Science and religion: Conflict or dialogue?

By Francisco J. Ayala2010 Templeton Prize Laureate Science and religion are like two different windows through which we look at … Continued

By Francisco J. Ayala
2010 Templeton Prize Laureate

Science and religion are like two different windows through which we look at the world. We see different aspects of reality through them, but the world at which we look is one and the same. Science and religious beliefs need not be in contradiction. If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction, because science and religion concern different matters.

Science concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and function of organisms. Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and human life, the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other, the moral values that inspire and govern people’s lives.

The proper relationship between science and religion can be, for people of faith, mutually motivating and inspiring. Science may inspire religious beliefs and religious behavior, as we respond with awe to the immensity of the universe, the wondrous diversity and adaptations of organisms, and the marvels of the human brain and the human mind. Religion promotes reverence for creation, for humankind as well as the environment. Religion may be a motivating force and source of inspiration for scientific research and may move scientists to investigate the marvelous world of the creation and to solve the puzzles with which it confronts us.

Scientific knowledge is compatible with the belief in an Omnipotent and Benevolent Creator. The Big Bang may be seen as the process by which God creates the Universe, modulates the expansion of the galaxies, and accounts for new stars and planets. Similarly, evolution may be seen as the process by which God creates the millions of species that populate the earth and provides them with functional adaptations, eyes to see, wings to fly, and gills to breath in water.

Natural processes do not exclude God’s presence in the universe or our dependence on God. Each human being starts as a microscopic cell in the mother’s womb. That cell divides again and again and diversifies in organs and limbs, in eyes, and in the myriad cells that made up our stupendous brain. People of faith can accept the natural process of human growth and development, while still believing that they are creatures of God, who fall under God’s providence.

People of faith may, similarly, accept the natural processes of the physical and the living world, while accepting the presence and ultimate causation of God. These two sets of explanations, scientific and religious, are the two windows through which we see the world.

The natural world abounds in catastrophes, disasters, imperfections, dysfunctions, suffering, and cruelty. Tsunamis and earthquakes bring destruction and death in Indonesia, Haiti and Chile; volcanic eruptions erased Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing all their citizens; floods and droughts bring ruin to farmers. The human jaw is poorly designed, lions devour their prey, malaria parasites kill millions of humans every year and make 500 million sick. 20 percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months. That is 20 million natural abortions every year.

As I see it, scientific knowledge is consistent with a religious belief in God. More so than the “creationists” assertion that everything in the world has been precisely designed by the Creator. Because, then, how to account for human crimes and sins (including the Biblical Fall) and for all the catastrophes that pervade the natural world?

Think again about the 20 percent f miscarriages due to the poorly designed human reproductive system. I shudder in terror at the thought that some people of faith would implicitly attribute this and so many other calamities to the Creator’s faulty design. I’d rather see them as a consequence of natural processes, including the clumsy ways of the evolutionary transformations by which humans came about. The God of revelation and faith is a God of love and mercy, and of wisdom.

Religion antagonists might say that scientific explanations do not exonerate God from moral responsibility for the evils in the world. If the world was created by God, they would say, God is ultimately responsible. God could have created a world without tsunamis, without parasites and biological dysfunctionalities, and without human miscarriages. But, a universe in which stars are continuously created, the continents move, new species come about, and human beings have free will, is much more arresting than a static world without creative natural processes, and in which humans would have been replaced by robots.

Francisco J. Ayala, the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, is the 2010 Templeton Prize Laureate. He is author of “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press 2007).

Written by

  • bpai_99

    I believe that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because science is the quest for knowledge wherever it may lead, whereas in religion the answer is already provided and all evidence judged in light of how it supports the pre-conceived answer. In science, you create a hypothesis, subject it to rigorous verification, and modify the hypothesis whenever new information refutes the previous version. In religion, validation is not required and evidence is twisted or disregarded when it doesn’t conform to what people already “know” to be true.Science encourages skepticism and questioning. Religion requires conformity of thinking and silencing of doubt.

  • david6

    As long as religious people understand that their doctrines do not ever trump observed reality, I’m sure it is possible for them to get along with science. The problem arises when they confuse their unsubstantiated faith with facts and think that their dogma is evidence.Religion isn’t a single thing, but a huge number of different ways of telling ourselves stories about things we have no knowledge of. Is it valuable? Sometimes, maybe. Science is much more useful and demonstrably reliable.

