Though they both attempt to explain the world, religion and science are essentially opposites. Science relies on testable empirical evidence, while religion is subjective, meaning any “evidence” exists in our own minds and the writings of our ancestors — so is it truly possible for the two concepts to coexist? Coming from someone who has come to a crossroads with their faith due to a greater understanding of science, I believe the answer to this question is yes.
I have always identified as a religious person. In fact, praying every night is the thing that keeps me most in touch with myself, my hopes, fears and feelings. As a pharmaceutical sciences major, however, I have found myself questioning my faith. With my expanding knowledge of science and its dependence on proof and physical evidence, having faith in something that is completely intangible has its challenges. Many stories in religious script are physically impossible; the idea of resurrection, for example.
Interestingly enough, science and religion were actually unified in our country’s early history. Many writers from ancient times were considering religious and scientific questions at the same time, and did not necessarily think of them as different topics and certainly not conflicting ones. Steven Clark, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Michigan, reminds us that “the modern notion of a scientific method arose among very religious people whose very religion was part of their drive to understand the natural world.”
The fact of the matter is, religion and science should be appreciated both as separate entities and as interrelated concepts. There are certain questions we can answer with science, such as how viruses and diseases spread, and others we can gain insight into through religion, such as the reason why we must suffer from said viruses and diseases. In other words, the reason science exists is to help people, whereas religion exists to teach us to have the compassion to want to help people. In this way, the two concepts come together. In fact, there is an entire subject matter, bioethics, that essentially combines science with the moral frameworks that religion offers.
On top of that, the idea of science itself is more indeterminate than we think, because our current knowledge of the universe is constantly changing. For example, Clark points out that recent discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope are overturning decades of research about our galaxy structure. He elaborates on this idea: “I never say, ‘I believe in evolution,’ because saying that would not be in accordance with the scientific method. I would rather say, ‘there is a tremendous amount of experimental evidence that is consistent with our theory of evolution and no other competing theory explains this evidence as well.’”
This reminds us that the scientific method is not necessarily claiming that it is the truth (though it could be), but rather helping us discover the truth. Clark drives this point home in pointing out that “inherent in the scientific method is that we are never describing the truth. We are simply describing our current best understanding of the natural world. There are no ‘truths’ in science, only our best current understanding.”
Many of religion’s idiosyncrasies can be written off when we remind ourselves that religion is based in storytelling. We must acknowledge that many of the stories in scripture are from thousands of years ago. Many scholars take note of the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible and attribute these flaws to the idea that the Bible was likely passed down orally before being written. Word-of-mouth can be very unreliable — as we all learned as children playing the game of telephone where the statement at the end is completely different from the original one.
Perhaps some of the stories we read are exaggerations of the original occurrence. This does not invalidate their significance, but simply reminds us that storytelling and framing are important. Sometimes stories are even modified as beliefs and perspectives change, much like science changes as what we discover expands. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was at odds with the United States Congress for about 40 years regarding their practice of polygamy. When the government went to seize all of the church’s assets in 1890, suddenly a vision came to then-LDS President Wilford Woodruff showing that polygamy must be stopped, or the church would perish. This spurred Woodruff to release a manifesto that banned polygamy.
Based on the idea of religious evolution, we can see how changing times often cause changing beliefs. History has shown that religions unwilling to change do not survive; therefore, even religion must be subject to change. Maybe religion is not necessarily postulating that it is the truth, much in the way that Professor Clark acknowledges that science is “never describing truth.” Change and evolution are inherent to beliefs and, despite the differences between religion and science, they are two belief systems that attempt to explain our world.
Rather than thinking of these two entities as binary, such as right and wrong or truth and fiction, religion and science are not so much in opposition but exist alongside each other for the sake of understanding and meaning. Science might seem to be an unchangeable fact rooted in numbers and proofs, where religion is fluid and malleable, untethered from any kind of numerical solidity.
Ultimately, change is inherently a part of both ideas as what we know transforms. The permanence of science is not complete, just as the frivolity of religion is not presumed. One can be a realist, a scientist, while still believing in a higher power. One extreme does not obviate the other, but instead reinforces the importance of collective comprehension. Religion ensures that what becomes of science will be meaningful, and science allows religion a place to be told, chosen and interpreted.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org