Science vs. Religion — a false dichotomy

I was raised in a non-religious family. We didn’t attend any sort of organized congregation, and we celebrated Christmas and Easter as cultural events, rather than ones with any religious significance. In high school, I was well-trained in physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry (for a high-schooler), a I began to wonder what all this religious stuff was really about, and I started reading.

Fast forward a number of years — I’m still reading, and I’ve completed some degrees in an attempt to help figure out what all this religious stuff is really about. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do have better questions on that subject.

As you know, the internet is full of many angry monographs and diatribes for and against science and religion. Those kinds of articles and discussions are tiring to read. This is not one of those. I am primarily interested in what sciences and religions do for us as people and communities.

It’s a common to teach that philosophy (e.g. Natural Philosophy, or the sciences) replaced popular religion as the tool of knowledge in Ancient Greece around 400-500 B.C. But it’s interesting that any historical account of later years — Seneca, St. Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, yesterday’s newspaper — includes a discussion of the local religious practices. Religions are alive and well in societies around the globe.

It’s true that we, as a society, no longer hold sacrifices and pray for good weather in the coming year for a healthy crop in Iowa, like the ancient Anasazi, Greeks, or Mesopotamians did: instead, we apply fertilizers and plant seeds developed by the biologists and chemists at Monsanto. Empirically speaking, this seems to yield more consistent results than the sacrifices and prayers have done.

Similarly, we don’t try to exorcise demons when someone falls ill. We go to the doctor for diagnosis with various imaging tools, medicine, and perhaps surgery. Again, surveys show this appears to help us live longer than the previously accepted practices.

Despite, religion’s diminished role in some important aspects of our lives, people still rely on religions for many things in their lives. Why? Atheists and Logical Postivists would have us give all that up as mumbo jumbo — or at least acknowledge this behavior as irrational and silly. Yet, many people are still deadly serious about their religious beliefs. When someone is willing to die for something, and kill you alongside them, there’s nothing silly about it. We need to understand what’s going on here.

Even in less deadly and more uplifting situations, religion plays a big role in life. Coming of age celebrations, annual change of season celebrations, and mourning rituals help people mark the passage of our lives in a way that science fails to do. There is an internal, personal, and intangible aspect to our lives that is private and yet shared with others in social settings that religions help us foster. Moreover, this need not be in contest with scientific projects or values.

In this role, religions could be viewed as a practical or pragmatic type of psychology, or social psychology, and if we ignore this role that religions play in our cultures, we may end up with violent situations like religious extremism, where people lash out in order to protect values that they feel are in danger.*

Rather than viewing sciences and religions as somehow competing for the dominant explanation of what exists in the world (i.e. ontology) or what we can know about the world (i.e. epistemology), I’m interested in exploring how science and religion function in our cultures to shape the ways we interact with each other and the broader world we inhabit.

Many debates about sciences and religions focus on ontological and epistemological issues: Does God exist? How do we know whether God exists? How old is the world? How do we know how old the world is? etc. These debates aren’t particularly useful for anyone, because the combatants are entrenched in alien ontological and epistemological positions. Changing one’s mind through conversation is unlikely.

Moreover, most people don’t have such monotonic philosophical views. Most of us accept at least some scientific findings as useful (if not true), e.g. we take ibuprofen for headaches or we use machines designed using an understanding physics (reading glasses); and most of us can understand at least some religious tenets as metaphorically acceptable, e.g. the Old Testament’s description of the Universe’s and the Earth’s creation as a metaphor for the longer, geological and ecological development of the Universe and the Earth.

It’s this mixed ground that I find interesting and useful for discussing the sciences and religions. In this mixed ground, I find that religions and sciences are often investigating similar problems: applied psychology and various types of religious ministry are an easy example. The tools each discipline uses to help someone deal with the loss of a loved one may be different, but the problem is the same. I believe there is some useful things each can learn from the other in this mixed situations.

