Science and religion don’t need each other

There are two common mistakes. One mistake is to claim that science and religion are in eternal conflict. The other is to claim that science and religion are different but complementary, as if both are needed to achieve a complete sense of truth—as a sort of yin and yang. The second view is particularly popular among modern Christians who don’t want to oppose science. But there is a third view: science and religion can ignore each other.

In the 1870s, as science was becoming professionalized, a few prominent people starting arguing that science and religion were at war. They even fabricated a historical narrative. For example, most of us have been told that people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat and Columbus was warned that he would sail off the edge of the world. This is nonsense. People have known that the earth is spherical since at least the 5th century BC. The idea that medieval people believed in a flat earth was fabricated to discredit religious people in the context of late-19th-century Darwinian debates.

In terms of systems theory, the creation of the flat-earth myth was about differentiating science and religion. Proponents of science wanted to discredit religion, arguing that science and religion are incompatible and that religious believers are so stupid they believe the earth is flat. This is known as the conflict thesis.

The second second mistake, as stated above, is to assert that science and religion are complementary, as if putting them together gives a more comprehensive view. Albert Einstein made this mistake when he said, “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.”

But the complementarity thesis wants to somehow unify science and religion, which is not at all necessary. Science and religion do not need each other; each can go its own way without even taking notice of the other.

According to systems theory, science and religion are different function systems; however, they do not have to be in conflict; they might just ignore each other. The two systems are not fighting over the same territory. Science seeks truth or a sense of order or intellectual structure—predictability rather than randomness; it wants to understand causes and effects and how to change things in orderly ways. Religion seeks something else—a sense of the transcendent or a causeless reality, something outside ordinary human experience. For instance, a religion might offer a narrative for what happens after death or even before birth, as in ideas of reincarnation. Many people also claim that religion is necessary because it provides a moral code to bind communities together, but this is not true.

Religion can be independent of morality or ethics if it assumes an antinomian stance, the idea that salvation comes through grace alone and has nothing to do with following a moral code or law. Salvation isn’t earned by following a moral code. And although it doesn’t use the terminology of salvation or grace, Buddhism also has an antinomian flavor.

But modern society wants religion and science to cooperate, or to contribute to a unified view of reality. There is a bias in favor of unity or cooperation. But intersystem cooperation is impossible because every social system observes/constructs a different reality. What looks like cooperation between systems is really co-optation by one system, as when commerce co-opts science or mass media co-opts politics. We have to go beyond the limited view of modern society that says that global harmony is possible and desirable.

Religion has many functions, such as helping people, with the aid of rituals, to deal with or find meaning in crises or transitional phases—e.g., birth, death, illness, puberty, marriage, etc. It can also give meaning to seasonal changes, as in Easter, winter solstice rituals, etc. Religion is very complex, and religion as a concept is an oversimplification invented by scholars. We might say, following Luhmann, that religion is a form of communication that draws a distinction between immanence and transcendence, but this is also a simplification.

There may not be a single distinction that covers religion or religious communication. Ultimately, “religion” is just a word that facilitates communication. The same might be said for “science.” For this reason, I don’t think it makes much sense of to speak of a “sociology of religion.” It might useful to talk about a sociology of Christianity or a sociology of Islam or some other religion, but not a sociology of religion. Actually, even sociology of Christianity might be meaningless. Better to consider a sociology of Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism or some other sect. Nonetheless, for present purposes I will focus on the arguments around Christianity and science.

Robert C. Fay (2007), Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Cornell University, wrote an article titled “Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?” in which he argues that science and Christian faith are quite compatible. Fay traces the conflict thesis to two influential late-19th century books: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

Draper and White saw science and religion as two contending powers—one dealing with testable facts, the other deserting reason for faith; the one expanding, the other contracting, as science conquered more and more territory from religion. Draper’s book was a diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church, in reaction to the 1870 announcement of papal infallibility and a papal encyclical stating that public institutions that teach science should not be exempt from the Church’s authority. White was an American historian and the first president of Cornell University. He was upset by clerical opposition to Cornell’s nonsectarian charter.

