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The relationship between religion and science


Religious and scientific modes of knowledge

Generally speaking, religion and science use different methods in their effort to ascertain Truth. Religious methods are generally subjective, appealing to personal intuition or experience, or the authority of a perceived prophet or sacred text. Scientific methods are generally objective, appealing only to observation and interpretation of observable and verifiable phenomena.

Similarly, there are two types of questions which religion and science attempt to answer: questions of observable and verifiable phenomena (such as the laws of physics, or human moral codes), and questions of unobservable phenomena and value judgments (such as how the laws of physics came to be, and what is "good" and "bad").

People apply the two methods to the two categories of questions in a variety of ways.

  • Some apply religious methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable; for example, Theravada Buddhists assert from the authority of the Buddha that the universe and the self are illusions and non-existent, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
  • Some apply religious methods to most questions, and apply scientific methods to a few; for example, up to the mid-16th Century most clergy and natural philosophers asserted, from purported Biblical authority, that the Earth was the center of the universe and subject to certain natural laws, despite physical evidence that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and subject to radically different laws.
  • Some apply religious methods only to questions of the unobservable and values, and apply scientific methods only to questions of the observable and verifiable; for instance, those that note the empirical evidence of evolution today, but assert from a religious basis that a supernatural god created the Universe and all the laws and phenomena therein.
  • Some apply scientific methods to most questions, and apply religious methods to a few; for example, many atheists assert that there are no gods for lack of empirical evidence, but still assert that there are fundamental moral laws and values that man ought to follow, a priori.
  • Some apply scientific methods to all questions, both observable and unobservable; such as String theory, which attempts to describe the nature of all matter, but which can not be proven by current measurements or experiments.

The attitudes of religion towards science

Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism and Christianity all developed millennia before the existence of the scientific method, followed by Islam about a thousand years prior to the modern era; their classical works show an appreciation of the natural world, but express little or no interest in any systematic investigation of it for its own sake. Nevertheless, historians of science owe a debt, particularly to Islam, for the collection and preservation of early scientific texts originating from China to Africa, and from Iberia to India.

In the Medieval era some leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, undertook a project of synthesis between religion, philosophy, and natural sciences. For example, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, like the Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo, held that if religious teachings were found to contradict certain direct observations about the natural world, then it would be obligatory to reinterpret religious texts to match the known facts. The best knowledge of the cosmos was seen as an important part of arriving at a better understanding of the Bible.

However, by the 1400s tension was keenly felt under the pressures of humanistic learning, as these methods were brought to bear on scripture and sacred tradition, more directly and critically. In Christianity, for instance, to bolster the authority of religion over philosophy and science, which had been eroded by the autonomy of the monasteries, and the rivalry of the universities, the Church reacted against the conflict between scholarship and religious certainty, by giving more explicit sanction to officially correct views of nature and scripture. Similar developments occurred in other religions. This approach, while it tended to temporarily stablize doctrine, was also inclined toward making philosophical and scientific orthodoxy less open to correction, when accepted philosophy became the religiously sanctioned science. Observation and theory became subordinate to dogma. This was especially true for Islam, which canonized Medieval science and effectively brought an end to further scientific advance in the Muslim world. Somewhat differently in the West, early modern science was forged in this environment, in the 16th and 17th centuries: a tumultuous era, prone to favor certainty over probability, and disinclined toward compromise. In reaction to this religious rigidity, and rebelling against the interference of religious dogma, the skeptical left-wing of the Enlightenment increasingly gained the upper hand in the sciences, especially in Europe.

The phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, especially Protestant, Christian fundamentalism which has arisen predominantly in the United States, has been characterized by some historians as originating in the reaction of the conservative Enlightenment against the liberal Enlightenment. In these terms, the scientific community is entirely committed to the skeptical Enlightenment, and has incorporated, into its understanding of the scientific method, an antipathy toward all interference of religion at any point of the scientific enterprise, and especially in the development of theory. While many popularizers of science rely heavily on religious allusions and metaphors in their books and articles, there is absolutely no orthodoxy in such matters, other than the literary value of eclecticism, and the dictates of the marketplace. But fundamentalism, in part because it is an undertaking primarily directed by scientific amateurs, tends to be inclined toward maximal interference of dogma with theory. Typically, fundamentalists are considerably less open to compromise and harmonization schemes than their forebears. They are far more inclined to make strict identification between religiously sanctioned science, and religious orthodoxy; and yet, they share with their early Enlightenment forebears the same optimism that religion is ultimately in harmony with "true" science. They typically favor a cautious empiricism over imaginative and probabilistic theories. This is reflected also in their "grammatical-historical" approach to scripture and tradition, which is increasingly viewed as a source of scientific, as well as religious, certainty. Most significantly, they are openly hostile to the scientific community as a whole, and to scientific materialism: that is, science undertaken without commitment to faith.

