Religion versus Science - Island of Sanity

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Religion versus Science


Theory

We regularly hear people talk about "the long-running conflict between religion and science". A Google search on the phrase "religion versus science" turns up over 4 million references, and that doesn't begin to explore all the other ways one might word it.

Is there a conflict between religion and science?

Of course there are some scientific theories that conflict with some religious beliefs.

But does that mean there is a conflict between science and religion in general? Science and religion are two different means that have been proposed for discovering truth. Science claims to find truth by experimentation and observation. Religion claims to find truth by revelation. Both are subject to error. Even the most fervent advocate of science would surely admit that scientists sometimes misinterpret experiments or substitute their own opinions for research -- either carelessly or with intent to deceive. Even the most devout religious believer would surely admit that theologians sometimes misinterpret scripture or substitute their own opinions for divine revelation -- either carelessly or with intent to deceive.

To be more cautious, we should really say that some theories advocated by people who call themselves scientists conflict with some doctrines taught by people who call themselves religious leaders. Just because someone calls himself a "scientist" or a "prophet" doesn't make him one. Not every opinion expressed by a scientist is necessarily a scientific theory, nor every opinion expressed by a religious leader a message from God. Obviously, a statement like, "Coffee tastes better than tea" does not become a scientific fact because the person who said it is a scientist, nor would it be a religious dogma even if said by the pope. Less obviously but equally true, even a scientific-sounding statement like "Talking on cell phones causes brain cancer" cannot truly be considered "science" if there is no research or experimentation to back it up, even if a scientist said it

Does the fact that some scientists disagree with some religious leaders really mean that there is a conflict between science and religion and that people must choose between them? That's rather like saying that because some newspaper stories disagree with some textbook material means that there is a conflict between "journalism" and "education" and people must choose between them.

Suppose we notice that an article about unemployment in the New York Times contradicts statements about unemployment in an economics textbook used at Harvard. Of course this is not a far-out hypothetical question: That sort of thing happens all the time. Would any rational person conclude that this mean that journalism and education are fundamentally opposed to each other, and that everyone must decide whether they are "pro-journalism and anti-education" or "pro-education and anti-journalism"?

Practice

Indeed, let's be scientific about this and discuss the actual "experiments". When people in America talk about a conflict between science and religion, in practice they are talking about a conflict between science and Christianity. So how many examples can you list of conflicts between scientific theories and Christianity? Take any time in the history of the world.

For all the talk, you'd think there were hundreds of examples of such conflict. But when you sort through it all, it comes down to a tiny handful.

  1. Science has proven that miracles are impossible. Science has not and can not prove any such thing. The whole idea of a "miracle" is that it is an event that is impossible by all the known laws of science. If we could explain water turning into wine or the sun standing still with a conventional scientific explanation, then we would conclude that these events are not miracles after all. To say that miracles are impossible because they violate the laws of science is to make the key assumption that there are no circumstances under which the laws of science can be violated. But that's not an idea you can prove scientifically, because by definition it is not repeatable, and therefore not subject to scientific experiment. In other words, you say that miracles are impossible based on the starting assumption that miracles are impossible.

    Indeed, if we simply speculate the existence of a very powerful being, we need not even suppose that physical laws are being violated. Maybe there's just something or someone powerful enough to overcome them. Like, the laws of physics say that rocks fall when you drop them. But if a strong man catches it on the way down, is that a violation of the laws of physics? Or just another factor that you hadn't considered?

    This is not a conflict between religion and science, but between religion and a philosophical idea about science.

  2. The Bible is full of historical errors. For example, the Bible says that an Israeli army under Joshua conquered the city of Jericho, but in fact Jericho was abandoned hundreds of years before Joshua arrived. Other historical claims of the Bible have been challenged, of course, but I take that as the best known example and a typical one. And it's out of date. The primary evidence behind this statement was that in the time of Joshua, certain styles of pottery imported from Europe were very popular in the area around Jericho. As archaeologists had not found any of this pottery, the city must have been abandoned before then. Unfortunately, later excavations found plenty of this imported pottery in Jericho. It turned out that the earlier researchers had been digging up the poor section of town, and apparently the people there were too poor to afford the expensive imported pottery. Even Time magazine, hardly a Fundamentalist publication, printed the story with the title, Score One for the Bible.

    It is debatable if a disagreement over history can be called "science", but even if so, many challenges have been made to the Bible's historical references, and in almost all cases the Bible has ultimately been proven true. If this is a dispute between religion and science, religion is winning.

  3. The Church opposed Galileo and Copernicus over the question of whether the Earth goes around the Sun or vice versa. Describing this as a conflict between relgion and science is somewhere between simplistic and simply false. Galileo's problem was never that he contradicted the Bible, but that he contradicted Aristotle. At that time the Catholic Church ran most of the schools. The educational establishment took Aristotle as absolute authority. So when this astronomer came along and said that Aristotle was wrong, the educators turned to their bosses in the Catholic hierarchy for support. The priests respected the educators as experts on these questions, and so took their side against Galileo. (See, for example, Galileo.)

    This wasn't about the Bible. Nowhere does the Bible say that the Earth is the center of the universe, though Christians who believed Aristotle's theories did point to some statements that most people would take as figures of speech, like references to the sun rising, as Biblical support. The whole incident was essentially a conflict between independent scientists and the educational establishment. The church was involved because they were part of the educational establishment of the time. A case could certinaly be made that the church had adopted Aristotle as part of their religious doctrine, and in this sense it was a conflict between religion and science. Some Christians today say that the lesson to be learned here is not to twist the Bible to fit the teachings of fallible humans just because those humans are respected as great thinkers.

  4. Evolution. This is, of course, the big one. Many books have been written on this subject and I'm not going to resolve it in a few paragraphs here. Let me make just three points: (a) There are many religious people who accept evolution and many scientists who doubt it. I once attended a lecture by Dr Gary Parker, a creationist, in which he commented that the first creation-evolution debate that he participated in was conducted at the college where he was a professor at the time. Presenting the creation side were a biochemist (himself), a physical chemist, and a geologist. Presenting the evolution side were three professors from the Bible department. (Parker bio.) (b) It is debatable if evolution can be called "science" in the strict sense of the term. Science refers to knowledge gained by experiment and observation. But no one has observed evolution happening today, either in nature or the laboratory. There is no experiment that has ever been proposed that could prove that evolution did or did not happen. We can only use science to study the question indirectly. (c) Creationists routinely debate the issue by citing scientific evidence that they claim supports their position. Whether you find their position convincing or not, it is absurd to claim that they are rejecting "science". They are rejecting one particular theory. No doubt this issue is important to Christians because of the religious implications. But then, no doubt this issue is important to atheists for the same reason.

There is no conflict between religion and science. There are some religious beliefs that conflict with some scientific theories. But then, there are plenty of religious beliefs that conflict with other religious beliefs, and plenty of scientific theories that conflict with other scientific theories.

© 2008 by Jay Johansen


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