Science & Religion: Competitors or Companions?
“All thinking men are atheists.”
Ernest Hemingway, author
“Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind …”
Sir Isaac Newton, physicist
Are “all thinking men” really atheists as Hemingway asserted? If so, it would seem that religion and science would indeed be enemies. However, history does not give us much support for this idea. Besides Sir Isaac Newton, many other great scientists have simultaneously held deep religious convictions, such as Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, and Louis Pasteur.
Currently the situation is no different. Many scientists today also have religious convictions, such as Alister McGrath (who earned two doctorate degrees from Oxford, one in theology, the other in molecular biophysics). These examples of course prove nothing about the validity of Christianity or religion in general, but they at least demonstrate that it is possible to be a knowledgeable person of science as well as a religious believer.
So how exactly do science and religion co-exist with each other in the world? There are basically three options.
1) Science and religion as totally separate fields of inquiry
One view of the relationship between science and faith was articulated by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould as “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). Gould here uses the term “magestria” to refer to a domain of knowledge. In NOMA the two magesteria do not overlap. Science and religion are just separate.
Gould cites an old cliché when he says that “science studies how the heavens go, religion how to get to heaven.” (Rock of the Ages, 6) Science, in this view, investigates objective empirical facts, whereas religion studies subjective questions of ultimate meaning. We could represent NOMA visually like this:
In practice, however, this approach is not so easy to achieve. Science and religion both address the same world, the same reality. They both impact how we understand and live in our world. The scientist does not suddenly become a different person when they enter their church. Both fields make claims that affect the other.
Contrary to the NOMA view, science will on occasion make claims regarding religion, and religions in turn make factual claims about the world. For example, Jesus rose from the dead, or he didn’t it cannot be both. Considering the deficiencies of this view, some people choose to adopt a second view.
2) Science and religion as identical fields of inquiry
This view is essentially the opposite to the NOMA view. It suggests that science and religion must occupy the same space because they seek to define the same world. If we were to draw the relationship, it would look something like this:
One of the difficulties of this view is that not all truth claims can be tested in the same way. A historical claim cannot be confirmed via the scientific method. The scientific method is a systematic process of question, hypothesis, testing, data analysis, conclusion, and repetition. Although elements of this process apply to historical testing, a historic event cannot be confirmed via scientific experiment, nor is a historical event repeatable (there’s no way we can go back in time to test it).
There are other examples of truths that cannot be adequately tested via the scientific method, such as the laws of logic (science presupposes logic), the actual existence of other minds, or other metaphysical truths. Yet we all believe logic, the existence of other minds, and many other such truths exist. In addition, we all believe in many experiential truths like love which no scientific experiment can demonstrate or capture in a test tube.
We seem to have been led to the conclusion that there are certain places which science and religion overlap, but others in which they do not. This is the third view of the relationship between science and religion.
3) Science and religion as partially overlapping fields of inquiry
This view notes that there are both areas of overlap and areas of uniqueness. We could depict it like this, the darker gray area representing the overlapping area:
Albert Einstein once said that “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Although Einstein did not believe in a “personal” God (he was a deist) he was right when he said that true religion and accurate science cannot be in disharmony with one-another in the areas in which they overlap.
How religion differs
An objection that may come to mind at this point. “But science is different. Science gives us facts, religion just gives us opinions. Religion doesn’t lead to certainty.”
While it is true that science often leads to facts (keeping in mind that current scientific truths are often later corrected by further research) we should keep in mind that most of the truths we believe are based on probability, not absolute certainty. Even most of the scientific facts we believe are based on what we’ve been told. Most of us have not personally conducted experiments to prove that gravity exists, but we believe it to be true.
One thing that makes evaluating religious beliefs particularly difficult is that they are multifaceted. Religion addresses not just empirical truths (though these are very important), but also addresses experiential, emotional, moral, and metaphysical truths.
Brian McLaren gives the following illustration of the difference between these types of truths:
Imagine a group of physicists and astronomers gathered for a lecture on cosmic background radiation. As the lab-coated lecturer drones on, the group is listening, taking notes, rubbing their chins, crossing and uncrossing their legs, maybe nodding a bit, occasionally mumbling, “Interesting,” or something of that sort. Suddenly, a woman walks briskly onto the stage and whispers something into the lecturer’s ear. He hands her the microphone and she says, “Ladies and gentlemen, a fire has broken out in the lobby. Please stay calm. Leave quietly and quickly through the exits on your left. Do not use the rear exits, as they are already smoke-filled and unsafe. Please follow me – this way.”
At this moment, no one keeps rubbing his chin, crossing and uncrossing her legs, taking notes, or mumbling, “Interesting.” The reason? Before, during the lecture, their situation allowed them the luxury of abstracted, disinterested detachment. But now, their real-life situation has been addressed, and the category of communication has changed from knowledge or information (a lecture on astrophysics) to news (of a threat to safety and life and how to escape it). (McLaren, Finding Faith, 16)
Religion includes not just abstract intellectual facts but also issues of the heart, of intimacy, and meaning, and destiny. This may be one of the reasons that religion can unfortunately become so contentious: It requires submitting all of our mental faculties to be truly understood.
We have been led to the conclusion that science and faith are not, in fact, enemies. They both attempt to describe and throw light upon reality, sometimes in complimentary ways, other times in ways that only their particular methodology can do.
For some, scientific study can lead them away from their faith, as their erroneous understanding of real faith conflicts with their new scientific knowledge. Others, however, such as astrophysicist Hugh Ross, are led to faith through studying science. He tells his story in the article My Search for Truth. I hope, similarly to Dr Ross, that you find the truth that you are searching for, the truth that truly satisfies our multifaceted search for intimacy, meaning, and destiny.