Many words have been written and much
rhetoric produced by the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins
declaring that the human religious pursuit is the natural enemy of
human progress and, more particularly, of the free search by
scientists for knowledge about the physical world. Famously,
Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge have called for peace between
warring scientists and religionists by declaring that science and
religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” According to Gould and
others, there is no overlap in subject matter or in the kinds of
questions to be asked and answered by the purveyors of religion
and science; therefore the two can simply ignore one another. It
is not hard to read between the lines of Eldridge’s words to
detect that he assumes that, with time, the human need for
religion, reflecting a pre-modern superstition, will soon
The questions at hand are these: What
is the relationship between science and religion as they are
regularly practiced in modern life? Is their language and means of
acquiring knowledge incommensurate? Are there any important
questions which both religion and science seek to answer? If so,
might their means of addressing these questions be complementary
rather than in a natural and unending state of conflict? Does the
arrival of the age of science herald the inevitable decline and
fall of religion? What kinds of questions is science good at
answering and what are the limits of science?
The same should be asked of religion.
What is religion good at doing, and what are its limits — areas in
which it generally is not productive? One conclusion will be that,
although science and religion are broadly incommensurate, there
are areas of inquiry where they overlap. The other will be that it
is a mistake to assume that the two are natural enemies.
Scientific inquiry is not the natural enemy of religious pursuit.
Neither is religion, if pursued in its appropriate context, the
natural enemy of the scientific search for knowledge about the
WHAT IS SCIENCE AND WHAT ARE ITS LIMITS?
First, what is
science and what can we learn from the scientific approach to
acquiring knowledge? Put simply, science is a means to discover
the underlying laws which govern the natural world using
empirically-generated data as well as theories and models to
explain that data. Science does not answer the ultimate question
“Why?” Rather science provides us with explanations of physical
phenomena which are not self-contradictory and which are
consistent with the physical evidence. Science provides us with
physical explanations of physical phenomena.
Science, by its very nature, is limited
in the kinds of knowledge it can give us. It is very good at
answering certain questions and very bad at answering others. Its
answers are always tentative and never the final answer. For this
reason, science does not answer the deeper questions about truth.
It is completely unable to answer the metaphysical question: Why?
On the other hand, science is really quite effective in answering
questions such as, Where? When? How many? By what means? Arguably,
it is by far the most effective means yet devised by human beings
to answer such questions. Postmodernists may question whether
absolute truth exists, but science certainly does seem to give
extremely reliable knowledge about the workings of the physical
Having said this, science is quite
limited and perhaps even useless to answer questions such as:
“What is the value of human life?” “Is that the right thing to
do?” “Am I here for a reason?” Without exception, human beings
find themselves asking questions about beauty, social justice, and
purpose. Science does not help us here. In assessing the relative
importance and need for science in human societies, it is worth
noting that these are the kinds of questions people really care
about. Human beings may not be concerned with where, when and how
many, but are very concerned with questions of justice and truth.
When I discuss the limits of science with my students, I point out
that, in the final analysis, science is not very good at answering
any of the questions most of us really care about. This is not to
deny the importance and usefulness of science. Through science we
have cured diseases, understood the marvelous working of nature on
a microscopic and cosmological level, been able to predict our
future, and devise means to avoid the negative consequences of
human behavior. However, it is clear that science is not the only
means to ask and answer questions, and its ability to answer the
questions humans care most deeply about is limited. In order to
meet the needs of real people and to maximize the human good,
other sources of knowledge and experience, such as art,
philosophy, and religion are essential.
WHAT IS RELIGION AND WHAT ARE ITS LIMITS?
It is clearly difficult to define
religion and even more difficult to assess its limitations.
However, we must make the attempt in order to assess if religion
and science are natural opponents. Scientists generally agree, at
least broadly, on a “method” to acquire knowledge of the world.