The fundamentalist approach to modernity has also been adopted by the Islamist movement among Sunni and Shi'a Muslims across the world, and by some Orthodox Jews. For example, an Enlightenment view of the cosmos is accepted as fact, and read back into ancient texts and traditions, as though they were originally intended to be read this way. Fundamentalists often make claims that issues of modern interest, such as psychology, nutrition, genetics, physics and space travel, are spoken to directly by their ancient traditions, "foretold", in a sense, by their religion's sacred texts. For example, some Muslim fundamentalists claim that quantum mechanics and relativity were predicted in the Qur'an, long before they were formulated by modern scientists; and some Jewish fundamentalists make the same claim in regards to the Torah.

In response to the freethought encouraged by Enlightenment thinkers over the last two centuries, many people have left organized religion altogether. Many people became atheists or agnostics, with no formal affiliation with any religious organization. Many others joined Secular Humanism or the Ethical Culture Society : non-religious organizations that have a social role similar to that which religion often plays; others joined non-creedal religious organizations, such as Unitarian Universalism. People in these groups no longer accept any religious doctrine or perspective which rests solely on dogmatic authority.

In between these positions lies that of non-fundamentalist religious believers. A great many Christians and Jews still accept some or many traditional religious beliefs taught in their respective faith communities, but they no longer accept their tradition's teachings as unquestionable and infallible. Liberal religious believers do believe in gods, and believe that in some way their god(s) revealed their will to humanity. They differ with religious fundamentalists in that they accept that the Bible and other religious documents were written by people, and that these books reflect the cultural and historic limitations and biases of their authors. Thus, liberal religious believers are often comfortable with the findings of archaeological and linguistic research and critical textual study. Some liberal religious believers, such as Conservative Jews, make use of literary and historical analysis of religious texts to understand how they developed, and to see how they might be applied in our own day. Liberal religious Jewish communities include Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism.

The attitudes of science towards religion

Scientists have many different views of religious belief.

  • Some scientists consider science and religion mutually exclusive;
  • others believe that scientific and religious belief are independent of one another;
  • others believe that science and religion can and should be united or "reunited".

It has been argued that conceptions of God by scientists are generally more abstract and less personal than the conceptions of deities in common religions, and sometimes approach pantheism (as in the case of Albert Einstein). While this is undoubtedly true in many cases, no individual polling of the entire scientific community exists to date. Atheism, agnosticism and logical positivism are especially popular among people who believe that the scientific method is the best way to approximate an objective description of observable reality, although the scientific method generally deals with different sets of questions than those addressed by theology. The general question of how we acquire knowledge is addressed by the philosophical field of epistemology.

According to a recent survey, belief in a God which is "in intellectual and affective communication with humankind" and in "personal immortality" is most popular among mathematicians and least popular among biologists. In total, about 60% of scientists in the United States expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of deities in 1996. This percentage has been fairly stable over the last 100 years. Among "leading" scientists (surveyed members of the National Academy of Sciences), 93% expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of a personal God in 1998. (Larson and Witham, 1998)

The phrasing of the question can be criticized as presenting an overly narrow definition of God. The survey among NAS scientists was conducted via mail and had a low and perhaps statistically biased return rate of 50%.

Philosophy of science weighs in

Since the era of logical positivism, the philosophy of science has shifted away from scientific realism to instrumentalism and confirmation holism. While the views of professional philosophers of science have not permeated widely to scientists and the public, these views weigh in significantly on the relationship of science and religion and on worldviews in general. In particular, presuming the validity of confirmation holism, no scientific, religious or any other worldview can be conclusively proven by empirical data since data is sufficiently ambiguous to allow competing and sometimes contradictory interpretations. Thus, under these views, one worldview is as credible as another in regards to what empirical data reveals.


General references

Ian Barbour When Science Meets Religion, 2000, Harper SanFrancisco

Ian Barbour Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, 1997, Harper SanFrancisco.

Stephen Jay Gould Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the fullness of life, Ballantine Books, 1999

Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham Leading scientists still reject God in Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691 (1998), p. 313. Online at

Jewish references

Aviezer, Nathan. In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science. Ktav, 1990. Hardcover. ISBN 0-881253-28-6

Carmell, Aryeh and Domb, Cyril, eds. Challenge: Torah Views on Science New York: Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists/Feldheim Publishers, 1976. ISBN 0-873061-74-8

Elliot N. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death: Jewish Bio-Ethics, Jewish Publication Society, 1998

Maimonides on the Science of the Mishneh Torah -- Provisional or Permanent?, Menachem Kellner, AJS Review 18 (1993): 169-94.

Gersonides on the Song of Songs and the Nature of Science, Menachem Kellner, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4 (1994): 1-21.

Torah and Science in Modern Jewish Thought: Steven Schwarzschild vs. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Menachem Kellner, in Gad Freudental (ed.), Charles Touati Festschrift (forthcoming).

Maimonides' Allegiances to Torah and Science, Menachem Kellner Torah U Madda Journal 7 (1997): 88-104.

Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams In a Beginning...: Quantum Cosmology and Kabbalah, Tikkun, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 66-73

Schroeder, Gerald L. The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom Broadway Books, 1998, ISBN 0-767903-03-X

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Genesis, Science, and "Scientific Creationism", Conservative Judaism, Vol. 40(2), Winter 1987/1988, p.20-27, The Rabbinical Assembly

Additional reading

  • Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul : Integrating Science and Religion, Broadway; Reprint edition, 1999, ISBN 0767903439

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04