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It doesn’t have to be science vs. religion

The myth goes something like this: Science is about facts. Science tells us of things that are proven, that we can know with certainty. Religion is about beliefs and faith. Religion concerns things that we cannot prove, but that one must simply believe.

When this myth is pushed to the extreme, science is seen as being rational, enlightened, and standing on the side of knowledge. Christianity and other religions are viewed as backwards, superstitious, and authoritarian. It can come across as if one must decide whether to live a life according to science or Christianity.

The National Academy of Sciences published the following statement in 1981 seeking to build a wall between science and religion, “Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding in both scientific theory and religious belief.”

However, in recent years, science has begun to open the door to religion once again. The current issue of Wired magazine has a cover article on the new phenomenon in which the Smithsonian, Harvard, and other institutions are bringing physicists and theologians together for symposia. Linking spirituality and science is in fashion once again.

The action in dialogue is largely confined to physics, which is not surprising as recent work in Quantum Physics had physicists sounding like theologians anyway. For example, physicists found that to study an object changes the object and therefore the study. At a simple level this works as shining a light onto something to aid observation will change the behavior of the thing observed, whether it is an animal or subatomic particles.

Problems in observation causing change led noted scientist Werner Heisenberg to state, “The common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul is no longer adequate.” Is a scientist really discussing the interconnectedness of body and soul. What’s going on here? Scientists have found that they are positing reality on planes of existence, which cannot be proven by scientific method. This makes it increasingly difficult for scientists, who are honest with themselves, to throw stones at religious belief.

Is there a way for science and religion to peacefully coexist? I believe that science and religion promote different ways of viewing the world. This has been discussed, as science looks into the question “how” while religion is concerned with “Why?” But I don’t think it is so simple. People of faith have no reason not to wonder how, while scientists often push forward their understandings of the world by asking why.

Science is really a method. The scientific method tests ideas by observation and repeatable experiments. Noted preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor suggests the difference is that science is based on observation, while religion is based on revelation. We go get observation, while revelation is given to us. I think this distinction is helpful. There is no reason to dispense of either. But neither should they try to be fully reconciled.

We should get neither too excited when science seems to confirm our faith nor too bothered when science seems to contradict our faith. Science and religion are separate lines of inquiry into the same reality. Both our science and our faith are on a journey to a goal not yet reached, and we should let each run its course with the occasional check and balance from each other.

Albert Einstein is oft quoted weighing in on this issue saying, ”Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Discoveries from science can help illumine our faith. Likewise, a breakthrough in spirituality can help a scientist find new meaning in her or his work. These checks and balances become even more important as we move ahead as genetic research pushes ahead to new frontiers in what is possible. Some on the faith side currently choose to ignore any scientific discovery that seems to contradict their current understanding. I suggest that we neither ignore science nor place our faith in it.

I personally would not choose to give up all the advancements in medicine to return to a pre-enlightenment health care system. However, I would also hate to see science pushed ahead toward doing whatever is possible, with regard only to what can be done and never to what should be done. Therefore, while I suggest that the worlds of science and religion are largely separate, they need each other.

After all, humans seem hard-wired to ask the big questions like, “Why am I here?” and, “How did everything we see get here?” Science has shown that the more we understand, the muddier the water gets for the bigger questions. Scientific method alone can never answer these questions adequately.

Open your mind to revelation and see if God does not enter in to make more sense out of what you perceive through observation. Because, to really pursue meaning and purpose, you must move beyond the limits of science to spiritual experience that cannot be proven through scientific method. Spiritual breakthroughs are not repeatable in a lab as they involve a one-of-a-kind encounter with the divine.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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