The Relationship of Science and Religion

“Science is essentially asking why things happen and of course it’s been very successful in answering that question, but it’s not the only question to ask about what’s going on. You can also ask if there’s any meaning and purpose in what is going and that’s the subject of religion. They’re asking different questions and they’re looking at different types of experience.
Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian

That is a quote from The Scotsman, a very respected British newspaper, interview with the Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne, who is recognized as an expert in both religion and science. I found this interview extremely thoughtful and, obviously, quite interesting. I too have a background that includes both science and religion, although not as extensive and the Reverend Doctor’s. So my own views on the relation of science and religion are very close to his.

Contrary to what the religious fundamentalists believe and preach, there is no opposition between religion and science. One does not supersede or take precedence over the other. Each has its own rules of engaging experience; each has its own rules of explanation. Each has its own system of symbolic metaphors that it uses to offer understanding. And, as the good Reverend Doctor says, the two complement each other.

I do want to clarify something from the quote cited above, so as to avoid any of you misunderstanding what the Revered Doctor is saying. Do not take his quote to mean that religion and religion only provides meaning. Like so many words, “meaning” is multi-vocal – it has more than one definition. Meaning, as in the quote, refers to something cosmic, very profound in the sense of “the meaning of life.”

Science, like religion, is a cultural system. It also provides meaning but at a different level than, say, religion or politics. Religion provides meaning to the cosmic (ontological) concerns of humanity; science provides meaning to the cosmological questions. Science deals with knowledge – the Reason. Religion deals with faith – the assumptions from which knowledge works.

For example, a belief in one omniscient God – the basic tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition – means that there is some sort of order to the universe. It is lawful as opposed to chaotic. Science starts with that assumption – it does not prove it – and explains the details of that order. An example would be Newton’s Law od Gravity – one of the most basic postulates of all sciecne. Gravity is what keeps atoms together; it is what keeps the moon in its place and explains its movements; gravity explains why our solar system works the way it does – the motions of the heavens.

Now, the extreme fundamentalists, the ones that argue for an exact literal interpretation for each passage in Scripture, are the ones who have the most difficulty with the relationship between religion and science. The reason they do is because they substitute ancient science for religion and therefore miss the real meaning of what their religion is all about.

Christianity, as a case in point, is not about the exact date of Creation or even exactly how long it took. For the questions that religion answes, those are irrelevant concerns that science answers. The real point of the Creation story is to answer the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of the Universe? Why are humans so much different than any other animal?

Science can tell us how the Universe works, why it works the way it does, but it cannot tell us why the Universe exists in the first place. Science can tell us how we are different than the other animals; it can even tell us how we got that way. but it cannot tell us why we are different. What makes us so special so that we ended up with self-awareness, with the knowledge of Good and Evil. Religion provides answers to those questions.

But, like the answers of science, the answers of religion are not written in stone. As our ability to understand grows, and as our scientific understanding of the universe increases, our religious explanations – how we understand and explain the basic concepts of religion – must and does change, unless we are stuck in a time-warp. Six hundred years ago, the Catholic Church denied the concept of a heliocventric universe a d condemned the greatest scientific minds of the time, like Galileo, as heretics, even condemning some to the stake.

Scientific breakthoughs will often have serious repercussions on our religious metaphors. And those repercussions are often met with extreme resistance by orthodox religion, especially the orthodox bureaucracy. Religion, in the sense of religion as a cultural system, is a thorn in the side of the established order. It, by its very nature, is anti-establishment and the fact that religions develop institutionalized bureaucracies over time, is one of the most ironic features of the development of social systems. Every religion has its rebels and heretics – those that force the instutionalized orthodoxy to rethink and reshape itself. That’s what Jesus was to the institutionalized Judaism of his time. That’s what Buddha was to the institutionalized Hinduism of his time.


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