There has probably always been tension, if not outright conflict, between science—or what was considered science at the time—and religion. Each offered people some degree of explanation of how the world worked and some feeling of control, or at least influence, over the events in their lives. And there was, of course, a third source of conflict: government, at least when organized religion and organized government were separate entities.
Religion and government have always sought to control the behaviors of individuals and groups, whereas science generally has not, at least not directly. Governments have sometimes tried to use “scientific” explanations or rationales for certain behaviors or policies, such as eugenics under the Nazis in the early to middle 20th century. I am not aware, however, of any group of scientists who tried to form a government or a religion, the Churches of Scientology, Religious Science, and Christ, Scientist notwithstanding. (None of these actually use science in ways traditional scientists would recognize, and none were founded by practicing or former scientists.)
While the Catholic Inquisition sought to suppress science, including forcing Galileo to recant his discovery that the earth was one of several planets that revolved around the sun, rather than being the physical center of the universe, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) have contributed significantly to a number of scientific fields since the 17th century.
Science Versus “The Impossible”
The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution certainly added to these tensions as scientists began exploring everything on earth and beyond in systematic ways, and engineers and other technologists turned what the scientists learned into practical devices that could do things that would previously have been considered miraculous or even impossible.
To take just one example, consider the statement, “If God had meant man to fly, He would have given him wings.” Yet the aerodynamic property of lift, which the Wright brothers harnessed in their experiments leading to powered flight by heavier-than-air vehicles, traces its lineage back to the founding principles of fluid dynamics, which supposedly started with Daniel Bernoulli watching globs of vomit flow around obstacles in the waters of the canals of Venice. You can’t get much more pedestrian than that for the roots of something “miraculous!”
The Conflict Today
So why do science and religion remain in conflict today? And should they be? There are, it seems to me, a number of reasons for the enduring conflict.
First, religion sees science as a threat to its primacy and power. The more “miraculous” things science can explain, the less mystery there is in the ordinary world and thus the fewer things that can be ascribed to a supreme being or power. While a sunset is no less beautiful when it is explained as light refracting through the water droplets that make up the clouds, it is less miraculous: some god is no longer painting the colors in the sky. The same is true for the colors of a flower petal or a butterfly wing. Mechanical or biological processes produce a different, and to some, a lesser kind of wonder because they provide an explanation for what we term beauty.
Science, on the other hand, sees religion as so much hand-waving. Modern scientific methods rely on asking questions—often highly specific questions—that can be answered by making measurements and analyzing the results. Whether the increments of the measurements are microns or megaparsecs is irrelevant here; what matters is that the thing or process being studied can be evaluated in numerical terms. Even the most human of sciences, psychology and sociology, rely on group studies to gather reams of data that can then be subjected to statistical analyses.
But how does one measure God? What questions can one ask, what experiment can one design, to come up with some kind of measurable data points? The problem is not a matter of scale; we can, after all, study galaxies and clusters of galaxies, which are far larger than any human. The problem is first coming up with something to measure, something about which we can gather answers that are quantifiable. The second problem is actually taking those measurements. Scientists have not been able to do either, even if they were interested in doing so.
I could argue, and religious people may, that this measurability requirement is a fundamental weakness or failing of science, but if so, what is its alternative?
The problem is also not a matter of complexity. The more deeply scientists study a subject, whether it’s human physiology or the ecology of a rain forest, the more complex it becomes. If scientists fail here—and they often do—it’s because their focus becomes narrower and narrower as they study finer and finer details, rather than looking at how the particular thing they’re studying fits into, affects, and is affected by, the larger environment in which it exists. There are some scientists who look at whole systems, or systems of systems, rather than individual elements, but they’re relatively few.
Different Starting Points
As I noted at the beginning, religion and science have the same goal—to understand and explain our world to us—but they approach their task from different starting points. Religion’s approach is top-down, starting with the highest possible power or explanation and working downward to the world in which we live. Religion’s problem has been that as one comes down from that highest level, the explanations become less and less specific—“God willed it so”—and so the world around us becomes a vast collection of “black boxes” whose workings, and the reasons for them, are shrouded in mystery and mysticism.
Science, on the other hand, takes a bottom-up approach, starting, or trying to start, from the most basic fundamentals and working upward. The problem for science has been that it has yet to find that bottom. At one time, atoms were thought to be the fundamental physical particles. Then physicists discovered that atoms had components, the sub-atomic particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then they discovered that these particles too had components: quarks and gluons, among others. Add to that confusion Einstein’s discovery that mass and energy are interchangeable—one can become the other—and the “fundamental” particle or force becomes even harder to identify with certainty.
Religion and science both seek to create an orderly structure and rational explanation for how the world works and why it is the way it is. Both are only partially successful because randomness is always present. Religion tries to explain seemingly random events by saying that they’re part of God’s greater plan, which humans are not privy to. Science, on the other hand, simply accepts randomness as part of the nature of the universe: Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive, or neither dead nor alive, until someone opens its box and checks. Neither of these approaches is particularly comforting to the person who’s on the receiving end of some unexpected negative event, whether a diagnosis of a serious disease, a home destroyed by a volcano, or simply getting caught in a rainstorm.
Mutually Exclusive or Mutually Supporting?
These problems do not automatically mean that science’s view of the world and religion’s are mutually exclusive. Indeed, science can contribute to the wonder ascribed to the world by religion. The more variety, detail, and complexity science discovers, the more amazing and wonderful the world can and should seem. Religions could use this vast complexity, flexibility, and creativity to illustrate the incomprehensibly great powers of whatever supreme being they believe in. Just the variety of environments in which life exists here on earth—from tens of thousands of feet above sea level to tens of thousands of feet below it, from temperatures above the boiling point of water to temperatures below its freezing point, from the oceans to the driest lands—should illustrate this. Yet I have not come across a religion that routinely does this. Scientists do sometimes step back from what they’re studying to contemplate the bigger picture, but not enough and not often enough.
In the end, science and religion do not have to be, and are not, automatically incompatible. Religion does not have to stand in the way of the teaching of science, seeing it as a threat. Scientists do not need to reject out of hand religion’s attempts to explain the unexplained simply because religion does not follow science’s methods. What’s needed is more and better communication between religion and science to bridge the gaps and seek to build understanding and respect.