Science and religion are the two greatest culture-shapers today. With science being widely regarded as the most authoritative way of knowing, does that mean religion is made redundant? ISCAST Executive Director Chris Mulherin explains the basic argument against this assumed conflict.
Originally published in The Melbourne Anglican for the “Curly Questions” monthly column, written by experts dealing with tricky conversations that touch on faith, in a compassionate, practical, and biblical way.
My friend says science has disproved religion … are they right?
The short answer to that question is, “No, your friend is not right.”
Why? Because science is limited to investigating the natural world. That means that science cannot answer questions about what might lie outside of the natural world. Like God, for instance.
The longer answer involves teasing out what we mean by science and what we mean by religion. And, if we do that, we see that they don’t conflict with one another. So, let’s clarify the terms.
Religion is very broad and can be a vague concept. So, let’s talk more specifically about Christianity; it claims that there is a God who is creator of the whole universe, who made humans with a purpose, and who came to earth in Jesus Christ around 2000 years ago.
And when it comes to science, let’s assume that we are talking of sciences like physics or chemistry or biology that investigate nature and life on earth.
What kind of questions can science answer?
Perhaps the easiest way of understanding the harmony between these sciences and a religion like Christianity is to put some water on to boil for a cup of tea. Now ask, “Why is the water boiling?”
There are at least two sorts of correct answers to that question. One is about the mechanics or particles of the boiling water; the other is about the meaning or purpose of the boiling water.
Science answers the mechanics question: What is the physical cause of the boiling water? It gives us an answer that is about the particles of water and how the heat jiggles the water molecules making them eventually turn into steam.
But there is another answer that is also correct: I want a cup of tea. That’s an answer that talks about the meaning or purpose of the boiling water. It is a true answer—there would be no water boiling if I didn’t want a cup of tea—but it is not a scientific answer.
So, when it comes to religious claims, most of them fall into the category of meaning and purpose, which are beyond the reach of science. So, for example, science can explain much about the development of life on earth, culminating in Homo sapiens. But no amount of science can tell us if Homo sapiens are made in the image of God with the purpose of loving God and loving their neighbour.
There are other sorts of questions that science can’t, and never will, answer. For example, existential questions (Why did my son Ben die? Where is he now?), or aesthetic questions (Is Beethoven better than the Beatles?), or philosophical questions (What are the limits of science? How do we know?).
Perhaps moral questions are the most obvious “outside of science” examples. Yes, science can tell us a lot about making weapons of mass destruction, but it can’t tell us whether it would be right to use nuclear or biological weapons. Moral questions lie outside the bounds of science and, if we think there are answers to them, we need to look elsewhere.
Another moral question is, “What should we do about global warming?” Yes, science can tell us that humans are contributing to a warming planet. And it can predict what the consequences might be. But science can’t tell us whether we ought to do anything about it, or whether the richer nations have more responsibility than others, or whether we ought to leave the problem to later generations who will have more technological ability to deal with it.
The answers to these sorts of questions can’t be found in a lab; they come from our values framework, which for many people, comes from their religious beliefs. So, while science is great for answering some questions, it is not in conflict with religion which offers answers to other sorts of questions.