Science vs faith? Really?

2012-05-25 06:03

“Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind,” a crazy scientist with really bad hair and a wild look in his eyes once said.

His name was Albert Einstein, and although he most certainly was no theist, he was verbalizing an idea that would not have seemed too foreign to his contemporaries.

But while Einstein's offhand remark hints at the fact that science and faith were not always seen as the mortal enemies many now assume them to be, it cannot be denied that, in the popular conscience at least, these two fields have come to represent two opposing and seemingly incompatible worldviews.

These days, more often than not, science and faith are portrayed as polar opposites – one being the domain of the rational, the enlightened, the progressive; the other a crutch of the weak and uninformed.

Now, let me be clear about one thing: I am not here to convince you to become a believer. I know better than to assume that a philosophical argument – no matter how forceful – will ever convince you to change your worldview. That is a discussion for another day. Neither am I here to argue for or against the existence of God. I'll pick that fight again later.

What I'd like to challenge, though, is the unfounded view that science and faith are mortal enemies, locked in deadly combat. And while many clearly believe that the acceptance of one implies rejection of the other (a trend I see among both believers and unbelievers), I strongly disagree.

Of course, one of the most obvious objections to this view is the sheer number of scientists, throughout history and in modern times, who did not see the least bit of conflict between their scientific endeavors and their personal faith. No, I'm not referring to a bunch of wackos on the lunatic fringe – I'm talking about a veritable who's who of scientific heavyweights: Roger Bacon, who helped lay the foundations for the empirical approach in the 13th century. William Turner, the father of English botany (who was once arrested for preaching in favour of the Reformation). Johannes Kepler, the famed 16th century astronomer and mathematician who studied planetary motion when he wasn't dreaming of becoming a theologian. René Descartes, the mastermind behind analytical geometry and one of the key figures of the scientific revolution. Robert Boyle, the first modern chemist; also a theologian. Isaac Newton, considered by many as the greatest scientist who ever lived; also a believer. Lord Kelvin, key figure in the field of thermodynamics. Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory. John Lennox, master mathematician. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project. And so the list goes on, running the gamut from the heady times of the scientific revolution right through to the even more heady times of quantum physics and string theory and evolutionary biology. Throughout history, science and faith have co-existed happily in the minds of its greatest champions.

Clearly, skeptics who claim science as the exclusive playing field of those who have turned their backs on faith are, quite simply, dead wrong.

Of course, the reason why these scientists could see no conflict between science and faith, they'd tell you, is because science and faith are geared to answer different questions. Science, with its reductionist approach and empirical method, is great at answering "how" questions (How does it work? How did we get here?). Conversely theology, based on revelation, is concerned with questions of "why" (Why are we here? Why is there something instead of nothing?).

Why the perceived conflict, then? Why should there even be talk of conflict if science and faith address two different aspects of reality? Why is it that some assume you need to be either a "man of science", or a "man of faith"?

In my experience, lack of knowledge plays a significant role.

Few individuals who have investigated both worlds with an open mind would spurn one at the cost of the other (hence the significant number of Christian scientists). All too often though, I've seen individuals from one side of the fence question the view of someone "on the other side," without really understanding the issue they're criticizing.

For example, I have encountered countless rationalists who reject the Christian faith on account of the Genesis creation narrative alone, because it involves belief "in a fairy-tale God who created the world in six days while science shows us the complete opposite". Comments like these reveal utter ignorance about the purpose and rich theological significance of the (in)famous creation account. You can't dismiss a complex passage of scripture when you're reading it like an eighth grade science textbook and you clearly haven't gone to the trouble of understanding what it's about.

Ditto for Christians who dismiss established scientific theories in their quest to defend their particular interpretations of specific biblical passages, while they haven't truly invested time in understanding the concepts they so happily lay into. Read up before you speak up, for heaven's sake.

To be fair, there are encouraging developments that hint at the possibility of a less strained interaction between science and faith in future. The mythical nature of the supposed science-faith divide has come under the spotlight in several excellent books by respected figures recently – including particle physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne (winner of the Templeton Prize, the world's largest monetary literary prize, itself conceived to mend the relationship between the spheres of faith and science), as well as Nobel prize winning physicist Charles Townes, and many, many others. Also encouraging is a growing list of academic journals exclusively dedicated to the exploration of the relationship between science and theology, as well as the publication of numerous articles about the issue in respected general journals like Science and the American Journal of Physics. Another interesting development is the establishment of a number of professorships and other academic positions at world-class institutions dedicated to the exploration of science-faith interaction.

Of course I am fully aware that this is only scratching the surface as far as the science-faith debate goes, but I hope it's enough to get the conversation started.

One thing is clear in my mind: it's neither necessary nor fair to argue that the worlds of science and faith are in conflict. I think it is far more sensible to say they complement each other.

What do you think? Do you agree or not? Let me know where you stand on the issue in the comments section below. Keep in mind that this is a short post on a pretty complex issue – if you'd like me to write about a specific angle, let me know in the comments, or drop me a mail at mailme@heinzeugene.com.

– You can catch Heinz’s blog at heinzeugene.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, connect with him on Facebook, or reach him by mail.

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