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Resolving the conflict between science and religion

By Nanook - Posted on 14 November 2010

"So, we’re back to the original question. What is keeping the religions under control?”

**Science vs. Religion


“Simple: science and technology! Let me read a short quote from a book titled: Overskill, by Eugene Schwartz.”

“Science triumphed over magic because, pragmatically, science proved to be more efficient… sexual couplings in the fields of Peru, Java and West Africa to promote fertility of the soil and bountiful crops were dispensed with because the application of trisodium phosphate to the soil had better results.”

"In this quote, the word ‘magic’ is equivalent to religion. But once we see this example, it is easy to add thousands more. Do you see where I’m going?”

"Sure. So why do we keep hearing about the conflict between Science and Religion?”

Materialism vs. supernaturalism - basic issue

“This phrase about the conflict between Science and Religion has caused DAMAGE BEYOND IMAGINATION for our whole culture. Why? One of the reasons this argument keeps going on is that these words, science and religion, are being used imprecisely. Let me read you a quote from Man in the Modern World: The Uniqueness of Man by Julian Huxley.”

“The so called ‘conflict between science and religion’ has been a conflict between one aspect of science and one aspect of religion: man’s relation to his external environment.”

“That is, the concerns normal people have when they make the science-religion comparison are mostly related to the world around them. They then are presented with explanations that are founded in either MATERIALISM, that is things we can see, touch and feel, or SUPERNATURALISM, which are things we have to accept on faith. There are legitimate questions related to the comparison of science and religion, but they need to be stated more precisely to make logical sense.

Science is generally used in two ways. One describes a PROCESS to investigate and understand matter. The other describes a COLLECTION OF KNOWLEDGE obtained by the scientific process. The key element that categorizes science is its association with NATURAL objects and interactions.

Religion can also be viewed in the same two ways. Religion can be a PROCESS to understand the universe. A religion can also be the collection of knowledge obtained by some religious process. So how are process and knowledge different in science and religion?

The science-religion argument, in relation to PROCESSES, should NOT be questioning the terms science or religion but the terms NATURALISM and SUPERNATURALISM. That is, if people want to chose a belief, they should first decide whether they should believe that existence entirely consists of material objects and forces, or can include supernatural beings and powers. Once they use these terms properly, then the terms science and religion fall neatly into place.

Religions are processes that people claim can explain both the natural and supernatural worlds. Science does NOT do that. Science only professes a method to understand the natural world. This creates very different rules for how each is applied.

Science requires that the properties of matter be observable and measurable. Principles that describe the properties of matter must be understandable by competent people and be logically consistent with all other known principles. The principles must be repeatable and be testable by any competent observer.

Religion, because of its need to explain the supernatural, is different in every regard. Religion REQUIRES that people accept many properties and principles ON FAITH. People must be willing to accept that there are things that can not be observed or measured or understood by humans. They must accept that religious principles will not always be logically consistent. They must be willing to accept that these principles may only be revealed to a certain few privileged people.

Examples of such religious principles are things like miracles; virgin births; three gods in one; the ability of a god to “know all things” but simultaneously allow “free will”, the ability of a god to be “all good” while that god is the cause of events we call “acts of god” which are natural disasters that kill thousands of people; the ability to suspend time and physical principles so a universe can be created in a few days.

If a person believes in a supernatural universe, then the principles and process of science cannot be used to explain that universe. Nor does science claim that they can.

Science-religion as 2 new questions

So, let me summarize this problem by reformulating the science-religion question as two new questions: a. ‘What is a better process to use to understand why things happen in life, Materialism or Supernaturalism?’ and b. ‘What is a better collection of truth to explain the material world, Materialism or Supernaturalism?’ These are more correct statements because they force us to look at science and religion as METHODS OF SEARCH, in the first case, and COLLECTIONS OF KNOWLEDGE in the second. They also focus the questions to the key differentiating principles that cause most of the problem. That is, whether we are restricted to looking at the material world for answers or whether we can include answers from the supernatural world.

Science defined

We already discussed a definition for religion. The best description to use here is (3) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices In short, religion can be a collection of religious knowledge. Or, if new issues require finding new knowledge, religion can provide a PROCESS to find that knowledge: for example, reading the Bible. Now, let’s get a definition for science.”

SCIENCE: from Latin scientia: having knowledge

(1) the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding

(2) a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study

(3) a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the SCIENTIFIC METHOD

SCIENTIFIC METHOD: principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving (a.) the recognition and formulation of a problem, (b.) the collection of data through observation and experiment, and (c.) the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

“So, do you see the critical differences?”