Clearly, humans do not agree on the “right” religion. Yet, we can
establish in very broad outline the sphere of knowledge
and the means of establishing that knowledge in the human activity
we label as religion. Generally religion asks questions such as
the place of human beings in the world — not just the physical
world, but in the larger world, which includes purpose and
realities beyond the physical. Those who practice religion ask
questions of what is right and wrong. They ask not what is, but
what ought to be. What is my purpose? Is there a higher,
supernatural reality? If so, what is the human relationship to
that reality? Whereas science seeks tentative explanation and
rejects authority, religion, at least in this sense, is the
opposite. Generally, religious “truth” and knowledge are based on
authority, such as that of a guru or a canonical scripture. In
science, nothing is true, per se, but in most religious contexts,
truth is well-defined. Scientific knowledge changes and grows.
Religious experience may change and grow, but religious claims do
We may be stepping into controversial
territory here, but generally, religion is not particularly
effective in answering questions about measurable things.
Questions such as when, where, how many and so forth are either
not answered, or the track record for religions answering such
questions has not held up well. We ignore history on this to our
peril. It seems not unreasonable to conclude that generally
religion can concede to science the role of informing us the cause
of a particular disease, the history of the universe, the age of
rock formations, and the probable result of combining certain
Humans are social beings, but we are
individuals as well. Generally, in a social sphere, we will
concede space to the other; but in our own personal sphere, we
will defend our territory vigorously. I will share space with my
neighbor at the coffee shop, but will not concede space to him or
her in my own bed. The general conclusion from the discussion
above is that the “homes” of science and religion are separate.
These are more or less incommensurate bodies of knowledge. As long
as religion does not enter the bedroom of science and science does
not enter the bedroom of religion we can have peace. It should not
surprise us that when religion invades the natural territory of
science, it evokes a reaction and vice versa. If science tries to
declare that alcoholism is neither right nor wrong, religion will
not concede this point. If religion tries to declare that “sin” is
the immediate cause of disease, science will not remain silent.
Nor should it.
If scientific materialists try to tell
us that, based on experiments in neuroscience, the human soul and
human consciousness are not real, then it seems fair for those
with religious faith to cry foul. Since when could science answer
questions about ultimate reality? This is a boundary issue.
Scientists would be better off to take off their scientist hat
before speaking on such a topic they know little if anything
about. Unfortunately, some scientists do not respect this
On the other hand,
if a person with faith in a particular religious authority
declares that their scripture denies that the earth moves or
claims that the universe has existed in an infinite cycle — a
wheel of time, then the scientist has reason to cry foul as well.
If a religious claim tells us that galaxies do not exist, the
scientist seems within his or her right to respond that this
religious claim is almost certainly not true. Again, this is a
boundary issue. At the very least, the person with religious faith
ought to hesitate to impose a qualitative belief on quantitative
Perhaps humility might go a long way
here. The scientist ought to hesitate to declare that the physical
world is all there is — that there is no God, no supernatural
reality — and the person of faith ought to pause before declaring
a particular scientific conclusion to be false doctrine. Is it not
possible that their own interpretation of their authority is what
is at fault? Or, as Augustine proposed, such an anomaly may be
evidence, not that science is wrong, but that their religious
authority might be mistaken. The story of Galileo’s conflict with
the Roman Curia is informative here. On the one hand, for the
materialist to declare, by fiat, that there is no supernatural
intervention in the world is to commit a boundary error. On the
other hand, for a person of faith to apply such a faith to declare
that there are no truly random forces in nature seems to be a
boundary error as well.
WHEN DO SCIENCE AND RELIGION OVERLAP, AND HOW
SHOULD THIS BE HANDLED?
One can only wish that Gould and
Eldridge were completely right that science and religion are
non-overlapping. However, the fact is that the territories of
science and religion do overlap. Is human consciousness real or a
mere epiphenomenon? Is there a real demarcation between humans and
other animals? If so, what is that demarcation? Was the physical
universe created? If so, how and why? Was life created and can
fully random forces explain the creation of life? Given the
apparent “phase transition” of complexity between living and
non-living things, might there be a corresponding transition to a
higher level of reality? Is religious experience just chemicals
moving around in our brain, or might such chemical activity be an
indicator of something real happening on another level of reality?
