Science and religion are complements

Thinking about physics will help prove that religion and science stand side-by-side

Asking whether or not religion conflicts with science is too broad a question. Of course there are certain religions that conflict with science; Christian fundamentalism, with its claims of God creating the world in six days and the human race springing from a woman tempted by a talking snake, obviously conflicts with well-established science. Yet there are many other religions which do not conflict with science. As a Catholic, I have not once encountered a belief held by the Church that contradicts anything that I have learned during my time in high school or time here as a physics major at MIT.

Some might find this surprising; I was once chatting with a friend who told me that she could never be Catholic because she “believed in evolution.” The Catholic Church subscribes to the theory of evolution, as do most Jews and some sects of Islam. One of the most common reasons individuals believe that science and a given religion conflict is that they have misunderstood the beliefs of that religion. This makes sense, as many popular movies and television shows have portrayed all Christians, regardless of sect, as ignorant bible-thumpers who believe that people rode dinosaurs.

Of course these are caricatures, and obviously not representative, but when it’s all people have to go off of, they may assume that it is at least a first-order approximation of what Christians really believe. As such, I encourage individuals to gain a more complete understanding of what different religious beliefs actually entail before assuming that, by nature of being religious, religion conflicts with science.

Thus the answer to the question posed in the first paragraph is trivial: it depends on which religion you’re referring to. The more interesting and nuanced question is whether having any belief system which can be neither confirmed nor refuted by science is inherently in conflict with the scientific method and the body of knowledge we’ve amassed. The answer to this question, as you will see, is that having such a belief system is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being in conflict with science.

Let me first point out that religion and science have many similarities. Unless God pops down from Heaven to kindly prove his existence for us, religious beliefs cannot be proven to be true; they are taken on faith. Some scientists may find this laughable, but science has the identical characteristic, which is also its greatest strength. By and large, scientific theories can never be proven to be correct. Evidence can be gathered in support of it, but we can never know with 100 percent certainty if gravity actually works the way we think. Sure, general relativity describes it well, but as so many professors emphasize here, our scientific theories are models. We continuously refine those models as new information comes to light. Less commonly known is that religions do the same thing. The beliefs of a religion are re-examined and refined as time passes and new knowledge is attained. In fact, some religions, such as Catholicism, gather groups of its members periodically for that explicit purpose.

While both disciplines gather evidence, it might be argued by some that the evidence in science is a lot more solid than that in religion. After all, science has the ability to measure things quantitatively, but religion cannot measure how much of the “God Field” is manifest in a church. Even so, religions have also gathered evidence; it’s just a different kind, taking the form of texts, claims of miracles, and other personal evidence. Some find that evidence compelling enough to form a belief, others do not. Is that so different from science? Today, we have extensive measurements of gravity, but everyone disagrees on what gravity is. Recent research suggests it might be an entropic force while others support the “brane theory” of gravity. Quantum mechanics, a field that dates back to the early 1900s, is still argued about today. Does the wave function actually collapse, or are there an infinite number of universes, one for each possible state as Many-Worlds claims? It is not the evidence in science or religion that is in question — it’s what people make of it. It’s the interpretations that split them into Jews and Muslims, or subscribers to the Copenhagen Interpretation and believers of the Many-Worlds hypothesis. Each interpretation of the religious evidence throughout history that has spurned the creation of so many different sets of beliefs is a unique faith. Similarly, each interpretation of quantum mechanics is nothing more, and nothing less, than a faith.

What of so-called “miracles”? Many religions use such events as evidence to support religious claims, yet walking on water is not supported by science. But science has not presented any evidence in direct conflict to the claim that an all-powerful being could not change the rules locally or utilize some force that we do not yet understand to perform the miracle. This is in important contrast to claims that are held onto despite being in direct conflict with science and capable of being proved impossible, such as the creation of the world a few thousand years ago. Miracles are an example of one of the elements of religion that science has nothing to say about, just like religion has nothing to say about general relativity. Science is apathetic to whether or not a supreme being could bend the laws of physics locally and religion is apathetic to whether or not general relativity is the best description of gravity.

A final argument that might be made by those who believe that science and religion conflict under the nuanced definition I provided in the beginning would be that, as religion lacks certain aspects of the scientific method, it does not hold the same weight as science. Yet this claim is based on the assumption that the scientific method is in some way superior to the “religious method,” which I will define as gathering evidence, reflecting personally, and developing an interpretation of that evidence. The scientific method is as superior to the religious method as a recipe for cookies is to one for brownies; they have two completely different goals, which will of course have different methodologies. It just doesn’t make sense to apply the same process to both fields. The religious method is relatively useless in science, and the scientific method is relatively useless in religion. As Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” So let’s judge each of these fields by the distinct criteria that apply to them.

