Science and religion: old enemies or unconscious friends?

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Theodore McKeever offers a path through a minefield of misunderstanding surrounding science and religion.

Approaching the science and religion discussion is like going through a minefield. One false step and you could lose life or limb. 

This was brought home to me once again recently when I listened to an online event on this topic, “One Mystery / Two Stories”, organised by the World Congress of Faiths. How easy it is to lose faith – in religion or in science – by rushing carelessly into this most risky of intellectual fields.

As both a scientist and a believer myself, I’d like to think I am in a good position to explore the relationship between science and religion and hope one day to add to the discussion. I say ‘discussion’ because this is not a debate, as we so commonly hear. Debates imply two sides in direct opposition and the relationship between science and religion is much more complex than this.

In navigating this territory there are many ‘mines’ to avoid. Such mines cause doubt and misunderstanding and turn the discussion into a debate.

We can group these mines into two types: practical and philosophical. Practical mines originate from ourselves and from how this discussion is framed in our culture. Philosophical mines exist necessarily due to the nature of the two fields and it is these questions that really get to the bottom of the matter.

Perhaps the most destructive practical mine is confusing science with scientism, as Swami Medhananda flagged up in his contribution to “One Mystery / Two Stories”. Science is the methodology by which we discover physical truths about our universe. Scientism is a type of naturalism (the philosophical worldview that “only physical entities exist”), seeing science as “the only source of real knowledge”, and tends to be thought of as having absolute confidence in science. This is still a practical, not philosophical, mine, because our culture has created this confusion. To be a scientist you do not have to believe in scientism.

Ironically, perhaps, the belief that “science is the only source of real knowledge” cannot be justified scientifically, but is a philosophical position (or prejudice).

Thus, since scientism rejects all non-scientific sources/explanations, it is inescapably question-begging and so can never be justified. 

The science-religion discussion is about science – the methodology and the physical realities it finds – and not about scientism – the reductionist worldview. This confusion occurs for a reason – the media and popular writers have roles to play here. For example, Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest scientists of recent years, wrote several best-selling books on the universe’s ‘big questions’, targeted at lay people, through his lens of scientism. In this way he introduced many to the wonders of science, but unfortunately let his belief in scientism pollute scientific theory. In doing so he blurs the lines between science and scientism for his readers. 

So, while I thank and admire Hawking for his work in science, his more philosophical publications have been unhelpful – producing confusion and unnecessary division.

But how do we let ourselves be misled so easily (and not just by Hawking)? Well, here we come across a second mine, the power of mystery: science and religion seem mysterious, each in their own way.

It can seem to the layman that scientists are on another unreachable plane of knowledge and reasoning and that there are hidden philosophical truths that become obvious only when looking at quarks and black holes in minute detail.

In other words, one could think that it is only by having very high-level specialised scientific knowledge that one can hope to unravel the mystery of being.

This can lead to a sense of inferiority and a loss of confidence in our ability to question things for ourselves. In this way, we are susceptible to blind faith in scientists. And since so often what we read makes it seem that all scientists are naturalists, it can appear to non-scientists that there is a necessary link between the two.

Similarly, an influential religious leader could openly deny some truth of science, leading many who follow them to do the same. So, in proceeding in our own research, we must make sure we are not intimidated by mystery and instead question the author’s reasoning rigorously.

A third mine to avoid is making the assumption that science and religion must necessarily be in conflict because of historical precedents, often through a simplification of the facts to suggest that Christianity in particular has resisted the practice of science and persecuted its supporters. I think there are numerous reasons why the past should not govern the correct relation between science and religion.

Firstly, although, tragically, religious people have acted in this way at various points in history, this does not mean that there is a theoretical conflict per se between science and religion. The unjust persecution of scientists on some occasions by the Catholic Church, for example, occurred as a result of fear and the abuse of power (in a time of complete uncertainty about the aims and bounds of science), not because science and faith are in themselves incompatible.

Secondly, many of the first scientists were in fact religious (such as Galileo, Copernicus and Newton), which helps to show that this conflict arose out of the Church’s unfamiliarity with science, not because of genuine incompatibility.

Thirdly, this behaviour is not something we often see today – the majority of religious groups now integrate science into their teachings and actions. For example, as a Catholic, I know of Pope Francis’ global appeals for reversing climate change, precisely in response to the established scientific consensus on this issue. As well as this, there are specific centres of scientific research governed by religious bodies, such as the Pontifical Academy of Sciences based in the Vatican, and the Vatican Observatory is one of the world’s most respected astronomical bases. Whilst we should learn from history, the past rejection of science by religion is no reason to assume that the two are irreconcilable.

A fourth mine stems from ethics. Religions prescribe and nurture ethical rules and duties, and science in its discovery of natural knowledge and its potentialities often tests the boundaries of what religion determines to be right or wrong. We all abide by a moral framework, which can invoke strong passions in us. Thus, when exploring the relationship between science and religion, our ethical passions can be stirred, and our judgement compromised, i.e., we may choose (subconsciously) to believe a certain thing because it is ethically comfortable, not because it is true.

So, depending on the moral laws we choose to accept, we may find ourselves siding with either science or religion. For example, there is the issue of genome cloning: someone could reject science as a whole because they disprove of the practice of cloning. Conversely, someone could strongly believe that cloning is advantageous to humanity and, because of a religion’s disapproval of this practice, reject that religion.

I am by no means saying that morality is insignificant, but that the passions and feelings which accompany one’s ethical outlook might hinder one from seeing the fundamental compatibility between faith and science.

It is also worth realising that while science does well to push the boundaries, its own ethical sense can be limited.

Scientists usually have little knowledge of the real ‘science’ of ethics. Religion therefore plays a valuable role as a brake and test, asking the very necessary question: “This may be technically possible but is it moral? Is it right?” Scientists may not like that brake and might react against it.