"Sure. The Scientific Method requires collection of data through observation and experiment. As we discussed the other day, we can’t find a way to make observations in the supernatural world or do experiments there, and God is not cooperating to help us.”

"Precisely! And science never claims to be able to make supernatural observations. But! Religion IS trying to play in both worlds, and particularly, by explaining things and setting rules in the material world based on knowledge it claims comes from the supernatural world.”

"OK. So, how does this help solve the arguments people keep having over this?”

"Let’s use my questions to see how they help.

Science vs. religion as process

Question one about science and religion: What is the better process to use to understand why things happen in life, Materialism or Supernaturalism?”

"Well, I guess, to be accurate, we first need to agree on what BETTER means.”

"Excellent! So, go for it.”

"OK. To me, better means RELIABILITY. That is, if I go through a process to understand something, I want to be able to depend on that process to always get the right answers.”

"Precisely! And this is where religion starts to have problems in regard to understanding the material world.

The need for religion to explain the supernatural world brings a number of approaches to gathering knowledge into the process of finding truth that are not RELIABLE for explaining the material world. This is ironic because a major goal of most religions IS to explain the material world. The problem is, religion doesn’t get it right. Until religion uses direct observation, testability and repeatability, it won’t get reliable results. The scientific method came into use because it is the simplest set of steps we know that produces reliable results. If someone could develop a simpler approach, it would be adopted.

So, let me give you an example to help you understand this: FAITH HEALING. Do you remember our discussion the other day about the supposed miracles at Lourdes?”

"Sure. Of the hundred million people who have been there since, what, 1858, only 65 cures have been validated and only 3 of those were cancer. That was lower than the naturally occurring rate which would be about 50 to 500 cures. So, how does this example address the question?”

“Because it shows a scientific approach to what people would call one of the greatest centers for miracles in our time. This is the ‘material approach’. What tools would religion be able to use to address this occurrence?”

"I see what you mean. This is way past biblical times, so there is probably nothing in the Bible to help. So we would have to rely on faith. But that doesn’t prove anything.”

"Precisely! Because faith can’t PROVE anything without invoking a process of measurement. And, to their credit, the Catholic Church did try to do that. The Church CONFIRMED 65 cures which they CLAIMED to be miracles. But Sagan showed us a different way to look at the same results. And he showed that the statistics don’t support anything exceptional going on there. In fact he showed that the results at Lourdes are way below what we see if people don’t do anything. Yet if you ask any priest or nun, or member of the Church, what do you think they’d tell you?”

"That Lourdes produces a lot of miracles. That’s why so many people go there.”

"So, the religious process is actually that members of the church, like priests, nuns and lay people make up their own judgments about Lourdes. This is the answer to our first question. Which process is more reliable in finding out the effectiveness of Lourdes, believing in hearsay and FAITH, which is what the priests, nuns and lay people do, or comparing the results against existing medical experience, which is what Carl Sagan did?”

"OK. I see your point.”

"But most people don’t see the point. Over six million people go to Lourdes every year. Let me continue with Sagan’s story. Page 233.”

“Something similar seems true of individual faith healers. After hearing much from his patients about alleged faith healing, a Minnesota physician named William Nolen spent a year and a half trying to track down the most striking cases. Was there clear medical evidence that the disease was really present before the "cure"? If so, had the disease actually disappeared after the cure, or did we just have the healer's or the patient's say-so? He uncovered many cases of fraud, including the first exposure in America of "psychic surgery." But he found not one instance of cure of any serious organic (nonpsychogenic) disease. There were no cases where gallstones or rheumatoid arthritis, say, were cured, much less cancer or cardiovascular disease. When a child's spleen is ruptured, Nolen noted, perform a simple surgical operation and the child is completely better. But take that child to a faith healer and she's dead in a day. Dr. Nolen's conclusion: When [faith] healers treat serious organic disease, they are responsible for untold anguish and unhappiness. . . The healers become killers."


"I guess your point is that, in fact, supernaturalism doesn’t really give us ANY process to analyze the natural world. Even the efforts of the Church related to the cures at Lourdes were scientifically based. They had to collect observational evidence and assess its validity.”

“Precisely! We’re back to the old problem of needing God to cooperate.”

“OK. So, why can’t a religion use one approach for the supernatural and a second for the natural world?”

