Separation of Science and Religion

by Jen

Science is agnostic. That’s one of the things I love about it. Regardless of your creed or personal faith, science’s one true tenet is the truth, and the pursuit of that truth. No matter how painful that truth, you can be assured that, if you were rigorous, thorough, logical, and demanding, that truth is still the best and truest understanding you could hope to achieve with the best of your abilities. It’s been through the fire of variable elimination, of subjective bias blindness, of attempting to prove the opposite of the intended result. It has no opinion, it has no sympathy, and it has no permanency. Truth is only truth for now, as we know it. If gravity were ‘disproved’ tomorrow (notwithstanding quantum mechanics) by science, we would still accept it (and we did, with quantum). That’s scientific truth. It’s not always easy or sensible to accept, but it is the cold hard gleaming truth.

I talked about politics at a social mixer today. Nothing alarming happened, but the increasing politicization of knowledge, and recontextualizing science as a matter of faith, came up. How do we convince climate change deniers and intelligent designers of the truth? I argue that science and faith can’t meet in a meaningful way on their own grounds. They operate fundamentally on different principles, with different semantic meaning for the same things. For a scientist, truth is merely the best version of what we can tell based on thousands of reproducible experiments and tests, of hard self-questioning and denial of personal bias. In religion, truth is faith based, fundamentally. For many believers, truth is what their religious text tells them, or their religious authority, or what they feel to be true deeply in their heart of hearts. Trying to reconcile these two truths ignores that they can never meet: one is a religious truth and the other is a scientific truth. In the face of scientific evidence, religious truth is unassailable unless someone’s faith changes in some way. This is confirmation bias at its most resilient.

This is no new thing under the sun: Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria is another way of putting it. In opposition, Richard Dawkins has been very vocal about John William Draper’s conflict thesis, which proposes that religion will always challenge new scientific ideas and produce social conflict. But wouldn’t it be better to let each religion and science go their own way, as fundamentally irreconcilable and isolated fields? If we can’t get along, we can at least recognize in each other a shared wonder and love of the universe.

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