Science Versus Religion: Conflicting or Compatible?

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Random Topics
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I.                   Introduction

Science and religion have become increasingly critical of each other.  History has many examples where these two have butted heads, scrambling for power.  Religion, when confronted with ideas seemingly in opposition to their beliefs, has been skeptical of scientific findings.  Science has sometimes viewed religion as overly simplistic, blinded by ignorance.  The result has been an escalation of truth claims from both sides, each seeking to establish itself as the authority for all truth with little room, or respect, for the other’s contributions.  The logical outcome quite often has been a rejection of one or the other.  However, science and religion do not and have not always operated as separate entities but as complimentary disciplines.

Although there are plenty of examples that show where each discipline has fought against the other, there are also many examples of great men of faith making tremendous contributions to the realm of science… and vice versa.  Through such efforts religion and science have made great advances in the quest for knowledge and truth.  I believe that science and religion are not incompatible but should be used to build a more comprehensive portrait of the ways in which our world works.

To begin, I believe it is important to state what this paper will not set out to do.  This paper is not designed to be a defense to prove or disprove the validity of religion.  In discussing Religion, I will use Christianity specifically simply because it has had the greatest conflict with Science.  What I hope to accomplish is to simply show that science and religion can work together.

First, I will claim that Science and Religion are in search of a common goal.  I will define Truth, Science, Religion, and Transcendence.  Next, I will comment on the problem of God’s transcendence and immanence and its impact on Science and Religion’s conflict.  Furthermore, I will argue that Science and Religion do not ask or answer the same types of questions to reach that goal.  Next, I will comment on the argument against Religion as too biased for compatibility with Science.  Finally, I will conclude my thoughts.

II.                Definitions of Truth, Science, Religion and Transcendent

Truth is the motivating thrust of both Science and Religion.  It is the very goal at which Science and Religion aim.  Both believe that there is Truth to be attained.  This is the fundamental reason why Science and Religion have been found in conflict with one another.  This essay, like Brad S. Gregory’s paper:

…proceeds on the minimalist assumption that truth cannot contradict truth – the principle of noncontradiciton [sic] is necessary for the pursuit of truth and for rationality whether in science or in religion… Quite plainly, the principle of non-contradiction makes it obvious that not all such beliefs can be true.

Thus, if one makes a truth claim in opposition to the other, there is the obvious result of conflict and struggle to undermine each other.   The power and credibility to speak as an authority is in jeopardy if this struggle is lost.

As such, it is important that we define Truth, which seems to be a common goal for both Religion and the Sciences.  According to the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology:

’Truth’ and ‘falsehood’ are used in two main senses, according as (a) our belief in some proposition, (b) the proposition which we believe, is said to be true or false.  True and false belief may be defined, respectively, as belief in propositions which are true or false: and error denotes false belief.

Thus, something cannot be both true and false, as the principle of non-contradiction asserts.  However, as stated, there are corresponding errors or falsehoods for every truth.

I believe it is also helpful to define both science and religion, especially since they are both large in scope and have many different branches or disciplines.  Science is “Knowledge; in particular, knowledge in the eminent sense as the outcome of the systematic and trustworthy functioning of the cognitive processes.  Systematic co-ordination and certainty have, therefore, often been specified as the notes of science.”  It is an observational method for understanding the natural world.

            Religion is a little more difficult to define.  The Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology defines Religion as:

Subjectively, the experience which arises out of man’s conscious relation to some transcendent agent or agents, upon whose attitude towards him his [sic] welfare is believed in some measure to depend; objectively, the body of beliefs and practices which arise in connection with this experience, and which are ordinarily associated with some form of institutional life.

Although this definition might be disputed as being exclusive of some religions that do not believe in a deity, it is usually this definition of religion which most conflicts with Science.  Thus, Religion, for the purposes of this paper, will be defined as belief in a Transcendent reality or agent.

Transcendent will also be an important term in discussing Religion.  Within Judeo-Christian thought, which will be the specific religion I use in this paper, God is thought to be a transcendent being.  This becomes extremely important in our later discussion.  Transcendent means:

…applies to whatever lies beyond the realm of experience and of knowledge… Transcendent is opposed to immanent… It is particularly used in religious philosophy as defining the relation of God to the world; the transcendent theory… holding to the existence of God external to the universe, the immanent theory holding to the presence of God in the world.

III.             The Transcendence of God

The transcendence of God may seem like a totally inappropriate subject in this discussion.  However, looking at this particular subject will prove instrumental in how Religion and Science can cooperate, as well as, their limitations in making claims on each other.

Brad S. Gregory writes an informative excerpt on John Duns Scotus’ view on the transcendence of God and the following implications that impact us today.  John Duns Scotus, a medieval scholar and author, believed:

…insofar as God exists, he belongs and must belong conceptually at least in certain respects to the same ontological order as everything else that exists… Therefore God is a ‘highest’’supernatural’ being alongside other beings – which is why Descartes, for example, thought God could be ‘clearly and distinctly’ conceived.  So the supernatural and natural are brought within the same conceptual and causal scheme.

