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Faith, Science, Meaning and Evidence

19 March 2014, 10:55

I have recently been challengedto re-think my view on whether science and religioncan co-exist peacefully. These two titans generally pursue knowledge of the universe through different vectors. The cornerstone for scientific advancement is evidence, while faith is the cornerstone for religion. Though there might be several distinct differences between the two, what might be unclear to many is that evidence is an important part of religion as well. In the bible, Abraham is often referred to as the “father of faith”. This is because when “God” spoke to him and asked him to leave everything behind, he obeyed. And he did so even though he had never seen God or observed anything supernatural confirming Gods existence. According to scripture, God himself considered this “belief without evidence” as something truly remarkable (Genesis 15:6), and as a result, God himself considered Abraham to be a “righteousness” man. This is the kind of faith religion is primarily based on, but it is not the only form!

In Judges Chapter 6, we meet a young man named Gideon. “God” supposedly speaks to Gideon and asks him to lead his people into war. Gideon is unsure about this request, and he asks God for “evidence”. In response, we read that God gives him a “sign”. This is one of many examples in which ordinary people supposedly ask God to help them believe. In many other instances those “miracles” were not solicited for, but they served the same purpose. I personally have met people who havefaithsimply because of a distinct encounter or event that changed their perspective. So certainly, evidence is not unique to science, and is indeed considered to be one of the pillars of “true” Christianity. That being said, the highest or purest form of faith in God demands belief without evidence. Apart from that, nearly everything else in the Christian faith requires someform of evidence. This evidencecannot be classified as scientific evidence, but is evidence all the same.

This is one of many similarities I see when I study science and religion. Make no mistake, there are countless distinct differences as well. It’s just that some of ushave found ways to prevent conflict between the two in spite of these differences. I consider it a privilege to be able to study the universe through both science and religion. The challenge with this position though is that it sometimes forces youto make compromises when a conflict between the two arises. For instance, I cannot ignore obvious scientific findings pointing to evolution. So I “compromise” my view of the creation account by choosing to think that God intentionally left out several details.

On the other hand, the beauty of studying both science and religion gives me what I consider to be interesting perspectives. One such view is that when I look at science from a religious perspective, I cannot help but notice science’s several limitations. For instance, scientists are currently uncertain on what took place before the Big Bang. While science grapples with this problem, religion comfortablyassumes everything came from an “infinite” God who is not bound by time as we are. Though it can be argued as to where God himself came from, believers simply chose to believe that God is “eternal” and that he is the source of all things.

Concerning this problem on events prior to the Big Bang, many scientists refuse to speculate on the possibilities. This is because we simply have no scientific data from that period, and we may never have. In spite of this, we can study many things from the past, though at present we cannot “see” prior to the Big Bang. As an example on studying the past, when you see Jupiter shining in the night sky; you’re in fact looking at how Jupiter looked like about an hour ago. This is because it takes light about an hour to reach us from Jupiter. And when you look at more and more distant galaxies with a telescope, you are possibly looking at how they looked like millions, if not billions of years ago.

Similarly, scientists are currently unable to determine the size of the universe. This is because some of the outer regions of space appear to be expanding at a rate faster than the speed of light! The consequence of this astonishing fact is that we can at present only see partof the universe. And we are unlikely to ever be able to see the “edge” of the universefrom earth, unless the universe collapses and starts shrinking! When asked how big the universe is, physicists often respond by simply saying “the universe is infinite”. The truth though, is that we simply don’t know. That response is just a statement designed to “save” physicists from worrying about the bigger problem of what to expect beyond that boundary!

To put this problem of the size of our universes in a different context; At exactly time = 0 seconds into the Bag Bang, the universe is about the size of an atom. It expands so rapidly that by time = 10-35seconds into the Big Bang, the universe is about the size of our solar system. Current scientific data seems to indicate that the universe is still exanding. So if the universe had a known and finite size in the past, what is its size today? And dare I ask, what lies beyond the edge of our universe? Again, we currently have no information that can provide any clues to this. Religion, on the other hand, safely assumes such a boundary exists and that God himself “stretches out the heavens” (Isaiah 40:22).

The final limitation I’ve noticed about science is its inability to provide “meaning”. By this I mean that science cannot make sense of itself. This view is shared by physicist John Polkinghorne in his recent book, “Theology in the Context of Science”. In this book, he stresses the crucial point that larger questions of meaning and purpose go well beyond science. Similarly, Hinduism which has historically embraced reason and empiricism, claims that science brings legitimate, but incompleteknowledge of the universe.

I’m sure looking at the Science from a purely atheist point of view also yields interesting perspectives. Of-course, I’ve never had atheist perspectives so I cannot speak on such views. I however find it interesting that Einstein denigrated disbelievers more than he did believers. According to Einstein, “The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of the chains they’ve just thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against religion—cannot bear themusic of the spheres“. By “music of the spheres”; Einstein was referring to an ancientphilosophical or religiousconcept which claimed that the motion of planets and stars created “music”. Although Einstein did not believe in a personal God, he indicated that he would never seek to combat such belief because to him, belief seemed more preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.

Alternatively, observing religion with a scientific or critical mind also yields its own peculiar perspectives. It is very easy to quickly become critical when looking at religion with a scientific perspective. As my previous examples show, religion leaves a lot in the hands of God. Clearly this is why scientists have often referred to religious folk as either “weak” or “lazy”. It’s also very easy to become critical of the bible and other religious texts. According to Einstein, “The bible is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me”.

As a Christian, I can try to defend the bible, but even I have asked some of the same questions that an atheist might ask! For instance, when Cain supposedly kills Abel in Genesis 4, “God” banishes him to a distant land. God also puts a mark on him so that no one in that distant land can kill him. The question is, if Adam and Eve were the only people “created”, how could other people exist elsewhere who could “kill” Cain? Cain also finds a wife in that land, where did she and her parents come from? We cannot with certainty conclude that the account is false, but it is clearly incomplete. Recent acts of terror in the name of religion do little to diffuse this problem.

In the light of these gaps or flaws, the question iswhy bother with religion? My answer is simple; Faith is not purely constrained by the degree of accuracy in scripture, nor is it about finding “perfect” individuals within a religious group. It is about seeing imperfect people transformed and striving to better themselves in spite of their weaknesses. Faith is about painting a personal picture of “the creator” when we see glimpsesof him in the pages of scripture. And it is about helping people at the edge of their hope to find strength and new meaning.

I suppose this is the great mystery of religion which confounds unbelievers. At the same time, this is why I and indeed many chose to believe. Because at the heart of faith, is a belief in the human spirit, and that we can be better than ourselves. For “real” faith is not merely a belief in a “creator”, but a faithin humanity as well. I have not found a greater cause!

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