The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

July 13, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Here’s Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” not being very friendly towards accommodationists in his new video, “Can science and religion coexist?” He gives a firm “no”, and I have to hand it to him: he doesn’t pull any punches.

Now if you’ve read Faith Versus Fact (and if you haven’t, why not?), you won’t find much new here: even the debunking of one miracle that helped canonize Mother Teresa (the “curing” of Monica’s Besra’s tumor) is also in my book. But for those who haven’t read it, this is as good a summary of the conflict that you can get in a 16-minute video.  I do worry that it’s so anti-theistic that it will turn off those whose minds are open, but on the other hand I appreciate Hemant’s straightforward anti-theism.

Because nearly all of this is good stuff, I have only a few beefs; in fact, they’re such small beefs that they qualify as stew meat.

Re the statement: “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe. It would have helped had Hemant added that caveat, for religion would claim (falsely, I think), that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, but secular philosophy can, and gives better answers than any religion I know.

Second beef: There’s a bit too much concentration on miracles, which, says Hemant, are those phenomena that violate the laws of science. If miracles were observed (and I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact), one might tentatively conclude that there is something numinous out there. But Hemant declares flatly, “Actual miracles don’t happen. They never have.”  Indeed: I know of none that are so enigmatic and convincing that they make me rethink naturalism.  But I think a better tactic would be to say not only that there are naturalistic explanations for nearly all miracles, but to admit that miracles might happen but have never explained anything to the detriment of science. That is, a true scientific attitude might admit of the possibility of miracles—for science can never prove that something cannot exist—but would add that this is true in the same sense that we admit of the possibility of leprechauns and the Loch Ness Monster: things that, in view of history and empiricism, are so wildly improbable that, as with Hume, you’d put a higher probability on a lie or a mistake than on a true miracle.

At the end, Hemant has a useful discussion on why people still think science and religion are compatible despite his (and my) claim that they’re not. And he even disses the Templeton Foundation! Kudos for him!

h/t: Hugh

35 thoughts on “The Friendly Atheist discusses the incompatibility of science and religion

  1. ” that it can provide “true” answers to “big questions” about meaning, morals, and purpose, while science can’t. Indeed, science cannot deal with those questions, as they don’t bear on the way the universe is, …”

    Hmm, I think PCC-E is conceding too much ground here. I would argue that those questions (that is, the only meaningful versions of them) are indeed about the way the universe is, and can be dealt with by science.

    1. Why and how questions are often interchangeable. But I think Mehta is right to say that science is indifferent to the purpose of the universe or our existence, because these questions are well beyond its scope.

      I mean, how do you test for the purpose of life beyond the obvious fact that it seeks to survive?

      1. The reason that science doesn’t tell us the “purpose” of the universe or of life is because there is no such purpose.

        “Purposes” are attributes of products of evolution. So things we make can have “purposes”. The universe was not made by a sentient being for a purpose; it has no “purpose”.

        Nothing about that answer is outside the domain of science. Indeed, it is an eminently scientific answer.

  2. If there was a ever religion that was compatible with science it would be a philosophy not a religion. To make religion compatible with science you need to bend the definition of the world “religion” into a pretzel.

  3. “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

    Robert Green Ingersoll

  4. Mehta’s video is an excellent exposition of the might of science and the juvenile redoubt that is religion.

    There is no faith without doubt. In this important sense, religion relies on God never being discovered. For were He to be, belief in Him would be akin to belief in the Sun and the stars: these things just are.

    I don’t think it matters that science can’t prove miracles have never happened, or that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist: qualifications like this have well and truly passed their sell-by date.

    1. But god has been discovered; it has been discovered to be a concoction of superstitious minds which unfortunately have far too much influence in our societies. God does nothing, says nothing, helps nothing, hinders nothing, replies nothing.

      Belief in the sun and stars is one thing- they exist. They can be seen. Their movements can be predicted. god on the other hand? It has been said there is no difference between the invisible and the non-existent.

      As for proving miracles, the onus of proof is on those who claim such aberrations. I see there nothing but torturous attempts to ascribe interruption of the chain of causality to the whim of some non-existent idol at the request of the superstitious who do not accept that such aberrations are of natural origin.

  5. A miracle is a lawless event (event outside all objective patterns). These *are* ruled out by science, now. Admitting that they may exist makes it impossible to do science: it is the ultimate in uncontrolled and uncontrollable variables. Realizing this Spinoza-like insight is a clear example of how scientific methodology (and metaphysics) advances with the content of science.

    1. I belong to a science book club. There are some retired Penn State scientists among us. A retired quantum physicist says he does not totally rule out the possibility of rare random events. Not that he declares that random events really do occasionally happen, only that he does not totally rule them out. Nor has he gone into detail about what sort of event could be considered to happen at random.

      But a random event is NOT a miracle, and yes, of course, this physicist knows it. He’s an atheist. If a random event happens it’s part of nature. It does NOT violate the laws of nature. All it means is that we haven’t figured out yet how randomness and that part of nature works.