“Very good question. The New Testament even has a statement that suggests how this might be done, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s’. The problem is, even though this is claimed to be a direct statement from Jesus, few, if any of the Christian religions actually do this. Why? POWER. The organizational goal of religions is to be seen by the people as the “authority” for answers about everyday life. To keep up with the explosion of new knowledge, a church would have to become a major scientific research establishment in every field of life. No one entity could do this, with the possible exception of the government itself. So, to maintain their authority, the churches cling to their founding bylaws, their “bibles”, and hypocritically ignore or reinterpret their old words to match irrefutable changes in the new world.”

So, what about the case where the government and church are the same?

There are many cases where the government and church are very closely tied. Israel, Iran and India for example. The U.S is also, unbelievably, much closer to this than people want to admit. The problem is the founding documents. When all the known religions were formed, the questions people were asking were about earthly issues. The leaders had to address these. They had to address why people got sick, why crops failed, why some people were poor and others rich. They wrote down their answers. Even though we now know the answers were wrong, the governments can’t easily back away from these documents without admitting to being fallible.

I included India in the list of examples to point out that the Eastern religions have a very different view from Christianity about how much their gods control things. They view the human body and the earth in much more material terms. They already know how to separate the natural and supernatural. The conflict of natural vs. supernatural and science vs. religion is much more a CHRISTIAN problem.

Science vs. religion as explanation of material world

Question two about science and religion is: What is a better collection of truth to explain the material world, Materialism or Supernaturalism?

To start off, let’s review something I said the other day. In order for us to reach MATERIAL TRUTH, we need to have cases of RELIABLE, PREDICTABLE, MATERIAL REALITY. And I think you can guess that if we can find those, they will still only lead us to a subset of material truth. Maybe we can call that something like CURRENTLY KNOWN MATERIAL TRUTH.

“This creates a very different sense of the whole process for me. I mean, I would like to have you drop two stone tablets on me and say, ‘Nanook. This is IT! This is the whole ball of wax.’ You know, something . . . like . . . .. universal, permanent, complete. But the point we’ve just reached, in our discussion, and maybe in our whole lives, is only a waypoint. It’s only where we are now. What we know will surely be a continually unfolding journey.”

“Precisely! I am surely not the guru on the mountain with the final answers.”

Science a tool for religion

“Wow. And I just realized another thing! What you said forges a serious link between religion and science. I mean, this view makes science one of the major tools of religion, by helping them understand material reality, and bringing explanations from what people always thought was the supernatural realm into the provable material realm.”

“WHOA! Wow is right. I never thought about it that way either… SCIENCE IS ACTUALLY A TOOL FOR RELIGION. We are going to have to come back to this thought. The world surely doesn’t have a clear understanding of how religion and science can work together like this. People are still so afraid of science.

But, let’s go back and pick up the discussion with this new concept: CURRENTLY KNOWN MATERIAL TRUTH. What we are digging for is a CURRENT, reliable, predictable, material statement of some kind, from God, that tells us how we should act to get into heaven.”

"OK. I know what the religious people are going to say. They’re going to say that everything around us is an example.”

"Of course. But in today’s world, we can test many of their claims against specifics. And when we do, the religious people lose hands down. Remember the quote from Eugene Schwartz:”

“Science triumphed over magic because, pragmatically, science proved to be more efficient. . . “

"Sure. And if we look at everything around us, almost everything fits what Schwartz says. The Bible had a lot to say about food. Modern agriculture blew that all away. All of medicine fits this example. Electronics, transportation, architecture . . . ”

“Precisely! The Catholic Church tried to prevent humans from dissecting the human body. They preached that the adversities of the body could only be healed by prayer and faith. There are still a number of Christian groups, like the Christian Scientists, that still believe this. Yet there can’t be more than a hand full of people in our country who don’t go to a doctor when they’re sick or injured, and take the medicines prescribed.”

"A lot of things in engineering also fit this observation. I mean, gravity, forces, electricity, materials etcetera. I can remember, when I studied gravity, seeing pictures from the middle ages where gravity was explained by angels standing on objects and beating their wings. That’s where the phrase, ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ comes from. And the Church- approved ‘science’ of the time got into the related math trying to figure out how many angels were needed, how fast they had to beat their wings and things like that. That whole approach is now considered nonsense.”

“Why? Wasn’t it sanctioned by the Church?”

"Hmmm... Good point. You mean like the infallibility of the Pope. The problem was, IT DIDN’T WORK!”

“And that’s the problem we are following up on here. People can be told a lot of stuff by their religions. But they also experience life directly every day. When one explanation, based on faith and ancient writings, directly contradicts another, which they can touch and feel, and which reliably produces better results, a lot of people will not pass up the better result."