There is a widespread belief within the United States that science and religion are incompatible disciplines. The point is not merely that these disciplines study different objects or that they employ different methodologies, as the many sub-sciences study different phenomena using different methodologies. For example, the biological sciences employ different equipment, different standards of knowledge, and different procedures from a science such as astrophysics. We would expect this, since their objects of study are so vastly different in size, distance, and kind. But when people say that religion and science are incompatible, this is not what they mean. They mean, instead, that religion and science speak to the same objects and reach incompatible conclusions. For example, some people think that science has shown definitively that God does not exist, something that would be quite contrary to the conclusions of religion. Another example might be the existence of the human soul, many people being convinced that neuroscience has established definitively that all mental activity is produced by the brain without the need to reference a human soul. Thus, to many people, the conclusions of science and religion appear to contradict one another. But it doesn’t stop there—just with conclusions—but continues with methodology, for people further suppose that scientists employ solely quantifiable empirical data while religious folks feel their way into their questionable conclusions. Thus, with respect to both methodologies and conclusions, science and religion are thought by many to fundamentally contradict one another.
Religion is a science. The definition of “science” isn’t opposed to religion at all, since a science is any theoretical body of knowledge.
But do they? Let’s peel back the layers of this widely held supposition. First, religion is a science. The definition of “science” isn’t opposed to religion at all, since a science is any theoretical body of knowledge. Being a science doesn’t pertain to the methods of inquiry that one uses. Thus, biology makes use of quantifiable empirical data, while mathematics does not. For all that, both mathematics and biology are sciences. Mathematics is not an empirical science, nor would we classify it as a natural science, because its methodology is not sensory-based (i.e., it’s non-empirical) nor does it study natural objects (since numbers are found nowhere in the physical world.) But just as there are empirical sciences, so there are non-empirical sciences. Just as there are natural sciences, so there are non-natural sciences. No one would discount mathematics as a rationally respectable discipline just because it studies metaphysical objects rather than physical ones, would they? No, although people that really understand mathematics start to squirm when you press them on just what numbers actually are. They squirm because of a general prejudice within contemporary intellectual circles that everything in the universe is physical and can be explained with reference solely to physical processes. This doctrine used to be called Naturalism and nowadays is more frequently called Physicalism. Either way, it’s a doctrine that is both metaphysical and epistemological, for it purports to tell us what kinds of things exist and what kinds of things don’t (the metaphysics) as well as what sorts of methods of inquiry are acceptable and what sorts aren’t (the epistemology).
Mathematics is not an empirical science, nor would we classify it as a natural science, because its methodology is not sensory-based nor does it study natural objects.
Now, here’s the real clincher: one can conduct any of the natural, empirical sciences such as astronomy or biology without assuming Physicalism. In fact, one wonders how someone could conclude that Physicalism is true on the basis of biological sciences. How does the biologist know what does not exist in the universe? How could the successful employment of biological empirical methodologies imply that that methodology is the sole epistemology useful for studying any possible object? And that’s an especially telling question, since the mathematician overtly makes no use of empirical epistemologies in his field!
Let’s turn to religion. Religion purports to study all kinds of objects including human nature, the human soul, God, angels, ghosts, demons, sin, redemption, charity, hope, justice, and goodness (and a host of others). There is some overlap here with the realm of ethics, of course, another theoretical body of knowledge whose methodologies employ both empirical and non-empirical epistemologies. Both ethics and religion attempt to offer an account of the kinds of objects they are studying, as well as the properties of those objects and how those objects relate to one another and to other kinds of objects. For example, a theist declares that God exists. We ask him, who is God? He answers with a list of the standard infinite qualities of God, all powerful, all knowing, all good, etc. We then ask him, who is God to us? He answers with a list of the relations between God and man, that God created man, that God loves man, that God seeks a reciprocal relationship of love with man, etc. The theist is offering a metaphysics of the divine, telling us what God is as well as what God’s properties are and how he relates to other objects. That metaphysics entails theoretical integrity, because we require that the various elements all hang together coherently. As such, religion is a science. It studies both natural and non-natural objects. As for its epistemology, its theory of knowledge and methodology, it employs both rational and empirical modes of inquiry.