Thus, you have an open window for God to be equated with nature in scientific studies.  This line of thinking leads both scientists and people of faith to the conclusion that God can definitively be disproven or proven, respectively, through scientific endeavors.  It is little wonder why there is so much bickering from both sides when it comes to interpreting scientific information.  However, this is a major problem in understanding God, as well as, the limitations of Science.

A traditional Christian views God as both immanent in creation and yet transcendent from His creation.  “God viewed in this way is neither outside nor inside his creation, but altogether beyond spatial categories: divine immanence is therefore not the opposite of divine transcendence, but its correlate.  Only because God is radically distinct from his creation can he be fully present to everything in it.”

As Brad S. Gregory discusses in his article, science does not deal with the supernatural, only the natural.  Since God exists outside of the natural world, although He also participates in the system, He cannot be defined by the system.  He is not testable or subject to experimentation.  As such, God’s existence cannot be certified or otherwise discarded through scientific means.  Thus, to employ Science for such means is to grossly misunderstand God’s nature.

IV.             Differences in Science and Religion Questions

As mentioned previously, both Science and Religion are seeking Truth.  They both hold that there is truth to be found and that conflicting truth claims cannot ultimately stand together.  The conflict between these two entities has arisen largely due to this fact.  However, there is a misunderstanding between both Science and Religion at this point as well.  Although they are both in pursuit of Truth they do not ask the same types of questions, nor do they use the same methods for deducing the truth of their claims.  It is my conviction that Science and Religion are compatible for this reason.  They are looking at Truth from different perspectives and disciplines.  I will explain further the types of questions each discipline employs and why it is problematic when each oversteps its bounds.

Let us first look at Science and the type of question it asks within the scope of its field.  As noted previously, Science uses the method of observation to construct how the world works.  It asks questions of “how.”  How did the world come to exist?  How do particles work?  How does the brain work?  How do plants make food?  These are testable, definable questions that may be studied with the power of observation and intuition.  If a theory is incorrect, you modify it and test again until you find a solution.  In a quest for knowledge, this may not be expedient but it is satisfying as a method for learning.  It is little wonder people desire the same principles to be applied to Religion as well.  For, if one can observe it then it can be tested and validated or proven false.

Next, let us look at Religion’s question by which it operates.  Religion seeks to answer the question “why.”  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why am I here?  Why is there evil and pain (although not every religion believes in evil)?  These are the types of questions which Religion seeks to answer.  These questions deal with subjects that are not easily, if at all, observable.  However, these beliefs are still subject to the principles of reason.  Their tendency has been to look at metaphysical explanations for why things have come about.

The tension and the problem is found when Science or Religion move beyond the scope of their question that they are suited to answer.  Science cannot answer the “why” questions that Religion seeks to answer and vice versa.  For instance, an article by Chris McGillion details an attempt to explain off Religious experience with neuroscience:

Many neuroscientists claim they can locate and explain brain functions that produce everything from religious visions to sensations of bliss, timelessness or union with a higher power… By stimulating the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, Persinger has been able to induce in hundreds of subjects a ‘sensed presence’ of which only the subjects themselves are aware.

Although this study may indeed show that such experiences can be stimulated, it does not disprove the existence of God.  One can simply say that God created the brain to be able to experience such things.  Plus, it does not hold that just because something is not directly observable that it thus does not exist.  For instance, one cannot prove or disprove the love I had for my grandfather who is now deceased.  It might even be possible to stimulate my brain to experience some of those same feelings or a memory of my grandfather, but this does not prove or disprove that “love’s” existence.  Thus, Science makes a fundamentally flawed move from reality to metaphysics.

Religion tends to make the same mistake in the reverse direction.  For instance, Galileo was a tremendous scientist who further built on the work of Copernicus.  Galileo was able to show that the earth traveled around the Sun in an orbit.  However, due to its conflict with stories within the Bible, Galileo was called to trial.  The trial ended in Galileo recanting his teaching.  Unfortunately, it was some time before the Church consented to the findings of Copernicus and Galileo.  Timothy Moy comments, “For me, one of the greatest culprits in the tale is something that still plagues us: a confusion of boundaries between these two ways of understanding the world, and the false belief that expertise in one grants an authority to speak in the other.”

Science and Religion can both learn from these examples.  Within the confines and boundaries of their said discipline, they can each help us to see Truth holistically.  They can together act as corrective balances for viewing our world.  Science and Religion become problematic and dangerous when they overstep the boundaries of their discipline.  It should be noted by both Science and Religion, scientific inquiry and methodology cannot justify or falsify the existence of God.  To try to do so is to fundamentally step out of Science.

