Do Science and Religion Address the Same Questions? Yep!
March 20, 2016
Hello, reader. I don't know who you are, or what your belief system is. I don't know if you value logic and reason over religion, or if your religious beliefs trump reason (and if so, in what areas of life). I don't know your thoughts on the origins and age of the universe and Earth, or your ideas about how humans came to be. I have no idea what you think happens after death, if anything. None of that matters for right now, though. I'll only ask you to do one thing: read this post with an open mind.
I'm writing this in response to something someone told me on Twitter. This person basically said that science and religion can co-exist, because they answer different questions. On the surface, the point makes sense: religion doesn't explain how to build a computer or synthesize medicines, while science doesn't explain how to get into heaven or how often you should pray. Thus, you can believe what science says, and believe what religion says, and there's no problem. Evolution is science, and the Bible doesn't address it, so that's okay. Faith is religious, and science doesn't address it, so that, too, is okay. You know there's a big 'but' coming, right? Because there definitely is.
The way I see it, though, this claim is completely wrong. Religion tries to answer plenty of science questions, and science has answers for many aspects of religion. Are the two mutually exclusive? A lot of that depends on how far you want to take your religious beliefs, and on how strictly you cling to whatever your religious book says on a given topic, and on how you interpret the text of said book. Below are just some of the places where science and religion intersect. Once you've read this post, have a look at this article on the same topic, from the Christian perspective.
A quick note before we continue: when I say "religion", I'm usually talking about Christianity. It's the one I know best, so it's the one I can most easily and clearly discuss. Fortunately, Muslims and Jews believe in the same god, so I can at least discuss aspects of that god without specifying a particular faith. Rules, customs, and text will usually come from Christianity and its Bible, though.
The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything
Let's start with the biggest one: where did "everything" come from? The universe, your dog, trees, Saturn's moons, and me. Where did it all start? This question essentially asks how the universe started and how it's timeline has led to me writing this, and you reading it. Is it random? Planned? Magic? Natural? This is a fundamental question, and is one that science has come a long way toward answering with the theories of the big bang and evolution. These aren't complete yet, as they don't explain how the big bang itself happened, or how life on Earth arose to start evolving. The very fact that we have multiple theories surrounding this topic, though, makes it obvious that this is very much a scientific question. But is it also a religious one?
The Bible starts out by explaining how the universe came to exist. It tells us how the stars formed, how our planet was made, and how life arose on that planet. It details where man and woman came from, and how morals were introduced. It even offers a timeline, if you know where to look. Do these points of data sound familiar? They should--they are many of the same points that science answered in the previous paragraph. Clearly, Christianity offers answers to the question of "everything". Even more obviously, given the debates about teaching this religious answer as fact in U.S. public schools, people consider these answers to be perfectly valid and to trump science's explanations. When religious people want answers other than scientific ones put into schools, there is definitely a difference between what religion thinks on this topic and what science thinks. Does religion want to answer this scientific question? Yes!
The fun part is that, among Christians in my country (America), you can find two very different schools of thought. Some believe that the entire universe was created in six literal days, and that nothing existed more than ten thousand years ago (some think it is as late as six thousand). On the other side, you have the "old Earth" Christians, who think that science has it right. Anywhere science hasn't yet found an answer, this group of Christians inserts their god to fill the gap. For this kind of believer, it's very easy to accept science on this topic. The problem is the "young-Earth creation" movement, which rejects established and accepted science in favor of their particular interpretation of the Bible. That's not a problem on its own, but when they want to put that into public schools and teach it as fact, then we run into a lot of issues. These people not only think they have the answers to the scientific questions being asked, but that the evidence-based answers already accepted by most everyone are completely wrong. This conclusion is based solely on this group's understanding of the Bible. That's not only having both science and religion answer the same question, it's doing so in dishonest, manipulative ways on the part of religion. After all, no one wants to explain to students that airplanes fly because a particular god picks them up and carries them to their destinations, or that light is carried on the breath from Zeus's lungs. On the topic of creation, though, some Christians are incredibly passionate and vocal. For more on this viewpoint, check out the Answers in Genesis website.
But what of the Christians that accept our modern theories of life, the universe, and everything? Are they answering the question, or leaving science to do that job? At first glance, the answer seems clear: they're accepting what science says, and merely attributing the happening of the events to their deity. Look deeper, though, and we can spot a problem: the famous "god of the gaps" argument.
Essentially, a religious person will find a gap in scientific knowledge, fill it with whatever deity or deities they happen to believe in, and hold that filled gap up as proof that "science can't explain this, thus my god did it, thus my religion is right." This may seem like harmless attribution, but it goes beyond that. Once you have a gap, and you feel comfortable with putting your god in there, what happens when science one day closes that gap? Once you answer a question with "god", you cut off scientific investigation into that question. If you're open-minded enough to continue to accept natural explanations over "god did it", then I'd have to wonder why you need god in the mix at all. In any case, it seems to me that this is a question which religion tries to address, in one way or another.
Life After Death?
"Is there life after death?" That's a question that humans have been asking for thousands of years. At first, this seems to be firmly in religion's territory. How could science even test it? If science can't begin to figure out an answer, is it fair to say that science has a stake in the question at all? I believe so.
