Essays, Religion, Science.

Can religion and science be reconciled?

science v religion

“Adherents of religion and science too often want to own the unknown”

Victor Stenger, a physicist who has written extensively about religion and science, asserts emphatically that science and religion cannot be reconciled, and at best merely coexist in parallel thought universes. His primary argument is that faith requires no evidence and science does. Alfred North Whitehead, in his essay Religion and Science, emphasizes the commonality of change in both science and religion, and that both are more plastic than the controversialists from either camp would acknowledge. Is Stenger one of those controversialists? Can religion and science be reconciled?

Stenger goes on to say that faith is belief even in the light of contrary evidence, and that science makes hypotheses that must be tested empirically; he suggests that religious arguments describing science as equally based on faith are not viable. He asserts that scientific modeling and the testing of those models produces tangible results, building trust in its methods and results, and that religion can make no such claims. He suggests that these two epistemologies are fundamentally incompatible. Further, he points out that science operates in the natural world, or alternatively in the realm of the knowable, where religion operates in the realm of the supernatural.

Many on both sides of this debate would concede that religion coexists with science precisely because of this difference in domain, but Victor asserts that science says nothing about the supernatural only because to date the methods of science cannot be used to explore this realm (Most of the origin of the universe and of life fall into this area), but could later, and that even if science cannot, it doesn’t mean that religious myths regarding those subjects have any substance. He reveals himself to be a true child of the Enlightenment, sure that rationality will ultimately conquer all, and that this is in the best interests of humans. He seems equally sure that religion is a malign force and that it has no place in the world, pointing to its history of opposing scientific knowledge, often not to the betterment of humans, pointing to the violence and intolerance manifested by religiously motivated people and organizations, and suggesting that it deeply encourages magical thinking when rational thinking is called for. There is more, but it is more of the usual arguments about the worst aspects of religion.

But contrary to Stenger’s contention, there is middle ground: Secularists are just as human, and do in fact fall prey to their emotional drives, just as religious people do, and do show intolerance and violence in similar measure. Compare the period of the Christian Wars of Religion with World War I and World War II. Both were tremendously destructive relative to the size of the world population, the former primarily driven by religious ideology and the latter primarily driven by the maneuverings of secular 20th century governments for secular reasons.  But while religion has  been employed violently and coercively, it has also done much good in this world in extending compassion and promoting peaceful and tolerant behavior, among other things.  Similarly, science, the queen of rationalism, has produced great mayhem alongside its critical role in the extension of knowledge, of understanding. One need only point to the deeply ironical invention of the atomic bomb, a tool that is capable of destroying the human race. Science has ever been the handmaiden of war.

There are ample examples today of religion’s tendency to promote magical thinking over more rigorous scientific thinking, but this behavior is not restricted to the religious. There is today serious political resistance to genetically modified foods (GMO) in Europe, India and China, and in this organized religion plays a much diminished role. The common thread is unreasonable fear of “Frankenfoods”, with a dollop of self-service and greed, whipped up by populists. Whether the populist is a preacher in the United States, or a green activist in Europe, fear is the common denominator, not religion. A similar set of circumstances can be found regarding the opposition to climate science’s warnings about global warming. Selfishness and fear can make even the most rational of people prone to poor decisions, or short term decisions, or self-serving decisions regardless of their religious orientation or lack thereof.

There is room for reconciliation on some the the larger issues in science, as there are large areas of our experience and history in which science has yet to make much progress. The pursuit of historical understanding of the origins of the universe or the origins of life are fair game for science, but little is really known about them precisely because these events happened too, too long ago. The application of quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity offer some speculative foundation for applying current physics to the deep past, but in the main, the resulting cosmologies are mostly untestable, even though they can explain the few observations that give us a deep window into the past to look back to the origins (e.g., expanding universe, cosmic background radiation, the large amount of helium in stars, glimpses of earlier parts of a star life cycle in ancient light). It is not unreasonable to view these explanations as highly speculative, and although not bereft of scientific merit, they are not much removed from religious explanations involving a creator or creators who make the universe. Origin of life theories suffer from similar problems.

Science as a philosophy starts from its limits. Science is a methodical search for cause and effect, and cause and effect logic is always limited by the inability to reach a final, sometimes called the first, cause (no matter what cause is assigned to an effect, it can always be asked, “what causes the cause?”). It has been traditional in philosophy to ascribe this unattainable first cause to an inexplicable force, the Prime Mover, never to be known to us, often described as a god. (e.g., using his Universal Law of Gravitation, Newton explained the tendency of an object near the surface of the earth to fall to the surface because it was acted upon by the attractive force of gravity which arises between the object and the earth itself. But what causes that force of gravity? Newton pointed back to a Prime Mover, by way of saying he couldn’t explain the cause of the cause of gravitational events.) In the Big Bang Theory, what set the whole ball of primordial matter/energy in motion? If nothing else, it is precisely these unanswerable questions that open religion to postulate a starting point for natural phenomena, and is the starting point for a working reconciliation.

As in the origin theories, science has yet to show much promise in plumbing the depths of consciousness, volition, ethics, or the depths of the evident human search to understand not just the world, which might have some reasonable source in our animalistic survival instinct, but also the human search for some purpose in the world. Whether religious or philosophical models of these phenomena are “useful” or not, they will not be easily displaced by, for example, fMRI studies of the brain, which are enlightening regarding how the brain operates, but are a very long way from seriously explaining these phenomena. Religious explanations of deep unknowns will not slow down the pursuit of science to come to a more methodological and material explanation of these unknowns in the future, as long as science cannot be suppressed by religion as has sometimes been the case.

Evolution is a tougher issue, partly because it mostly doesn’t touch everyday concerns in a way the average person can relate to (even though it is important in the ongoing efforts to halt disease, for example), so that the sometimes ridiculous denials of evolution (Young Creationism comes to mind, which inhabits a 6,000 year old universe) have a less deleterious impact on someone who indulges in such thinking. It is important, nevertheless to address, because many of the religious attacks on evolution involve facetious or ignorant attacks on the methods of science, and can serve to lessen effective understanding of the importance of science’s role in supporting modern human civilization. Religious groups insistence that evolution is not true or that it is not science has a long and complex history, but some of the craziness around the acceptance of evolution also lies in immodest behavior by scientists and science educators. By insisting on a highly speculative abiotic solution to the origin of life and giving it more weight than it can bear, some of those in science and science education go beyond what science has reasonably demonstrated. Sticking strictly to the model of evolution in basic science teaching, which begins with living and reproducing cells, would go a long way towards the kind of co-existence that is attainable around this subject.  To that point, many religious adherents accept biological evolution as good science, stopping at the edge of evolution and rejecting abiotic origin of life theories; some even accept the principle of abiotic theories, on the assumption that God put the natural laws in place to allow the evolution of life from non-life.

Many secular and scientifically-oriented people recognize and acknowledge these limits and that these are reconcilable areas, as do many religious people. The middle ground is precisely where scientific models are too young and too fragile to be reliable, or where good science has not yet become convincing not just to the religious, but to those who fear that the science might affect their livelihood. As frustrating as it is today to watch irrational fundamentalists overreach with their sacred text interpretations, and reject reasoned thinking, historically, organized religion has shown a remarkable tendency to adjust its understanding of the natural world to mature scientific models, even if sometimes slowly. Science in its own turn has institutionally balked at new ideas, sometimes for much longer than is rational: Semmelweiss’ long struggle to convince physicians to save lives just by washing their hands is not an isolated incident in the history of science.  (Philip Ball provides an excellent discussion of bias in science here.)

Reconciliation has and will be a moving target; science may be asymptotically approaching truth, but it will never explain all of the mysteries of life, and shouldn’t expect blind allegiance to its method, but respect for what can be demonstrated.  The scientific method is a cornerstone of modern civilization, and we must nurture and protect it, but not to the point of removing alternate ideas about unexplained phenomena.  Reconciliation between religion and science is not an empty politicized gesture of “tolerance”, but comes from the understanding that religious thinking and impulses are deeply ingrained in human behavior. Dismissive attitudes on both sides lowers the chance for each to learn from the other, a prerequisite for finding effective compromise where there are shared interests and shared unknowns.

Adherents of religion and science too often want to own the unknown. While in the natural world it would seem most useful if demonstrated science were to hold sway, many people will seek God or the equivalent in their understanding of the mysteries of life: The unknown, natural or supernatural.

Werner Heisenberg, a quantum physicist and a devout  Christian, suggested that “the first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

On behalf of the curious, perhaps Carl Sagan said it best in the final paragraph of his essay entitled Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt:

"For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence."(Broca's Brain, Carl Sagan, Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt, p. 21) 

2 thoughts on “Can religion and science be reconciled?

  1. Science and religion are complementary. God cast us in his own image. We have free will and intelligence. Without science we could only ever operate at the desire and inclination of God.
    Through science and the use of mathematical rules, we can and do understand how nature works. Science allow us to explain and predict how nature will behave (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics….) over a tremendous range of scales. However there are limits to scientific exploration and understanding, but within these limits, science does its best to find logic answers to questions, mysteries, and to move the innovation drive forward. Science always seeks tentative explanation and rejects authority, religion, at least in this sense, is the opposite. Generally, religious knowledge are based on authority the scriptures. In science, nothing is absolute true, but in most religious contexts, truth is well-defined. Scientific knowledge changes and grows. Religious experience may change and grow, but religious claims do not. Religion is not particularly effective in answering questions about measurable things for example. It’s more about right and wrong, the purpose of life, the existence of a higher, supernatural reality, and the human relationship to that reality. It’s more philosophically sounded when it comes to religion indeed. Clearly, science and religion should not be contradictory because I believe that science has to do with the expansion of galaxies, the movements of continents, the origin of organisms and adaptations. Religion has to do with the relationship to God and to each other, with the purpose and meaning of life with moral and ethical values that govern our lives. Both science and religion should respect these boundaries to avoid conflicts. Luckily, the majority on both sides respect these boundaries, which is a good thing for humanity.

    • Very nicely put.

      Regarding your point that religious claims do not change, I think that considered historically, each of the major religions has a long history of differing interpretations of their sacred texts and ideas, and differing interpretations of ethical rules by which to live. Religions today are still broken into various sects precisely on these fracture lines. In my mind, religion has the same set of limits to absolute understanding or truth that science does, driven by the limits of human capacity to tease out understanding of their own purpose and their surroundings. See some additional discussion on this point here, regarding the Christian religion.

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