Gotta Have Faith
The current public debate on whether evolution alone should be taught in schools or not is only one topic in the recent surge of discussion on religion in the public discourse. However, the battle between evolution vs. theological genesis, and more generally, science vs. religion, has roots as far back as the Enlightenment. As the debate continues today, it appears that society has been unable or unwilling to reconcile the two fearing that doing so would undermine the legitimacy of either fact or faith.
This negligence has had negative consequences for both the religious as well as the technical communities, and those who attend MIT have not been spared. Many of us have been brought up either intentionally or passively to believe that those who are scientific must count religion as fantasy and that those who are religious cannot cling too tightly to scientific findings or bring logic and analytical thought into the realm of faith. Growing up as a Christian with an inclination to things technical, I have had to wrestle with and challenge these ideas throughout my life. In doing so, especially during my time at MIT, I’ve come to realize that both statements are false. Science and religion, Christianity at least, are not at odds.
If one views the nature of science and religion, it becomes apparent why they are in agreement. Taking from the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition, science is “the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.” It also defines religion as “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.” These simple definitions highlight the two major differences between science and religion. First, science is a tool where religion is a belief structure. Second, science is used to understand the natural world while religion is used to understand the supernatural world.
Though the focuses of science and religion are disjoint in a general sense, there is some overlap. For example, in the Christian faith we believe that God created and is in control of the universe, natural law, and even reality. This belief clearly allows religion to step into the realm of explaining natural phenomena. The opposite case is also true, however. Answering, “God did it,” to questions such as those concerning creation, while true, is unsatisfying and doesn’t appreciate the fact that God has given us both the ability and desire to understand natural phenomena. Science then also has a place in understanding how God did/does things.
Is this problematic?
Can religion and science work hand-in-hand to help us understand the universe around us?
Is there anything contradictory with believing that God created the universe and uses natural law to execute and maintain its existence?
Pro-science voices may argue that such an external source is unobservable and so brings doubt to its existence. However, science, by definition, is not a useful tool for understanding the supernatural. Therefore, its inability to observe God does not delegitimize the existence of God or the usefulness of science. Rather, it reveals the limits of science.
Pro-religion voices may argue that such a belief limits God and doesn’t take into account miracles. However, believing that God cannot make use of something like natural law is also a limitation, and this belief does not mandate that God must work within the natural law.
So then why do science and religion seem to be at loggerheads? The problem stems from the pervasive fallacy that beliefs and public actions not only should be separated, but can be. This illusion has led secular culture to all but reject religious thought as valid and religious culture to turn from the scientific mindset championed by the secular. It has both perverted science and poisoned religious thought to where science and religion seem to be becoming two separate and antithetical methods for understanding.
Today, science is often touted not as a tool with which to understand the natural world, but a belief structure to identify truth. I have heard many times from those who prescribe to this “science” that if something is unobservable, untestable, and does not fit within the confines of human understanding, it is not true or is not real. At times religion too has lost its focus concerning itself with literalism and emotion, and shunning discussion and thought. Christians often worry about looking to deeply into the Bible in fear that we will misinterpret its truth. However, we are rarely afraid of not looking deep enough, satisfying ourselves with only a general understanding and not the richness it offers. If this is today’s science and religion then it is easy to see why such enmity exists.
There is hope, however. The two can be reconciled and should be. By maintaining the status quo science will never take its proper role as a servant of humankind and religion will never be as fulfilling as it should. Such reconciliation will take effort. Firstly, we must remember that science is inherently limited to the understanding of the natural world. Applying its principles to justify or discount philosophical or theological truths is self-contradictory, unrealistic, dangerous, and inappropriate. In order to believe that all truths must be observable or testable presupposes that such a statement is true without allowing for the ability to investigate its voracity. It must be accepted on faith. It also denies the fact the humans depend on belief to live and to progress.
Do you know that you will make it across the street? Do you know that you will have air to breathe in the next moment? Have you proven it to yourself that the sun is not a giant light bulb floating in space? No, but you believe these things. Depending on statistical results or the say of scientific authorities doesn’t make such “truths” anymore than beliefs or statements of faith because they do not grant you complete assuredness.
Thinking that science is the way to all truth clearly undercuts its inherent limits and disables one from finding a more complete truth beyond provable fact. Secondly, we Christians must recognize that refusing to apply logic, analytical thought, and dialogue to Christian thought denies us the understanding we are promised. We were given minds that we may think and question. Failing to see this only makes our lives less and disables us from engaging those outside our Faith. Of course, we should ask questions in humility and should not depend solely on our own understanding, but that does not mean we should not ask.
Misunderstandings about the limits of science and the nature of religion are stifling our complete grasp of nature and truth and have created a battle of phantasmic meaning. In their true forms, science and religion complement each other; one allowing us access to knowledge of here, the other knowledge of beyond. Recognition of this is simple, but our increasingly separate scientific and religious cultures produce forces that make it difficult to implement.
Failing to do so, however, only guarantees that we will misperceive the truth and remain incomplete. How does one go about tackling this problem? It’s simple. Stop what you’re doing, forget about p-sets for a second, and think. Ask yourself, why do I believe what I believe? Ask the tough questions and don’t be afraid to discuss things with other people. Most importantly, seek the truth. Leave behind your biases, prejudices, and desire to prove yourself right. They’ll only get in the way. I know what I’m prescribing is not easy and is only the first step, but trust me. It’ll help. You just have to have some faith.
Benjamin M. Brooks is a member of the Class of 2004.