We cannot just assume that for a being whose definition includes being non-physical that he cannot exist or that he does not exist. There’s nothing in principle about being non-physical that is logically impossible. Numbers are possible and they are non-physical.
Now, it could be that the theist is incorrect in his conclusions about God. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe God is not all-powerful. Maybe God hates man. We wouldn’t know any of this until we looked. And that’s really the crucial issue: you cannot know a priori that God does not exist, is not all-powerful, and doesn’t love man. Because God is a logically coherent object (meaning, his definition does not entail a contradiction), we can establish the conditions on which a body of knowledge about him can be formed. We cannot just assume that for a being whose definition includes being non-physical that he cannot exist or that he does not exist. There’s nothing in principle about being non-physical that is logically impossible. Numbers are possible and they are non-physical. We also cannot just assume that the sole kind of evidence that could be garnered to support conclusions about God’s existence, nature, and relations must be empirical.
Mental states are irreducibly quite real, for they are necessary for any and all scientific methodologies, because the process of gathering and evaluating data is a mental process. Another way to say this is this: you cannot take the scientist out of science. Science isn’t a body of know-ledge unless there are know-ers.
Let’s briefly look at the science of ethics as well, to help broaden this point. Ethics purports to study persons (i.e., moral agents), their metaphysical conditions (e.g., freedom to act and be responsible for those actions), and their relationships of obligation to other persons and to non-persons. Ethics sometimes makes use of empirical methodologies and sometimes doesn’t. Ethical explanations include references to our inner mental states and mental experiences, phenomena that are quite real. In fact, we can go so far as to say that those mental states are irreducibly quite real. What does that mean? It means that those mental states are necessary to posit for any and all scientific methodologies, because the process of gathering and evaluating data is a mental process. Another way to say this is this: you cannot take the scientist out of science. Science isn’t a body of know-ledge unless there are know-ers out there. To know requires mental states. Thus, mental activity is a necessary condition for all scientific epistemology, whether it be empirical or non-empirical. The scientist always views the data as it appears to him within his own mind. Thus, mind cannot be reduced away in scientific methodology. This doesn’t explain what mind is, of course, but it means that we cannot simply dismiss it, any more than we can dismiss the metaphysical question of what numbers are. Thus, ethics refers to human experiences that include widespread mental reference to experiences such as duty, guilt, obligation, love, friendship, retribution, ownership, as well as many others. These experiences are reported across time and space within the greater human community, allowing us to generalize and recognize universal structures that appear to apply to all human beings. Ethicists then try to make sense of those structures, justifying them, organizing them, and applying them to human behavior. Our legal system employs the results of those ethical inquiries, carving out laws and penalties for disobedience to laws, laws that enjoy surprising commonality across time and space. Ethics is accordingly a very robust science.
You might wonder what isn’t a science, given this classical definition of science. Aristotle contrasted sciences with arts. If you look at your university, you will probably find a College of Arts & Sciences, employing exactly that old distinction. Sciences relate to things to be known, while arts pertain to things that must be done. Thus, we classify biology into the sciences, while we categorize ceramics as an art. But there is extensive overlap, since biologists employ highly refined methodologies in their science, methodologies that must be done, i.e., biological arts. And potters employ a great deal of theory to properly form ceramics, i.e., they rely on sciences. All arts and all sciences ultimately depend upon one another in order to be accomplished. The definition of science and art is less an attempt at a rigorous separation and more an attempt to identify the ultimate goals of different disciplines. The biologist wants to know life, while the potter wants to make ceramics. Hence, we classify the biologist as a scientist and the potter as an artist.
You will quickly realize that religion and ethics also include both scientific and artistic elements. Ethics seeks to know what our duties are, but it also seeks to help and motivate us to perform them, something to be done, an art. Similarly, religion isn’t just a body of knowledge, but a practice, for the objects of study quickly involve the human-divine relationship, exposing a great many things that God or man does or must do, an art.