Robert C. Fay

Draper and White promulgated the flat-earth myth, mentioned above. In making his argument, Fay mentions that many famous scientists have been Christians:

It is true that there was a decline of religious faith among scientists following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Nevertheless, Darwin’s work does not seem to have shaken the faith of the great physicists of the 19th Century. Michael Faraday, James Joule, Lord Kelvin, and James Clerk Maxwell, for example, were all devout Christian believers. In the 20th Century, the astronomer Arthur Eddington, Charles Towns and William Phillips, Nobel laureates in physics, and Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, have publicly affirmed their belief in God. Collins has expressed the spiritual wonder of scientific research in these words: “When something new is revealed about the human genome, I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before.”

Robert C. Fay

Yes, successful scientists can be practicing Christians, but this isn’t evidence of cooperation between science and Christianity. As for the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church, Fay shows that Galileo opted to affirm two kinds of truth–scriptural and natural:

Galileo believed that God has given us two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He said, “Both the Holy Scriptures and Nature proceed from the divine Word,” and that these “two truths can never contradict each other.” He warned against “the carrying of Holy Scripture into disputes about scientific conclusions.” In the Bible, he said, the Holy Ghost intends to teach “how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go” (Galileo, quoting Cardinal Baronius).

Robert C. Fay

The Cardinal Baronius (1538–1607) cited by Galileo wrote the 12-volume history of the Church, Annales Ecclesiastici. Galileo cited Cardinal Barnious in his (1615) “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in which he used Christian doctrine to defended the Copernican view against the Church. The “two kinds of truth” idea has proven popular among Christians ever since. The two truths do not contradict each other because they deal with different domains. Fay adopts this view:

The lesson for us, I believe, is that the texts from the Psalms are poetic expressions of praise and worship and are not intended to teach astronomy. When a literal reading of a biblical text is in clear contradiction with a demonstrated scientific fact, the literal reading must be reexamined because the truths of Scripture and the truths of nature cannot contradict one another.

Robert C. Fay

When it came to Darwinism, Fay writes cites scientists who were able to reconcile their Christian faith with Darwin’s theory of evolution. These scientists simple adopted the two-truths view.

Here is the fundamental error in the argument for complimentarity:

Both science and faith seek after truth, but they answer largely different kinds of questions.

Robert C. Fay

In systems-theoretical terms, science and religion (or for present purposes, Christianity) construct different realities; they make different fundamental distinctions. Science distinguishing between verifiable, demonstrable truth and all other kinds of knowledge, belief, or opinion. Christianity, in contrast, focuses on salvation; it distinguishes between the saved and the not-saved, or the forgiven and unforgiven, those who have accepted God’s grace through Christ and those who haven’t.

To be fair, I should present a fuller quote from Fay:

Both science and faith seek after truth, but they answer largely different kinds of questions. Science is concerned with the properties and patterned behavior of material systems and with cosmic history. Science traces the history of the cosmos from the big bang to the condensation of galaxies, from the evolution of the chemical elements in the interior of stars to the origin and evolution of carbon-based life. Parts of the story are well established, while other parts remain speculative and subject to change. Although our present understanding of the natural world is incomplete, the search for new knowledge goes on and is at the heart of the scientific enterprise.

The Christian faith does not offer a mechanistic description of material behavior. It is concerned with a different set of questions, such as: What is the ultimate cause of the existence of the universe? Who governs the material world, or is it self governing? What is the meaning and purpose of human life? These are metaphysical questions, and are not answered by science. For answers to these questions, one must go to philosophy, religion, or whatever is the source of one’s worldview.

Christians should address questions of ultimate cause, meaning, and purpose to Scripture, whereas we should address scientific questions to the creation itself.

I’m not convinced that Scripture answers these metaphysical questions any better than other sources. If we are looking for something unique about Christianity, it is the set of distinctions mentioned previously: distinctions between the saved and the not-saved, or the forgiven and unforgiven, those who have accepted God’s grace through Christ and those who haven’t.

This topic continues in another post.


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