by Jay Johansen | Mar 8, 2008
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"?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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