How Should we Relate Science to Religion?

One of the consequences of living in a scientific age is that many of our past assumptions are called into question. Because there is no single agreed approach to either science or Christianity it is difficult to find clear agreement on the relationship between the two, and still less agreement about how the modern discoveries emerging as a consequence of scientific discovery might influence an approach to religion.

If we consider the relationship from a historical point of view we might remember that both science and the faith history of Christianity had shaky and uncertain beginnings. Einstein reminded us that a few centuries ago human kind must have had so little understanding of nature that a mixture of fear and superstition largely shaped their beliefs. Placating forces beyond human understanding apparently included trying to find actions to control whatever Gods or Spirits who were thought to be responsible for disease, unexpected death, or the apparently malevolent forces of nature such as flood, thunderstorms, fire, volcano and earthquake.

In their most primitive forms there would not have been very much difference between science and religion in that a lack of understanding almost certainly gave false positives for experiments and incantations alike. The stories of Babylonian priests banging pots and pans to frighten the monster that was swallowing the Sun during what we now call an eclipse produced an outcome that would have been considered positive in a both a scientific and religious sense in that the desired result apparently occurred. Similarly sacrifices to a God in times of flood or famine would have some apparent effect in that the cycles of nature mean that very frequently sunshine follows rain and years of plenty follow years of crop failure. Presumably the medicine man or high priest tasked with curing the sick would have an apparently high success rate in that most sickness usually passes of its own accord. If prayers to imaginary Gods or what we would now call meaningless random medical intervention coincide with accidental success, the designated doctor or priest gains credibility in the eyes of the potential followers. We know for example that trephination, ie cutting a hole in the skull with a primitive chisel to let out the evil spirits responsible for illness was carried out by some ancient societies because we have found the skulls with such holes, and the skulls in which there was subsequent bone growth partially covering the holes showed that some patients survived (at least in the short term). Prayers for conditions in which natural immune processes affect a recovery reinforce belief that such recovery is caused by the prayer.

What then should we conclude about wrong statements in the Bible which are at variance with standard modern findings in science? Perhaps the clearest conclusion we can draw is that the unsurprising errors eg classifying bats as fowl do at least cause us to realise that the Bible is not infallible from cover to cover. However this is very different from assuming science gives better answers than religion when we are comparing like with like. For example science now reports that there are more than 100 elements yet in Bible times the best theory about elements was that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water.
It is also a mistake to assume that modern standards of identifying true statements are the same as they have always been. For example in medieval times truth was often conveyed by allegory or parable and the retelling of favourite stories and parables rather than by restricting communications to simple factual statements. These more picturesque tales took precedence over reading from a fixed and accurate text in an age when few could read.

One popular common viewpoint is that Science and Religion are opposed, and even for some, at war with one another. This apparent mutual antagonism, inevitable inherent conflict, or even on the odd occasion, warfare(!) was characterized in the late 1800s by John Draper and Andrew White, who argued that science had in effect supplanted religion. What they apparently failed to notice was that many of the scientists apparently making spectacular advances in science remained committed to their religious faith and found no contradiction in so-doing. Since the Nobel Prizes in Sciences like Chemistry, Physics and Medicine have been established there is now a very substantial list of the prize winners who declare themselves to be Christian.

Although many university scientists would still classify themselves as Christian I do know from some of my own friends and acquaintances that some of those active in science have been forced to recant earlier beliefs. For example I know one Open Brethren church member who was a medical school lecturer forced to change denomination when he was taken to task by church leaders for explaining his support for the theory of evolution.

By reviewing the history of the Church, Draper and White were able to point to obvious cases where scientific findings have been opposed by those whose faith conclusions were being challenged. Galileo was opposed by leaders in the Catholic faith, and even today Darwin’s theory continues to find opposition from some Bible literalists. Don’t forget however Bible scholars have also met stiff resistance from Christian traditionalists when new findings about the Bible disturb long held beliefs. The fury turned on Albert Schweitzer for his study on the life of Jesus and the anger directed to Bishop John Robinson for his Honest to God or the contributions of scholars like John Dominic Crossan who took part in the Jesus Seminar suggest that conservatism is uncomfortable with modern scholarship.

Any historian of science can show countless examples of the same resistance to new ideas in science when the science traditionalists find their past work is being challenged. For example the scientist who produced the evidence for Continental Drift, Richard Wegener, had his work opposed by the scientific establishment for something like fifty years, and those identifying risks with tobacco, DDT and holes in the ozone layer had the greatest difficulty getting their work accepted.

It is hardly a fair criticism to say that a Bible developed in a pre-scientific age should be assessed according to modern scientific standards, any more than the converse that ancient science should be judged as reasonable according to the standards of modern scientifically literate theologians. It is true that some Church people have not progressed past ancient thinking confined by a literalist interpretation of the Bible just as it is true that many folk who are products of the modern education system have emerged through the process with only the most rudimentary knowledge of science.

A common example of such ignorance among Christians is when a fundamentalist Bible literalist refuses to accept the evolution of humankind or to retain the right to reject an ancient Earth and more ancient Universe on the grounds that it contradicts a literal Genesis story without being aware what findings in modern science have provided the evidence for the modern theories.  A parallel in science is the  example of a good proportion of a supposedly scientifically literate population refusing to accept standard science findings is when inoculations are rejected and homeopathy and astrology are used despite the testing which finds them ineffective.

