The relationship of faith and science is controversial, and there are perhaps 5 simple philosophic positions you can take:
1. Science Trumps Religion (EMA)
That is, science alone can answer not only questions of the physical world, but of ethics and morals as well. Religion is hearsay, and useless fairy tales. I call this the Empirical Magisterium (EMA) view.
2. Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)
This view is a variant of the first, but can allow for a positive but separate view of faith. This phrase, coined by Stephen J. Gould’s, is that faith and science do not overlap, and so can not inform one other. Science, being merely materialistic, can tell us nothing about metaphysics, nor the validity of religious claims. Religion can tell us nothing about history or origins, since it is mostly mythical at worst, phenomenological at best.
Or as Einstein wrote:
“If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. “ 1
3. Science and Religion Overlap (SMA)
As I like to say in an homage to a famous saying by Einstein,
“Science keeps religion honest, religion keeps science ethical, and both inform the polity.”
Of course, neither listen to the other enough to make that combination entirely effective!
I call this view the Shared Magisterium view (SMA)
3.1 How Science Confirms or Disconfirms Faith Claims
3.1.1 Morals and Ethics
When religion makes claims about morals or ethics, science’s contributions are a little less valuable, but still exist (such as in measuring effects of ethical implementations).
In this case, though, for instance, when a religion makes claims that science can test, such as historical claims, science can be used to confirm or disconfirm claims.
One of the greatest examples of using science to test Biblical history accounts is the life’s work of Jewish archaeologist Nelson Glueck, who, after years of using the Bible to find antiquities, stated
It may be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single biblical reference. Scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. 2
There are, in the case of the Bible, many archaeological evidences for it’s faithfulness, as well as some naysayers, who claim that archaologists like Glueck were only looking for confirmatory evidence. 3 4
3.1.3 Distant History Claims – Origins
When it comes to historic claims about origins, this is where the two are both reaching beyond their grasp and disagree the most.
For science, this is a reach because the farther you back in history, the less existing artifacts from that time are observable, so you have to make more assumptions about what you observer, including the processes that happened in the distant past.
Religions claim some knowledge of those events, and while some claims are obviously ludicrous, the Christian claim to an omnipotent designer and prime mover is not immediately dismissable or disprovable, and may actually be helpful.
3.2 How Faith Informs Science
The manner in which religious texts can help science is more significant than you think.
3.2.1 Morals and Ethics
Nowhere is there a greater risk in human endeavors than to have a subjective, relative system of moral values. Not that all ‘revealed’ moral systems are good, or that we can’t use reason and intuition to discern basic moral values. Even the claims of New Testament ethics need to be vetted by reason to determine which values are to be considered ethical norms (see Four Stage Model for Creating Public Policy from Faith).
But if we look at historic systems where religion, especially the Christian faith, was spurned, such as in Atheist Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany, we see that, in the name of the ‘welfare of humanity’ or ‘the welfare of all via the state,’ all kinds of cruelties are inevitably justified (see Why Atheists are inevitably autocrats).
While humanism and reason can contribute to morals and ethics, they are not enough to keep humans from running roughshod with one logical assumption over another – in the end, we must appeal to obvious, objective moral truths, such as mentioned in the American Constitution:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
These moral truths (a) are self-evident, without need or even possibility of reasoned justification, but obvious to people of sound faculties, and (b) they can not be trumped because they are not determined or given by men or the state, but from the Divine Moral Agent.
3.2.2 Historic Claims
Christianity and Judaism stand out from other religions in that both make a plethora of historical claims, though to a lesser extent (and much less successfully), Islam and Mormonism also make claims. Buddhism proper mostly provides personal disciplines, and few metaphysical claims save perhaps reincarnation, and Hinduism probably makes the fewest historical claims and the most metaphysical.
So how would the historic claims of Christianity help science?
First, if we think scriptures are historically accurate, we could use them as a guide for archaeology in order to sort out human history.
Similarly to Nelson Glueck above, after historian Sir William Ramsay used the New Testament books of Luke and Acts as a guide to Roman antiquities, later stating:
I began with a mind unfavorable to it…but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. 5
A second reason to consider especially the Christian scriptures as strong historical evidences comes from the field of historical manuscript study. Aside from archaeology, the main way we know about history is through what has been recorded. Even if we don’t view scripture as perfect or divine, we can use it as one of many historic manuscript sources.