Obviously, religion teaches that there's an afterlife. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others each have their own versions of the concept, but they all share one core element: the soul/spirit, hereafter called a soul. There's always some version of a person that can persist after the body dies, carrying on into the great beyond. Assuming that such a thing is real, how would it work? Science would want to know that, right? Reason loves to come along and try to make sense of things, and there would be some hard questions for a soul to answer.
- How does the soul encapsulate a human's essence, since we know that peoples' personalities, knowledge, and memories are in their brains?
- Since it lacks sensory organs, how does a soul (assuming for now that it has some metaphysical version of a brain) experience the world? If we give it spiritual senses, how do those interact with physical reality?
- How does it travel from the body to the afterlife? That is, how does it move around, and since we can't see any other realms from Earth with any of our current telescopes, how does it travel countless lightyears in any kind of reasonable time?
- If the afterlife is in another dimension/parallel universe/etc, how does the gateway to get there work? How can we reverse-engineer the mechanism? This would be a world-shaking discovery on its own, yet there's not a shred of evidence that such a thing exists at all.
- If the soul encapsulates its host human's personality, what happens when brain injury or illness changes the person fundamentally? Does the soul inherit the differences, or does it just restore to the last valid save point, like a video game when you start it back up?
Religion can answer all of these very easily: we don't know, it doesn't matter, and God. Can science? Since there's no proof or evidence of a soul or afterlife, there's really not much for science to grab onto here. However, proof of an afterlife would be a world-changing discovery that, I'm sure, many scientists would love to make. Science doesn't lack this proof due to disinterest or "leaving it up to religion", it lacks proof because there's no proof to be had, because there's no hypothesis we can come up with that could be falsified in properly performed experiments.
While the actual existence of souls can't be directly tested (yet), we can at least do the next best thing--investigate the evidence. Every bit of evidence that religious people hold up as "proof" can be inspected by scientists. So far as I know, each piece can be explained in an entirely natural way. Does that prove that there's no afterlife? No. What it does, though, is make it less likely. Just as god or gods were the answer to why the sun crosses the sky before we knew about gravity and orbital mechanics, so might religious explanations for the soul and what happens to it wind up being so many simple explanations to something science one day understands completely. Of course, there could be nothing at all, making the soul just another version of the famous invisible teapot. In either case, science is unable to examine the existence of the soul and what happens to that soul, but it can easily examine any "evidence" and draw conclusions from there. Do religion and science both try to answer the question of an afterlife? Yes, though science is less interested given the lack of evidence that there's anything to the claim. Science can, however, try to verify religion's evidence, and nothing has happened so far.
Allow me to briefly discuss a topic that is closely related: astral projection. If you are religious, you're likely yelling at me right now, about how astral projection is different and evil and has nothing to do with souls going to Heaven. Consider this, though: a soul leaving the body is where many near-death experiences and heavenly visitation stories begin. These tales are quite similar: a disembodied entity, consisting of the person's full knowledge, memories, and personality, leaves the physical body. It can travel, look around, and think. What's the difference between that and… See? you can't even tell if I was just describing AP or souls, because until you get to the heaven/hell part, the mechanics are identical.
Now that you see where I'm coming from by comparing the two topics, I'd like to point out that AP has never once been shown to be verified and real. Given that it and souls are so incredibly similar, which is more reasonable: that AP is fake but its close relative, the soul, is real because you think it's real; or that neither is real because we can test one of the two and know it to be fake?
Earth and the Universe
Earth is in a solar system, orbiting a star. That star and its planets are in a tiny arm--not even one of the primary arms--of a spiral galaxy of many millions of stars and planets. That galaxy is one of many, many others in just our region of space. We know all of this because science happened. We invented telescopes and spacecraft, we had hypotheses, and we invented more gadgets to help test those hypotheses. We used our conclusions to form theories (here used in the scientific sense, to mean a conclusion that is proven to the best of our ability and is accepted by scientists as being true). Science very clearly tells us where we are, what's around us, and a myriad of other details about planets, stars, and the structures they can form. This question--where we are and what we're in--seems as scientific as the question of an afterlife seems religious. Yet, religion loves to answer it.
Am I saying that preachers will get up on Sunday and talk for an hour about astrophysics? No, though I'd probably go to a church that did that. What happens is verses from the Bible are pulled that Christians try to hold up as proof that their god already answered this question before science could. Showing such foreknowledge lets them then claim accuracy and truth for the Bible. Here's a great example of what I'm talking about: "The Universe Confirms the Bible", from AIG.
It's worth noting that other Christians think differently: they have no problem with science's answers, but still believe the Bible is perfect. They simply interpret it differently. As a rebuttal to the previous article, feel free to explore this page on why the Bible proves old-Earth creationism right.
