Opinion

Science and Faith: Not Opposing Armies but Two Wings to Ascend

AMAC Exclusive

science

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.

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Kim
5 months ago

“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…”

Yes, humans need air, water, nutrients, and habitat. But neither religion nor science can discount the possibility of non-human life forms evolving on other planets. Just because we are unaware of intelligent life, or any kind of life, in distant galaxies doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Why would God have created beings that must live within such a narrow scope of conditions on only one little blue planet? Why would God have put “all his eggs in one basket”? Isn’t that a little risky?

My “sense of wonder at the universe”—the fact that we don’t have all the answers—does not automatically lead me to believe in the existence of God. It just means that science hasn’t yet come up with an explanation. That’s where you might have faith where I prefer evidence. And that’s all fine! Believers and non-believers are perfectly capable of living next door to each other in a country that values self-determination, rule of law, and good deeds.

PaulE
5 months ago
Reply to  Kim

I agree that other life forms in the universe would not be mirror images of the human race. I always find it fascinating that some people would be expecting to find an identical earth-like planet, with earth-like lifeforms. As if there is only one possible template for life in the universe. The variables of conditions that exist on other worlds (gravity, atmosphere, chemical and elemental composition differences, etc.) would likely lead to radically different life forms quite different from ourselves. With hundreds of billions of known suns just in our own galaxy and those suns having tens of trillions of possible planets orbiting around them, the odds that the only potential life out there MUST be a carbon copy of humanity is infinitesimally small to non-existent.

Then again, when the lens one is looking through is strictly limited to what a particular religion defines as “life”, meaning a carbon copy of humanity, I can understand why some people have the view that any life in the universe must be judged from that limited perspective. No doubt they will be greatly disappointed one day, should be discover other intelligent life out there.

Kim
5 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

I sometimes have this conversation with my brother, a former agnostic, then born again Christian, now I’m not sure what he is. He’s not sure. His church adamantly supports the “earth is ~6,000 years old” dogma (he’s into the science of astronomy), and they fell short on certain other social dilemmas, so he’s no longer a member. It’s a conflict he’ll never resolve, as long as he clings to the notion, as many do, that man has dominion over the earth and that maybe, just maybe, all this came about “simply” because of physics and chemistry. It makes for interesting conversations.

A few recent articles here at AMAC have touched on religion, the “godless society” dilemma, and, I hate to say, the superior attitude some writers have conveyed in their ideas. If the Republican (Conservative) Party is ever to be the welcoming big tent it aspires to be, then it should consider how it ticks off many who would join if it were not for the religious test. I don’t relish commenting on the subject, but sometimes I have to vent. Sorry!

PaulE
5 months ago
Reply to  Kim

I have encountered a number of folks who insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They don’t want to hear the empirical science that completely debunks that erroneous belief. Carbon dating of materials readily available all around us shows the true age of common natural materials, but sadly some people don’t want to hear any of it. All they want to do is quote Bible verses, as if the Bible is a book of science instead of religious ideology. They confuse metaphysics with actual science.

As I’ve said a few times on this site, when people say they are “conservative” I always have to ask what they mean by it. I’m a constitutional and fiscal conservative. I believe in the values laid out in the Constitution and the principles of sound economic theory as laid out by the like of von Mises, Freidman and others as to how a society should be prudent with our fiscal resources. Those are both applicable values to politics, the economy, and human rights and freedoms as a society.

Then we have others here and elsewhere refer to themselves as “conservative”, when they really should be referring to themselves as religious fundamentalists, because that is what they really are. Their primary interest and motivation centers around religion and issues of morality based around their religion. Issues of the Constitution, aside from the first amendment, really don’t interest them all that much. Same goes for fiscal conservatism, unless a matter will directly impact them in the short term. These folks are the ones that will frequently post things like “God save us from ourselves”, “God is in control” for virtually anything being discussed, or “These are the end days” followed by a Bible verse. So you have different types of “conservatives” talking past each other.

That is where the confusion comes in with how the Republican party refers to itself. Politicians want to appeal to everyone. So they say they are “conservative” (never specifying what they mean by it) and then talk one way in front of people concerned with the Constitution or fiscal matters and then a completely opposite way in front of say Evangelicals or other religious groups. Yes, it is a major problem for the GOP. How it ever gets fixed is something I have no idea how to do.

Kim
5 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

Well said, PaulE. I, too, am a fiscal conservative and wish America’s citizens would read the Constitution and The Federalist Papers over and over again until they grasp the concept of true freedom in this country, without taint of religious spin.

If we’re ever to see political sanity return to government, we’re going to have to fight for it, debate it, and convince others that the founding fathers were on to something. But that assumes we’re able to communicate what that “something” really is. Hoping and praying are fine if that gives people comfort, but that’s passive participation where only action can effect change. The future of the country is in our hands, not someone else’s.

PaulE
5 months ago
Reply to  Kim

Exactly!

DLW
4 months ago
Reply to  Kim

And yet, science to date shows no evidence of human life or much else on other planets. So you, too, are operating on faith, but a faith in science rather than God. And nothing is risky, as we define risky, if you’re a sovereign God who can create, restore, renew, change anything as He sees best. So God “putting His eggs in one basket” is not a risk for Him.

Misty
5 months ago

Scientists who disproved the Bible’s Great Teachings were once excommunicated or even imprisoned or executed. Now, the churches are afraid to disagree with them. I am afraid we have surrendered the fight.

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