Written By: David P. Deavel
“Follow the science!” is the cry of the day from many “progressive” politicians and bureaucrats. The problem is that quite often, the scientific “consensus” they appeal to isn’t what they say it is—and the scientific evidence itself is not even close to justifying what they want to do. But this habit of invoking the name of science in an attempt to cover up what is usually a not-so-well-disguised power grab by the elites is deeply ingrained in today’s political and media class. It has its roots in the modern intelligentsia’s strategy of weaponizing the authority of “science” in order to secularize society and thereby eliminate the kind of religious consciousness they instinctively know has been the principal bulwark against power grabs by the state and would-be philosopher-kings like themselves.
That’s why no claim is more important to the secularists and statists than what is called “the conflict thesis”—the view of many who long to remake society and human nature that science and religion are somehow at war with each other. One good example of this view was given by the voluble New Atheist Sam Harris: “The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science.” No one doubts that religious beliefs can come into tension with scientific views on some issues. But recent research by a prominent non-partisan think tank and an encounter I had with a soon-to-graduate Catholic college seminarian show that the “zero-sum” view just isn’t true.
It’s certainly not true for those in most non-Christian religions. In August 2020, Pew Research Center released the results of a series of in-depth interviews on the topic of science and religion with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in Malaysia and Singapore. While they had different ways of thinking about religion and science, adherents to none of the religions viewed religion and science as fundamentally opposed. Muslims admitted some conflicts—like some Christians, they identified evolutionary theory as a potential area of “friction”—but said that their faith and science were basically compatible.
Buddhists and Hindus also found basic compatibility between their beliefs and science. Hindus talked about “overlapping” truths, while Buddhists tended to describe their beliefs as having to do with different topics than physical science. Both groups also described some points of conflict when it came to many biotechnological processes such as gene editing and cloning—again, similar to the problems many Christians have. These aren’t strictly speaking conflicts between religion and science, however. They are ethical questions about whether we ought to do certain actions made possible by science. Science cannot answer such questions because it is only a process by which we discover how things work or might be done.
This research into the attitudes of South Asian non-Christians matches what Pew had discovered in a large survey of Americans done in 2014. While the results of the survey found 59% of Americans thought that science and religion were “often in conflict,” what was interesting was that, as the Pew Report stated it, this view “seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs.” In fact, only 30% of those surveyed actually said that science sometimes conflicted with their own religious beliefs. As with the 2020 report, the main topics of contention mentioned were questions of evolution and a number of biomedical and ethical issues.
In short, despite people believing religion and science are at war for other people, most people understand that the issues about which there might be conflicts are few. One interesting point in the 2014 study was that regular worshippers were less likely than those who rarely attended or didn’t attend church to think that there are conflicts between religious and scientific claims.
In my experience, religious believers often embrace not just compatibility but also hold that religion and science reinforce one another. This position was vividly illustrated a couple of weeks ago. One of the Catholic college seminarians asked if I would serve on the faculty committee examining him for the honor of graduating summa cum laude, available only to those whose grade point average is 3.9 or higher on a 4-point scale. Having taught Randy, a big, smart, courteous, and eminently faithful Michigan farm kid in three courses over his four-year career, I was delighted to be on the panel.
Randy’s presentation, “Wonder at the Cosmos,” examined how our sense of wonder at the universe can function as a “natural sign” of God’s existence. Randy recalled looking at the Michigan night sky as a boy and sensing that wonder. He also showed us wonder-inducing pictures of the many galaxies of stars taken by the Hubble Telescope. And he recounted the wonder that can be found at some of the arguments for God’s existence that come from looking at the marvelous cosmos, most especially the Fine-Tuning Argument. The Fine-Tuning Argument notes that our universe’s ability to support human life depends on a number of constants being within a narrow range of values, such that all of them being lined up as they are is like winning the lottery multiple times over. The wonder involved in this improbability, just as with the beauty of those galactic portraits, points us to God.
These natural signs, Randy said, present challenges to atheists, a revelation of God’s nature to believers, and deeper meaning to the work of scientists. I certainly thought it was a great presentation, but I was deeply pleased when at the end of the question period, my physicist colleague congratulated Randy and made a small speech.
When he began teaching physics and astronomy over twenty-five years ago, he said, he would never have thought that seminarians would be his favorite students. But they are engaged, serious about their studies, and ask great questions. Further, when he had confessed this to a geology professor, that professor said he thought the same thing.
More importantly, my physics colleague said he never imagined he would be involved in conversations like the one he had just had. Randy had demonstrated a great handle on the physics and had sensitively and intelligently connected it with philosophical and theological questions in a way that did justice to them all. Not only are science and religion not at war, but when put together, they add benefit to scientists, believers, and especially scientists who are believers.
Rather than Sam Harris’s zero-sum thinking, it’s perhaps better to think of science and religion in the way that Pope John Paul II described reason and faith: as two wings that allow us to rise to God.