What's a person to do when two mutually exclusive viewpoints are presented by members of the same religion? I don't know, and I'm not here to resolve that particular dilemma. All I'm saying is that, yet again, science and religion are trying to answer the same question. It may be tempting to think that, in this case, religion isn't explaining the physics involved, it's just showing that it already knew some of the facts. As we've already discussed, though, many Christians take those facts and try to say that they have answers. This doesn't happen much today, but what about a few hundred years ago? If science asked the question "is the Earth the center of the universe", religion would claim full knowledge of the topic and say "yes, and anyone who thinks differently is a heretic". Even today, if science asks how it is that stars can have lives lasting millions of years and yet exist in a universe only thousands of years old, Christianity wants to answer that. Put another way, the simple question "how old is the Sun" will get two very different responses from scientists and YEC Christians.
Health and Medicine
The question here is a general one: what causes illness and pain, and how can we make that better or avoid it? Science says: let's study it, and run experiments to figure out what compounds and techniques are most effective. Let's then verify the safety of those findings, then use them to help people. Meanwhile, religion says that science-based medicine may or may not be okay, but it's all ultimately out of our control. We should pray and let God take care of it. Go to doctors and get normal medical treatment (or don't, if you're a Christian Scientist or similar), but everything is decided by God anyway. Oh, and mental illness is actually demons, just FYI. This is to say nothing of religion's input on medical research that some view as conflicting with their beliefs, such as stem cell research. Do science and religion both try to answer medical questions? Yes, though religion tends to content itself with "should we" rather than "how do we". Still, restricting research or withholding treatment is serious input into a question that I was told religion "doesn't answer".
I mentioned just now that demons cause mental illness. The implications of this (now mostly debunked) belief are chilling, and show, once again, why religious answers to scientific questions can be such a problem. Imagine if humanity had stopped at religion's answer to mental problems: casting out demons, and hoping the problem would go away. No psychologists, no understanding of the brain and how it can malfunction, nothing.
I can imagine you saying, "But Alex, that's NOT Christianity at all! You're misrepresenting what I believe, and attacking a straw man." I know that not everyone--especially now--thinks that demons are responsible for mental problems. I was very easily able to find this page clearly stating why mental disorders are not demonic possession, for instance. However, I was equally easily able to find a post about someone accused of being possessed for having a treatable illness. Even if it's not accurate to your interpretation of the Bible, there are people who think that demons cause mental (or even physical) problems. More to the point, the popular belief is that Christians hold this view. Had religion just stayed out of the question altogether, the PR problem might have been avoided. This is similar to how some religious people eschew all medical help by taking a literal interpretation of the same Bible others claim supports modern medicine, thus causing a major image problem for all involved. The wider issue here is interpretation of a single book, with no way to independently verify or test anything. But that's another post.
Of course, belief in demons, and belief in one's power to overcome them, can have heart-breaking consequences. For example:
- Maryland mother kills children during attempted exorcism
- Moroccan woman is killed during Muslim exorcism
- an autistic boy is killed while church tries to exorcise demons that cause his autism
- Child killed during alleged exorcism attempt
What is right and wrong, and why we do and should do right. are aspects of the general question: where does morality come from, and what is it? Surely this isn't something science can answer, right? Religious books lay it out, and there's no evolutionary reason for doing the "right thing". Good and evil are absolutes, not subjective, moveable things like so many non-religious people like to claim. Right? Right?
Well, science has actually studied this. After all, it's not very helpful to come up with a theory on how we got here, if that theory stops short of explaining why we act how we do now that we're here. Morality seems at first to be untouchable, especially to religious people. Remember when I asked you to remain open-minded? This is another reason why. If you are religious, please try, just for a moment, to imagine that other explanations besides "God" exist for morality. I know it's hard, but really try. It turns out that, in today's world, you can certainly be good without God. As to why humans are, in general, good to start with, we seem to have an evolutionary reason for that as well. Altruism is hard-wired into us so that we wind up more likely to succeed as a group. Yet again, then, we have science and religion both trying to offer answers to the same question: why are we moral creatures?
And So On
I could go on, but I think I've made the point I wanted to make. To those who claim that religion and science don't both answer the same questions, I say they often do. Moreover, the questions they both tackle aren't minor points, they're fundamental to who we are as people. There are even times when religion thinks it's so right that it needs to block science completely. There are also times when religion wants and equal voice in the conversation, but what it has to say is so far from what science has PROVEN to be right that most people don't want to listen, just as most people don't want astrology taught as science in public schools. These conflicts cause a great deal of debate, from churches to schools to the internet. If you think the two don't try to address many of the same questions, then why are they so often on opposite sides of debates?
There's more I want to say on related topics, but I'll save that for other posts. In the meantime, I know I'll likely get slammed with threats, insults, and other not-very-constructive comments. By all means, if you have a question or a good comment, please leave it below (this blog uses Discus) or find me on Twitter, @Mehgcap. I'm happy to have civil discussions. If you're still with me, thank you for reading. If you're religious and you're still hear, a big high five to you for being open enough to read all this. I hope it explains why I think that religion and science do try to answer some of the same questions, and I hope you weren't too offended. I also hope that I made you think.
You may have figured out by now that I sometimes use this platform to rant about things. Well, welcome to another edition of Alex the Whiner,
Before we get into this, here's a brief history of me, focusing on religion. If you already know me, feel free to skip this part. This section will