Campus Life ask a-theist

Do science and religion conflict?

Where do we draw the boundaries between the two types of thinking?

Ask A-theist is a column by Aaron L. Scheinberg G, an atheist, and Stephanie S. Lam G, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion. This week, Aaron chose the question. Send us the burning questions you have always wanted answered by an atheist or Christian (or both), and we’ll tackle them!

Q: Is there a conflict between scientific and religious thinking? Where do we draw boundaries between the two?

Aaron’s answer:

It seems to me that the major religions consist of cultural tradition, claims about reality, and a philosophy of living guided by those traditions and beliefs. Having spent time in Jewish and Christian traditions, I think such traditions enrich us and I am happy they continue, provided they harm no one. We all seek to contentedly lead our lives; our predecessors’ approaches are invaluable guides.

However, claims about reality must be evaluated carefully whether the source has religious affiliation or not. Making claims, while enjoyable, is only Phase One of finding truth. Phase Two is more daunting: distilling true statements from a sea of unfounded assertion.

Claiming something doesn’t make it more likely to be true. If the claim regards reality, our reasoning must somehow reference reality, which we call “using evidence.” Over centuries, we’ve established what constitutes reliable evidence and fallacy-free reasoning. Claims gain some legitimacy only after their reasoning and evidence withstand scrutiny.

We shouldn’t treat “why” claims differently. Though nonmaterial, motivations still either affect observable reality or are unfalsifiable. Unfalsifiable claims fail automatically — some quick math shows they cannot have supporting evidence, so they can only be unfounded speculation.

Phase Two is the core of scientific thinking. It’s not about lab coats or explosions, it’s about distinguishing fact from unfounded speculation. Science isn’t close-minded, it’s inclusive: any new methodology that can be shown to make that distinction with even slight success becomes part of science.

We associate scientific thinking with the study of natural mechanisms only because it’s more easily applied there. The great influence that historical and cultural forces exert on our lives spotlights the need to distinguish fact from speculation in those domains too. So when someone professes to have a path to truth separate from science, but their Phase Two is less demanding than science’s, let’s ask why their claims deserve such leniency. It’s no coincidence that those advocating “other ways” to determine the truth about reality often also advocate claims that would fail reasoned scrutiny.

In starker terms, “unfounded speculation” means “stuff someone made up.” I love exercising my imagination, but when we don’t distinguish imagination from reality, we run a serious risk of imperiling our common goals. After all, one who conjures up facts can justify any action.

Stephanie’s Response:

How do we know what we know? The primary way we gain knowledge of the external world is through our observations and interaction with it. This is true whether in science or faith. What might seem troubling is that, whereas science seems carefully controlled and reproducible, religion in contrast seems like an arbitrary set of beliefs accepted unquestioningly. Presented in that way, the two ways of thinking are incompatible. But I don’t think that’s an accurate picture of “religious thinking.”

How do people become Christian and thereby get inducted into “religious thinking”? How do we become convinced that the “Christian hypothesis,” so to speak, is true? By looking at the evidence. Central to the Christian faith is the existence of a loving God who wrote himself into human history in the actual historical figure of Jesus Christ. In order for Christianity to be true, Jesus must have existed, been crucified, and then been resurrected. But this happened once in history; it is not reproducible. Same goes for the Big Bang. Therefore the evidence available is indirect and more akin to legal testimony. We examine the historical records, which includes but is not limited to the Bible, and we draw our conclusions in the same way as for anything else.

Christianity also goes beyond mere historical facts. There are far-reaching implications for our own lives as well. We look at the data we have and ask if it is consistent with the hypothesis. Do we see evidence of changed lives in those we know? Do we see evidence of a God loving us, intervening throughout history, and speaking to us even now?

If, after evaluating the evidence, we conclude that Christianity makes the most sense of the world, does that still make us arbitrary and dogmatic? I would argue that science similarly exercises such faith. Have you personally tested every theory in your chemistry textbook? Or have you just seen enough proof to satisfy you that chemistry is true and your textbook will not mislead you? The nature of the evidence might be different between science and religion, but the fundamental process of obtaining knowledge is similar. Both begin with evidence and end with truth.

Marshall Lewis almost 11 years ago

"...makes the most sense of the world..." This, for me, is the key common denominator. But where you go from there is the key difference. For science, the answers are assumed to be temporary - they're what currently seems to be the case. For perhaps most adherents of traditional religions, answers are assumed to be true ("this is what we believe"). While theologians (and philosophers in general) do yield modifications over time, I would argue that this process is more of a language game -- explanations coming in and out of favour -- compared to the evolution of scientific knowledge, which can yield increasingly useful knowledge, i.e., demonstrated through experiment to be increasingly accurate representation of nature. I love religious, and think they could readily adapt some of the methods of science and eliminate truth claims in favour of "as if" descriptions.

Janice Matchett almost 11 years ago

Aaron wrote: "We shouldnt treat why claims differently."