Religion and science do not contradict each other. They are both systems which produce theories that some people will have faith in, albeit through different methodologies. Science is concerned with describing and predicting the universe; religion is concerned with explaining it. Believing in some religion is not inherently a sufficient condition to be in conflict with science. Only when religion makes claims that are obviously refutable by well-established scientific evidence is it ever in conflict with science, but that’s the trivial, uninteresting case. In fact, many believe that science and religion complement each other well. Each covers one domain and largely stays out of the other; when you put them together, you have a solid “Theory of Everything.” No one can say with certainty whether or not a God exists; as long as science cannot disprove the possibility, the two disciplines will continue to complement each other well.

Dave Stacey about 12 years ago

The argument started over the discover of created celestial humans and horses on the photosphere of the Sun. Celestial humans created by convection raising them up through a granule transformation and celestial horses created through Sun spots assisted from the spot by celestial humans that always surround spots.

Dave Stacey, physic research

Glen Allen, VA

Marty Kay Zee about 12 years ago

Atheism is to religion as abstinence is to a sex orgy.

Aaron about 12 years ago

I liked the article! Although, 40 of the US is creationist, and it's a good bet many Catholics are too, a la Rick Santorum. But yeah, it's great that the Vatican has gotten out of the way of science.

Anyway here's my take on the opposing point of view. I hope you find it constructive.

"but science has the identical characteristic, which is also its greatest strength"

Yes, scientific theories cannot be proven true, but they CAN be proven false. This subtle difference is essential. Atheists are skeptical of religion because the claims are unfalsifiable, NOT because they can't be proven true. So the similarity you draw isn't really the relevant part.

"science has not presented any evidence in direct conflict to the claim that an all-powerful being could not change the rules"

Science doesn't have to. Of COURSE science can't disprove an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Science isn't a thing, it's just skeptical inquiry. Consider why you apply skepticism to some things (alien encounters, there are 1000s of abductees) but not other things (miracle claims). I think most atheists would say that it's the fact that one treats religious claims differently - even though they are still claims about the physical world - that is inconsistent with sound, truth-seeking thought.

The "scientific method" simply means "skeptical inquiry." Anything else is "credulous inquiry." I'm not trying to be facetious or mean here, but skeptical and credulous are complementary terms and there's not really anything in between. Personal reports aren't a different type of evidence, they're just shoddy evidence. Witnesses are unreliable. That's why we dismiss UFO reports - and miracle reports.

Skepticism is about being unbiased about the facts we have. It can't give us morals, or meaning in life. What you define as the "religious method" might be a good way of doing that. But nonbelievers would just prefer the term philosophy.

By the way, did Einstein really say that? I can't prove he didn't, but I couldn't find any reliable source on google. :)

Dr. Arv Edgeworth about 12 years ago

Scientific evidence has no meaning in and of itself. Scientific evidence has to be interpreted, or it has no meaning at all. There are two basic worldviews: natural and supernatural. The real problem is not being able to separate your worldview from real science.

Real science is neutral toward the supernatural, not anti. When anyone speaks in negative terms toward the supernatural, they are functioning according to their worldview, not according to science. Real science should be unbiased about the facts we have, you will find very little of that in the field of science today.

In a debate over creation versus evolution, it will be called science versus religion, even if both sides are made up of scientists. Whenever scientific evidence points to the supernatural as the best possible answer, it will be labeled as religious in nature, when it is just evidence.

Fact: Human artifacts have been found in every rock strata, clear down into the so-called Pre-Cambrian. That would disprove evolution. Whenever such evidence is discovered it is labeled as an anomaly and placed in the basement of a museum somewhere. It will never be used to test the theory of evolution.

Question: Which came first, the belief that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor, or the fossil of the ape-like ancestor on which the belief was based upon? Oh yeah, I guess that is why they are called "missing links."

The theory of evolution is a philosophical worldview, not science. It is just one way of interpreting the evidence. Both worldviews have the same evidence, your worldview will determine how you will interpret the evidence.

"Once upon a time, long ago and far away, millions of years ago." This is the opening line of "From the Goo to You, By Way of the Zoo." It is the favorite Fairy Tale for people who don't understand real science.

Dave Stacey about 12 years ago

The problem is complimentary. It may be interpreted two ways. Physics will interpret it as an unsolved natural cause. Christians will interpret it as a supernatural cause because of it's unsolved status.

Dave Stacey, 67, Physics Research

Glen Allen, VA

Ted Christopher about 12 years ago

Hi, I would argue differently.

