Many atheists believe that by simply invoking the name of science, religious belief is defeated. At the same time, many theists distrust the scientific community because they perceive it as antagonistic to their religious beliefs. Thus the question emerges: Is science truly the enemy of religion? In order to answer this question, one must first answer two other important questions: What is science? And what is it that scientists do with science?
In Search of a Definition of Science
First, this essay defends the claim that science is not the enemy of religion. This is because, while people can be enemies, fields of study cannot. There are scientists who are the intellectual enemies of religious people, but there are others who are their intellectual allies. Certain questions emerge, however. One of these is whether or not science itself disproves religion. Another question is whether or not the two intellectual disciplines can be used together.
The word “science” originates from the Greek word episteme, which simply means knowledge. Furthermore, the word episteme is translated into the Latin word scientia, from which we get the word science. If science is defined as knowledge, then could one say that history and music are branches of science? Do we not have historical knowledge? What about religious beliefs? If there is religious knowledge, is there not religious science? This would be true if science were merely knowledge.
What do biology, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics all have in common that we should call them science? Furthermore, what features do these disciplines share that we should exclude history, religion, and art? Biology studies life and living organisms, while geology is the study of rocks, the formation of land masses, and other non-living things. What do chemistry and astronomy have in common? The formation of stars and the location of galaxies seem to be just as different from the formation of a water molecule as the disciplines of history and art. This is not an easy question, to be sure, nor is it a scientific question. Rather, it is a philosophical question because one cannot use science to answer it. After all, would this be a physics question, a biology question, or a geology question? This is a question about necessary and sufficient conditions for science. In other words, we want to know what conditions must be present for a discipline to be a science, or what factors or attributes are sufficient for a discipline to be considered a science. This type of question cannot be answered by the practice of science; rather, it is answered philosophically.
Many scholars argue that these branches of science are brought together under the umbrella of the “scientific method.” Two problems arise with this attempt to define science. First, to suggest that these disciplines all use the scientific method implies that there is only one scientific method. The truth is that there are many scientific methods, and that the scientist uses whichever method he finds necessary to obtain the results he desires. For example, if one desires only to gather facts about a particular entity, he may use the inductive approach as the best method to achieve his goals. The famous case of observing ravens to determine if, in fact, all ravens are black is an instance of the inductive method. Another example is the hypothetico-deductive method. In this case, the scientist starts with a premise or premises that he believes to be true and determines that if certain conditions are met, then certain outcomes are necessary. For instance, if one starts with the premise that the corpuscular theory of light is true, then the appropriate experiment will yield evidence that necessitates this conclusion. Yet, the above methods are not limited to science. These methods originate in logic. Moreover, they can be used in law, history, art, and certainly religion. Thus, to define science by the “scientific method” is too broad.
Others believe that for an endeavor to be scientific, its subjects must be observable. The belief that science is defined by observable phenomena was a product of the Enlightenment and not a scientific discovery. Instead, it was a philosophical shift from rationalism to radical empiricism. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was understood that reason was the best source of justification for knowledge. For instance, if one knows that a shape is a triangle, one also knows that he has a shaped thing. It is not necessary to see triangles to know that they are all shapes. One also cannot be wrong in the claim that all triangles are shaped things. One could know such things through reason and not be fooled. One can also know that if one is in the United States Marine Corps, then one is also in the military. This proposition is known through reason and not through the senses. However, the Enlightenment brought a shift in theories of knowledge. Empiricism made sense on an elementary level. After all, if one wants to know how many teeth a horse has, he only needs to count them. Moreover, rationalism most often requires the phenomenon provided through the senses as its subject.
Empiricism is not saved by the fact that rationalism often requires sense-data as its subject. Empiricism falls prey to the same type of argument. That is, scientific methodology cannot be limited to that which is observable; it also requires the use of reason. For example, scientists use the hypothetical syllogism if A then B. This is known as modus ponens, which is logic. The truth of this logical syllogism is not verifiable through the senses. The scientist must trust the truth that reason yields even though he cannot perceive the laws of logic through the five senses. Moreover, reason tells the scientist that he should not always trust the senses. If the scientist trusted only his senses, then he would have to conclude, for example, that water bends sticks. That is, when one places a stick into a glass of water, it appears to be bent. However, because we know through reason that water does not bend sticks, scientists developed the theory of refraction. In the same way that rationalism requires sense datum, empirical science requires reason.
