“Heaven and Earth: Are Religion and Science in Conflict?”
by Brande Mora
If one were to explain a belief system as “a way of thinking versus a body of knowledge,” and further describe this belief system as “subject to interpretation, and requiring courage because it questions conventional wisdom,” would it be surmised that we are discussing religious and spiritual belief systems? Surprisingly, these were the words Carl Sagan used to describe science (Sagan 44). Throughout history, and even today, there are many who believe science and religion are in conflict with each other, but there are also those who believe them to be in perfect agreement. The focus here is to discuss the belief that religion and science are in harmony, to explore their pleasing combination of sometimes contradictory elements as a whole, and to illustrate their shared purposeful reasons.
Let us begin the argument with a range of scientific and religious definitions. Sagan’s words are beautifully woven; however, science is subjective, systematic, falsifiable, and generally, cannot involve moral or value judgments (De Cruz 1.2). Dictionaries from business disciplines to English basics, describe science using words like: measureable, verifiable, laws, principles, and reason. Contrary to this positivism, Plantinga, an American analytic philosopher, explains religion as, “the property of being religious isn’t intrinsic to a belief; it is rather a belief one acquires when it functions in a certain way in the life of a given person or community” (1.2). Scripture even states Satan believes in God and His Word, which is often the basis of what we call religion, and therefore would be considered “religious” by those standards. Other philosophers describe spirituality as a response to the human condition, both an intellectual and emotional response (Watson 315). John Calvin describes religious belief as one of internal delivery, beyond the source of reason, but not contrary to reason (De Cruz 3.2). Most of this discussion will revolve around Western religion versus science.
The discussion of agreement begins with a comparison of religion and science: each of them is a search for knowledge, have pluralistic qualities, and contradictory theories. Has anyone ever seen it rain while the sun is shining, or heard of a lion and dog who coexist? Theories behind these phenomenon are no more provable than the heart of God. Drees states “quite a few appeal to Thomas Kuhn (1970), and other philosophers who argue science is tied to paradigms, perspectives, and personal preferences, and hence are not as objective and universal as it seems” (547). This is to say science and religion do share similar characteristics. Despite their differences in conveyance, science and religion define who we are, why we are here, and what we believe. When most modern Christians consider God, a main concept is our creation in His image. This image includes His love of knowledge and His ability to form beliefs. This is the same pursuit of knowledge we share of ourselves and of our natural environment.
If the natural environment is part of our existence, and our knowledge of that environment is part of our scientific conclusions, we may also attribute theistic belief as part of a scientific process. There are both cosmological and biological arguments referring to theism as part of their rationalization (De Cruz 1.3). The Cosmological, or first cause proof of God’s existence, asserts that there are no uncaused events (Mosser 107). St. Thomas Aquinas took this even further by arguing that contingent beings could only, and ultimately be caused by a non-contingent being. Because the Cosmological proof, in essence, refers to one long chain, both science and religion can exist in this chain. God would be the first link in the chain, but would not be in conflict with science. The biological argument relies more on intelligent design theism. Here we find complex systems, such as found in our immune system and its transport of cells to defend itself, without harming other cells (De Cruz 3.2). If anything ceased to be included, or other phenomenon were added to such a system, it would not function properly. Those who believe complex structures and phenomenon have not gradually developed on their own, will attribute this to a higher being.
The discussion of conflict can be seen as the question of the relation between faith and reason. In past and current philosophical discussions, the connection between religion and science has been described as something just short of war. The obvious conflict is that science is falsifiable, and religion is not. Science can be hypothesized, tried, tested, proven right, wrong, or even indifferent, but proven. Religion must be believed beyond rationale and beyond what our five senses tell us. Conflict also exists, not in the domain of either areas of knowledge, but in religion’s degradation of science, and science’s disbelief of religion. The two bodies of knowledge have often been in conflict out of survival. When we consider religious tradition as pre-science, this has given religion an upper hand, making science less threatening (Drees 547).
In the early 1600s, Galileo challenged the interpretation of scripture based on what he considered proven findings about the rotation of the sun, and other cosmological happenings (Levinson 424). In the 1800s, challenges revolved around science and its burden to prove the earth’s age in accordance with scripture, and in the 1900s, we became focused on Darwinism’s evolution of the species. In the twentieth century, we perpetuated this conflict between creationism and evolution, highlighted by fundamentalist efforts to protect classroom curriculum. By 1987, creationism had become neocreationism in an attempt to assimilate evolution into Intelligent Design. Current trends find science increasing in authority and status through professionalism, and theology decreasing in authority through triviality of theological content (Levinson 427). There has also been a movement from understood scientific professional policy not incorporating the supernatural, to a personal credo refuting everything supernatural.
It could be said the most popular twenty-first century conflict between science and religion is evolution versus creationism. Most have never considered, however, that Charles Darwin often mentioned how science and religion were not as distinct as we attempted to keep them (Letter no. 11763). Young Earth Creationism (YEC) establishes the earth and universe at about 10,000 years old, and the flood involving Noah, as the single event to establish the earth (Mosser 112). It also argues fossil records are incomplete and evolutionary theory cannot tie simple organic molecules to complex organic life forms. The YEC also suggests entropy refutes evolution’s theory regarding how systems have shown an increase in organization and order. Those who follow a YEC theory believe these opposing views to evolution provide enough reason to doubt the theory as a whole.
