Religion and Science


Editor’s Journal

I read with interest the essays and personal views discussing the various possible relations one can imagine between science and religion. I learned a lot about the personal life of Jamie Zvirzdin and how she was educated among the Mormons while being fascinated by astronomy and the sciences in general. Kristin Johnson’s thoughts on how the personal beliefs of scientists are affected by the death of their sons and daughters are also of interest and confirm what is already well known: that individual scientists can always find ways to make knowledge and their religious beliefs compatible. And Dinty Moore’s conversations with “real” Americans provide enlightenment about how they perceive the “supposed” divide between science and religion.

As someone who tries to elevate the level of discourse on this recurrent debate about the relations between science and religion, I am struck by the fact that the main reason it has been a dialogue of the deaf for the past quarter of century is that very few of the protagonists take the time to define the terms “science” and “religion.” For before debating whether “science and religion go hand in hand,” as young Isaac Mills assured Moore, or asking “why can’t the two views simply coexist,” it should stand to reason that the persons who partake in the discussion should first make sure that they are talking about well-defined categories and that they put the same things under those names.

It is thus unfortunate to observe again that none of the contributions take the time to tell us what they mean by science and by religion. In case some readers think it is obvious and need no such pedantic talk about definition, I will simply recall that there are certainly differences between religion, faith, and spirituality, for example. Hence, Moore tells us that he explores the idea that “faith and rationality can coexist.” If we know that faith can obviously be argued rationally on the basis of some postulate, one can only agree with such a statement. But is rationality synonymous with science? Of course not, and the fact that one can find good reasons to believe in some invisible gods—for that could indeed explain bizarre things such as evil or our very existence—does not mean that it has anything to do with science.

In fact, the first thing to do to get rid of the confused language that dominates this ill-defined debate is to clearly distinguish between the individual and the social-institutional levels. Hence a “religion” refers to a social organization that promotes a set of principles, beliefs, and rules of behavior defined either by a sacred book or an oral tradition said to have its origins in a particular god. Beliefs and spirituality do not have to be linked to a formal religion and can be very idiosyncratic. Thus the members of the Mills family presented by Moore are said to be “devout evangelical Christians.” They are thus part of an official religion and, as such, follow the rules it defined in order to remain part of that community. Now, science is also a social institution that constitutes a community on the basis of a collective practice that methodically searches to explain the world (material, living, social, and so on) in terms of natural causes. Science is thus a sort of game with its own rules based on observation, experimentation, calculation, and rational argumentation. By its very definition it excludes supernatural explanation, since such an explanation is always possible and thus explains nothing.

Once we clearly define religions and science as different social institutions, it becomes clear that particular individuals can believe whatever they want as long as they obey the rules of the scientific game and do not invoke “miracle” or “god’s action” to explain a given phenomena. Said differently: science is collective and social, whereas religious beliefs are private and personal. Science and beliefs are thus on different planes. Conflict will occur only when a given religion, as a social organization, wants to limit the freedom of scientific research or to object—without using the same scientific method—that this or that scientific fact cannot be so. It is the social force of institutionalized religions that explains the many well-known historical conflicts that have emerged since the seventeenth century and led to various exclusions of scientists from religious communities and to the condemnation of many books by the Catholic Church. Now that such institutions have lost their temporal (as opposed to spiritual) power, conflicts appear at more local levels when social groups want to impose their views on the larger communities, as witnessed in the debates going on in some US schools about the teaching of evolution in science courses.

Since the Templeton Foundation provides the money to the project “Think Write Publish: Science and Religion,” it is to be hoped that the various essays that come out of this enterprise will go beyond the actual confusion of language, which can serve nobody except if one really thinks that confusion can serve the interest of religions. Being that most religious people hold their belief on sincere faith, no religious believers should be afraid of the most robust results established by the scientific community using its sophisticated method of naturalistic explanations. As Brother Marie-Victorin, a member of Brothers of the Christian Schools and a noted botanist in Quebec, wrote in 1926, “science and religion follow parallel paths, toward their own goals,” a position that also echoes Cardinal John Henry Newman who said in 1855 that “theology and Science, whether in their respective ideas, or again in their own actual fields, on the whole, are incommunicable, incapable of collision, and needing, at most to be connected, never to be reconciled.” And if one absolutely wants to “harmonize” a given religion with the actual state of science, then it is only necessary to adapt the principles and beliefs of the former to make it compatible with the latter, for science as a social institution cannot be constrained in its freedom by any of the many existing religions. Finally, one should at some point ask this important but neglected question: why do some religions want to “dialogue” with science if the former are about the supernatural world, while the latter is about the natural world?

Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science

Université du Québec à Montréal

Cite this Article

“Religion and Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 2 (Winter 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter 2018