There exists a popular misconception that science and religion are intrinsically incompatible. The idea presents itself in contemporary culture and has been propagated largely through media, particularly through debates featuring prominent atheists critiquing and denouncing religion. However, the notion that science and religion cannot coexist is a false one. Indeed, science and religion can exist even side-by-side and harmoniously. Herein, we will explore the relationship between these two fields and see how they can complement each other rather than oppose each other.
The conflict between science and religion has been around in one form or another for centuries. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the Church considered the study of natural phenomena to be the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, and scientists and philosophers were persecuted for their discoveries and insights. In the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for advocating the Copernican theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Today, the viewpoint that science and religion are incompatible still exists. One source, Pew Research Center, recently conducted a survey that found the number of Americans claiming that science and religion are in conflict has grown since 2009. In 2009, 55% of respondents agreed that science and religion conflict while in 2019 the number had grown to 59%. This point of view presumes that science and religion are fundamentally opposed by nature and that they have an incompatible account of reality.
The Compatibility Hypothesis
However, many religious people find no conflict between their faith and scientific discoveries. In fact, for some, scientific knowledge and faith complement each other. The relationship between science and religion is not one of mutual opposition or even limited compatibility, but one of mutual dependence.
One reputable source, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is an advocate of the compatibility hypothesis. Collins, a Christian himself, has stated, “Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools and techniques can be used by people of any faith.”
Complimentary rather than contradictory
Science and religion are complementary instead of contradictory because they take on different aspects of human existence. While science delves into describing natural phenomena and explaining cause-and-effect relationships, religion explores the meaning, purpose, and values of human existence. Furthermore, while science seeks to explain how things are, religion seeks to explain why things are.
The conflict only emerges when nontheists or theists try to argue that science needs to seek answers to religious questions or when religion tries to fit empirical findings into a metaphysical framework. However, as established earlier, the two fields are fundamentally different, and both should be allowed to operate independently without the pressure of seeking answers outside of their realm.
Examples of Scientific Advancements and Religious Acceptance
A classic example of compatibility is the Catholic Church’s shift in its perspective on evolution. Initially, the Catholic Church rejected the theory of evolution, but in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared that Catholics were free to believe in or reject the theory. Agreement on evolution has extended beyond Catholicism, as well. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has expressed openness to the concept of evolution in a meeting with prominent scientists.
Another example of compatibility comes from physics, where physicists have discovered certain universal features that seem to underlie the functioning of nature. Anita Goel, who holds a doctorate in physics from Harvard, has drawn links between these principles and the Hindu Upanishads.
The Way Forward
In summary, the conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, and the notion that science and religion are fundamentally at odds is a fallacy. While conflicts may emerge when either science or religion tries to claim authority over the other, both fields can coexist harmoniously and can even benefit from each other. Examples are plenty of religious people engaged in scientific research and discoveries.
The way forward is for people to recognize the importance of allowing both science and religion to work independently, respecting their respective limitations and not viewing them as two monolithic, opposing forces. Understanding that science concerns itself with the natural world while religion explores deeper meanings of human existence can lead to greater harmony between the two fields.
- Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health
- Pew Research Center
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins
- Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction by Gary B. Ferngren