Opinions, Column

Religion and Science Need Each Other

Religion and science have a reputation for conflict. Religious institutions have long viewed scientific observation and discovery as threats to their authority, and the scientific community has long portrayed religious belief as naive because of its lack of empirical evidence. Yet religion and science share plenty of common ground when you look at the bigger picture of what both seek to accomplish. 

If the human drive for meaning and explanation was a dry mouth, religion would be water and science would be Gatorade. Both quench thirst, just with different ingredients. Water and Gatorade drinkers don’t fight and accuse one another of being threatening or naive, so why do followers of religion and proponents of science? 

While conflicts with science are a consistent theme among most religions, let’s take a look at the Catholic Church, seeing as we’re at Boston College. In the early 1600s, the Catholic Church infamously banished Galileo for supporting the Copernican model of the solar system, which challenged the religious notion that Earth was the center of the universe. The Church viewed Galileo’s writings and scientific observations as threats to their authority and, as a result, put him on house arrest and restricted his writings. Later, in the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged biblical teachings about creation, leading to conflicts in education and resistance from the Church.

But a decree unbanning Galileo’s books in 1741 and an apology by Pope John Paul II in 1992 for the treatment of Galileo shows a clear effort by the Church to remediate shortcomings in its relationship with science. In Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, he said that evolutionary theory and Christian creation theory can coexist. Pope Francis continued this path toward scientific acceptance through his call to battle climate change, which is just one example of his many pro-science stances.”Science is a tool for peace,” he proclaimed in his address to the Pontifical Academy. So, regardless of one’s opinion of the Catholic Church, it is clearly engaging in a good-faith effort to make amends and further its relationship with the scientific community.

The Catholic Church is, however, only a small portion of the religious community in the United States. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 59 percent of Americans believed science often conflicted with religion. The most interesting finding, however, was that 76 percent of religiously unaffiliated respondents believed science and religion conflicted, while 68 percent of people with religious beliefs said there was no conflict between their beliefs and science. This data suggests a willingness from religious communities to incorporate modern science into their worldview and challenges the perceived clash between science and religion. 

My intention is not to encourage firm believers of science or religion to point fingers at each other, but rather to point out that there have been significant shifts in power structures since religious belief dominated society. Long gone are the days of a strong religious presence in governing (in the United States and most Western nations). Look only as far as BC to see the secular nature of modern America, where even a Jesuit school such as ours lacks strong religious fervor.

Scientific influence has filled the void that religion once held over society. People have faith in science, but just as with religion, there is danger in treating it as absolute truth. Science excels in explaining the physical world, but it struggles to answer why we perform certain actions beyond mere physical processes.

The scientific theory for the creation of the universe is the perfect example. Our current conception of physics can explain the expansion of the universe and lead us to the Big Bang Theory, but deeper we dig for the root event to this theory, the less physics can explain. Another example is dark matter. It makes up an estimated 68 percent of the universe, yet scientists know almost nothing about it. Eventually, science runs into the same limiting wall as religion—the wall that tells humans we are unable to explain our existence adequately.

As science continues to explain more about our world and universe, we must remain cognizant of science’s limitations. We aren’t close to answering the question of our existence and may never be. Religion and spirituality help us to deal with the pain of not knowing. 

David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, pointed out a common fallacy. Many people conflate the conversation of what “is” with the conversation of what “ought”. Science and reason can explain what “is” very well, yet they fail to tell us what we “ought” to do with the information we uncover. Religion enables humans to confront the difficult question of what we “ought” to do with the information we know.  

I’m not arguing that all scientists or believers of science need to be religious. I want to remind us that there is value in accepting the fact that we don’t know everything. Religion keeps us grounded in this humility.

Just as a person needs both Gatorade and water to quench their thirst, our pursuit of knowledge requires the empirical rigor of science and the ethical guidance of religion. Together, they provide a full and balanced perspective on our existence, ensuring that we neither walk without direction nor see without insight.

January 28, 2024