Is religion a threat to science?

Science is about establishing rigorous answers to questions about how nature works. This is an important process that is quite reliable if done properly by proposing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses in well-structured experiments, and drawing conclusions that other scientists can try to replicate to make sure they are right.

So if we want to answer questions about how biology works, for example, science is the way to get there. But some scientists are very troubled by the suggestion that other approaches can help us get at the truth about nature.

Some scientists see faith as a threat to the scientific method and therefore something to be resisted. But belief in its correct perspective raises a different set of questions—ones that lie beyond science in the philosophical realm. Both approaches are necessary for a fuller understanding of life.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Science tries to get rigorous answers to questions about how nature works and this is a very important process that is actually quite reliable if done properly by generating hypotheses and testing those by accumulating data and then drawing conclusions. which are constantly revised to ensure they are correct.

So if you want to answer questions about how nature works, how biology works, for example, science is the way to get there. Scientists believe this and are very disturbed by the suggestion that other kinds of approaches can be used to get at the truth about nature.

And I think some have seen faith as a threat to the scientific method, and therefore should be opposed. But belief in her correct perspective does ask a different set of questions. And so I think there need be no conflict here.

The kinds of questions that faith can help with are more in the philosophical realm. “Why are we all here?” “Why is there something instead of nothing?”—Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that these are not scientific questions and that science has nothing to say about them? But you either have to say, “Well, these are irrelevant questions and we can’t discuss them.” Or you have to say, “We need something besides science to pursue some of the things that people are curious about.”

It makes perfect sense to me. But I think that for many scientists, especially those who have seen cutting statements from extreme views that threaten what they do scientifically, and therefore feel that they cannot really incorporate these thoughts into their own worldview, faith can be viewed as an enemy. And similarly, on the other hand, some of my fellow scientists who are of atheistic persuasion sometimes use science as a club over the heads of believers; basically suggesting that anything that can’t be reduced to a scientific question is not important and is just superstition – we need to get rid of it.

Part of the problem is that I think the extremists have occupied the scene; these voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but that’s not the whole story. There is also a place for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy, but not so much attention is paid to this perspective of harmony.

I’m afraid nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict. My study of genetics certainly tells me beyond doubt that Darwin was right about the nature of how living things came onto the scene by descent from a common ancestor under the influence of natural selection over very long periods of time. Darwin was amazingly perceptive considering how limited the molecular information he had was – it was essentially non-existent. Now with the digital code of DNA, we have the best possible proof of Darwin’s theory that he could have imagined.

So this certainly tells me something about the nature of living things, but it actually adds to my feeling that this is an answer to a “how” question and leaves the “why” question hanging in the air. Other aspects of our universe, I think for me as well as for Einstein, raised questions about the possibility of an intelligence behind it all. Why, for example, do the constants that determine the behavior of matter and energy, such as the gravitational constant, for example, have exactly the value they need for there to be any complexity in the universe at all?

It’s pretty breathtaking because of the improbability of it ever happening. And it really makes you think that a “mind” may have been involved in setting the scene. At the same time, this does not necessarily mean that this mind controls the specific manipulations of things that occur in the natural world. I would actually be very opposed to that idea. I think the laws of nature could potentially be a product of the mind. I think that’s a defensible perspective, but once these laws are in place, then I think nature continues and science has the chance to be able to understand how this works and what the consequences are.

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