      1. @Laurance
        In my view, there are NO random events. ALL events are deterministic (cause and effect). Quantum physics is a human conceptual model (a pardigm) which uses probabilistic, predictive precepts in an attempt to model phenomena mathematically (this is a different definition of determinism (Laplacian) as meaning theoretically predictable given the sufficiency of data). This is a cinflation of cause and effect with Laplaces Daemon (the implication of predictability).

        EVERY event is unique and UN-repeatable with only one outcome (the axiomatic noumenon of Kant). It CANNOT be predicted as Laplace suggests, because the infinity of information, that would required, does not and cannot EVER exist.

        The inadequate billiard ball model of Newton and the predictive/probabilistic one of Quantum Mechanics are human concepts overlaid on a presumed (non-coneptual base but axiomatic) of cause and effect (taken as the base axiom without which Newton and QM are meaningless).

        A non deterministic model like QM cannot refute the deterministic event underlying it: at best the probabilistic model is a failed attempt to predict the outcome of cause and effect.

        In short: the EVENT is not random, the human conceptual model proposes randomness. The CONCEPT does not influence the EVENT itself, it can only describe it.

        Humans need to “predict” things, the physical world just follows cause and effect (including the human mind which even forms the “predictions”).

        Randomness is in the eye of the beholder.

      2. Lawless and random are *not* the same thing. In quantum mechanics (or any other factual theory involving probability) one can calculate or estimate the probabilities in question, measure them, etc. In short, *they* are objective properties. (And their changes are themselves events, as for example the probability of scattering of photons changes in an anisotropic crystal.)

        1. @Keith Douglas
          I am not disputing the use of probabilistic models as a means of scientific study, just trying to delimit the conclusions it is possible to draw from them.
          Where scattering photons ACTUALLY go is different from any prediction that a model may propose as to where they MIGHT go.
          The actual event only has a single outcome. A prediction looks at the likliehood of various outcomes, of which there will be one only in reality.

          The prediction may be deterministic (probabilistic) or otherwise, but the event is ALWAYS deterministic (cause and effect).

          “one can calculate or estimate the probabilities in question, measure them, etc. In short, *they* are objective properties.”

          I would say that no measurement can be absolutely precise, nor can any model. These are always approximations or abstractions. Subjective perceptions but “seeming” objective.

          I would dispute that any event can be actually random,or even purely “objective”, though the concept formation resulting from observing it may allow for the concept of randomness in the paradigm describing or understanding it.

          I would argue that ANY event’s mechanism, if sufficiently well understood, would argue against any need for a concept of randomness.

          Cause and effect does not imply or necessitate ACTUAL predictability only HYPOTHETICAL predictability, as Laplaces’s mind game suggests. I would guess that even Laplace was aware of this.

          Cause and effect does imply mechanism however, since they practically define each other.

    2. I’m siding with Jerry (if I understood him right) and against you here. Admitting that miracles may occur makes it hypothetically impossible (i.e., on the hypothesis that they do occur) to do natural science about the particular events that are hypothetically miraculous. That’s a long way from (definitely) making science (generally) impossible.

      Putting miracles aside, the possibility that some events are not law-governed should be left open in principle, even though by the light of available evidence it’s false. Failure to leave it open in principle would be to make the “science is itself a faith” argument into a fair one, when in fact it’s not. As Jerry has explained on other occasions.

      1. It makes it worse than that, which is why I dare say we know they don’t occur (by inference to the best explanation on the entire history of science and indeed common sense). Why worse? Well, suppose that someone claimed a miracle in, say, silicon chemistry. Then what rules out such a massively uncontrolled and uncontrollable variable in social psychology, political economy or the physics of gases? Any finding is suspect in a way that can never, even in principle, be corrected. IMO this, if taken seriously, also makes for a horrible blow to human mental health if taken seriously, but we are also very good at compartmentalizing. (And this is an argument from consequences anyway.)

        I don’t know why people consider this stance as being dogmatic; it isn’t, it is a *conclusion from the evidence*, which is what science is partially about.

        1. I agree we know they don’t occur. But I also hold to the scientific attitude that everything we (think we) know is subject to re-examination if relevant new evidence shows up. Maybe I just read more into your statement than you meant. In case your statement implicitly referred to something the Friendly Atheist said, I should admit that I only read Jerry’s summary of the piece.

  6. The Australian philosopher (insert Monty Python joke here) J L Mackie deals with religious miracles well in his The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God.

  7. Several years ago Hemant came to Penn State. IIRC it was the campus Atheist Club who invited him, and we old geezer townie atheists were invited to come, too.

    What fun! The crowd was small and the room was fairly small, which made for a nice close and casual/friendly atmosphere. I sat right up front, didn’t want to miss a trick.

    I really enjoyed Hemant! I have to say there’s an unevenness in a situation like this. To me it was like having a visit with an old friend. I read his writings and see his picture and videos. It’s like someone I know, someone I recognize. I, OTOH, am a stranger to Hemant. Yes, “Laurance” does comment on his Friendly Atheist blog, but I don’t make a big splash. He wouldn’t know me.