Exactly. To imagine that biologists and Darwinists "understand life" is almost insane in its grandiosity.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

"Do we see evidence of a God loving us, intervening throughout history, and speaking to us even now?"


"Have you personally tested every theory in your chemistry textbook?"

No, but I could, given a lab and enough time.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

#3 misses the point. If you haven't personally tested a theory in your chemistry textbook but nonetheless accept it as being true, then you are necessarily accepting a claim as being true based on faith. The claim may well be supported based on the scientific research of others, but from your point of view, you are accepting the claim as being true based on your faith that the textbook is correct (which it probably is) instead of actual scientific evidence.

One of the purposes of science lab classes is to provide the student with first hand evidence in support of claims that are taught during the class lectures.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

#4: I think #3 is spot on.

Faith in a religious text is not the same as "faith" in a chemistry book. I think you're perfectly aware of that, because you surely treat "facts" in the bible differently than facts in a chemistry book.

I don't accept the information in a chemistry book just because it's in a book. I accept it because I am aware of the methods behind the book. I have an understanding of the scientific method and have confidence that these methods yield true results. I have confidence that my chemistry book would have been criticized and rejected if it were not in line with the body of published experiment, and I have confidence that most of those published studies would have been criticized and rejected if they had not been reproducible/consistent with scientific standards.

Is my confidence "faith"? No. My confidence that those processes are in place and have a good track record comes directly from evidence, and is apportioned to the evidence.

Indeed, science books often do contain mistaken information. I do not read them as if they were, say, the word of God.

Like the chemistry book, I also understand the methods that went into the Bible. I understand that the old testament developed from a long oral tradition, like most mythologies, and that the new testament is on the testimony of two sources who wrote the story decades after supposed events (at a time when supernatural claims were commonplace) and who were rather invested in spreading their new religion. I have very low confidence in either of those methods.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

#5 merely substitutes the word "confidence" for the word "faith". The writer of #5 has stronger faith/confidence that claims in a textbook are true based on the assumption that the processes that produce textbooks have a good track record of being true (which is certainly a reasonable assumption). However, until she actually tests the claims in the textbook for herself, the writer is necessarily accepting as truth a claim that she has not yet tested for herself. From her point of view, she is accepting another person's claim as being true based on faith/confidence that the claims in a textbook are true. Put another way, she is accepting a claim as being true based on a higher authority. How is this not faith?

Perhaps this is an overly solipsistic view, but isn't viewing claims skeptically the attitude a scientist should have? Reproducabilty is a fundamental tenet of the scientific method.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

"Faith" in the religious sense means you believe something that somebody wrote a long time ago, which makes unverifiable claims and provides no predictive power. That is absolutely not the same as "faith" in a science textbook.

In fact, we do test and verify (and sometimes, disprove) things in science textbooks all the time. A physics book makes verifiable claims about the nature of the universe, and accurately predicts what will happen if I throw a ball in a ballistic arc, or connect the leads of a battery to wires in a circuit.

Trying to equate religious faith with trust in the scientific method by using a word with multiple denotations and connotations is just stupid. I don't have a nice way to put that.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Ah, #7 stole my thunder, but I'll still reply to #6:

I explicitly stated that I was not substituting the word confidence for faith, and explained the difference.

Fundamentally, you are stuck in a false dichotomy: that either a) I test something for myself or b) I accept it without reasoning and evidence (i.e. have faith/accept an argument from authority as you put it).

Imagine every day you ask your receptionist what time it is. Every time, you check immediately afterwards and verify he is correct. He's always correct, so one day, you don't check yourself too, you just figure he's probably (p1) right. Are you accepting him as a "higher authority"? Absolutely not. You have reasoned confidence through evidence that whatever his methodology is for telling time, it functions and he reports the results honestly. (And if he screws up and his mistake affects you, you are free to re-evaluate that confidence!)

If you think that the above is a story of me coming to have "faith" in my receptionist, then fine, you have a new definition of faith. But widening your definition of faith to include reasoned confidence does NOT somehow make unreasoned confidence at all valid. You're just playing a word game to squirm out of the very real distinction between those two types of confidence, the first of which applies to a chemistry book, and the second of which applies to the bible and any other bogus. Redefining the word faith won't fix that reality, sorry.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Another aspect of this that I was hoping would be discussed: the idea that they both are asking many of the same questions.

Science involves accepting a lot of uncertainty. These theories are supported thus far, but perhaps a better model will replace it, etc etc.

Religion seems to provide more certainty and comfort. It is a powerful belief and one with a trans-formative power on many as Stephanie notes ("changed lives"). Let us suppose that religion is false, but we accept it as truth. Then in our minds God exists. Rampant research on confirmation bias and superstition formation illustrate that to these people, their mental representation of God is as good as the real deal (barring after-life, which doesn't count in this case, because it doesn't affect the living). Since, people accept it as truth, they act upon it. Religion is a powerful belief that inspires large actions. It does have enormous positive effects for many. But because it also can have equally negative aspects (Crusades, etc.).