Empiricism does not work as a definition for another reason. Under this criterion, the definition would exclude practices that are undeniably scientific. For example, much of physics would be deemed unscientific since many of the objects physicists study are unobservable. Physicists cannot perceive strings and quarks, yet other scientists do not consider that which they do as pseudo-science. The case made for the existence of these entities in not made by way of observation; it is made by use of mathematical models. Yet if these theories are scientific, then observability of phenomena cannot be a necessary condition for science.
Others have suggested that for a theory to be scientific it must be able to be falsified. Whereas the observation criteria rule out many well-established sciences, the falsifiability criterion allows that which is traditionally considered non-science into the definition. For example, one could certainly falsify historical claims. Yet nobody is suggesting that scholars of United States history be included in the category of the hard sciences. Religious claims can be falsified as well. It is conceivable that the resurrection of Christ can be falsified. All this would take would be the observation of the actual body of Jesus. If the body of Christ is still on Earth, one could observe that the body is dead and then use genetic testing to determine that it is, in fact, Jesus.
Many atheists would of course embrace the idea that science can falsify religious claims. However, if this is the case, then religion may fall within the purview of science. The claim that religion and science may overlap is a claim that atheists have fought vigorously in the courts to reject. The reason for this is that if science can falsify religious claims, then it is also conceivable that it can give evidence for the truth of religious claims.
It is also maintained that science deals only with the physical world as its subject matter. While this is a methodological statement, many believe that science only deals with the physical world because that is all that exists. However, this is not a statement of science; instead, it is a philosophical statement that can neither be verified through the senses nor falsified through reason. Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, and several other philosophers of science have written extensively on this understanding of science. The problem with this materialistic criterion is that it fails its own test. That is, definitions are not physical, concepts are not physical, and meaning is not physical, and these things are what the materialist uses to define science. Therefore, if definitions, concepts, and meaning exist, then not everything that exists is physical.
Of course one could believe that non-physical reality exists, but claim that science merely deals with the physical attributes of the world. That is all well and good, but would merely suggest that religion and science do not talk to each other. Yet, as shown above, one could clearly use science to show certain religious beliefs to be false. And, as I also mentioned earlier, if one can used scientific fields to disprove religious claims, science may also be used to justify the beliefs of many religious claims.
Finally, many define science by its goals. What are the goals of science? Just as there are different methods of scientific inquiry, there are also many different goals scientists wish to achieve. One goal is knowledge. Scientists use their methods simply to learn about certain phenomena. Another goal is the explaining of phenomena. Scientists often use methods to determine why certain phenomena are the way they are and how they are caused. Scientists also use their methods to predict future events. This is the case with meteorology, for instance. Meteorologists use the inductive method of observation to draw inferences about future weather patterns. Yet these goals do not seem at odds with religious belief at all. Rather than being the enemies of religious belief, it seems that theologians may embrace and incorporate them.
I argue that the above attempts to define science fail on two counts. First, some of them define outside of fields that are clearly science. Second, others include fields of study that are arguably not science according to the definition. My goal here is not to give a unifying definition of science that includes only those disciplines such as physics, biology, geology, and the like. Instead, it is to show that any attempt to define religion as outside the purview of science is a philosophical endeavor and not a scientific one. Further, I endeavor to show that science and religion can interact in the same manner that history, art, and other fields of study may interact with each other.
What Is It That Scientists Do?
The second question I posed earlier was “What is it that scientists do?” This is an important question to answer when discussing the relationship between science and religion. The reason for this is that science and religion do not interact as often or as controversially as one might think. For instance, it would be difficult to see how the structure of a water molecule would pose a theological problem. The point here is that scientists do a great many things that, for the most part, do not touch upon religion. Moreover, the fields of science are highly specialized, so much so that the differing fields often do not interact even with each other. Chemists and astronomers operate with different tools, goals, and methods. The same is true for those who work in geophysics and zoology; just as science and religion differ, so too do the various scientific disciplines. Just as each branch of science rarely interacts with another, so too does science rarely interact with religion. Thus, the practices of science are, for the most part, neither concerned with nor in conflict with religion.
Moreover, science programs do not train students to deal with religious questions. Science courses do not teach about the nature of God or His attributes. Instead, each of the scientific disciplines focuses on its respective subject. Astronomy focuses on the heavenly bodies of the universe. Biology is the study of living organisms. And geology focuses on the different types of structures that make up the Earth. Religious methodology is not taught in any astronomy, biology, or geology class. Most often, when scientists suggest that religious beliefs are false, they are not speaking scientifically. The claim that God does not exist is not a question that biology, astronomy, physics, or any of the other scientific fields is equipped to answer. This is a philosophical question. Thus, when scientists take aim at the existence of God, they do so from outside of their disciplines.
