Science and Religion Compared
Science and Religion Compared
by Ed Pearlstein
If you ask someone about conflict between science and religion, in most cases that person will immediately think of "evolution" - even though many religious denominations get along fine with evolution. Some will think of the age of the universe or the use of fetal stem cells.

In earlier times, the issues might have been: a spherical versus a flat earth, a heliocentric versus geocentric solar system; the germ theory of disease versus supernatural curses; the morality of post-mortem examinations, vaccinations, and the dissection of cadavers for research and education. There are, in fact, still some religions that don't believe in medical treatment of any kind.

Important as the above subjects are, the really fundamental disagreement between science and religion is not about such specific issues and conclusions, but about the method for arriving at conclusions.

Where religion bases its conclusions on authority - from a person, book, or tradition - science bases its conclusions on evidence and reasoning.

A scientific investigation starts with a question, and tries to find an answer through observation, experiment, and self-critical reasoning. A theological investigation, though, starts with an answer, and, if evidence and reasoning get in the way of that answer, the theologist will wiggle through, or put a spin on, the evidence and logic.

In religion, it is generally considered a great virtue to "believe," almost without questioning and certainly without wavering.

In science, the virtue is in questioning, looking for holes in any line of thinking, and being susceptible to new ideas.

A scientific conclusion is always open to change, as new evidence or reasoning comes along. Science evolves. But a religious conclusion is supposed to be eternal and universal, regardless of evidence and reasoning.

Science looks for order and predictable cause-and-effect relationships. Attributing something to un-understandable whimsy is, scientifically, a pessimistic outlook, since it says that there is no hope for research going deeper.

With some people, phenomena not understood are relegated to the realm of supernatural - a "God of the gaps". But as things that were once not understood become understood, this realm gets smaller and smaller. For example, most of us no longer attribute bad weather and disease to curses; mental disease and epilepsy to possession by demons; or earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and eclipses to angry gods.

An interesting aside: Isaac Newton, a religious man, invoked the hand of God to explain a small deficiency between calculations based on his theory and the actually-observed motions of planets. He thought that God interfered to set things right every once in a while. But a century later, the great French mathematician Laplace made better calculations with Newton's equations and showed that there was no such deficiency, and therefore no need for the hypothesis of God's interference.

Many people, including some very intelligent ones, seem to compartmentalize their thinking. It's as if they use different parts of the mind for science, religion, politics, economics, etc., with very few interconnections between those parts - an apartheid of the intellect.