Words like “science” and “religion” do not have widely agreed meanings and connotations. What we think the words mean and how important they are to each one of us reflect different cultures, histories and differing relative dependence on the understanding of the two streams of thought and practice. This means that different supporters of different aspects of science and/or religion find it hard to communicate their respective views to those who come with a different background.
One common misunderstanding is to assume that there are no common features in the styles of thought required by both types of discipline.
To take one obvious similarity is in the notion of testing faith. An important part of experimental method is taking an aspect of the underlying knowledge, and testing it against what can be demonstrated by observation or by manipulating one or more variables. This is not unique to science.
For example one dimension of Christian faith is to set up assumptions about the age and provenance of key documents. By analysing the accuracy of translation, the age of the document (eg carbon dating) and comparing it with related documents eg looking for closely related stories from earlier documents from different civilizations, we can start to make reasonable assumptions about the originality and unique nature of a religious story. Using such techniques, religious scholars have discovered stories and religious instructions in the Bible which have antecedents in Babylonian and Egyptian literature.
Specifically a number of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament have parallel commandments in the Code of Hammurabi while the story of Moses being discovered in the Bulrushes by the Pharoh’s daughter is virtually identical to the earlier story of Sargon being discovered in the bulrushes. Using a scientific approach has also helped scholars discover signs of subsequent editing. For example an earlier version of the Gospel of Mark (identified by the style and shape of the Greek letters) was shown to end before Ch 16 which was apparently added more than a century later.
Other ways of testing faith by the application of science include checking out the historical results of prophecies and testing the effectiveness of healing prayer.
It is frequently asserted that science and religion have different methodology in that science usually focuses on reason, empiricism and evidence, while those following a faith are supposed to emphasise revelation, the identification of sacred articles of faith and metaphysical assumptions.
It should also be acknowledged that many scientists hold to established theory if they focus mainly on empiricism and in practice are often more concerned with the application of tested theory to standard measurement eg the techniques of dating a fossil or using known chemical pathways to make an anti-cancer drug. In addition there are whole vistas of science where assumptions are largely metaphysical eg speculation about what goes on in a black hole or a multiverse.
The second common misunderstanding about both science and religion is that it is assumed that the leaders of the discipline – ie the great theologians and scientists responsible for the breakthroughs are typical of those who see themselves as followers of the respective studies.
If we start with typical scientists, it is comparatively few who can take the credit for the spectacular advances. The rest are accepting commonly accepted theories worked out by others and in some cases holding to old theories tenaciously in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Since many scientists are involved in applying others’ theories to their measurements, and since many followers of religion are following faith structures shaped by others, the perception that typically scientists discover new knowledge is probably no more likely to be true than the claim that the religious derive their faith from a personal journey of discovery from the scriptures in their original languages.
When it gets down to congregation members or members of the general public, there are unresolved disputes between assertions from the followers some forms of religion on one hand and on the other, those who claim scientific knowledge yet who are similarly yet understandably poorly informed. A general school education is rarely good enough for the high school leaver to have more than a rudimentary understanding of current scientific knowledge which seriously handicaps those seeking to defend a poorly comprehended form of evolution against an onslaught from a Bible literalist who wants to defend a 6000 year old Earth and Universe implied by a literal reading of the book of Genesis – yet with an equal ignorance of techniques for working out the age of the Universe, dating fossils or tracing genetic histories.
It is nevertheless interesting to note that an advanced academic qualification is often shown to be inversely associated with a fundamentalist unquestioning faith. For example when different faiths are surveyed for an association with level of education those like the Unitarians who are often associated with a questioning approach to religion have a much higher percentage of members who have completed a college education when compared with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who score low in the number of graduates.
An added complication is that because since scientists like all members of the community have their thinking shaped by their personal understandings and background experiences, it is common for scientists to confess a personal religion and increasingly common for the followers of a religion to be familiar with advances in science. It is by no means unusual for scientists who are making the most useful advances in science to be comfortable with acknowledging their religious beliefs. Sometimes otherwise qualified scientists appear strangely naive in their superstition and beliefs. On one hand we think of Newton whose rigorous study of the laws of motion making huge progress in physical science while at the same time writing mysterious and now acknowledged meaningless tomes on astrology and alchemy.
Conversely, it is often the top religious scholars who appear familiar with advances in science. Certainly the considerable proportion of Nobel Prize winning scientists who are listed as having Christian beliefs should cause us to doubt the notion that religion has nothing to do with academic rigour, application of logic empiricism and evidence.