Science and Religion


Let me start by admitting that I am an atheist. That is not uncommon for many people who are practicing scientists, technologists, or engineers. However, it is also not a prerequisite for a person of science to be an atheist. There is no internal inconsistency in being a religious scientist. In fact, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, and Lemaitre (the Catholic Priest and astronomer who first posited the expansion of the universe) were all deeply religious.

For many people Science and Religion represents the conflict between Reason and Faith. For them, there is a contest in which one attempts to use reason to prove or disprove the existence of a deity. This argument has been going on for centuries, and wars have been (and are still being) fought not only over whether a god (or gods or a general “spirituality”, depending upon your frame of reference) but whether or not you happen to believe in the correct god (or messenger, or whether the messenger even exists). In fact, recently King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has declared atheists as terrorists. That is one of the many reasons I will not be visiting the Kingdom anytime soon.

I maintain that there is no way to prove the existence of a deity (or deities), simply because it is a matter of faith. Any attempt is doomed to fail, because there is no way to prove the unprovable. If we look at philosophical systems, we potentially have a methodologies to resolve the tension between science and religion.

For example, in geometry, we are tasked to prove concepts based on a logical progression. However, we have certain constraints – statements that cannot be proven, that we must accept. These constraints are known as axioms, non-provable statements upon which the system is based. For example, if we use the axiom that “parallel lines are always equidistant from each other”, we are likely discussing Euclidean geometry. Change the axioms, and you change the system. For example, if you allow parallel lines to meet, you have elliptical geometry.

No one would argue (or fight a war) over which is the One, True, Geometry because the different systems can simultaneously exist. All are equally valid, useful, and correct as long as the various systems do not have any internal contradictions. For example, you cannot have contradictory axioms in a system – parallel lines cannot be both equidistant and converging at the same time.

Likewise, we can frame the conflict between Science and Religion as both equally valid philosophical systems which differ in their axioms.

Religion starts with the axiom that a supernatural power exists which controls the universe. In most religious systems, the supernatural power also judges the individual’s morality, and assigns the person to a place in the afterlife based on how well he managed to comply with the moral code.

Science starts with the axiom that there is no supernatural power; the universe is governed by physical laws which can be deduced.   Science makes no judgment with respect to morality. Religious scientists have been able to successfully reconcile the two philosophies, generally by adhering to the religious moral code while looking for underlying, non-mystical physical laws.

There is nothing in the above discussion to make the two concepts mutually exclusive; in fact many of the scientists from the Renaissance forward were deeply religious people. They could mostly compartmentalize the moral system from the rational system. Einstein is reported to have stated that “God does not play dice with the Universe!” Galileo was a deeply religious person who would not comply with the dictates of the Church.

One way to reconcile Science and Religion can be found in the Bible, when Jesus was confronted with the question of Jews paying taxes to the Roman occupiers. Jesus said: “Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God those things which are God’s.”

Now, nothing here is especially new or groundbreaking in that wiser minds than mine have been looking at this conflict for centuries. In 2008, the US National Academy of Sciences stated:

“Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”

By analogy, perhaps we should render unto Science those things which are Science’s and unto God those things which are God’s. This does not require a person who believes in science is anti-god, and it does not make someone who believes in god anti-science.

However, there are plenty of people who are anti-god who are also anti-science, especially when the science does not conform to their world view.  They are the dangerous ones.

One thought on “Science and Religion

  1. I do not think that Science starts with the axiom of no god, or any other supernatural being. If it turned out (for example) that fairies or ghosts existed and caused certain things to happen, that could be a scientific discovery and valid and useful information about the universe.
    However, to say that an apple falls to the ground at a certain acceleration “because god wills it” is an explanation of sorts, but not useful in any practical way.
    The statement that Einstein was deeply religious is regularly given, but out of context. Wikipedia has a good article on his (lack of) religious belief. “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

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