Can Science And Religion Co-Exist?

As a scientist and a Christian, I have never had difficulty reconciling science and religion.  However, many others feel differently.  This has been confusing to me and also troubling.  Troubling as some feel that these two areas are mutually exclusive of each other. In other words, if you believe in one, you must denigrate the other.  

For many, a belief in a Higher Power is integrated with a particular faith system or religion.  I grew up when mainstream religions were dominant. In those days, science and religion were neither integrated nor mutually rejected.  You didn’t have to pick sides.

This attitude changed as evangelical and fundamental denominations grew in popularity and power.  Evangelical and fundamental denominations believe in the inerrant interpretation of the Bible, with fundamentalists emphasizing the accuracy of Biblical timelines.  For instance, the belief that all life on earth was created in six days and that the earth was formed 6,000-10,000 years ago.  This contrasts the scientific understanding that life evolved over 3.7 billion years, and the earth is 4.5 billion years old. 

The rejection of science is not only a Christian fundamentalist phenomenon but can be seen in non-Christian religions.  The middle east was the progressive seat of learning well ahead of Europe until around 1500 AD when scientific ideas became blasphemous.  

Recently, certain groups have been hostile toward basic and applied science.  Gurus rallied their charges against vaccines using pseudo-science, and individuals violently rejected community health orders to wear masks during the COVID pandemic. Some religious individuals’ reactions may be due to science types who wholly and vocally reject any belief in God and ridicule those who do believe.  Lines in the sand are being drawn to the detriment of all.

There are multiple examples of conflicts when literally interpreting the Bible and then comparing that interpretation with scientific knowledge.  Natural selection vs. intelligent design is one prominent controversy. Some religious argue that evolution is “just a theory,” but this shows a lack of understanding.  It is a theory in scientific terms rather than common language terms.  It is not a hunch but broadly accepted and well-supported by available data.  

Elly, of the Ex-Fundie Diaries YouTube channel, remembers her fundamentalist education via home and church schools.  Science is a state-required part of any educational curriculum, but her science experience was anything but scientific.  For instance, If a science unit was on weather, she was instructed to find passages in the Bible about storms and floods. Why wasn’t she taught science? If you keep people ignorant about science, it is easy to convince them that it is wrong and evil. 

During the pandemic, I talked to an intelligent Amish man, and the topic turned to COVID.  I dreaded this turn as I had some idea where the conversation would go.  Amish are educated until the 8th grade, but that was not the problem.  His only source of current information was his church bishop and deacon. His knowledge of infectious diseases and COVID, in particular, was extremely limited. Any attempt on my part to offer insight (as a physician and microbiologist) was rejected and viewed with suspicion.  I changed the topic.

As humans, it is easy to silo ourselves with other like-minded individuals. Information is passed down from leaders to followers.  If a follower hears only one line of thinking, it becomes their truth, even if that truth is completely false.  It is easier to fall into one of these traps than you think.  Groups can be formed in many different ways beyond religions.  Those who exclusively watch CNN or Fox News would be just one example, but groups with shared erroneous beliefs can happen anywhere.  

Religious groups may cite the many times that science has been wrong.  They are completely correct, but their assumption misses the point of what science is. Science attempts to understand observations.  Why does an apple fall from a tree?  How fast does it fall? Does it accelerate or slow down when falling? A hypothesis is formed to explain an observation, which is then tested.  If the explanation pans out, the information is shared with others, who test it to see if their findings concur. If the answer is yes, then the hypothesis is accepted. However, the hypothesis may be modified or corrected as new information or observations become available.  The goal is to come up with the truth. That is how science works.

Most are more interested in using their cell phone (a scientific marvel) than understanding string theory (a scientific theory).  It is much easier to accept science when it is giving you something. 

Very conservative religious groups accept scientific advancements when those advancements benefit them. The Amish man I mentioned above owns a furniture factory.  Amish believers profess to disconnect from society to be closer to God. They don’t attach to the electric grid, drive automobiles, or use other common conveniences.  However, in today’s era rejecting practical science make business competition difficult.  The Amish man’s factory was full of modern equipment powered with electricity, but his workaround was to use his generator instead of connecting to the power grid.  In addition, many homes I saw in his area had solar panels on their roofs. By being a little flexible, these Amish folks found a way to hold onto their traditional values while benefiting from modern technology. 

That is an extreme example, but it illustrates that it is almost impossible to reject science and live in a modern world.  Electric power, antibiotics, computers, the Internet, and so much more are available because of science. I find it amusing to watch a YouTube video that rails against science while recording sound and video using devices that only exist because of science.

However, science can not answer every aspect of existence.  There is plenty of room in the universe for believers of a Higher Power. There is an order of things on every level, from subatomic particles to the way that galaxies group together.  The chances of all of this randomly occurring are astronomical. In a universe as huge as ours, there are likely beings far superior to us and would therefore be godlike to us.  Lastly, there is no reason to refute the idea that some larger force had a hand in creating the universe. Being unable to test something doesn’t make the idea false. Sir Issac Newton defined gravity in 1665, but it took scientists until 2015 to measure gravity waves.

Beyond believing, having a spiritual life is important. Individuals with a spiritual life have a sense of purpose, security,  and well-being. Who doesn’t want that? Faith doesn’t have to be proven; it just needs to be believed.

When religious leaders demand that a follower believe something that seems contrary to the world around them, it weakens faith, not strengthens it.  Such expectations are likely a reason why people leave religions.  By demanding robot-like compliance, the real message of most religions is lost. Is it necessary to believe that God is some old white dude with a flowing beard?  It is more likely that God exists in a form that is incomprehensible to us. 

In the Old Testament, Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was 90 when Issac was born. The average person lived 35 years when Jesus was alive and likely less during Abraham’s life, who lived 18 centuries earlier. Does the above story make literal sense?  I think it is more of a metaphor that God keeps his promises.  However, just stating that is pretty boring, it is much more memorable when attached to a lesson. 

Science has its dark side, and I see how some would want to reject aspects of it based on that.  My view is to embrace the good that science gives us.  Basic research provides us with the knowledge that turns into practical advancements.  I am also comfortable with the concept of God, a supreme being who has an active interest in our individual lives.  However, this belief is based on faith, not fact. I’m fine with that uncertainty.  The idea of being forced to say that I believe in the Bible verbatim is completely unnecessary.  I don’t need to believe that all life was created in 6 days or that barren Sarah was 90 years old when she gave birth to Issac.  Instead, I can look past concrete concepts and explore their real embedded message.