The above is not to say that science has nothing to say in discussions about religion. Instead, it is saying merely that there are limits to scientific inquiry. While geology and astronomy may inform certain beliefs pertaining to the age of the universe, they do not answer other questions. Questions concerning purpose, morality, beauty, and happiness cannot be answered through the scientific disciplines. Courses in physics, biology, and the like have very little indeed to say about the morality of abortion and engaging in war. Science, by and large, is a descriptive endeavor. That is, it does not tell one what one “ought” to do. Chemistry can teach one how to create drugs. However, chemistry does not tell one whether or not one should make drugs or take drugs.
Science and Other Disciplines Interact
Different fields of science do overlap with many different disciplines. It is in these interactions that one can see both science’s strengths and limitations. Historians often make use of science. For example, historians ask engineers to help determine how the Great Pyramids of Egypt were created. Engineers can help fill in the historical narrative by explaining what it would take to create such wonders given the technological limitations of the day. However, the science of engineering would not be able to determine the motives for building such edifices. Biology, physics, or even the social sciences would be silent on such issues as well.
Theologians and philosophers of religion can use science in the same way that historians and other fields of inquiry can. Theologians have long used the different branches of science to understand, support, or to even disprove religious claims. One of the fathers of modern genetics, Louis Pasteur, wrote, “Science brings men nearer to God.” As stated above, historians can make use of the science of engineering to understand what the Jewish slaves endured to build the monuments of Egypt. Moreover, theologians may make use of archeology and scientific dating methods to support the historical claims made in sacred texts. Many Biblical cities and events have been verified and clarified by the use of archeology. Other theologians have used biology to debate whether or not God used evolution to create or develop the human species. Whether or not one believes in evolutionary theory is irrelevant to the point that many biologists have thrown their hats into the ring in an attempt to answer this question of theological anthropology.
Philosophers of religion often make use of the different branches of science to argue for the existence of God. For example, the Belgian priest Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître postulated the Big Bang theory, which states that the universe came into being between 14 billion and 17 billion years ago. Many use this scientific evidence to show that the universe is a caused entity that requires a cause besides itself. This is one of the premises of Aquinas’s famous argument for the uncaused cause, which is God. More recently, philosopher of religion William Lane Craig developed the Kalām Cosmological Argument. Craig uses the Big Bang model to show that the universe has neither existed for an infinite amount of time nor created itself. The conclusion is that an uncreated, eternal, self-existing being of great power and knowledge must have, by His own will, created the physical universe. This being is known as God.
Just as science may aid religion, so too does religion have something to offer to science. Throughout the centuries, scientists have used their religious beliefs as motives for their scientific inquiries. Sir Isaac Newton wanted to understand the universe that only a wise God could have created. He thought by understanding the creation better, he would understand the Creator better.
Religion often presents people with questions that science can help clarify. As stated above, theology has raised the question of how old the universe is. It has also raised the question of how God chose to create. These are questions that can motivate astronomers and biologists to pursue certain hypotheses. Even atheists are motivated by religion to study science. Certain atheists use their field of science to try to falsify religious claims. Biologist Richard Dawkins made millions of dollars on his book The God Delusion.
The history of science is filled with those who believed in God and sought to understand Him better through the creation. Erwin Schrödinger, Blaise Pascal, and Francis Bacon are just a few out of a who’s who list of famous scientists that believed in God. The rocket scientist Wernher von Braun wrote, “Finite man cannot begin to comprehend an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and infinite God … I find it best to accept God through faith, as an intelligent will, perfect in goodness and wisdom, revealing Himself through His creation.” These scientists did not see science at odds with their faith. Instead, their faith guided their scientific endeavors and science informed their faith. Francis Bacon writes, “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error: first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” For many scientists, their field of science stands beside theology in order to give a more complete picture of how God relates to His creation.
With all this said, those who wish to study science need not turn in their scientific brain when entering the church. Rather, they may rest assured that they are in good company with those godly scientists who came before them. Moreover, the non-scientist can have confidence that, while there are scientists who stand in opposition to religious beliefs, the fields of science do not take sides.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.