Is love just the release of certain neurotransmitters and the
firing of certain neurons, or might “love” be something real? Do I
exist? Do I have a body, or am I a body? Neither science nor
religion has exclusive ownership of any of these questions. It is
in these areas that each can inform the other and that, for the
wise person, such interchange will indeed happen.
To simply declare that religion has
nothing to offer to these questions or that such questions are
sheer nonsense is not acceptable to the great majority of people.
To do so is to undermine the dignity of human beings and to lessen
the value and quality of life. On what authority can anyone
declare such questions nonsense? To say that justice is a
meaningless word and that religious experience is mere
superstition is to declare the result of an experiment which has
not even been performed.
On the other hand, for persons with
religious faith to simply ignore the implications of genetic
research into the causes of alcoholism or the discoveries of
neuroscience is short sighted. Perhaps one
can even argue that the moral imperative of most religions includes the search for truth, wherever it leads. One can argue that to simply reject on religious presuppositional grounds the implications of scientific discoveries is to lessen the value and quality of life as well. If it is foolish to simply declare religious experience foolishness, it is also foolish to simply ignore the vast and growing evidence for common descent of living things.
CONCLUSION: SCIENCE AND RELIGION OUGHT TO BE
The conclusion to this point is that on
a great number of questions, science and religion are
incommensurate. Careful attention to boundaries can, for the most
part, allow the two to coexist without doing battle. Humility and
caution can allow people to delve into the areas where the two
overlap without major friction. Science and religion can coexist
in peace. However, the conclusion of this essay is not just that
the two can exist in peace. The claim is that they are natural
friends. Is this going too far? Let me explain.
Let us consider the question of
alcoholism. If we only listen to the “science,” perhaps we will
notice the genetic predisposition of some to alcoholism, but fail
to give hope to the alcoholic. It is not inconceivable that if we
do not allow science and religion to work together, we may leave
the alcoholic in a very bad place. The science alone might even
give the person an excuse to not change. Perhaps
the “ought” of religion can make the difference for a person to
overcome the addiction. On the other hand, if we only consider the
“religion” of alcoholism, declaring it a sin, but ignoring the
science, we may miss a chance to use a chemical treatment to help
the person overcome alcoholism. We might also fail to show
compassion, not understanding that for some it really is harder
than for others, for reasons not completely within their control.
Does understanding the brain chemistry
of prayer make it any less beneficial to the believer who prays?
Perhaps knowing that her brain was “designed” to allow her to
experience both a spiritual and a physical effect from prayer
might increase the faith of a believer. Many believing scientists
have found special revelation from religion and general revelation
from science to complement one another. Galileo had a good grasp
of the boundary issues and the complementary nature of science and
religion. In his letter to the Duchess Cristina (1614), speaking
of his Christian religion and science he said; “I think that in
discussions of physical problems we ought to begin, not from the
authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and
necessary demonstrations; for the Holy Bible and phenomena of
nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the
dictate of the Holy Spirit and the latter as the observant
executor of God’s commands.”
If we allow science and religion to
work together, especially in that limited number of questions on
which they naturally overlap, much good can result. We can
contemplate not just the truth that God created all, but can
marvel at how it was done. If we allow for the possibility of a
design or a plan, then a vast array of incoherent but amazing
discoveries can become coherent. They will make more sense. If we
respect boundaries, how is science hindered by religion? The
answer, historically, is that religion will inform science. That
certainly was the case with Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, and
all the early scientists. The answer is that if we respect
boundaries science will inform religion as well. If we can assume
that our scripture or religious authority is a source of real
truth, then science might even help us to understand how to
interpret revealed truth. As one believer has said, all truth is
In summary, science and religion are
natural friends. If those who practice science and religion will
respect reasonable boundaries, allow humility and reason to
prevail in the places where the two overlap, and if they will be
informed by science and religion when both are relevant to
important questions, then science and religion can be kissing
cousins once again.
Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JulAug10.