Oil and water, vinegar and baking soda, Buckeyes and Wolverines - some things just don't seem to get along. For many, science and religion are fit right in on this list. But, is that really the case? Is there actually a conflict between the findings of science and the tenets of religion that cannot be reconciled? Individuals on both sides of this debate, with some help from the media of course, have propped up the conflict idea, in fact, a 2015 Pew Research poll showed that nearly 40% of American adults believe there is an essential conflict between science and religion.
As a Christian who also happens to be a scientist, this is an extremely important topic to me. If there truly is an essential conflict between these two how could I continue as a Christian practicing science? As I've read, thought, discussed, and struggled through this idea over the years I have seen the need for better communication and dialogue. Scientists seem to misunderstand religious folk, and many who claim to be religious do not understand the scientists. To work toward bridging this gap in communication, I have been teaching a weekly course at my church through the month of August with the church's pastor, Bill Hodgeman. In the class we have explored science and religion, discussing what they are and how they work, we have talked about scientific and religions explanations for origins, and began to dig into some of the important questions. Even though the class was intended originally for a religious (specifically Christian) audience, my hope is that people on the Christian end will better understand scientists and vice versa.
Whats that? You missed the classes?? Well, dear reader, you are in luck! In a series of blog posts I will dig into the issues discussed in the class each week, starting now!
The first step to understanding how science and religion relate is to first figure out what science and religion are. What are they used for, how do they work, who uses them? In one of my first posts here, I wrote a bit about science, what it is and how it works, so, if you've read that post some of this may sound familiar.
What is Science?
When you hear the word scientist who do you think of? Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall, Doofenschmirtz? For most of us, scientists are thought as wearing a lab coat, nerdy, kind of awkward, and well, wicked smaht. But, I would argue that all of us, yes, even you, are scientists!
While some (including western Mass locals Merriam-Webster) define science as a set of facts, or collection of knowledge, in reality it is much more than that. At its core, science is a "way of knowing" that allows us to understand the physical universe through an iterative process of inquiry. In other words, science is a process we all use to ask and answer questions about the world around us, a process that is driven by inquiry, iterative, and ongoing.
First, science relies on curiosity and inquiry. We observe something around us - see a tree, hear something fall, feel a texture - and wonder, what is it? how does it work? We are drawn by curiosity to find out more, thus inquiry leads to investigation. For me, as an ecologist, I may see a salamander and think - I wonder how well these guys survive in urban forests? A question leading me to dig in and investigate.
To sum things up, science is a process we all use to ask and answer questions about the physical world. Science deals with the physical universe, and in order to find answers to their questions scientists examine, test, and analyze their observations through inquiry – a systematic investigation. Science only deals with things it can objectively observe, leading us right into our next topic...
What is Religion?
Religion - the word conjures images of faithful congregants singing hymns, priests bestowing blessings, pilgrims on a quest, or at its worst, fanaticism and terrorism. But what is religion (or more generally, philosophy) at it's core, what do all religions have in common? What is it they are all seeking?
Religion is a "way of knowing" that allows us to explore the universe's purpose and our purpose in the universe through a process of observation, reflection, and study. When we look at the world through this lens we are looking for truth, purpose, and understanding, the meta-physical aspects of our universe.
Religion, like science, begins with observation. It observes the aspects of the universe such as relationships, behaviors, emotions, or natural phenomena, and seeks to uncover their true meaning and purpose. Religion uses thought, reflection, and dialogue to interpret what it observes. This differs from science in that it allows more subjective interpretation of observations. For example, you and I may experience the same phenomenon and leave with very different views on what happened, what it meant, and how we should have responded to the situation.
Religious thought doesn't only rely on observation and reflection. Many forms of religious thought, Abrahamic Faiths included, allow for the possibility of Special Revelation - direct revelation of purpose, meaning, and morality from a supernatural source such as god, nature, angelic beings, or otherwise. Christians believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through his Word, the Holy Bible, and direct special revelation through prayer and meditation. Religion, however, only deals with matters of the meta-physical universe, questions of purpose, meaning, and morality. Many religious people (including Christians) believe god has provided creation for us to understand the physical universe using the tools of science!
Summing Things Up
If you are still reading this far in I applaud you - seriously - you should get a prize! Let's sum things up here. Science and religion are both ways of knowing that allow people to understand aspects of the physical and meta-physical universe, respectively. They are equally important and are used by everyone! You might think about it this way. Religion helps us to understand the story of humanity and the universe, while science helps us to understand the setting where this story takes place. Everyone, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Pagan, Atheist, or Agnostic, is seeking answers to both of these questions - we all use science and religion to understand aspects of the universe around us.
Science and Religion are ways of knowing that allow people to observe and understand aspects of the physical and meta-physical universe
I will end here with a quote from a scientist and writer who has been influential in my thinking. Stephen J. Gould was a brilliant evolutionary biologist and paleontologist (and Yankees fan!) who was frustrated by his colleagues innapropriately using science to answer religious questions, and by others using religion to answer scientific question. In his excellent book on the subject called Rock of Ages, Gould writes:
Stay tuned around the blog for a few more posts in the series. If you have thoughts, ideas, questions, leave a comment below and I will try to respond. Thanks for reading, and if you haven't already, please subscribe!
For more in the Science & Faith Series check out Part II - rEvolutionary Origins