Thoughts on Science and Religion

    The relationship between science and religion has been discussed and debated for a long time now, with very little apparent progress in many quarters.

    I love science. I admire the genius of the scientific process, I adopt the scientific sensibility, and I value the progression of science as one of the most valuable things human beings do. But I'm also very religious. For me, this is an incredible combination, the chance to explore the intersection of human ideas as the deepest level.

    But for many, it's a really difficult confrontation, usually resolved with a little bit of denial, and a lot of cognitive dissonance. Efforts to fix the conflict have usually only dealt with part of the issue. Religion is a complex, multi-layered phenomenon, and cannot be easily fixed.

    So let me see if I can slice this up somewhat, and see where the tensions are coming from.

    1. Non-overlapping magisteria?

    Steven J. Gould famously promoted the idea that science and religion are from two "non-overlapping magisteria" - that science deals with matters of fact in the natural world, while religion deals with issues of value and morality. The Catholic church appears to adopt such a view as it relates to evolution, which seems to be the most common place for the issue to be raised.

    There is some validity to this view. Matters of value are different than traditional matters of fact. Values are choices we make, facts are not.

    But religion is more than a set of values, so this does not separate religion from science, it merely separates "value" from science. Science and "value" are two non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion, unfortunately, are not quite so easy to detangle.

    2) Ways of knowing.

    This is probably at the forefront of most religious-scientific debate. Religious people make certain claims ("Because God said so!") while scientists make other claims ("Because the evidence indicates it!").

    Many people wish to dismiss religion entirely because of this. Since the beliefs of religion weren't derived through rational processes, religion itself is a worthless endeavor.

    On the other side of the table, religious people often want to downplay the capability or validity of science. Since science is always changing, it can offer no certainty, and certainly has no ability to replace direct revelation from God.

    Both sides are wrong. When it comes to knowing things, the scientific method is the best and most legitimate approach humans have ever discovered. Everything should bow to it. But science itself is just a process for evaluating different philosophies; where those philosophies come from is irrelevant. Some scientific theories began as horrible lab mistakes, others as the intention to take a warm bath.

    Religion, then, in so much as it makes claims about reality, is a set of propositions for science to evaluate. A set of hypotheses, if you will.

    3) Ways of talking.

    Science and Religion have very different ways of talking. This shouldn't be a surprise - science has a different way of talking than almost anything else humans do. And religion, in general, has a way of talking that is old.

    Given those two things, it's really easy for science-leaning people to dismiss religion altogether, and it's really easy for everybody else to roll their eyes at science.

    We need broader awareness of these facts. Ancient scriptures are not intended or appropriate for use in science-related discussions, from either side. It is not okay for the religious person to throw scriptures into a scientific discussion, nor is it appropriate for the non-religious to use scriptures as evidence that religious people are ignorant.

    Each religious scripture has its own context and process of interpretation. Just as it would not be appropriate for a Christian to read (and judge) the Quran in the same way they read the gospels, it is not appropriate for a non-religious person to read (and judge) ancient religious texts as if they were written in a modern style or genre.

    For example, a scriptural statement that "the sun rises and sets" should not be used by a religious person to weigh in on the nature of the solar system. Nor should it be used by a scientist as evidence that the religious text is faulty.

    Religion makes specific claims, and those claims need to be evaluated by science. But those claims can only be evaluated after they've been properly interpreted and translated into equivalent language.

    4) Levels of analysis.

    Religion, in general, operates at a very high level of analysis. Science typically operates at a very low level.

    If I eat a cookie, we can talk about that on the level of fundamental forces, on the level of biochemistry, on the level of "Mmmm, that's good!", or on the level of lifestyle choices. These are not contradictory, nor do they operate in different domains or magisteria. They are talking about exactly the same thing in different ways.

    Similarly, when we ask why something is happening, we can answer at the level of physics, at the level of human intention, at the level of cosmic significance, or at any level in between. It does us no good to ignore those differences.

    This is often a problem for religious people, who want to answer questions with "God did it". Such a statement is not helpful in the discussion of scientific matters, but neither is such a statement a reason to discredit a religion.

    Similarly, scientifically-oriented people often want to dismiss the idea of the "soul". These people do not realize that "soul" is a description at the level of human experience, not a claim about the nature of the mind-body connection.

    5) Decisions.

    Humans operate on assumptions. We make assumptions about reality all the time, and often find those assumptions to be untrue. But that does not mean we can stop making them. Assumptions are necessary for our survival.

    When dealing with religion, we are often faced with intellectual choices that we simply do not have enough information to make. We must decide whether the universe is good or evil, whether we have a purpose in life, whether the whole world is a giant conspiracy.

    Unlike science, we do not have the luxury of simply abstaining from a decision. These things radically affect our lives and the world; our only option is to look at all the hints we have, evaluate to the best of our ability, and then leap.

    This is not anti-intellectual. As more data becomes available, we reevaluate, rethink, and leap again. This is the proper context for faith and hope - that when two opposing ideas fight for our allegiance, and leave us no way to determine the truth, that we lean towards goodness and light.