So how does, for instance, the New Testament fare against other historical manuscripts? Historians must evaluate attributes like:
- Date Written
- Earliest Copy
- Approximate Time Span between original & copy
- Number of Copies
- Accuracy of Copies
By these criteria, the Bible, especially the New Testament, is the most reliable and informative historical set of documents we have. Even the next most well attested, Homer’s Illiad falls way behind scriptural manuscript evidence. 8
There are many more principles that historians use to evaluate and understand manuscripts, but suffice it to say, the documents of Christianity, and to a lesser extent, other faiths, may be historically important. 9 10 11
Here is the heat between the Bible and science seemingly hotter, especially with respect to the origins of life and universe. While this subject could take up pages, here’s the bottom line – the Bible makes claims about origins, and to some extent, science can either confirm or deny them.
Simply stated, the Bible seems to have been right about a finite past and a creation event, which is currently corroborated by the Big Bang Theory. It can not be overstated how big of a cosomological prediction this was, since up until Hubble’s evidence for the big bang, and Einstein’s slow and begrudging agreement, science thought the universe existed from eternity.
With regard to the origin of life, Biblical cosmology unergirds the Intelligent Design movement, as well as questioning Darwinism’s ability to answer the question of origins.Even Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was skeptical that Darwinian evolution had enough time to bring life to where it is today, and wrote a book on it entitled Evolution from Space (his answer – not a divine creator :)
The point is, the Biblical texts do contribute to discussions of origins and cosmology, and in a sometimes prescient way that true scientists should appreciate.
3.2.4 Scientific Underpinnings
This is another expansive subject, upon which many books have been written, but here’s the gist. Christianity provided the foundational assumptions about life, the universe, and everthing, which led to science, as shown by the historical research of Pierre Duhem, Stanley Jaki, and (partially) Robert Merton. 12
Those assumptions, which contradicted the prevailing world views of that inhibited science, included:
- The linearity and quantifiability of time – supporting a causal chain that can be investigated, as opposed to theories like spontaneous generation (read the story of Louis Pasteur and how his world view (Christian) led him to propose and confirm the germ theory, for example)
- The orderliness and comprehensibility of the Universe – if God created it and asks us to get understanding and investigate it, then it will not be entirely beyond our capabilities to do so.
- The sacred duty to study God’s works – this made reasoned empiricism a necessity over mysticism.
There are many great historical and polemic works on this subject, including:
- GUIDE: Books on Faith and Science (wholereason.com)
- Christianity and the Rise of Science (bede.org)
- Did Christianity (and Other Religions) Promote the Rise Of Science? (evolutionnews.org)
4. Faith Always Trumps Science (FMA)
This position is held by many who, in some cases, rightly mistrust science due to modern abuses of science, including the American Eugenics movement, and the politicization of science and science funding to support various causes, be they sponsored by Monsanto or others with designs on social engineering.
However, they might hold to their religious views even in light of mortal danger, such as with those who on religious principle (not empirical concerns) reject blood transfusions, medical interventions, or psychology (is epilepsy caused by demons?)
To some extent, what separates a healthy trust in faith with this view is a neglect of allowing reason to challenge our understanding of faith and tradition (unhealthy). We can allow reason to help us understand faith better, rather than being unflinchingly devoted to our own traditions.
Of course, the problem with this is, once you start believing things purely on religious (or any) appeals to authority, you’re on the road to deception and serfdom. A good lesson in the Wesleyan Quadrangle might solve this imbalance.
This subject is much bigger than the few claims I’ve made here, but it is an introduction to what many consider the main views. Which camp are you in? Did I miss many things? Comment below.
- Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, 1960, pg 31 ↩
- Archeological and historical evidence of Biblical accuracy (crossroad.to) ↩
- The Bible, as History, Flunks New Archaeological Tests (truthbeknown.com) ↩
- William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1982, pg 8 ↩
- William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915, pg 222 ↩
- Archeological Evidence (bibleevidences.com) ↩
- Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament Reliability (carm.org) ↩
- Are the Biblical Documents Reliable? (probe.org) ↩
- The Bible’s Manuscript Evidence (debate.org.uk) ↩
- Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science? (icr.org) ↩