Where Science and Religion can be Compatible
Physicist Sean Carroll wrote recently that “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like ‘God made the universe in six days’ or ‘Jesus died and was resurrected’ or ‘Moses parted the Red Sea’ or ‘dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.’ And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.”[i]
While I agree with everything Carroll wrote, I disagree with his conclusion. He and most others conceptualize Religion (capital R) as being a whole thing rather than being made up of several constituent aspects, some of which, I believe, are compatible with Science (capital S). Religion can be subdivided into the aspects of Mythology, Theology, Ritual, Ethics, Spirituality, and Mysticism, some of which are compatible, at different levels, with Science.
Mythology is the stories that a particular religion tells about the world and its founders. If these stories have no historical or provable component, they require Faith (yes, with a capital F). The Mythology of Religion is not compatible with Science. Science requires proof for belief and remains willing to change its mind. Mythology must be taken on faith.
Theology is the way the myths are interpreted, and how doctrine is explained and defined over time. Theology changes, but myths do not. Here, as with Mythology, there can be little compatibility with Science. Theology generally seeks to reinforce the founding beliefs espoused by Mythology and give them legitimacy through philosophical rationalization rather than empirical evidence. One proves the existence of a supreme being that created the universe with Theology but not with Science (unless some better evidence to the contrary arises at some point).
Ritual is the way a religion is expressed in practice — the liturgy, prayers, and practices that comprise the collective and individual worship. That final word — worship — is the key indicator that Ritual is not compatible with Science. There simply isn’t any overlap between Ritual and Science, unless it is in the anthropological study of religious ritual.
Ethics, the moral values and injunctions that a religion promulgates, are usually thought of as the purview of philosophy, but I think Science can study ethics. Certainly, psychologists study the ethical development of humans, and sociologists and anthropologists can study the ethical behaviors of different societies around the world and throughout history. While these fields are not what are typically thought of as “hard” science, they all make use of the scientific method to establish facts about the human world.
Spirituality, the intentional cultivation of peaceful states of mind (like love, compassion, patience, and equanimity), is another aspect of Religion that can be compatible with Science — in particular, psychology. Psychologists can and do study different states of mind, the means for achieving them, and their effects on individuals and communities.
Lastly, Mysticism, by which I mean the meditative practices for achieving deep states of conscious awareness in which perceptions about the nature of reality are heightened or expanded, can be an aspect of Religion that is compatible with Science. Neurologists can study the way these states of mind impact, and are impacted by, the brain. Mysticism is an inner mental practice of examining the Ultimate Nature of Reality, an area Science leaves to math and physics. The mystic perception of the Ultimate Nature of Reality could provide a useful perspective for mathematicians and physicists to explore the universe through Science.
While psychologists and neuroscientists can examine the brains of meditators who are claiming to have a heightened perception of reality, but this does not prove that this perception — of the nondual nature of reality espoused by Buddhists (Emptiness), Hindus (Brahman), or Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics (Godhead) — is accurate and factual. We can argue that our normal perceptions are “proven” by collective agreement, i.e. if enough people say the sky is blue, it is likely to be blue. A similar claim is made by interspiritual mystics — if thousands of people have performed the same experiment (meditation) and obtained a similar result (a nondual perception of reality), then this perception can be taken as at least a provisionally accurate description of the full nature of reality. Proving this perception through the science of physics is a more complicated matter.
Ken Wilber has cautioned against hitching one’s mysticism to physics because, as the physics of the day changes, one must either readjust one’s mysticism to match, or give up the association. New Age seekers have spent decades pointing to the “non-intuitive conclusions of quantum physics,” (to borrow a phrase from Carroll’s original article), to suggest that mystical perceptions of reality are, in fact, scientifically founded. However, even if this were an accurate interpretation of Quantum Theory (and I don’t believe it is), mystics would need to accommodate String Theory, or some future model of physics, that might one day upend their mystic realizations.
This doesn’t mean that we should not use Science to investigate Mysticism. While it does not make sense to try and match up mystic perceptions of the “Ultimate Nature of Reality” with handpicked theories from physics, it also doesn’t make sense to wall off Mysticism and Science. Science and Mysticism are compatible because Science can explore, in both mathematical and experimental manners, the perceptions that are presented by Mysticism. In the same way that Science can look at the wavelength of the light reflecting from the sky and tell us that it is what we typically label the color ‘blue,’ Science can also examine the claims about the nondual nature of reality to determine if it is merely a perceptual bias (seeing what we expect to see) generated by slowly altering the neural connections of the human brain, or if it has a basis in fact and is an accurate description of the universe.[ii]
It is more useful to think of Mysticism as providing a deeper perspective from which to view reality, rather than a set of truth claims about reality. The modern scientific perspective, which only began to come into prominence for a small number of people during the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment, does not provide truth claims about reality, but rather it presents a deeper way of viewing reality than mythic perspective that preceded it. Truth claims about reality result from applying the scientific method from a scientific perspective. Likewise, new truth claims about reality may emerge by applying the scientific method from a mystic perspective.
Although it is not strictly an aspect of Religion, I would also add the additional area of the Supernatural to the list of subjects that might be shared with Science. Science tends to disregard any “supernatural” phenomenon as errors in perception with no basis in fact or reality. Whether it is ghosts or precognition or telepathy, the presumption is that these are artifacts of coincidence or imaginative minds.
Simply because a phenomenon is non-repeatable, does not mean it did not take place. In fact, I tend to think of most supernatural phenomena as non-repeatable unique expressions of reality. In other words, we may not have the science to explain something that has happened, and a perceived event may not be entirely a product of the perceiver’s imagination and perceptual bias. I have personally had several experiences that defy any explanation by physics as we understand it now. However, I do not attempt to reach conclusions about these events, or foist upon them some pseudo-scientific explanation, because doing so doesn’t help me find the truth of what I experienced. Seeking the truth of such non-repeatable unique expressions of reality should be done with a scientific approach involving investigation, hypothesis, and experiment.
So, while some aspects of Religion are not compatible with Science (Mythology, Theology, and Ritual), I believe others are (Ethics, Spirituality, Mysticism, and potentially the Supernatural). By recognizing the areas where Science and Religion are compatible, it may be possible to begin a productive dialogue between scientists and religious leaders that might provide greater illumination of both fields.
[ii] As a side note, see physicist David Bohm’s work on what he refers to as the Implicate and Explicate Orders of reality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicate_and_explicate_order_according_to_David_Bohm
The Alchemy of World and Soul is available at: