Of science and religion

I am not a scientist. I did not study science in college or graduate school. My passion became philosophy and religion. Both of those topics require a healthy respect for history. You have to understand that there is an evolution of thought. The ideas with which we wrestle are bigger than ourselves. We did not come up with the concepts upon which our religious beliefs are based in a single generation. If you read the Bible, you discover that even basic ideas such as the existence of one God, took generations of struggle to emerge from a wide range of different ideas and notions about the world.

Although I am not a scientist, I have deep respect for scientific method. I have no doubt that the quality of life that we enjoy is directly enhanced by the discoveries of scientists and their ability to maintain a discipline of consistent observation and careful testing of theories. In many ways science and religion are deeply connected, which explains why the church has been so involved in science and science education through much of its history. The contemporary notion that religion and science are somehow opposed has only been around for about a century and seems to thrive in places where education and history are not the focus of thought and conversation. So, as a pastor, I often hear complaints about religion from some of my scientist friends that come from misperceptions about the nature of religious thought. And I also hear criticisms of science from religious friends that are based in a lack of knowledge of scientific method.

Both science and religion have their foundations in the simple observation of the world around us. The ancients looked at the world and tried to come up with ways of explaining what they observed. They perceived beauty and were awed at the grandeur of landscapes and vistas. They observed the ways of life and death and sought explanations of what they saw. Their observations led them to develop methods of measuring. This process of observing and measuring led to the basic techniques and tenants of science. It also led to the development, over centuries of observations, of a language to speak of what was observed. Mathematics Is a consistent language to describe observations and record measurements.

In this process, people became aware that there are forces and realities in nature that cannot be directly observed. This led to a mistaken notion that religion was the realm of things that cannot be measured. We sometimes call this “theology of the gaps.” When we come to something that science cannot explain, we relegate that area to religion. As science grows and expands in its capacity to observe, the areas left to religion get smaller and smaller. It is an interesting theory, but it is inaccurate. Religion is not just speculation about that which is not understood. And there is plenty of speculation that is not particularly religious in nature.

I have a friend who is a particle physicist. A phrase that I often hear from him is, “If the math is correct . . “ If the math is correct, scientists will some day be able to detect particles which are too small to be directly observed. If the math is correct, the distances between objects in the universe is getting greater and the universe is expanding. When he speaks this way, I am reminded of how much speculation is a part of science.

There is, in science, a concept that is known with the rather unexciting name of a theory of everything or T.O.E. In principle, a theory of everything would explain all of nature in terms of a single force, so to speak. In search of this theory the assumption is made that the essence of nature is mathematical. Einstein spend decades searching for a theory of everything, a unifying theory that would explain every part of nature.

From a human perspective, however, the search for a theory of everything will forever be an impossible quest. Even if we were able to come up with a theory that explains everything we now know, new discoveries are always being made. New observations bring awareness of things that were not previously known. As soon as we think we had explained everything, something new is observed. We humans are finite. It is not possible for us to know everything.

Despite our urge to observe and measure and explain all the we perceive, the nature of the universe is not static. The universe is constantly changing. Things don’t stay the same in one neat pattern. We grow in knowledge and understanding.

Practitioners of religion often make mistakes that are similar to those made by scientists. Faithful people have been known to act as if religious knowledge has somehow been fully received. They speak as if everything that can be known or needs to be known could be contained in the Bible, for example. They fail to study the history behind the Bible and the reasons why particular words were collected into the book that is foundational to our faith. Often people want to confine their understanding of the Bible to a single perspective as if it were some consistent, unified theory of everything. It is not. It is a collection of the stories of faithful people. It contains truth far beyond a single generation. And it is constantly subject to interpretation and application to new situations and circumstances.

In religion we teach the concept of humility. We humans are not God. We are not all knowing. We are not all seeing. We have limits. Being aware of our limits is essential to understanding our place in the vastness of the universe. But we have not always practiced the humility well. We sometimes assume the we understand more than we are able. We sometimes speak as if we possess truth that is beyond us.

In this ever-changing world, I find much joy at the intersection of science and religion, where mutual respect allows for continuing discovery of an ever-changing world. That, sprinkled with a dose of appreciation of beauty and a touch of awe, gives a place where we continue to learn and grow and open ourselves to new ways of seeing and thinking and understanding.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!