One question that frequently confronts the New Atheists (especially those with a science background) is whether a religion and science are incompatible. The stock answer is that many religious leaders accept science as a good way to understand the natural world and conversely, many scientists have a religious faith (Ken Miller and Francis Collins come to mind). In a previous blog post I talked about how sociological research had revealed that about half of American scientists are able to both perform cutting-edge science and maintain a religious identity. An even larger proportion is still interested in matters of spirituality despite daily engaging in rational, empirical inquiry.
These facts show there is, at least, a kind of ‘brute compatibility’ between science and religion; a single person can hold both ideas simultaneously. However, the obvious counter to ‘brute compatibility’ is to point out that in certain cases the findings of science conflict with specific religious claims about the nature of the world. For example, if you claim that the world is 6,000 years old, science says you are wrong. According to empirical data, the world is more like 4.5 billion years old and anyone who says the scientific evidence shows otherwise is simply mistaken. Because science can only conflict with specifically defined religious claims, I call this ‘specific incompatibility’. Although this type of incompatibility is important, and probably accounts for a large proportion of science’s moderating impact on religion, it does not completely contradict all types of religious claims. Again, this answer is too superficial; the original question is asking something more fundamental – are religion and science incompatible at the deeper, philosophical level?