But likewise, religion naturally tends to conservatism and might chafe at the challenge science poses to it through its discoveries. If focused positively there can be a healthy to-and-fro here. But if badly focused, this can lead to mutual antagonism.

Thus far, I have mainly considered those areas where religion has shown its limitations and somehow held science back. But actually many have argued that the religious worldview – and here it must be specified as the Judaeo-Christian worldview – has actually promoted science. 

Christianity and Judaism see the world as an ordered universe created in wisdom – in logos, in thought – by an intelligent God. Because this God has created the world according to such an intelligent order, there is an order to be discovered, which actually fosters the scientific pursuit. It is therefore no surprise that science has flourished in the Christian West.

But setting aside these practical issues, what about the philosophical mines? These arise from the intrinsic nature of science and religion, that make them fundamentally different and hard to relate to each other.

Science and religion have different objectives. And a specific issue to look out for is how questions can be interpreted in different ways, according to our aims.

To illustrate this, in the “One Mystery / Two Stories” discussion, Professor NIdhal Guessoum gave an example using the question, “Why did the kettle just boil?”

A scientific answer might be, “Because the electrical current from the mains supply encountered resistance within the kettle, thus generating a significant amount of heat which was transferred into the water by conduction.” An alternative, but equally valid, answer is: “Because I wanted a cup of tea”.

My argument here is not that the scientific approach is overly complicated and unnecessary, but that the aims of science and religion, and thus the accounts they give, are very different. Religion looks for qualitative meaning; science looks for quantifiable mechanisms.

This confusion between meaning and mechanism can occur in a range of questions – whether it’s ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’ or ‘how’. 

Another example can illustrate the issue: “When did you decide to join the army?”. A quantitative scientific answer is, “when I was 21”.

A meaning-based more ‘religious’ answer might be, “When I realised that I was going down the wrong path and needed more structure in my life”. Again, both answers are equally valid and not mutually exclusive. So, we must take into account the different aims of science and religion in considering the answers they give.

This leads nicely to a second philosophical mine: science and religion have different domains of applicability – that is, areas in which they are useful and valid. Religion has a very broad domain, encompassing everything from ethics to natural order to salvation and the afterlife, and mainly focuses on the spiritual side of things.

Of course religion can have things to say about the physical world, but rarely (if ever!) in a quantitative and scientific way. Therefore, since religion looks at meaning, the scientific method, which refuses all qualitative judgement, is outside of religion’s domain (though the ethical practices of science and the uses to which it is put are not).

The domain of science is much more limited – it only applies to quantifiable, testable, repeatable aspects of the physical world. Therefore, strictly speaking, science has nothing to say about the spiritual and so has nothing to say about religion, unless a religion makes specific testable physical claims (in which case science can and should act to verify or falsify those claims). If anything else is said, it comes from scientism not science.

As the recently deceased former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks memorably put it, “Religion and science are two quite different things and we need them both. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

As well as having different objectives and domains, the assumptions which science and religion are built on are also different. By ‘assumption’ I mean that within a particular field this belief is always regarded as true; it is what one takes for granted. I do not mean that there are no reasons for maintaining this belief, and so the belief is just assumed by everyone who holds it.

Religious assumptions vary, but they all include a belief in a higher power and a spiritual dimension to reality. Science’s assumptions are much more restrictive: for the scientific method to work, naturalism needs to be implemented at all times (this is because the supernatural is outside the domain of science). The subjects of science need to be testable and measurable.

For example, if someone witnessed someone else walking on water and was asked to scientifically evaluate how this could be, they could come up with a long list of possible explanations: “Perhaps, there are Perspex platforms underneath the water; perhaps they are being held up by near-invisible strings; perhaps, even, I am hallucinating…” 

In science, one must doubt even one’s sanity before considering the possibility of a miracle and, even then, science cannot accept a miracle. And yet, ultimately, a truly scientific position must accept that at least some form of action or event completely beyond the known paradigms are possible. Science’s role would then be to provide a physical explanation for this anomaly by developing a new theory (a paradigm shift). So, a true scientist can never exclude a priori any possibility.

It is also true that you can never prove scientifically that the supernatural doesn’t exist, as that would require testing something non-physical, which is completely out of the domain of science, hence unscientific. Therefore, and this is the crux of the issue, naturalism is used as a tool for scientific progress but there is nothing that requires naturalism to be true more broadly. 

The fact that scientific progress is so successful does not prove naturalism is true. It only shows that, if God exists, God must appreciate natural order.

Only if a religion’s god is a god of anarchy and disorder does the success of science act against that religion.

So, whilst science must say, “We cannot accept that miracles exist”, scientists (along with the 1970’s pop group ‘Hot Chocolate’) can indeed say “I believe in miracles”. 

I believe this is the reason why so many scientists seem to be naturalists – not because it’s logically necessary, but due to a failure to distinguish between working as a scientist and thinking as a philosopher. They are so used to working under the assumption of naturalism, and with all of their work seeming to confirm this assumption, they find it hard to question naturalism.

In this article I have merely focused on those aspects of the science-religion discussion which cause confusion and can turn this discussion into a debate, instead of focusing on more positive and interesting lines of enquiry. If this article achieves its purpose, it should serve to identify these mines and, in the process, to propose a clearer path through this explosive field towards the questions and answers at the heart of the matter. Then we could start to have a meaningful exchange.

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3 Replies to “Science and religion: old enemies or unconscious friends?”

  1. Carlos Ballester says:

    A very good article. Thanks for sharing!

    • Clare Cooper says:

      Thank you Carlos! Theo is currently studying Physics with Philosophy, we think he did a fantastic job with this article.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A great read! Nicely written.

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