Monday, March 28, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 3)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “Can religion and science coexist?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

Religion in the United States, and Christianity in particular, is extremely diverse. There are thousands of denominations of varying sizes, each of which has had to confront the questions produced by modern science: Is the Book of Genesis in the Bible a literal guide to the creation of the universe and humanity? If so, how do you explain the contradictory evidence presented by science? If not, how do you understand the Book of Genesis in light of modern science?

In my experience, the conflict between science and religion has been "solved" in three distinct ways, with a majority of Christians advocating for one of these three solutions.

The first solution is a rejection of all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. Christians who advocate this position tend to be the most conservative and incredibly anti-cultural. They believe the Bible is inerrant and the literal word of God. Science which does not disagree with Scripture, such as the theory of gravity or atomic theory, is usually accepted. Obviously, theories such as evolution and the Big Bang are resolutely denied and dismissed. Evidence for such non-Biblical theories is discredited in a multitude of ways. The most prevalent explanation is simply that the scientists are wrong and that the evidence has been misinterpreted. Another, much less common, explanation is that the scientists are being tricked by Satan, who plants the evidence in order to deceive them and lead them away from God.

The second solution also rejects all scientific theories which contradict a literal reading of the Bible. However, these Christians do not just dismiss the scientists. They actually attempt to prove them wrong by concocting their own scientific theories, such as Intelligent Design. These Christians tend to be conservative, but not completely anti-cultural. They believe that the evidence for non-Biblical theories is being misinterpreted, oftentimes on purpose by scientists who (they believe) are striving to disprove God. Reinterpreting the evidence into a theory which does not contradict the Book of Genesis allows these Christians to compromise between keeping their religious tradition of an inerrant Bible and continuing to be relevant in the 21st century.

Unfortunately for them, this method has been largely unsuccessful outside their churches. Only a handful of school boards across the United States have voted to include, in varying degrees, Intelligent Design in the standards for high school biology. Of those, several school boards later had elections which ousted the members who voted to include Intelligent Design, and the new board promptly overturned the modified standards. Even worse was the court case I discussed in the second post of this series, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which the judge determined that:
"overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" and "the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, [is] in violation of the Establishment Clause." 
Since the United States Court system relies heavily on precedent, it is unlikely another court case would find in favor of Intelligent Design.

The third solution holds that the Bible does not necessarily have to be interpreted literally and that the Book of Genesis is a metaphorical story about how the universe, Earth, and life was created. This view tends to be held by moderate and liberal Christians. Not being restrained by a literal Genesis allows these Christians to believe in the validity of scientific theories such as evolution. These Christians are often criticized by their more conservative counterparts for believing parts of the Bible are metaphorical. They (rightfully) claim this begs the question "How do you decide which parts of the Bible to take literally and which parts to take metaphorically?" (however, that is a debate for another day). The most common justification I have heard for taking the story of Genesis metaphorically is that God gave the ancient Hebrews a creation story they could comprehend, since the reality was too complicated for humans of that time to understand.

As a scientist myself, I am closest in view to the liberal Christians. I believe religion and science can coexist. For me, they are complementary, not contradictory, because they are answering different questions.

According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, science is:
"any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation"
Basically, science answers questions like: What is the universe?  How do galaxies form? Why does the Earth have liquid water? How did humans evolve? All of these questions concern the physical world which we live in, and all can be answered through observation and experimentation.

Religion, on the other hand, asks questions like: Does God exist? Is there something beyond the physical world? Do we have an immaterial and immortal soul?  What is the meaning of life? Science cannot answer these questions and others like them because they do not concern the physical world. You cannot observe and measure such things in a laboratory. These questions are completely meaningless to science.

However, they are not meaningless to us. These questions, and others like them, reveal the deepest hopes, dreams, doubts, and fears of humanity. We have endeavored to answer them in nearly countless ways through religion. At times, this has led to violence and death. At other times, it has led to peace and progress. Obviously, the very nature of these kinds of questions means we can never have incontrovertible answers. Yet, these questions are one of the few universals of human life. We have contemplated them before and we will contemplate them time and time again, no matter how far scientific progress takes us.


  1. The problem I have with that latter "reconciliation" of religion and science is this:

    If theology is not based on empirical information, in what sense can it be said to give answers?

    Science is based on empirical evidence. Religion is based on faith, a nebulous enterprise at best. Maybe there is nothing beyond the physical. Religious faith doesn't provide answers to that, just an excuse to exercise one's imagination.

  2. Can religion give answers in the same sense science can? Obviously not. However, religious people do feel their faith provides them answers, even if those answers have no empirical basis. You might disagree with those answers or you might think those answers are just an exercise in imagination, and that's fine.

    You're right, maybe there is nothing beyond the physical. I don't know. We cannot know through science. That is why so many people turn to religion to provide answers to questions science cannot answer. The nature of these answers is different than the answers science provides. But to the people who hold them, those answers are just as important.

    I guess the point I was trying to make with this post is that it is possible to believe in God and science. Many people seem to think that science disproves God. It doesn't. Science doesn't say anything about God because God, if he exists, is out of the purview of science.

  3. Sammy, I'm certainly not a scientist...I wish I did know more in that area. But, like you, I'm closest to the liberal view. I think God is revealed in different ways, science being one of them. But, like Marcus Borg, I believe there is "more" than be ascertained by our senses...there is more than just the physical and material world. Sages and mystics from many different ages, locations, and cultures testify to this "more," this God/Ground of Being/Spirit/Whatever He/She/It can be called.

    Did you catch the Evolutionary Christianity series on the web? Even though I'm not very scientific, I really enjoyed it. A host of scientists and Christians spoke on the issue of whether science and Christianity are compatible. It's still available to listen if you're interested: