Yes, the natural sciences and religion do conflict

By | August 4, 2011

Many people (including rationalists and skeptics) believe that science does not conflict with religious faith. They point out that the natural sciences advance empirical theories about processes, forces and objects in the natural world, theories that involve measurable (quantifiable) tests and predictions. But the sciences do not deal with the big questions of religion and philosophy. They would emphasize, then, that science and religion are completely distinct areas of human activity and, thus, do not come into conflict. Furthermore, many scientists have no difficulty combining some scientific specialty with practice of their religious faith; when it is time to proceed scientifically, they do so; and when it is time for worship, piety and affirmation of their religious beliefs, they do that. For example, a practicing Christian (Protestant or Roman Catholic) can be a good physicists, biologist, chemist, anthropologists, psychologist, engineer, etc. . .

Hence, a first glance at the issue may indicate that there is no conflict between science and religion. They work in different areas of human reality, and do not infringe on each other. But as is often the case, a first glance does not tell the whole story. To tell the whole story, we have to take a closer look at the activities of scientists and the claims of religious people. When we do, we shall find reason for rejecting the claim that there is no conflict between two areas of human activity.

One way of describing the work of the scientist is to say that he develops and tests general theories that explain specific features of the natural world (e.g., the biologist works to explain life forms; the physicist, physical events and forces; etc. ). The natural, phenomenal domain is the domain of science; and, in principle, every aspect of this domain is a likely area for scientific investigation. For science there are no sacred cows.

In approaching his subject, a scientist may start with an initial attitude of curiosity combined with skepticism. Initially he seeks to explain certain phenomena or facts; at some point he comes up with a working hypothesis. The scientist, then, advances by trial and error, testing the hypothesis and at an intermediate stage of work, proposing the hypothesis as a tentative theory. The theory should be testable and subject to confirmation, or refutation, by other scientific investigators. When a theory passes such tests and thus enables scientists to explain a wide range of phenomena (even predict future events), scientists may accept it as a general theory in the field (e.g. Einstein’s Relativity Theory, or the Darwinian theory of evolution). Even then its acceptance is conditional; for future events or a more comprehensive theories could require that scientists abandon the theory or revise it significantly.

Does religious work proceed in any similar way? Religious doctrines never resemble tentative hypotheses; on the contrary, most religions start with doctrines and principles (matters of faith) that are seen by the adherents as absolute truths, not in anyway subject to doubt or in need of testing. Moreover, a large part of religious practice involves matters of spiritual and moral values; religions teach the faithful what their proper spiritual and moral orientation should be. In some cases, religions teach the correct way of interacting with other people (ethics, morality) and the correct values and priorities that should define a person’s life.

Does science have anything to say about man’s faith in God, or about God’s existence, or about man’s spiritual state, or about moral and spiritual values, or about a life’s orientation or the “way of wisdom”? Posing the questions this way suggests that there is no conflict between science and religion. For the sciences generally do not focus on these things; hence, there does not appear to be any conflict between science and religious faith. But before accepting this conclusion, let us look a little further.

When we delve a little more into this subject, we find that religions also hold doctrines that assert “truths” regarding human reality; for example, the theistic doctrine that God is creator and the ground of all our reality; or the doctrine that human beings are creatures of God, having a physical nature and a spiritual aspect (the soul), or the claim that the soul is immortal and will continue to exist in an after-life. In short, some religions (e.g., the dominant religions in the West) claim to know truths about the ultimate nature of human reality and the world that human beings inhabit. Additionally, western religions claim to know that God intervenes in human affairs and in other natural phenomena. They also hold that a full explanation of what human beings do and what happens to them ultimately will be traced to the actions of God; and, lastly, many of these religions hold that the origin of life, (plant, animal and human life) on earth can only be explained as the work of a creator god.

Here we have reason for claiming a conflict between religious doctrines and the sciences. For certain religious doctrines affirm particular propositions about human reality and the world of human experience, propositions which are very far from agreement with the findings of the sciences and rational inquiry. The sciences advance theories and reach conclusions that put into question, even contradict, the doctrines of religion regarding the nature of human reality and the world that humans experience. Consider the results of scientific cosmological inquiry into the origins of the universe and the results of the evolutionary sciences and the cognitive sciences regarding the nature of life and human beings. Surely with respect to questions regarding the nature of the universe and human reality, science and religion are make contrary, if not contradictory, claims.

We can conclude, then, that religious faith and science do conflict in those areas in which religions purport to explain the nature of the world and human reality .

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