    (I imagine Jerry coming to Penn State to give a talk. Hey, I *know* him, I recognize him, this is an old friend! But Jerry wouldn’t know me from Adam’s Off Ox.)

    I found Hemant a really good and kind-hearted person, very likeable. He appears to be a very friendly atheist in person. OTOH some of his blog posts can be pretty snarky. That’s not a criticism or complaint, mind you! I myself can be plenty snarky and harshly antitheistic.

    1. Indeed.

      The comments over at FA used to be half-decent, but the crazies have taken over. Hemant doesn’t help I’m afraid, and some of his nonsense articles, such as the ones on Covington, rang the dog-whistle that FA is now for the “wokes”.

  8. Hemant is a great explainer of ideas. I guess that comes from being a math teacher. Which he is. He also speaks very clearly with explicit articulation. It helps.
    Here he makes the conflict between science and religion seem obvious.

  9. Most so-called ‘Big Questions’ are actually non-questions – they presume agency in their wording. So much for profundity.


  10. Test (sorry if this post shows up – I’ve logged out of wordpress and I’m trouble-shooting as my posts haven’t been showing up on WEIT).

  11. Thanks.

    Looks like my posts won’t show up if I’m logged in to wordpress. So I have to first log out, write a comment, put my screen name and email in to the fields, but when I do wordpress wants to make sure it’s me and asks me to log in again. So it’s a continual process of log out/log in/log out…yeesh!

  12. I wasn’t all that happy with the video.
    Seemed like typical atheist talking points presented a bit sloppily, and too often stated with atheist assumptions (e.g. “a miracle has never happened” etc). I think it was just too much talking to the choir and delivered in a way that would turn off religious people (and presumably, he wanted an audience wider than his fellow atheists).

  13. “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” which Hemant sees as the heart of the matter. And he’s right—so long as by “the big questions” you mean empirical questions about the nature of the universe.

    I’ve actually had a bit of a problem with atheists presenting the conflict in that way, and it’s one of the issues I had in the video.

    When we atheists, Prof CC included, take on the Christian claim that religion and science are compatible it’s usually not aiming at the smaller clown-car of biblical literalists and young earthers who “use science” (by twisting it in to pseudo-science) to justify their biblical beliefs. Rather it is “sophisticated” Christians – exemplified by religious scientists like Francis Collins et al – who most often decry atheists as being naive in thinking you have to abandon science to be a Christian. “Atheists are only thinking of a strawman, biblical literalist concept of Christianity, where True Christianity is far more nuanced and is compatible with science.”

    And usually they are using some form of non-overlapping magisteria to maintain this “compatibility.”

    For that reason, when you start off the incompatibility argument by saying “ “Religion and science offer two different ways to get to the bottom of big questions,” you are right away playing in to the very mindset you are trying to disabuse. The Christian is thinking “Yes, exactly, religion and science are two DIFFERENT WAYS of inquiry. Separate domains, which is why they don’t conlifct, even if they use different methods!”

    So going on from there about how the scientific method works, and then (purportedly) how religion by contrast works, it leaves the theist saying “Yeah…they are different. And…?”

    This is why I prefer to emphasize right off the bat that you can not make a division between scientific and religious knowledge to begin with; that it’s a sham to even try. The reason being, that truly accepting science is to accept the reasoning that led to science in the first place, and that reasoning derives from the most fundamental problems of trying to understand our empirical experience (not just “the natural world”…but empirical experience itself). Insofar as you want to explain any experience, any observation, so long as you can conceive of more than one explanation, you need a method of justifying confidence in one explanation over another. Full stop.

    If you feel ill to your stomach and you could explain it as being a flu…or COVID 19…finding a way to put more confidence in one or the other explanation is what you need. Science. If you believe in demons who can cause stomach upset, then that’s simply another variable. If you believe in a variety of supernatural entities that cause stomach upset, that’s another way of having variables, and you need an answer for the question “How do I justify concluding the explanation is X vs Y?” So long as our experience presents phenomena for which multiple explanations can be conceived, in order to be epistemologically responsible in our conclusions, we need a way of navigating variables – hence, hypothesis forming, testing, strategies like parsimony etc….science.

    Science represents a set of epistemic virtues that arose through time as the most epistemologically responsible way to navigate our empirical experience. In accepting science, and accepting it’s underlying rational, you can not therefore accept science 6 days a week but on Sundays in the pew violate those virtues, accepting empirical claims like human resurrections from the dead, and call it “knowledge” by slapping another label “religion” on it.

    It’s hypocrisy, not coherency. It’s like monogamy. Insofar as you have a deep-level understanding for WHY one should be monogamous, you can’t violate that principle – practice adultery on Sundays, as if it were just “some other form of monogamy.”

    So I think it’s best to establish the epistemology one is accepting when accepting science, and then point out how religion asks you to violate your oath to that epistemology, making it incompatible.

  14. Well, he is still an atheist – but he is slowly getting there.

    All other major superstitions have been depopulated, a likelihood our FA doesn’t consider. If we can test magic – and we know from many experiments we can – religion will also be under the scrutiny of science.

    – Neither a-astrologist nor a-theist.

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