Certainly we can smile back with a sense of superiority at some of the early Christian beliefs – like assuming prayer can change the weather, like chalking crosses on doors to ward off the plague, like assuming calamities like earthquakes and storms are God’s punishment for sinners in our midst, yet we should remember that in the absence of other understanding such actions must have seemed to offer rational possibilities and potential hope in the face of otherwise incomprehensible evil forces.

Some who have investigated the interface of science and religion argue that since they deal with different issues we can regard them as non-overlapping eg Stephen Jay Gould who describes the two areas as non-overlapping majesteria (NOMA). The perhaps unexpected term magistera he took from the1950 Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani generis (1950) and explained his assertion had been a commentary on Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences where the Pope had come up with the statement:”Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”. While we can probably understand the intent of the Pope’s conciliatory statement, in part he may have been intentionally glossing over the angry Church Science debates which continue to this day. For example it took many years for the Roman Catholic Church to concede the truth in Galileo’s conclusions about the nature of the Solar System and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The fundamentalist Bible literalist refusal to accept the evolution of humankind and retaining the right to reject an ancient Earth and more ancient Universe on the grounds that it contradicts a literal Genesis story has morphed into a pseudo scientific argument which is called intelligent design.   I have a personal difficulty with this in that any scientific morsel seen to support the creationist view is seized upon and retained long after the scientists have produced their answers.   For example Intelligent Design proponents claim that some organs such as the eye and the flagellum only have value when their complex component parts are assembled together.   They persist with this argument despite experts in the respective fields showing how the component parts have evolved. In some ways this is the equivalent of an atheist scientist like Richard Dawkins dismissing conventional Christianity on the grounds that it is often guilty of contradicting the obvious evidence generated by observations made and catalogued by scientists, when many fine scientists who are Christian have shown how their faith is simply not as described by Dawkins.

While there are certainly different emphases in the two fields I would like to suggest that the two fields cannot help but influence one another.
Although some followers of religion may see their study and beliefs as independent of science, some reflection ought to acknowledge that a literalist Biblical faith requires modification when scientific findings are incorporated. For example a host of modern scientific measurements make it virtually certain that the 6000 or so years of the Earth and Universe existence implied by a literal interpretation of the stories of one time Creation in Genesis do not match the billions of years required for the Universe as it is now observed when astronomical observations are investigated or when the measured ages of rocks and meteorites are cross-checked against a variety of measurement techniques. Such modern understandings help direct Bible scholars to the likelihood that the creation stories in Genesis should be seen as having a mythological rather than literal value. Similarly some events recorded in the Bible can be correlated with other historical records to see where the Bible record is accurate in an historical sense and conversely where the stories have been recorded for some other purpose. Similarly the modern techniques of analysis of writing style, including identifying the style of lettering, combine with other measurements to tell modern scholars how different translations of different parts of the Bible might be dated. It is hard to imagine a modern version of Christianity which has not benefitted from such systematic study.

Similarly there is a problem with seeing religion as concerned with values whereas science is supposed to be mainly concerned with clarifying how the natural world can be described and controlled. This implies a separation which doesn’t match reality. The scientist assumes the importance in choosing certain human values to help identify important fields of study. For example the study of medicine is ultimately concerned with value of assisting people to achieve desirable states of health while the application of bioethics assists the associated moral decisions. The pre=eminence of conducting research with integrity and reporting results truthfully is seen as essential, and while some science leads to unethical application of knowledge eg germ warfare, it seems likely that the majority of science researchers are interested at least in the well being of the community who support their research.

Social science methods are commonly used to survey the occurrence of behaviours and attitudes in different denominations. There is direct application of scientific principles in testing the effectiveness of prayer in improving health outcomes for certain conditions and current research looks at the relationship between life expectancy and Church attendance, the nature of near death experiences, and the relationship between brain function and specified publically undesirable behaviours previously labelled Sin. Recent research has looked at the relative brain structure and function of homosexuals and heterosexuals and the results of such studies may help Denominations determine if homosexuality is a chosen or determined behaviour.
Similarly there is a problem with seeing religion as concerned with values whereas science is supposed to be mainly concerned with clarifying how the natural world can be described and controlled. This implies a separation which doesn’t match reality. The scientist assumes the importance in choosing certain human values to help identify important fields of study. For example the study of medicine is ultimately concerned with value of assisting people to achieve desirable states of health while the application of bioethics assists the associated moral decisions. The pre-eminence of conducting research with integrity and reporting results truthfully is seen as essential, and while some science leads to unethical application of knowledge eg germ warfare, it seems likely that the majority of science researchers are interested at least in the well-being of the community who support their research.

The notion that factually accurate science will eventually win over some fluffy values laden religion misses another important dimension of religion. Religion has an important sociological dimension. A typical religious community offers a place where members can know they are valued, accepted and a setting where members know what is expected of them. By in effect agreeing to not to make too much fuss about the standard beliefs of the community, even where those beliefs are not always robust in a philosophical sense, the trade off may be experienced in the form of continued group respect and community support.

Since I am still trying to think through some of these issues, reader reaction would be appreciated.

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