Can you believe in both science and religion? Since religion is a science, the obvious answer is yes. In fact, the Church has always held that religion adds to what is known via the natural sciences.
Now let’s return to our starting question: can you believe in both science and religion? Since religion is a science, the obvious answer is yes. In fact, the Church has always held that religion adds to what is known via the natural sciences. Christians historically don’t pit the natural sciences against the additional information that the Church possesses about the universe. When Jesus told us that in the afterlife, human beings would be resurrected with bodies but not enter marital unions, he told us information that we could not have predicted and that we cannot possibly verify on this side of things. But if Jesus is God, then what he says is true. So, we can add that information about human destiny to our current understanding of human beings derived from sciences such as sociology, biology, anthropology, history, literature, and ethics. Thus, religion expands our understanding rather than restricts it.
Some people worry that the natural sciences disprove religious conclusions or obviate them. Let’s examine both of these worries in closing. How could a natural science disprove the existence of a non-physical object? The only conclusion that natural science could make is that its methodologies are insufficient and inappropriate to the object under question. Let’s take an example such as the Big Bang. Sometimes people are under the impression that the Big Bang proves that God does not exist. But why would that follow? How does a massive explosion at the beginning of space-time entail that an infinite immaterial mind does not exist? The one has nothing whatsoever to do with the other . . . unless we import the doctrine of physicalism. But physicalism is not the conclusion of any particular science, but is instead brought to those sciences as a meta-metaphysic and a meta-epistemology.
How could a natural science disprove the existence of a non-physical object? The only conclusion that natural science could make is that its methodologies are insufficient and inappropriate to the object under question.
But might the natural sciences obviate the need for religious objects? For example, let’s suppose that a statue of Mary begins to weep. People flock to the location and hysterically attempt to kiss the statue. At night sober minded people call in experts to evaluate the statue (something you might be interested to find out the Church herself does), and they find that someone created an elaborate hoax to produce “tears.” In this situation we do not need a divine explanation for the phenomenon. That is entirely correct. In this particular situation a religious object was not needed to explain the phenomenon. Is it possible that natural physical explanation might prevail in every alleged divinely caused event? We wouldn’t know until we looked at every one of them. Have you? If not, you cannot conclude that religious objects don’t exist, because you are bringing that prejudice to the inquiry, nay, even stronger, you are bringing that prejudice in order to obviate the inquiry!
What’s more, if you do look at the evidence for near death experiences, end of life experiences, angelic interventions, and miraculous intervention in health and human life, you find broad quantifiable patterns of data which directly undermine the physicalist position and show definitively that human consciousness exceeds the brain and can operate as an immaterial substance, i.e., a soul. In the last twenty years significant research studies have opened up into these areas by very reputable investigators at major universities and institutions. To dip your foot into this data, have a look at Surviving Death by Leslie Kean. You will be shocked. In the face of this evidence, why hasn’t the physicalist hypothesis been widely disbanded? That’s a good question.
But there’s a second point to be considered here: explanations of phenomena experienced by human beings isn’t the sole methodology employed in the science of religion. There are many strictly rational arguments for the existence of God, arguments that are far more compelling than most people might realize. And let’s face it: none of us is very happy with the notion that everything came from nothing. That smacks of a fundamental violation of causality. God isn’t easy to dispose of.
Religion is a rational science whose conclusions fit into a broader understanding of the world than physicalists are wont to accept. But religion and its companion science ethics make sense of our human experience far more than physicalism does.
So, what’s the conclusion of the matter? You won’t know till you look. That’s the take-away principle. Religion is a rational science whose conclusions fit into a broader understanding of the world than physicalists are wont to accept. But religion and its companion science ethics make sense of our human experience far more than physicalism does with its reduction of human behavior to determined brain states. Being religious does not mean you have to reject the conclusions of science. You should follow what the sciences are discovering avidly, because God gave us our minds for the purpose of inquiry. But don’t confuse the conclusions of a particular natural scientific discipline on this or that matter with the philosophical presumption of physicalism and its attendant atheistic dogma.