The neurological research surrounding prayer and meditation is another interesting mixed ground that the sciences and religions are investigating together. Scanning the brains of praying Catholic monastics and meditating Buddhist monastics have shown similar brain activity patterns. This kind of research may help us understand the similarities and differences of various religious practices, which could have important social and cultural implications for how people of different faiths interact with each other (for better or worse).

Rather than “Science vs. Religion”, we ought to refocus from this divisive approach. We ought to think of “Sciences and Religions”. It’s important to note the variety of scientific methods that exist among the different fields of scientific inquiry, as well as the variety of religious beliefs and methods used by the various religions in the world. The Scientific Method is often cited as a unifying aspect of Scientific Practice, but beyond “testing hypotheses”, what a clinical psychologist does in their daily work is almost unrecognizable as “science” when compared to what an experimental physicist does. Moreover, it’s plausible to claim that one could empirically practice a religion: conversion experiences could be explained as “testing hypotheses” of a particular religious system. The confirmation and falsification criteria of these different kinds of hypotheses and tests need further elaboration, but the language makes sense. What do you think, is there something to be gained from exploring this mixed ground in scientific and religious inquiry?

* This kind of violence is unacceptable, and I’m not defending it as a valid response to feeling threatened. Rather, I think there are ways to address this type of situation using a religious and scientific understanding of the world.


2 thoughts on “Science vs. Religion — a false dichotomy

  1. SkepticMeditations

    I wish there were no conflict between science and religion. Perhaps it depends on one’s definitions of each. I’m not seeing the lack of conflict between the two’s ways of determining what is or is not real.

    This doesn’t seem accurate or needs further explanation: “Similarly, we don’t try to exorcise demons when someone falls ill. We go to the doctor for diagnosis with various imaging tools, medicine, and perhaps surgery.”

    The “we” may indeed be you and me, but aren’t there many millions, if not billions, of people who believe in Satan, demonic possession, and wandering ghosts–prana, chi, or angels? Many people consult a doctor (at some point if they can afford to) and still seek sham and miraculous cures, “spiritual” or energetic healings, or exorcisms from priests or shamans.

    1. My Other Feet Post author

      I agree that there is some conflict between the sciences and religious traditions. Perhaps that’s a point that needs explicit clarification in this post. However, I don’t find that conflict intractable, as the common, and popular debate would have us believe.

      I believe the conflict generally arises from people misunderstanding what religions and sciences can actually accomplish for us. It seems to me that it’s common for folks to argue that religion or science is all you need to attain a complete understanding of the world. My point is that this is mistaken, regardless of whether you choose religion or science.

      I’m not advocating ontological or epistemological relativism: I don’t believe that all the people are right all the time, to paraphrase John Lydgate and President Lincoln. However, the popular debate between the sciences and religions would have us believe that this is a binary situation we’re debating: science is right/true and religion is wrong/false, or vice versa, depending on which camp you care to side with. This argument is trying to do brain surgery with a butcher’s knife. We need a more nuanced approach to understand what science and religion offer us.

      What I’m working to elaborate is an understanding of what the sciences can actually do for us, as well as what religion can actually do for us: the situation is more nuanced that true/false or right/wrong distinctions can capture. For example, just as it’s a mistake to assume that any branch of the sciences can accurately capture the qualitative human subjectivity, it’s also a mistake to assume that any religion is an acceptable replacement for scientific ontology, e.g. physics, geology, descriptive biology, etc. I think you and I disagree on the point I’m about to make, but it still bears stating: there are areas of knowledge that science cannot currently help us understand or resolve, and there are certainly areas of knowledge for which religion does not apply. Recognizing the limitations of religious traditions and sciences is an important step in using them to actually solve the problems we encounter in the world. However, sciences and religions can do some things very well, and we need to use each of these epistemic methods as a tool that is designed to help us understand a certain aspect of human experience.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You point out an important lacuna in my writing in this post.


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