On reconciling science and religion

History provides ample evidence on how science and religion continue to disagree

The Tech’s religion survey covered a range of questions about the religious views of MIT students; everything from “How religious are you?” to “How religious is MIT?” and “Is religion difficult to reconcile with science?” Good questions all, but it is the last that is the most interesting.

Let’s get a baseline from the numbers. When asked to rate their own level of religious belief, on a scale from 1 (not religious) to 10 (very religious), 43 percent of undergraduates picked 1, saying they were completely not religious. Only seven percent chose 10, saying they very devoted to their religious beliefs. However, when asked what they thought of the religious views of all of campus, only four percent chose 1, while less than one percent chose 10.

Students were also asked to respond to rate their agreement with the statement “it is difficult to reconcile science with religion”, with the option to strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, or say that they were unsure. Responses were evenly divided: 48 percent of undergraduates said they at least disagreed, while 44 percent agreed it was difficult to reconcile science and religion.

I side with the latter camp. While I consider myself unreligious, I have nothing but respect for those who, on a personal level, sincerely care for their beliefs and wish to uphold them. And yet, history has shown us time and again that when you mix religion with science, you obtain results far from optimal.

Examples from history of how religious institutions slowed the progress of science abound — sometimes acting as an impediment, other times halting it entirely. One need only remember the condemnation the Catholic Church issued upon Galileo and Copernicus, whose work on the motion of the planets was seen to challenge biblical passages, such as Psalms 104:5: “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”

Of course, we do not live in 16th century Europe, so it is tempting to think that such examples no longer hold; that our cultures would continuously improve. Unfortunately, even today we see signs of undue religious influence on scientific advances.

I can speak from personal experience from my time in Turkey. During my junior year of high school, my biology class, which had genetics as part of the curriculum, also included a brief presentation of ideas posited by Charles Darwin. My successors will not see that — starting this year, Charles Darwin has been removed from the curriculum. Turkey’s Ministry of Education, part of a government that has taken a liking to calling itself “Moderately Islamic,” issued that edict.

Evolution, as proven by science, is not a thing we can choose to believe in or not. It is not a question of faith or devotion. Evolution is a naturally occurring cycle that will continue to happen despite what is written in scripture. This is where the fundamental issue between science and religion poses itself.

In the past, the quest to give meaning to some of the universe’s unexplained phenomena through religion was acceptable as our knowledge of how we got here was severely limited and we craved for meaning. Today, while there still is a lot to discover, our knowledge of the mechanics of evolution and cosmology allows us to respond to many questions that we were unable to answer in the past. As we learn more and get better at answering the big questions, science asserts itself as the dominant way of doing so. However, when the answers we get conflict with the teachings of religion, we find ourselves at an impasse. Because neither side will ever be willing to give in, the reconciliation of science with religion becomes impossible. At this point, the impasse quickly turns into a game with a single rule: the one who can assert superiority in its claim against the other wins.

Throughout history, religion has proven itself ready to block scientific advancement if it meant undermining of its own teachings. While this says nothing about the personal virtues and benefits of religion, religious institutions have always had more pragmatic approaches to science. From what I’ve seen, religious teachings don’t push one to think analytically, to challenge ideas, and to incite progress. It is instead the personal qualities of those who, despite being compliant with their faith, come up with novel and earth-shattering ideas to transform the world and our understanding of everything that surrounds us. This can only be achieved by education, critical thinking, and knowledge, qualities that our Institute embodies. The effect of the four years that students spend at MIT demonstrates that: while two percent of freshmen admit to no longer being religious since their arrival at MIT, this number climbs to three percent for sophomores, jumps to eight percent for juniors, and leaps again to 10 percent for seniors.

Science is discovery, inventions, analysis, challenge, and knowledge. Religion is spirituality, morality, personal virtues, and lifestyles. Reconciling one with the other is a futile attempt as the two do not overlap, but define different domains in one’s life. I am certain that the benefits of religion are innumerable to those who practice them; however, the fact remains that religion is a personal experience that will exist so long as people have need for it. Science, on the other hand, is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of fact.

1 Comment
Lanny Buettner about 12 years ago

You make a common mistake of treating religion as if it were a monolithic whole, like baseball, much the same the world over. Religion is as diverse as human cultures (more like sports than baseball). Yes, the Catholic Church censured Galileo, but they also encouraged science in later decades, particularly through the work of the Jesuits. Yes, fundamentalists have rejected evolution on religious grounds, but many of the prominent scientists of the 1700s were highly religious and believed the discoveries of science gave us insight into the mind of God, including many of those responsible for the founding of America. Even Darwin was religious.

Religion is furthermore not such a simple matter as spirituality, morality, personal virtues, and lifestyles. Buddhism, one of the great religions of the world, spurns basing anything on scripture or tradition and requires individuals only believe that for which they have evidence experienced directly for themselves. Confucianism is a humanistic tradition just as old as Buddhism; it looks to Heaven and Earth (that is, the physical universe) as the basis of humanity and requires individuals cultivate their humanity through social interactions, not just by reading what Confucius said. Unitarian Universalism includes science as one of the important sources for individuals in understanding our relationship to the universals of religion.

To say that the two [religion and science] do not overlap, but define different domains in ones life may be true for some, but for many, including most working scientists, religion and science, far from being in conflict, are compatible, so long as one does not try to do the work of the other.

I recommend you read God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, edited by Lindburg and Numbers. You might also benefit from reading Gods Mechanics, by Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., a Jesuit scientist who explores how many scientists and engineers reconcile religious belief with their their scientific and technical vocations.