Sunday, March 4, 2012

Science and Religion

*NOTE: here again I refer to the "Christian" and attribute to him a very specific set of beliefs.  These are the beliefs I was taught in my conservative, Non-Denominational American Christian upbringing.  I do not think these beliefs are the only possible ones to hold as a Christian (and indeed, if I do become a Christian again, I do not expect to hold these same views).  I am merely giving some justification for what drove me away from Christianity last time around.*

What is clear to me is that Christians do not interpret faith through the lens of evidence, but rather interpret evidence through the lens of faith.  I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with very smart Christians who try to convince me that the flood is reasonable given the historical evidence, or how flawed all of our dating methods are, or that evolution takes just as much faith as Christianity.

The last point I will treat first, for I find it the most insidious.  Science does not operate on faith. It operates on theories.  And the fundamental difference between theories and faith are that theories are discarded when either a) contradictory evidence or b) a better theory comes along.  It is not necessary to invoke faith to believe something that we are unsure of, because belief is a probability distribution.  What the Christian would call "faith", the scientist would call "uncertainty".  This is important to note, because we cannot equate believing in a less mature scientific theory with believing in the supernatural- the scientific theory, if it is a valid one, has evidence behind it, while there is no *natrual* evidence that can sufficiently convince us of the claims of the *supernatrual*.

That Christianity requires faith and science does not is not in and of itself a condemnation of Christianity.  For as we have said before, Christianity is not scientific, and it does not purport itself to be.  The evidence for Christianity is, and must be, experiential.  It must be a conviction beyond denial.  And this conviction, if strong enough, gives us rational license to take certain things on faith.  The question becomes how MUCH license, and what things we should be taking on faith, and how we should deal with evidence that flies in the face of that faith.

But let us return to the original point. The scientist's goal (as least his claimed goal) is to observe reality and form unbiased theories based on these observations.  When a scientist forms a theory, he starts with the data and interpolates a model that explains the data.  This is fundamentally different from what the Christian does.  The Christian starts with a model (the historical account given in the old testament) and tries to explain why the data supports (or at least does not contradict) that model.  It must be admitted, of course, that the advent of a new scientific model is in fact quite rare.  Most of science deals with verifying the congruence of new data with existing models, and therefore looks very simillar to the method employed by Christians.  But the key difference here is that the scientist is willing and able to discard his model if and only if a better model comes along.  The Christian is not afforded this luxury.  The Christian is stuck with the historical claims made by the Bible, and they must defend these as vociferously as they defend the inerrant nature of the Bible, regardless of what new data may arise.  To be locked into one such model runs counter to what it means to be science, and in my view, counter to the appropriate use of the human intellect.  If there is a God, and he has gifted us both a desire and an ability to understand the world around us, why then should we shy away from such knowledge?  Why try to box it in when it doesn't fit what we think it should be?

I think this ultimately comes to a question of your view of Biblical Innerrancy and/or Infalliability.  I will cover this in another post, but I will say that I find the doctrine a curious thing, and that I think it is the aspect of the Christian Doctrine with which I grew up that I am most certain is incorrect.


  1. Sorry, bro. Your essay sounds great but it's self-defeating. There is no scientific element to your essay, no pH level to your statement, no chemical compound to your words. Philosophy on the other hand has a lot of play in your essay. Maybe your next post should be about Christianity versus philosophy, I'd read that.

    1. Fair enough- that essay did not contain any actual science to speak of. My goal here was to compare and contrast the role of science and religion, not to pit them against one another; to talk about their relationship, not to give specific examples of their conflict. It is their intersection that I find most interesting, and I think it's important to lay the groundwork for their distinct roles before discussing amy particular conflicts that arise between them.

      Thanks for your thoughts

    2. Is it logical to limit thinking to only one of these roles? Philosophy, science, religion, et cetera? Is a well-rounded worldview informed by all of these things or is it tainted by religion?

  2. A lot of us don't see the Bible as a word of authority. Do you? What is the authority in your life?

  3. Some of these comments are ridiculous. Galileo thought the earth was round and Christianity at the time mocked him because they thought the earth was flat. Doesn't that make both science and Christianity wrong for all the previous years?

  4. So we're sitting in class getting a "discussion" started about how science requires a religious and liturgical practice...really? What do you think?

  5. How old are you, Jake?