


Coyne is a good example of someone who subscribes to the conflict thesis. He believes that religion operates entirely by faith, assumptions, and superstition, while science operates entirely by logic, reason, and experiment. You can engage in both (only because he can’t stop you), but not at the same time.

Barbour refutes the conflict thesis by arguing that the two are, at least in some ways, non-overlapping:

I suggest that the concept of God is not a hypothesis formulated to explain the relation between particular events in the world in competition with scientific hypotheses. Belief in God is primarily a commitment to a way of life in response to distinctive kinds of religious experience in communities formed by historic traditions; it is not a substitute for scientific research. Religious beliefs offer a wider framework of meaning in which particular events can be contextualized.

Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, p. 16


I’m sure Gould would agree with that quote, as it has a very NOMA, independence-thesis flair to it. Barbour describes the independence thesis in terms of “interpret[ing science and religion] as languages that are unrelated because their functions are totally different.” He explains that “Science and religion do totally different jobs, and neither should be judged by the standards of the other. Scientific language is used primarily for prediction and control.” Meanwhile,

The distinctive functions of religious language, according to the linguistic analysts, are to recommend a way of life, to elicit a set of attitudes, and to encourage allegiance to particular moral principles. Religious language arises from the ritual and practice of the worshiping community. It also expresses and leads to personal religious experience.

Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, p. 20

The concepts of methodological and ontological naturalism fall closest into the bucket of the independence thesis. Methodological naturalism means that someone approaches scientific thinking without considering that there could be supernatural intervention affecting data, and ontological naturalism means that someone does not believe that there is anything supernatural at all.


Barbour suggests that the dialogue thesis has an advantage over independence, because:

If science and religion were totally independent, the possibility of conflict would be avoided, but the possibility of constructive dialogue and mutual enrichment would also be ruled out. We do not experience life as neatly divided into separate compartments; we experience it in wholeness and interconnectedness before we develop particular disciplines to study different aspects of it.

Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, p. 22

I was told many times in my Science and Religion class in college that science answers who, what, when, where, and how, but religion gets to have the why. This is fine with me; as an atheist, I would say there is no cosmic why. I’d say science can’t tell us that, and so any answer we might have would be a guess. A religious person might give their own answer based on their convictions. The fact that you can be religious or not tells me that a religious why answer is an optional add-on to the cosmic questions.

Someone who supplements science’s questions of why with religion’s answer of God might subscribe to the dialogue thesis.

To sum up,

In comparing science and religion, Dialogue emphasizes similarities in presuppositions, methods, and concepts, whereas Independence emphasizes difference.

Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, p. 23


Barbour clearly favors the integration thesis, and so his description of it is much more in-depth than the others. He breaks it into three types.

Natural theology is how Barbour describes the types of apologetics arguments which use examples from nature and scientific discoveries as proof of God’s existence.

Theology of nature is the idea that “the doctrines of creation and human nature are affected by the findings of science.” In other words, it gives religion room to change and grow as science advances, as we saw in the Pope’s declaration that Gould discussed.

Barbour’s favorite choice for the integration of science and religion is called systematic synthesis, which manifests in what he calls process philosophy. It gets pretty far in the weeds of metaphysics and quantum mechanics, but the way that I understand it is that he argues that we do not live in two worlds, a scientific world and a religious world, but in one world in which both science and religion are taking place at all times. It felt almost like a pantheistic approach.

Science vs. religion

So which of Barbour’s four camps am I in? Do I believe that religion should dictate morality? Should science enthusiasts admit that the two are not at war just so that religious people can accept science without surrendering their faith?

I hover somewhere around the independence thesis/NOMA box, but it’s just that: a box. Barbour was right when he said “We do not experience life as neatly divided into separate compartments.” Scientists like Coyne and Dawkins want to believe that science is purely objective, and therefore scientists are rational beings. They believe that religious people, on the other hand, completely eschew the whole idea of cause and effect, or data, or, well, thinking. Coyne sees religious scientists as two people occupying the same body, experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance when they try to do anything.

It’s easy for me to see that Coyne and Dawkins aren’t very good at separating what’s objectively true with what they feel is true, which is an irony to end all ironies, all things considered. Scientists are some of the most emotionally driven people I’ve ever met or read about. Actually, the hyperrational white atheist men’s experience of the world is indeed not the universal and objectively true experience. Just because they can’t see how anyone can be as supremely intelligent as they are and believe in God doesn’t mean that there aren’t far smarter people who do.

Even as I say this, I don’t want to come off as too sympathetic to the religious scientists who subscribe to the integration thesis. I had a hard time with Of Popes and Unicorns last week because the authors were trying to forcefully fit religion and science together in ways that they simply don’t work. They said that “Perhaps Genesis chapter 3—forbidden fruit, talking snakes, cursed ground, and all—should be written out, in full, over laboratory doors worldwide.” That’s just imposing your religion on people who don’t want it, plain and simple.

The answer

Where I fall in Barbour’s spectrum depends entirely on the situation. Which religion are we talking about, and what branch of science? Is the religious myth or creation story meant to be taken literally? Or is the religion more focused on tradition, rituals, and community? Insisting that they are always at war or that they are entirely codependent only hurts us. I don’t say this just to appease my religious readers, either.

In fact, there is no clear answer. There is nuance in this life. In many ways, the magisteria of science and religion don’t overlap. Sometimes they clash, and sometimes they can seem to work in tandem. The only way to see the full picture is to accept that truth almost never fits into perfect categories.