It is a fact many of the champions of modern science such as Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus, were self-professed Christians. These men believed religion and science fit together like a puzzle piece creating a whole picture. Recently, Sir Isaac Newton’s papers showed his convictions complicated the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion (Papers Show Isaac Newton’s). Rene Descartes, a French philosopher, scientist, and devout Catholic, described human beings as having two radically distinct substances: the soul and the body (Mosser 110). Using the word distinct allows for each of those substances to exist independently of each other. If we view these things as having their own distinct properties, or even a foundational basis, then we can fathom how each might require both faith and reason to assist them as they exist as a whole in this world. According to Levinson, one of the most significant Christian thinkers, St. Augustine, argued the connection of religion and science; “in terms of the pursuit of religion versus the pursuit of science or philosophy, religion has primacy, but scientific knowledge is an important handmaiden that assists true religion” (423). Understanding that we are spiritual beings, with an anchor to something higher, inspires us to build upon this knowledge to improve ours, or other physical beings. We must understand there is DNA, in order to scientifically prove there is DNA.
When we address the conflict between science and religion, we must assess if this is a lack of compatibility in religious beliefs and scientific insights, highlighting their relationship more than their nature (Drees 545). Recalling our puzzle analogy, where two pieces fit together to form a whole picture, religion and science have been knit together to form a better understanding of our spiritual and physical need for knowledge. Even in acknowledging that science is falsifiable and religion is not, we do not necessarily assert that they are in conflict with one another. When we consider the physical properties of the brain, it makes sense we are able to prove, or disprove, its inner workings in a scientific manner; however, in regards to the thoughts we believe are a product of such physical proof, we must trust and have faith they are formed from those processes. We have no physical proof of love, and yet without the physical brain, we know love cannot exist.
In the aforementioned conflict, Galileo challenges the interpretation of scripture with scientific proof. The argument may seem to involve conflict between religion and science, but it is more concerned with issues amongst various religious orders (Drees 550). Galileo did not challenge spirituality, he challenged doctrine, and the authority of the church in earthly matters. This cannot be described as religion versus science, but more the varying interdisciplinary interpretation of beliefs, versus speculative scientific insight. Interpretation of revelation and nature have been woven into doctrine and instruction for thousands of years. The Qur’an urges Muslims to seek truth in nature, Buddhism centers on the impartial investigation of nature and the role we play, and Hinduism has historically embraced empiricism and reason.
Our argument may align with Galileo’s; seekers do not disagree there is a god, but may disagree on which god, and what each god may instruct. Seekers also may begin with fact, and follow it with a challenge. For instance, it is known how the earth revolves around the sun, how the pressure of water changes at certain depths, and how there are laws governing the facets of fire. How do reasoning beings seeking reconciliation with their spirituality align scientific knowledge with written and oral history regarding spiritual characters who wrestle the sun, walk on water, or defy other scientifically significant principles? (Levinson 424). Just by seeking, we may have already answered the question of reconciliation. Only a spiritual being, guided by intelligence and a desire for proof, would choose such a path.
If we rely strictly on the theory of evolution, and those who insist our existence is the sophisticated and accidental genetic event it describes, how would we satisfy the soul’s yearning for spiritual knowledge? Even the atheist who claims unbelief, had to arrive at an anti-belief through a yearning and search for such knowledge. If our existence on this earth ends with us becoming food for the worms or amoebas from which we were created, what is the meaning of life? Evolution may provide history of the human journey to where we are now, but it cannot satisfy the deep yearning within us to know our soul, our purpose, and our destiny. Darwin, Newton, and Sagan were all confronted with the challenge other seekers face; there is proof of existence, but there is no answer for why in science.
The antithesis theory that human beings come from an omnibenevolent, omniscient being, who created us in His image and for this earth, through one cataclysmic event, cannot satisfy our need to understand the things of this earth. We are subject to disease, natural disasters, and other events out of control. These events rob us of life and control, and seekers strive for knowledge of their causes for many reasons. It is in the acceptance of both religion and science, that we find something close to an answer. Human beings are created with a free will and given authority in this earth, and its natural order. Scientific Christians such as Newton attribute this to a god with an omnibenevolent nature, shown through his willingness to give us choices, that allow us to learn through consequences. When you consider any disease, or natural disaster, you can find a cause. In finding a cause, you can find a catalyst and human origin. Our manipulation of the environment, through overuse and neglect, has caused many natural disasters, cataclysmic events, or diseases.
Some philosophical arguments assert science is a natural, systematic, and falsifiable part of our existence unreconciled with religion. They have convened, with their fossils, petri dishes, and hypotheses, to settle that science is the only thing on which we can rely because our senses have proven it to us. Carl Sagan once said, “Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?” (00:08:41). This sounds much like Galileo’s issue with doctrine, versus spirituality, but may be meant to support those who seek truth. Other arguments, like the YEC, support complete concordance of science and religion in attributes and origin. They ascertain because each belief systems share traits, they are essentially the same and their nature is the same. It is possible to believe in both religion and science, operating much like a beautiful marriage. Each satisfies a longing within us for knowledge, provides a foundation for who we are, and offers further discovery for what may be our purpose. This harmony works because their differences have highlighted the strengths and weaknesses in each of them, and helped to identify their mutually necessary purpose in knowledge.
Brande Mora is a Program Coordinator for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security. She is currently completing her final courses in the Master of Arts in Psychology graduate program at Ashford University. She is interested in the human condition, with a focus on positive psychology and how to better improve daily quality of life for all. Her daily life is improved through a strong relationship with her husband and children, who inspire her to seek knowledge. She is a member of the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society, and was recently accepted into the Tau Upsilon Alpha Honor Society, whose mission it is to honor academic excellence; to foster lifelong learning, leadership and development; and to promote excellence in service to humanity.