the “great rift” is a logical fallacy

There is undeniably a fierce debate between the fundamentalist ends of the religious and humanist spectra. In my experience, extreme voices on either side of the rift are a minority, yet they are drowning the moderate viewpoints. In his book (which I admit I haven’t read), Michael E. Hobart refers to the apparent  conflict between science and religion as the “great rift”.

But is this great rift real? Are science and religion really mutually exclusive?

Before delving into this, let me put out a disclaimer. While I am trained in mathematics, physics and astronomy, I have no formal theological training and I’ve mostly looked into christianity…  So if there are readers out there who are more versed in theology and would like to weigh in on anything I say, that would be most welcome! I have spent many years wrestling with questions of science and faith and my thinking has greatly evolved over the years. For that reason, I think it likely that, say 10 years from now, there could be parts of this blog that I will no longer agree with. After all, “only fools and dead men don’t change their mind” (John H. Patterson). With that said, let’s get on with it!

When I took Philosophy 101 in college, our lecturer taught us to recognise some of the most common logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are invalid arguments that often sound convincing but prove nothing.

Here are some commonly used in the science vs faith “debate” (to name a few).

1- Personal attack (ad hominem): when someone attacks the person instead of their argument. Discrediting or questioning the motives of a person doesn’t disprove his/her argument.

2- Appeal to ignorance: because nobody has proven something (e.g. the existence of God), it doesn’t mean that it is not true. Conversely, if nobody has disproven something, it doesn’t mean it is true.

3- Generalisation: this is a bit like stereotyping and usually starts something like “all christians […]”. It only takes one counter-example to disprove a generalised statement. Generalisations are extremely hard to prove and very easy to refute.

4- False dichotomy: this occurs when an argument is unnecessarily polarised. For example, “there are two types of people, those who love cats and those who hate animals”. Clearly there are other positions one could hold.

5- The straw man: this logical fallacy is a bit more subtle. Think of someone attacking an argument that the other person was not even defending in the first place. Here’s a common objection to the “scientific” validity of the bible: “the bible says pi = 3”! My first reaction to this comment is “wow, that’s amazing!” Seriously, rather than cast doubt on the validity of the bible, I think it is pretty close given the historical context and intention of the Old Testament! The bible is not (and never claimed to be) a mathematics textbook is it?

Let’s evaluate some common statements and see how they stack up logically.

The first is one I have too often encountered: “Christians are stupid […]”. Is this true? Three simple words commit two of the above logical fallacies: ad hominem and generalisation. The statement that christians are stupid is easily disproved by finding one intelligent christian. Let’s pick one of the founders of modern cosmology: Georges Lemaître.

Actually, let’s digress a bit because this is a fun story. As evidence for the Big Bang theory was mounting in the 1950s, the catholic authorities stated that the fact that the universe had a beginning was aligned with the biblical narrative of creation. A position that was recently echoed by Pope Francis. Ironically, this same theory is also touted as counter-evidence of the same tenet! There’s been some back and forth on this topic, but the important point here is that two people can look at the same piece of evidence and come to opposite conclusions…

I recently attended an astronomy conference. During his/her talk, a fellow astronomer said that visiting observatory X (which I shall not name to preserve anonymity) “is the closest thing to a spiritual experience you’ll ever have as an astronomer”. Few attendees seemed to react to this (I assume unintendedly) loaded statement, which carried the underlying assumption that no-one in this very large audience had ever had or would ever have a spiritual experience. The speaker’s statement was an unproven generalisation. I’m an astronomer and I have had plenty of spiritual experiences, therefore the statement is easily falsified by one counter-example.

How about this one: “one cannot both be a scientist and have faith”? This is again a generalisation, which is really easy to disprove! Can you think of one believer scientist? How about yours truly? Not enough? Let’s go to town! Back in 2009, a survey showed that 51% of the scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe in “God or a higher power”. The proportion of scientists who ascribe to a faith of some description was found to vary geographically across the globe, with over “half of scientists in India, Italy, Taiwan and Turkey self-identify[ing] as religious” (Elaine Howard Ecklund).

Need I say more to prove that one can be both a scientist and a person of faith? For good measure and for the benefit of those who are new to wrestling with this idea, let me throw in the names of (some) contemporaries who are vocal scientists of faith:

These are but a few examples of the people who inspire me and have had an influence in my life as both a christian and a scientist.

Interestingly, non-religious people are more likely to think there is a conflict between science and faith than believers. Might there be a lack of understanding of what it actually means to be religious or have faith amongst non-religious people?

So is it true that science and religion cannot coexist? Clearly for a significant fraction of professional scientists, they do! It only takes one counter-example to disprove the point. Therefore, one needs not choose between science and faith, this is a false dichotomy. There is no need to give up one’s faith to do science and there is no need to give up science to encounter spirituality. The great rift is a (actually two) logical fallacy(ies)! QED


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2 thoughts on “the “great rift” is a logical fallacy”

  1. Very good points, all.

    I think it’s important for everyone (including atheists such as myself) to reflect on the monumental shifts that had to take place these past centuries so we can express ourselves so freely today. To pursue science, and whatever religion we choose, without fear of persecution, is a wonderful thing. We would do well to remember that no culture, no religion, no race, nor any nationality, is any less diverse in thoughts or beliefs than any other. The only difference lies in their freedoms and opportunities to express them.


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