  • djwray

    “Scientific knowledge is compatible with the belief in an Omnipotent and Benevolent Creator”Perhaps, but not for the vast majority of those who have a vested interest in scientific research.D J Wray

  • tarka29935

    I’m reminded of Susan Jacoby’s recent remark that conservative, “religious believers (although it’s applicable to many other theists) … have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.” Ayala, distinguished as he may be, has fallen into this trap. So much of his column is wishful thinking compounded by logical fallacies. His ultimate paragraph is a prime example of this. As an exercise for the student, try to follow his logic.

  • george2328

    Religion and science are compatible only depending on how you define “religion.” If religion is defined as practices intended to enhance consistent and life-affirming ethics and appreciation of the ultimate meaning and wonder of existence, there is no inconsistency. These practices could include traditional ones and newer ones that science suggests are effective. They could also include interpreting and applying in today’s world the wisdom found in traditional sacred texts, in a non-literalistic way. But if religion is defined as belief in a supernatural “realm” and a supernatural being, then religion and science are indeed incompatible. Science provides no evidence for these. Their credibility is no different from belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a Cosmic Turtle. Further, science at least indirectly disproves them. Too many supposedly scientifically enlightened theists claim that of course we cannot ascribe physical attributes to God—-the old man in the sky image. But then they go on to imply all sorts of supposedly mental attributes, like intelligence, thought, love, intention, designing, etc. However, science has shown that these too are actually physical traits, related to specific areas of the brain and body and which evolved over eons due to selection pressures. They have relevance for animals competing in certain environments, not for a solitary being lacking an external environment and which existed for all time. How would a supernatural being come to have these characteristics? They simply have no meaning at the cosmic level. But take these away and there is nothing left to the meaning of the term “God.” The additional implication is that there is no reason to posit a separate and immortal “soul” stuff.The best recourse for honoring both religion and science is what some call religious naturalism or modern pantheism, such as described on the or

  • dolph924

    Science and religion only conflict in the feeble minds of those too stupid to realize that evolution could be viewed as the primary tool of creation and that nonsense stories about Shadrack, Meshack and Abindigo and Jonah could be viewed as parables, not literal facts.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Science has proven that the book of Genesis should not be taken literally. So the entire Hebrew Bible should not be taken literally. How about the N T? Because the story of Jesus of Nazareth has it seed or roots in the prophesies of the Hebrew Bible, so the NT should not be taken literally. No question, there is conflict between science and Christian Religions.

  • mwpalmer

    George2328,You seem quite reasonable, but I have some questions and comments about what you said.It is clear that you have developed a firm faith in science.Please tell, exactly how did “mental attributes” emerge from evolution? Has such emergence actually been observed? Why do we not observe mental characteristics emerging from computers? And even if emotions and intentions are founded in physical processes, does that really “take [them] away” or cause them to vanish? Are they then really no longer meaningful at all? What does science tell about meaning anyway? Just what is the difference between a precisely arranged lump of clay and a living person? Does science really know?And what is the “unnameable wonder” that you refer to? It seems somewhat supernatural.As such, with the right definition, we all have gods, faiths and religions, regardless of what we call them. The conflicts only occur when one faith seeks to accuse, abuse or degrade another faith. I suppose there is not a more personal violation than that of mocking, disparaging or disrespecting an individual’s beliefs.Saying this does not mean that I am some sort of theo-relativist. I am more like a Platonist. That includes belief in an obscured, underlying reality – what you might call the “supernatural”. I actually believe in an eternal and unchanging God – absolute and real. As evidence I have personal, spiritual experience – not unlike what you describe as the experience of “wonder”. Along with that I believe in an eternal soul that is related to God. It is the part of me that wonders. I also believe in science, but recognize that it is less than eternal and always changing. Science is more full of questions than answers. Certainly, that’s what makes it so compelling and fun.I find science useful because I wonder and I wonder because I have a soul. If you remove the soul, you remove the wonder and then there is no use for science.Perhaps that was a bit much. But to the point, is it not rather pretentious to suggest that wonder is only for those who give up notions of the supernatural?

  • ThomasBaum

    bpai_99 If “Religion requires conformity of thinking and silencing of doubt.”, how come it seems that there is so much “non-conformity” in the “masses” that “have religion”?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ThomasBaum

    bpai_99You wrote, “I believe that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible”.This seems to be part of your “belief” system whereas for others it is not.I happen to believe that there are two different ways of looking at the same thing and that they are perfectly compatible unless one were to make religion their science or science their religion.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.