Science considers life as a material-only phenomena, whereas religions posit a deeper aspect beginning with the existence of souls. Note I am putting the God question - and physics - on the back burner.

I would argue that if science can compete this material-only description satisfactorily, then you they would greatly marginalize religions and their fundamental beliefs. For many intellectuals in our society this is already presumed to be the case.

The real challenge for science - and I would argue the crux of the religion and science debate - is that the cornerstone belief that DNA "created us body and mind" is not panning out. Not at all. This is referred to as the "missing heritability" problem. From a scientific perspective it should be acknowledged that life might contain some significant inexplicable content/processes.

From the soul-side of the religious perspective, one could approach this mystery thru the very common pre-modern transcendental perspective. This would handle the obvious stuff - prodigies, inexplicable phobias, young children's innate souls/gods understanding (see for example "Born Believers"), and unexpected sexual orientations (most prominently transgenders). Other behavioral mysteries and a general complementary relationship to the body(/science) realm could be laid out (as in a 2011 paper). Note I am endorsing a "complementary" relationship but in a different way than posited by Ryan Normandin.

Concluding, I think religions are probably on to something although they seems rigidly set against investigating and clarifying their understanding of a deeper reality. This is sort of opposite of the position of modern science (and also intellectuals) who appear completely locked into a material-only, bio-robotic vision.

Melissa Skan about 12 years ago

Thanks for the article. Most of it seemed reasonable. I liked the idea of religion being a way of explaining scientific phenomena, giving meaning to the physical world. I guess my primary question is, why does it need an explanation? Isn't this just a personal desire constructed by humans (possibly other animals, too, though I would assume not to the same extent) to believe they are important? With the view that an explanation is artificial, I would argue that religion is not critical to, but accessory to life.

Jeremy Thorpe about 12 years ago

Dr. Edgworth- You are right to say real science is neutral toward the supernatural, and if geologists had actually found human artifacts in every rock strata, that would be an amazing discovery that would rock the scientific community. I emphasized in because as you are well aware erosion can, and has, led to humans living on every rock strata today. If I find a bear can on a billion year old piece of earth, that isnt proof that humans drank bear a billion years ago. The vast conspiracy that you claim about the scientific community, doesnt exist. There is no evidence hidden in the basement. If there were it would be presented, because even Atheist scientists simply want answers. We dont care what those answers are and we wouldnt hide evidence because that would be self-defeating. If scientists discovered the earth was geologically 6000 years old and that human evidence is found in every rock layer, then that is what we would believe. Like I said, we dont care what the findings are, we just collect them. If I, as an Agnostic, found undisputed human remains in the stomach of a T-rex, I would be famous. That would be an incredible discovery for science, not something any scientist would try and hide. It is unfortunate for you that the real evidence doesnt support your views, but science isnt out to get you. And saying something is Fact without any evidence to back it up, isnt science.

Jeremy Thorpe about 12 years ago

Im sorry. I just realized that I typed bear instead of beer. However, if you do happen to crack open a can of bear, please drink carefully. Great article by the way. I was not aware that any Christians had integrated evolution and an old universe into their beliefs.

Jeremy Thorpe about 12 years ago

Im sorry. I just realized that I typed bear instead of beer. However, if you do happen to crack open a can of bear, please drink carefully. Great article by the way. I was not aware that any Christians had integrated evolution and an old universe into their beliefs.

wavettore about 12 years ago

Science and Religion should ultimately be able to walk hand in hand.

We should put aside the belief that to accept science means to also reject

faith in God. Instead we should aim for an understanding of God that is not in

contrast with science and while Religion could look beyond any scientific data

no Religion should continue to exist only because it can speculate on the

ignorance or misinformation of the people.

The Progressive Science of Wavevolution reveals the existence of One

God as it was not possible until now for Religions and traditional science.

Wavevolution shows how the energy movement in atoms and in waves is


Thus, the Creation is revealed by one same movement.

We can now define this behavior as One Law, or One Direction or also One

Will since It remains unchanged from the beginning.

The source of attraction between two opposite and complementary elements is

the same Law or Will that provides for the existence of One Order in the Universe.

All forms of energy in the Universe are orchestrated by a constant

rearrangement of their magnetic fields as if they were the many pawns moving mechanically in One eternal Chess Game played by the same Hand.

The discovery of the existence of One Universal Law and One Order in the Universe that had one beginning (at the Time of the Big Bang) not caused by Humankind confirm as a consequence the existence of One Creator.


Dr Tony Fleming over 11 years ago

I think this is correct. Just like the wave-particle duality, competition and cooperation in evolution (not well known) and yin and yang, and many other forms of complementarity known to science and life in general,science and religion is another one.