Regarding the historical aspect, as Nietzsche noted, there is no original text. The flood story for example appears in many middle eastern cultures. Virtually every religion claims historical backing and artifacts. Each religion follows practically the same method of reasoning as the next, making it impractical from an objective stance to claim any one more correct than the other.

Finally a point on the adaptability of both. Science never claims to be absolute. The Big Bang Theory can be replaced if a more logical theory is created. Religion claims to be stable, and that is its downfall: it can never progress to encompass new aspects of human understanding (of, course it has evolved and continues to do so, but that's another topic).

Perhaps God exists, perhaps he doesn't. I feel that religion while on the same quest as science, uses methods designed more to comfort than to provide truth. In times of distress it is a valuable crutch, but frequently the belief is misused to negative ends. I do not feel that a need for security ought to justify many of the negative results of religion, so I disapprove of it as a whole.

Thanks for bringing this topic. I would be interested to see more responses from the theists.

A theistic engineer/scientist almost 11 years ago

Aristotle taught that there are four "causes," and used various terms for them. We could also use various questions like "how?" (efficient and formal) and "from what?" (material), but also valid are the "why?" (final). Science usually does a great job of explaining how and from what, but falls short when explaining why, the question of purpose. I can build a nuclear weapon using great science, but science does not tell me whether it is right or wrong to deploy such a weapon. It is then assigning a value to life if I say, "Better to deploy a nuke to prevent other lives from being lost."

In terms of theistic faith, Reformers spoke of three synonyms, the first of which is notitia: there is a cognitive element that must be accepted for faith. Jesus of Nazareth would respond that the Greatest Commandment is to love God with your heart, MIND, soul, and strength.

One later theist would write:

Of course, faith is needed to become a Christian, but there are two concepts concerning faith. The two ideas of faith run like this: One idea of faith would be a blind leap in the dark. A blind leap in which you believe something with no reason (or no adequate reason), you just believe it. This is what I mean by a blind leap of faith. The other faith, which has no relationship with this, none whatsoever, is that you are asked to believe something and bow before that something on the basis of good and adequate reasons. There is no relationship between those two concepts of faith.

The biblical concept of faith is very much the second and not the first.

Another theist: The heart cannot delight in what the mind rejects as false.

Even Einstein would say "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

As a theist, I also suggest that we believe all truth to be God's truth and that many of the "Hall of Fame" scientists (Newton, Pascal, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Mendel) were in search of God's truth expressed in science.

I am an alumnus who also believes that science and faith are compatible. I have not repeated the major experiments in physics nor re-derived mathematical proofs. I stand on the shoulders who have done these things. I accept certain hypotheses to be true until proven false in science, as I also do in my faith. Certainly there are verifiable claims such as in external correspondence (archaeology, history), internal consistency and pragmatism.

More in next post.

Theistic scientist/engineer almost 11 years ago

Part 2.

Reproducibility is not the only tenet of science; take for instance, the Big Bang. That I don't observe the Big Bang every day nor that I can't reproduce the Big Bang does not mean it did not happen nor that it isn't scientific. There is an advanced form of Ockham's Razor which we could apply, called Probability Calculus. For the simple person like me, I'll simplify it since this media isn't conducive to massive formulae. It is a matter of "which explanation, given evidences, background materials, etc. best explains the phenomenon/phenomena, and also against all other explanations or possibilities"? If there is an explanation that best explains phenomena given evidences and background that blows all the other explanations out of the water, probability calculus tells me that is a formula that looks like X / (XY) where Y X, so we all know this is approximately 1, or absolute certainty.

Which brings us back to a definition of faith. There are cognitive elements of faith. As I have brought up, I believe based on facts, whether in science or faith. These are testable. I can test my faith -- the things I believe in, the interpretations of biblical passages. I can investigate the claims of Christ or about Christ (say, his resurrection). Nobody ever said that to become a Christian, you better check your brain at the door (in fact, I became a theist during my time at MIT, having studied many world religions and being an atheist, agnostic, and humanist before my decision to become a theist).

I understand that there are presuppositions and also interpretations that may lead us to different conclusions. Some of them come out in our definitions like "faith in the religious sense means you believe something that somebody wrote a long time ago, which makes unverifiable claims and provides no predictive power" - which may not actually be true.

Even the fundamental belief (or lack thereof) in God and what He is like and who He is -- that is a worldview that shapes our interpretation of reality. I cannot offer an airtight "proof" that God exists; He has not appeared to me and many other witnesses directly and unmistakably. However, like science, we often go by the best explanation and are willing to discard the best explanation if there is a better explanation (given observation of phenomena, background, evidence).

I think if a person is reasonably open-minded about deserving of consideration that it is possible there is a God.