V.                Argument Against Religion’s Bias

One of the arguments against Science and Religion being compatible is the history of atrocities committed by the Church.  It is true that the Church lashed out against Galileo’s theory.  It is also true that hurtful and hateful things have been done in the name of some deity.  It is also true that some of the greatest crimes and atrocities have been conducted by avowed atheists.  However, this is simply to look for a last ditch effort to refute each other’s world view.  There have been a great number of atheists that have accomplished tremendous things.  Likewise, there have been a great number of religious people that have done likewise.  Again, these are not scientific conversations, but valuations outside the realm of Science.

Furthermore, it has been argued that people that ascribe to religion are overly simplistic in thinking, such as the Bible literalists.  Thus, they conclude that all Religion is naïve and does not value Truth as embodied by Science.  However, this may be the view of the extreme positions from both Religion and Science.  “Polls show that 90 percent of the American people describe themselves as religious… Yet, perhaps surprisingly, of Americans in the twelve largest Christian denominations, 89.6 percent belong to churches that support evolution education – a subject where science and religion are often perceived to be in disagreement.”  Thus, it does not seem that Science and Religion need be mutually exclusive.

History speaks a great deal for itself in the possibility of Religion and Science working together.  Think of some of the greatest contributions made to Science.  Many of these contributions have been made by individuals of faith.  Martin H. Levinson comments:

While it is true that science has furnished theology with a more verifiable sense of man’s place in the world (e.g., scientific evidence showing progressive increases in the age of the earth and size of the universe has progressively undercut literalist biblical readings), it is also true that Christian theology provided significant institutional support (patronage) for studies of the natural world in the last millennium; the scholastic tradition of disputation was important to the advancement of science; and many founders of modern science were devout religious believers (e.g., Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle).

From a Christian perspective, all truth is God’s Truth.  So, in fact, those ascribing to Religion need not be in conflict with Science and its endeavors for Truth.  As mentioned earlier, they can be great contributors to scientific discovery.  When conflict does occur, we may simply look at it as an opportunity to learn more about our world.  It is not a cause for alarm or mudslinging from either side.

VI.             Conclusion

It is vital that we remember the boundaries of each discipline.  To make scientific conclusions from the Bible would be naïve and no longer theology.  Likewise, to make a theological conclusion (there is no God) from scientific pursuits would be equally naïve.  As shown, Science cannot prove or disprove, justify or falsify claims pertaining to God.  It is unreasonable for either side to try to employ Science in this fashion.  There can be a constructive dialogue between the two disciplines, if the underlying purpose of each is maintained.  John F. Haught states, “Both science and religion ultimately flow out of the same ‘radical’ eros for truth that lies at the heart of our existence.  And so, it is because of their shared origin in this fundamental concern for truth that we may never allow them simply to go their separate ways.”  Indeed, they may well lose out on a valid view of Truth that can better inform, leaving them open to extreme forms of fundamentalism not receptive to open communication… which leaves Religion and Science both biased.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James Mark [ed.]. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology . . . Volume II. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Frazier, Kendrick. “Are Science and Religion Conflicting or Complementary?: Some Thoughts About Boundaries.” In Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. 25-30.

Gregory, Brad S. 2009. “Science Versus Religion?” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought &

Culture 12, no. 4: 17-55. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 18,

2009).

Haught, John F.. “Conclusion: Toward Conversation in Science and Religion.” In Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. 202-203.

Levinson, Martin H. 2006. “SCIENCE VERSUS RELIGION: A FALSE DICHOTOMY?” ETC:

A Review of General Semantics 63, no. 4: 422-429. Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 18, 2009).

McGillion, Chris. 2003. “Religion versus science might be all in the mind.” Sydney Morning

Herald, The, April 29. 13. Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost (accessed December 18, 2009).

Moy, Timothy. “The Galileo Affair.” In Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. 139-144.


[1]Brad S. Gregory. “Science Versus Religion?” (Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 12, no. 4: 17-55, 2009), 21.

[2] James Mark Baldwin. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology . . . Volume II. (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 716.

[3] Ibid, 499.

[4] Ibid, 452.

[5] James Mark Baldwin. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology . . . Volume II. (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 710-11

[6] Brad S. Gregory. “Science Versus Religion?” (Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 12, no. 4: 17-55, 2009), 34-35.

[7] Brad S. Gregory. “Science Versus Religion?” (Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 12, no. 4: 17-55, 2009). 36.

[8] Chris McGillion. “Religion versus science might be all in the mind.” (Sydney Morning

Herald, The, April 29, 2003), 13.

[9] Timothy Moy. In Science and Religion: “The Galileo Affair”, (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2003), 143.

[10] Kendrick Frazier. “Are Science and Religion Conflicting or Complementary?: Some Thoughts About

Boundaries.” In Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 26.

[11] Martin H. Levinson. “SCIENCE VERSUS RELIGION: A FALSE DICHOTOMY?” ETC:

(A Review of General Semantics 63, no. 4: 422-429, 2006), 428.

[12] John F. Haught. “Conclusion: Toward Conversation in Science and Religion.” In Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 203.

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