Can a scientist be religious?

It is a common assumption that science and religion are substantially, philosophically and persistently in conflict. A perception that emphasizes the dependable and authoritative nature of science and the scientist while also focusing on the irrationality and blindness of religion and the believer leads to various interpretations of the potential for a relationship between religion and science.

Through the individual consideration of religion and science as concepts which inform philosopher Ian Barbour’s four models regarding their interaction, it is my intention to argue that it is empirically possible for a scientist to be religious, manifest this belief in practice and recognize the contextual basis in which religion and science conflict and collaborate. It is also my intention to challenge you as the reader to think critically on your own stance in this matter.

As a product of the Scientific Revolution, [scientists] sought to improve the methods in which advances were made and in turn presented the empirical method as an authority over the Catholic Church of the day. If seen as the primary authority regarding absolute truth, the scientific method helps to affirmatively answer the question of whether or not a scientist can be religious before reaching the hypothesis stage. Renown scientists such as the recognized founder of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, along with Sir Isaac Newton, were simultaneously religious and scientists. So then the question shifts from can a scientist be religious to the infinitely more troubling question of, is it rational for a scientist to be religious?

In the article, “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries between Religion and Science,” Ecklund et.al discusses the current understandings of when and how scientists see religion and science in conflict. The article establishes that the answer to the question of conflict and rationality is dependent on how religion and science are defined. Due to the fluid definitions of religion and science, the answer to the conflict paradigm becomes contextual. It is suggested that the replacement of the term “religion” with “spirituality” increases the accommodation for religion in the scientific fields, while defining religion as “evangelicalism” or “fundamentalism” creates a strong boundary between religion and science.

In regard to the definition of scientists, Ecklund et. al. states that they are, “not a uniform group having the same notion of science but those who operate in and outside their laboratories on a range of different interests and values,” suggesting that the conflict between religion and science are also dependent on the scientist’s discipline. The definitions of religion and science utilized will affect how they are related, and ultimately complicate the historical conflict narrative suggesting science and religion are fundamentally at war.

The manifestation of religion relies on the scientist’s personal preference and belief. The current models of interaction between the scientist and religion described by Ian Barbour illuminate four possible manifestations, but neglect the contextual basis in which the majority of scientists regard the relationship of religion and science. Barbour’s models recognize that religion and science can be continuously in conflict, independent from one another, engaged in dialogue, or integrated as dual authorities. This interpretation allows for a scientist to be religious through all four models individually, but does not recognize the possibility for a contextual basis to conflict. While the dialogue model engages both religion and science in order to better understand and respect each other, it has an element of separation. If dialogue were to be taken a step farther from merely understanding and respect of differing views to the allowance of conflict and mutual support, the scientist would have the ability to see both conflict and collaboration simultaneously.

Furthermore, the conflicts between science and religion are contextual and refer primarily to the authority to claim absolute truth rather than individual disputes of philosophy or substance. Albeit different methods, science and religion maintain similar goals as they both desire to explore the earth and claim authority over the other regarding absolute truth. Scientific truth is a statement of what is most probable in regard to what is currently shown in the data and the historical framework in which it is discovered and presented. Ironically, while both science and religion claim to possess the absolute truth, each maintains an element of doubt and historical interpretation. Religion requires faith, and science requires a margin of error. Therefore, the scientist can be religious based on the context in which religion and science are compared, and just as neither can claim absolute truth, neither can propose the other obsolete or irrational.

While definitions of the scientist and the believer vary, the scientist can be religious even while recognizing contextual conflict between the two disciplines. The question remains in regard to how categories of religion and science will be interpreted in order to integrate Barbour’s four models and intentionally engage in the amended conflict and collaboration-based dialogue model. To embrace only the conflict narrative between religion and the scientist is to look at the relationship simplistically, to disregard history and the reality of religious scientists in the past and present, it is also equally simplistic only to recognize the collaboration of science and religion.

Conflict presents a unique opportunity for growth and understanding, while also creating the need for opportunities that promote the intentional engagement in conflict and collaboration based dialogue. So my challenge for you as the reader is to create this respectful space somewhere in your own life in which you can explore what it means to be a scientist and a Christian. How are they in conflict? How do they collaborate?

The manifestation of religion relies on scientist’s personal preference and belief.


'Can a scientist be religious?' has 1 comment

  1. February 2, 2017 @ 2:31 am Robert Landbeck

    Give that we have recently entered the era of ‘fake news’ the question that exists is how does one differentiate between what is true and what is not and how? And this is also the basis of all friction and conflict between science and religion. If pure ‘reason’ by itself were capable of distinguishing correctly the efficacy of every truth claim, we would hold the key to all understanding but that is obviously not the case. For reason is not pure, however philosophy or theology might like to think so. It is subject to inescapable bias and prejudice that corrupts perception. Enter scientific method: that simply attempts to at least limit the worst of such distortion by demanding a ‘way’ to demonstrate the efficacy of a truth claim by demanding that ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ and ‘trust’ via an experimental model, supplies the most primary and direct evidence necessary to’ justify’ itself and be called fact. Understanding that can be trusted to deliver in real time. Religious faith takes hope and trust but is unable to offer a way to deliver any direct insight to confirm any claim of divine origin. The Promise is never clearly defined or delivered except in the imagination of the believer. And tus subject to deception or self deception to which there are many scriptural warnings. Without an anchor, other than rhetoric, learned opinion or reference to ancient tests, the reality of the truth claim remains abstract an unable to demonstrate God as source. Unfortunately for humanity, religion got a long head start in weaving its ‘faith’ conception into the cultural fabric before Enlightenment ideas built up their own head of steam. But tradition is not part of any criteria for truth and abuse and corruption by its institutional forms is regularly manifest. When founded upon error, it is equally capable of perpetuating
    prejudice and falsehood from one generation to the next as furthering any particular ideals of truth, virtue, or wisdom. History, that final of all judges, has discarded uncountable examples of tradition into its own dustbin of oblivion. Real progress in the world has often required that uncomfortable business of discarding baseless reason and useless institution. The process, if often crude is called revolution . The bloody chore of prying men loose from the myths they have created about themselves, for themselves, usually to avoid confronting the unholy truth of human nature itself!


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