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Separate, but Equally Important

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Because of an editing error, an opinion piece on Friday about religion and science, “Separate but Equally Important,” included a misstatement in the last sentence of the second paragraph. It should have read “any theory that cannot meet this requirement [of being able to be disproved if incorrect] cannot be said to be incorrect but also cannot be described as scientific.”

Barun Singh

Throughout Western history, religion and science have never really gotten along, and the reason is simple: they are based on the opposing principles of reasoning and faith. While individuals are able to reconcile their religious beliefs with their understanding of science on a personal level, it is impossible to reconcile the two as institutional modes of thought. Considering the meaning of scientific theory, the current debate over teaching intelligent design as a science makes little if any sense, and worse, it masks the true need to teach students the principles of religious thought.

Science, by necessity, works within a restricted framework that does not bind to religious thought. The general process by which scientific understanding evolves (or is designed?) involves formulating theories that explain observations and collecting evidence to either disprove or further support these theories. It is never possible to prove a theory true in the absolute sense. This mode of obtaining knowledge requires that if a scientific theory is incorrect, there should exist, conceptually at least, some evidence to disprove it. Any theory that does not meet this requirement can, with uncertainty, be said to be correct, but also can be described as scientific.

Religious thought works on the entirely different principle of faith. By definition, faith does not require any proof, or even any physical evidence; in fact, it gains its strength precisely from the lack of such items. It works in absolutes and is impossible to argue against. For example, many conservative Christians have faith that man was created in God’s image, as he exists now. When confronted with fossil evidence that contradicts (by means of scientific reasoning) this assertion, many would counter by stating that the fossils were placed there by God as a test of faith — to which there can be no scientific counterargument.

Despite this, many individuals are able to reconcile their faith with their scientific knowledge without much difficulty. This is most commonly done by accepting those elements of science one believes to be established as “fact” and then allowing faith to fill in any remaining gaps left unanswered (i.e., “let science explain nature, and religion explain the supernatural.”) However, an institutional adoption of such an approach for didactic purposes is illogical. Where an individual chooses to draw the line between what he believes of faith and what he accepts only through the scientific process is a personal choice that cannot, and should not, be taught in the public forum.

If you were to conclude from these arguments that there is no place for intelligent design (or religious thought in general) in classrooms, you would be mistaken. The arguments above only illustrate two points: first that intelligent design cannot be considered a science, and second that a classroom should not be used to instruct an individual about the correctness of his faith. The origins of the conflict over intelligent design stem largely from the latter point. Just as it is inappropriate for students to be taught that they are wrong for not believing in a particular article of faith, it is also inappropriate to go the opposite route and teach students that they are wrong for believing in that same article of faith.

If the goal is truly to teach, then the appropriate methodology would be to teach science as science, religion as religion, and provide students with the tools to think critically and make their own judgments about the role of faith in their personal world view. They should understand the fundamental difference between faith and scientific reasoning. They should understand that there are some things that ultimately cannot be proven or disproved and that one cannot speak of “correctness” with regard to those topics. Furthermore, they should know what the various world religions are, how they differ, and how they have shaped history.

Many parents might feel uncomfortable with the idea of their children being taught anything pertaining to religion in a manner other than stating that theirs is the “true” religion. But this argument illustrates little more than a fear of the unknown. Surely one’s faith, the most intimately personal component of their world view, should not be so weak that it relies on remaining ignorant of the existence of other ways of thinking?

The average American knows embarrassingly little about any religion by any objective measure. We often hear of the need to develop critical thinking skills, but we are only willing to consider these skills in particular contexts. Any type of real societal progress in dealing with how we might fit religion and faith into a culture where science is able to explain more and more will rely first on being willing to think critically about those things that actually shape our world and our lives.

Barun Singh welcomes comments and responses to this article at his Web site (