Sunday, January 2, 2011

Science vs. Religion

A family member  asked why I believed what scientists say instead of what scriptures say.  The reason I usually trust science is that it works, it’s consistent (eventually), and it corrects itself when it’s wrong. 

First, science works for us everyday in ways we sometimes take for granted.  We use the internet, we communicate with cell phones, we use GPS devices to avoid getting lost, we travel in computerized automobiles and airplanes, we develop new medical cures for deadly diseases, we diagnose illnesses through medical tests and procedures, we take medications to treat chronic illnesses or infections, we immunize ourselves and our kids. When we are really sick, we go to the hospital and trust the doctor and all the latest advancements of medical science to heal us; and it usually does. So, in a sense, we all “believe” in science. 

Second, I believe in science because it is consistent and convergent.  Initial attempts at discovery may be marked by error, debate, and disagreement among scientists about what is factual. However, there is an eventual convergence toward a singular understanding of how the world actually works.   All this happens because that’s the way the scientific method works.  As scientific facts continue to pile up, scientific knowledge gradually becomes more certain, alternative theories are discarded, and consensus is formed - regardless of whether you are a biologist or chemist, physicist or psychologist.

Revelation, on the other hand, is not consistent.  Various revelations, various scripture, and various religions have mutually exclusive ideas about what is true.  Granted, there is much overlap in different religious beliefs. But saying that the thousands of different religions in the world today are all consistent with each other strains the limits of credulity.  Nobel winning physicist Steven Weinberg said “The insights of thousands of individual physicists have converged to a satisfying (though incomplete) common understanding of physical reality.  In contrast, the statements about God or anything else that have been derived from religious revelation point in radically different directions. After thousands of years of theological analysis, we are no closer now to a common understanding of the lessons of religious revelation.” 

Third, I believe in science because it corrects itself when it’s wrong.  At any point, a scientific theory can be discarded if it’s proven wrong through the discovery of new evidence.  Every hypothesis and theory in science is falsifiable - meaning it can be proven false.  The theory of evolution (to take one example) has been falsifiable since its formulation by Darwin 150 years ago; yet the evidence has continued to pile up from various fields of science - all in support of the theory.  However, at any time, and in any number of ways, the theory could have been proven wrong.  But it hasn’t. 

On the other hand, religions usually don’t make claims that are falsifiable.  It is therefore difficult to amend or discard religious doctrine.  Religious beliefs can even be held onto firmly when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  The reason for this, I think, is that questioning the literalness of revelation, prophecy, or scripture can appear to threaten the very foundation of religious belief.

One of the first examples of how religion was resistant to change in the face of scientific advancement is the Galileo affair.  Utilizing the newly invented telescope, Galileo showed that the earth orbited the sun.  The problem was that Galileo’s idea contradicted scripture and religious tradition, which held that the sun moved around the earth.  Galileo was eventually convicted of heresy in 1633, and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The Church banned his work and ideas, and it wasn’t until 1992 when Pope John Paul II made an informal apology saying “The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture...”  An official apology vindicating Galileo was later made in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.  

A current example of religion’s difficulty in adjusting to new scientific knowledge is its resistance to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Resistance usually comes from religions which believe in a more literal view of the Biblical creation account.  The most recent battleground between science and religion has been attempts to introduce “Intelligent Design” (or jazzed up creationism) into the science classroom.  

Religion was mans’ first attempt to explain the natural world around him.  First attempts at anything usually need to be revised in light of discovery (which is why I’m waiting until next year to buy the iPad). Ancient religions saw God as a causative agent of everything from disease to natural disasters to planetary motion.  Moderate religions have gradually gotten out of the business of trying to use God to explain the natural world, and have focused more on faith, ultimate meaning, and values.  This ceding of causal explanations to science is a good thing for science and religion. When people are forced to decide between religious authority and the facts of science, it can create an unnecessary crisis of faith. For example, I remember being very troubled by official LDS statements against the evolution of man. This black and white view of things set up an unnecessary conflict between faith on one hand, and science on the other.  When this happens, it is usually religion that eventually has to admit defeat, as with Galileo and Darwin. It is the faithful person trying to make sense between the two who may be disillusioned.

However, I think this “either science is true or religion is true” view presents a false dichotomy.  Science and religion really can get along - but it takes some flexibility and humility from both the religious and scientific communities.  Scientists need to learn how to communicate what they know within the religious community, so that it does not offend religious sensibilities (more light, less heat). They also shouldn’t use science as a weapon to bludgeon religious ideas to death - because it doesn’t work.  Conversely, religious people need to remain flexible, and less dogmatic, in light of new scientific knowledge about the natural world, and adjust their religious views accordingly. If both sides can do this, then religion and science can get along just fine. If not, then I think the unnecessary conflict between science and religion will continue into the foreseeable future.

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