Modern science has surely been the most impressive intellectual development since the 16th century. Religion, of course, has been around for much longer, and is presently flourishing, perhaps as never before. True, there is this thesis of secularism, according to which science and technology, on one hand, and religion, on the other, are inversely related: as the former waxes, the latter wanes. Recent resurgences of religion and religious belief in many parts of the world, however, cast considerable doubt on this thesis. Thus, the relation between these two great cultural forces has been exciting, many-faceted, and confusing.
There are many important issues and questions in this regard. Out of which perhaps the most salient question is whether the relation between religion and science is characterized by conflict or by concord. Of course it is possible that there be both conflict and concord: conflict along certain dimensions, concord along others. Other important issues neighbouring this are the nature of religion, the nature of science, the theories of science and of religious belief, and the question on how religious belief figures into the conflict or concord between religion and science.
The first thing to say, here, is that it is exceedingly difficult to characterize these phenomena. First, consider science: what exactly is science? How can we characterize it? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a given inquiry or theory or claim to be scientific, a part of science? This is far from easy to say. Many conditions have been proposed as essential to science. According to Jacques Monod, “The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective.” In the 1930s, the eminent German Chemist Walther Nernst claimed that science, by definition, requires an infinite universe; hence Big Bang theory, he claimed, isn’t science. Another proposed constraint is that science can’t involve moral judgments, or value judgments more generally.
Clearly there is an intimate connection between the nature of science and its aim, the conditions under which something is successful science. Some say the aim of science is explanation (whether or not this is put in the service of truth). Some (realists) say the aim of science is to produce true theories; others say the aim of science is to produce empirically adequate theories, whether or not they are true. Some say science can’t deal with the subjective, but only with what is public and shareable. While some argue that science can deal only with what is repeatable; while there are others who deny this.
If it is difficult to give an account of the nature of science, it is not much easier to say just what a religion is. Of course there are multifarious examples: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and many others. What characteristics are necessary and sufficient for something’s being a religion? How does one distinguish a religion from a way of life, such as Confucianism? That’s not easy to say. Not all religions involve belief in something like the almighty and all-knowing, morally perfect God of the theistic religions, or even in any supernatural beings at all. Of course a substantial majority of them do. Theism is the belief that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing perfectly good immaterial person who has created the world, has created human beings ‘in his own image,’ and to whom we owe worship, obedience and allegiance. But with respect to our present inquiry, what is of special importance is the notion of a religious belief: what does a belief have to be like to be religious?
Once more, that’s not easy to say. Some propose that the intelligent designer of the living world is religion, not science. But not just any belief involving God, is automatically religious. According to the New Testament book of James, “the devils believe [that God exists] and tremble”; the devils’ beliefs, presumably, aren’t religious. Someone might propose theories about an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good being as a key part of a metaphysical system: belief in such theories need not be religious. And what about a system of beliefs that answers the same great human questions answered by the clear examples of religion: questions about the fundamental nature of the universe and what is most real and basic in it, about the place of human beings in that universe, about whether there is such a thing as sin, and if there is, what there is to be done about it, where we must look to improve the human condition, whether human beings survive their deaths and how a rational person should act? Will any system of beliefs that provides answers to those questions count as a religion? Again, not easy to say; probably not. The truth here, perhaps, is that a belief isn’t religious just in itself. The property of being religious isn’t intrinsic to a belief; it is rather one a belief acquires when it functions in a certain way in the life of a given person or community. To be a religious belief, the belief in question would have to be appropriately connected with characteristically religious attitudes on the part of the believer, such attitudes as worship, love, commitment, awe, and the like. It’s possible that a pair of people share a given belief which functions as a religious belief in the life of only one of them.
It is therefore extremely difficult to give (informative) necessary and sufficient conditions for either science or religion. Perhaps for present purposes that is not a really serious problem; we do have many excellent examples of each, and perhaps that will suffice for our inquiry. Religion is for anyone who wants it in their life, and science fits in there as well. They are neither fundamentally incompatible, nor are they mutually exclusive. Knowledge, education, self-improvement, and the bettering of our shared world are endeavours that are open to everyone. We don’t have to (and likely won’t) always agree with one another, but we can always work to understand a perspective that differs from our own. Perhaps, someday in the near future, that will be the story that makes headlines, rather than attempts to sow discord between two of the most influential forces for good in our world.