4 thoughts on “Is There a Conflict Between Science and Religion?

  • September 4, 2022 at 10:36 am

    This whole discussion is poisoned by fuzzy thinking. Take for example your Barbour quote “Religious beliefs offer a wider framework of meaning in which particular events can be contextualized.” Meanings are made up things; they are not real. You can’t go out and find them in nature, they are a creation of our minds. So, to claim religions have a special framework of meanings, well that can also be claimed for baseball, or knitting.

    And another Barbour quote “If science and religion were totally independent, the possibility of conflict would be avoided, but the possibility of constructive dialogue and mutual enrichment would also be ruled out.” Mutual enrichment? Constructive dialogue? Has there ever been a case in which a scientist had to invoke their religious beliefs to fill a gap I their reasoning? Do we need a hotline to the Pope to get his help untangling a particular knotty aspect of Nature? Where do the prelates get their knowledge of science to apply to scientific problems? It sure isn’t from supernatural sources. And, have you ever heard of the religious asking scientists to study a problem in their “magisterium”? Ever?

    And the idea of Professor Gould’s, the non-overlapping magisteria, is equally nonsense. How can anything in Nature not overlap with all of the rest? Think of these things like six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. This is a deepity. It sounds profound and isn’t. It is saying that religion and baseball have their own little worlds that do not overlap. This isn’t even close to true as you can see baseball players crossing themselves after hitting a home run. (I think calling upon all-poweful deities to bolster ball player’s meager abilities violates the rules of fair play! Don’t you?)

    Sciernce and religion conflict. Scientists do not say this, mostly because it doesn’t come up in their research. A few scientists say this but they are moonlighting as philosophers. The conflict was created by religion. Scientists, when they first showed up, worked alone or with just a few colleagues and didn’t go around preaching about what they had learned. The Church, however, decided that it should have a say in what books get published, what ideas get circulated, etc. So, it is in the Church’s lap this “dispute” is firmly placed. Science could go about its business, with nary a thought of religion, but could religion do the same? Apparently it cannot (or has not).

    Think about all of the most recent “conflicts.” Let’s see. There is the ongoing kerfuffle about teaching the Theory of Evolution or even the fact of evolution. There was the stem-cell research kerfuffle. The cloning of animals kerfuffle (They are playing God!). The abortion kerfuffle. These were all instigated by religious people. Actually can you name any area of conflict between religion and science that wasn’t first broached by religious people? I can’t.

    Yes, there are many scientists who are religious, but did they acquire their religious knowledge through research or were they taught to be that way since childhood? Have they investigated other religions to make sure they are in the right one (they could be consigning their children to the Void instead of Heaven when they die!). And we never ask those scientists why they go to church. If we did we would hear more than a few responses like “I promised my parents.” and “My wife finds it reassuring.” or “We do it for the kids.” How many of these folks have had profound religious experiences? I suggest it would be far fewer than the number who are attending religious services because of tradition (aka because we always have) or social reasons.

    Sorry for the rant, but this discussion has been poisoned by religious apologist and a few overeager scientists, as your discover that the authors of this book suggest that science needs Christianity . . .amazing!

  • September 5, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Steve is absolutely correct; Religion & Science can no more be reconciled as astrology & astronomy. It just can’t be done. Religions go into any philosophical or scientific (if, indeed, they do) endeavor with pre-conceived notions and ideas that they are desperately trying to reconcile to reality, the very opposite of science. As history has demonstrated since time immemorial, Science has greatly reduced the purview once held by the gods or god or whatever supernatural entity reigned supreme at any given time, and continues to do so, to the theist, at an alarming rate. From lightning, thunder, earthquakes, floods, and other natural calamities, they are down to creation and the birth of the universe. Essentially, at the end of their theological rope. Let’s give them a little push.

  • September 6, 2022 at 11:34 am

    “Essentially, at the end of their theological rope. Let’s give them a little push.”

    An apt metaphor. Because trying to pin down what “religion” or “god” is is much like pushing on a rope. Both of those are mushy badly-defined terms. Yes, a literalist biblegod christianity is threatened by science and totally at odds with it. But the Unitarian Universalists generally think science is great, and don’t really have any dogma for it to conflict with. The liberal Presbyterians I grew up with didn’t have any real problem with science either, since they were fine with the idea that the bible contains a large measure of mythology and metaphor. I’ll agree with Rebecca here, that whether religion and science conflict mostly depends on “which religion”.

  • September 7, 2022 at 10:48 am

    Religion, like science, suffers from a demarcation problem, only more so. This makes it easy to make generalizations such as that it does/doesn’t conflict with science, teaches good/bad morals, etc. — whatever you say, it’s probably true of some sect or movement of significant size. I think atheists like Dawkins are often guilty of stereotyping believers as all thinking a certain way, of practising only the dogmatic mode of religion. Many believers have, and do, achieve a harmony between their faith and intellect that works for them, and I think it’s silly to second-guess their account of their own experience.

    Historically (and there are still some cases of this today), religious institutions could get away with saying “Believe this; don’t ask questions”, and enforcing it with manipulation or coercion. In our current pluralistic environment that doesn’t work so well, so they’ve had to come up with actual arguments to address the questions that inevitably do arise. At the risk of being overly charitable, I can see where one might make a case for there being some sort of deity (not one I find convincing, obviously, but I’m trying to be generous here). However, once we get off into apologetics for any particular sectarian belief it all strikes me as rationalization of a foregone conclusion. (“Creation Science” is an obvious and extreme example of this).


What do you think?