One Foot in Science, One Foot in Religion

Scientific ideas and methods have a strong tendency toward being mechanistic, naturalistic, impartial, parsimonious, deterministic, reductionistic, evolutionary, mathematical, data oriented, and subject to test and revision. Scientific propositions demand objective evaluation from the outside by "third" persons. Findings must be communicated, replicated, and extended.

Do these scientific dimensions and perspectives apply to religious practice? They can apply, but not strictly. Religion, in contrast to science, operates on a different set of rules and objectives. Religious ideas and training are often based in authority (e.g., scripture), prayer, and inspiration. Subjective ("first-person") processes often play an important role.

Intellectual inquiry, critical thinking, and even skepticism are fundamentally compatible with religion, as long as appropriate respect is rendered to those who think differently.

Religion and science can have a common interest in experiments. Alma of the Book of Mormon had a great understanding of the need to test the claims of scripture:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27, emphasis added)

In essence, Alma was saying: Pay attention and observe. Employ a religious principle and then test it. Be open-minded enough to notice whether the principle works. No one is required to believe in falsehoods.

Religion contains ideals for the world as we might hope to find it. It also contains tools for enduring the world as we actually do find it. It too can involve experimental tests, but religious conclusions are individually driven, not normally subject to public scrutiny.

Science is a description of the world as we find it in existence. It is driven by observation and data. Scientists use the data to test hypotheses, and then they revise and refine their thinking based upon those tests. It is a group-driven process. Scientific findings are subject to revision, but after extensive testing any stable findings are no longer considered tentative.

Are science and religion compatible? They should be; they must be; but there are limitations. The notion of God is outside of the domain of science. Further, scientific findings and conclusions cannot be biased by the claims of religion. 

Science should be about the study of nature, not about derogating the religious faith of others.

(3) Do science and religion represent distinct domains of knowledge?

Simply, science and religion organize knowledge in a very different manner.

Religion rests upon a foundation of faith that often contains a set of propositions not falsifiable by science. For example, from a Christian standpoint, the greatest knowledge is the birth, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Any other form of knowledge pales by comparison. For example, biological evolution, even if accepted as fact, has a much lower priority.

From a scientific standpoint, however, the notion of evolution is key. Knowledge of evolution provides a grand synthesis that ties all of the life sciences together. In science, evolution is a concept that cannot be ignored or set aside.

My life requires a balance between science, religion, and commonsense. Conclusions that direct my life must be plugged into scientific or historical reality, not someone else's imagination. My religion has taught me to pray, not as a get-rich-quick scheme, but as a contemplation device that assists my daily problem solving. I have tried to make my life an experiment "upon the word" (cf. Alma 32:27) that operates in the realm of the empirical, the logical, and the religious.

I love the Bible as a book of religion, but not as a record of natural science. I do not want the Bible telling me how to compute pi, especially since the Bible got it wrong (1 Kgs. 7:23; 2 Chron. 4:2). The Bible lumps bats with birds (Deut. 14: 11-18). It has stories in which shadows move backward (2 Kgs. 20:9-11) and the sun is stilled (Josh. 10:12-13). The Bible has Adam created before all other animals in Genesis 2:19, which is contradicted in Genesis 1. Fortunately, I have no need to think of any scripture as being infallible. But, is the Bible still valuable? Yes, of course.

I do not go to Church to learn science, and I do not go to my science laboratory to learn theology.

The greatest influence on my scientific teaching operates in the background. I am referring to my religious training. My religion does not teach me science, but it does teach me to be honest in my search for truth. It teaches me to have respect for all people, even those students who struggle the most. It teaches me to be sensitive to "teachable moments" outside of the classroom, and to render service to students in need. Because I teach at a non-affiliated university, it is inappropriate for me to mix religion into the science content of my courses, but it always has been necessary for me to mix religious morality into the content of my character. Contrary to the views of some, religion embedded within the scientist is not an intellectual defect.

5/18/2010 4:00:00 AM
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