Asking whether or not religion conflicts with science is too broad a question. Of course there are certain religions that conflict with science; Christian fundamentalism, with its claims of God creating the world in six days and the human race springing from a woman tempted by a talking snake, obviously conflicts with well-established science. Yet there are many other religions which do not conflict with science. As a Catholic, I have not once encountered a belief held by the Church that contradicts anything that I have learned during my time in high school or time here as a physics major at MIT.
Some might find this surprising; I was once chatting with a friend who told me that she could never be Catholic because she “believed in evolution.” The Catholic Church subscribes to the theory of evolution, as do most Jews and some sects of Islam. One of the most common reasons individuals believe that science and a given religion conflict is that they have misunderstood the beliefs of that religion. This makes sense, as many popular movies and television shows have portrayed all Christians, regardless of sect, as ignorant bible-thumpers who believe that people rode dinosaurs.
Of course these are caricatures, and obviously not representative, but when it’s all people have to go off of, they may assume that it is at least a first-order approximation of what Christians really believe. As such, I encourage individuals to gain a more complete understanding of what different religious beliefs actually entail before assuming that, by nature of being religious, religion conflicts with science.
Thus the answer to the question posed in the first paragraph is trivial: it depends on which religion you’re referring to. The more interesting and nuanced question is whether having any belief system which can be neither confirmed nor refuted by science is inherently in conflict with the scientific method and the body of knowledge we’ve amassed. The answer to this question, as you will see, is that having such a belief system is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being in conflict with science.
Let me first point out that religion and science have many similarities. Unless God pops down from Heaven to kindly prove his existence for us, religious beliefs cannot be proven to be true; they are taken on faith. Some scientists may find this laughable, but science has the identical characteristic, which is also its greatest strength. By and large, scientific theories can never be proven to be correct. Evidence can be gathered in support of it, but we can never know with 100 percent certainty if gravity actually works the way we think. Sure, general relativity describes it well, but as so many professors emphasize here, our scientific theories are models. We continuously refine those models as new information comes to light. Less commonly known is that religions do the same thing. The beliefs of a religion are re-examined and refined as time passes and new knowledge is attained. In fact, some religions, such as Catholicism, gather groups of its members periodically for that explicit purpose.
While both disciplines gather evidence, it might be argued by some that the evidence in science is a lot more solid than that in religion. After all, science has the ability to measure things quantitatively, but religion cannot measure how much of the “God Field” is manifest in a church. Even so, religions have also gathered evidence; it’s just a different kind, taking the form of texts, claims of miracles, and other personal evidence. Some find that evidence compelling enough to form a belief, others do not. Is that so different from science? Today, we have extensive measurements of gravity, but everyone disagrees on what gravity is. Recent research suggests it might be an entropic force while others support the “brane theory” of gravity. Quantum mechanics, a field that dates back to the early 1900s, is still argued about today. Does the wave function actually collapse, or are there an infinite number of universes, one for each possible state as Many-Worlds claims? It is not the evidence in science or religion that is in question — it’s what people make of it. It’s the interpretations that split them into Jews and Muslims, or subscribers to the Copenhagen Interpretation and believers of the Many-Worlds hypothesis. Each interpretation of the religious evidence throughout history that has spurned the creation of so many different sets of beliefs is a unique faith. Similarly, each interpretation of quantum mechanics is nothing more, and nothing less, than a faith.
What of so-called “miracles”? Many religions use such events as evidence to support religious claims, yet walking on water is not supported by science. But science has not presented any evidence in direct conflict to the claim that an all-powerful being could not change the rules locally or utilize some force that we do not yet understand to perform the miracle. This is in important contrast to claims that are held onto despite being in direct conflict with science and capable of being proved impossible, such as the creation of the world a few thousand years ago. Miracles are an example of one of the elements of religion that science has nothing to say about, just like religion has nothing to say about general relativity. Science is apathetic to whether or not a supreme being could bend the laws of physics locally and religion is apathetic to whether or not general relativity is the best description of gravity.
A final argument that might be made by those who believe that science and religion conflict under the nuanced definition I provided in the beginning would be that, as religion lacks certain aspects of the scientific method, it does not hold the same weight as science. Yet this claim is based on the assumption that the scientific method is in some way superior to the “religious method,” which I will define as gathering evidence, reflecting personally, and developing an interpretation of that evidence. The scientific method is as superior to the religious method as a recipe for cookies is to one for brownies; they have two completely different goals, which will of course have different methodologies. It just doesn’t make sense to apply the same process to both fields. The religious method is relatively useless in science, and the scientific method is relatively useless in religion. As Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” So let’s judge each of these fields by the distinct criteria that apply to them.
Religion and science do not contradict each other. They are both systems which produce theories that some people will have faith in, albeit through different methodologies. Science is concerned with describing and predicting the universe; religion is concerned with explaining it. Believing in some religion is not inherently a sufficient condition to be in conflict with science. Only when religion makes claims that are obviously refutable by well-established scientific evidence is it ever in conflict with science, but that’s the trivial, uninteresting case. In fact, many believe that science and religion complement each other well. Each covers one domain and largely stays out of the other; when you put them together, you have a solid “Theory of Everything.” No one can say with certainty whether or not a God exists; as long as science cannot disprove the possibility, the two disciplines will continue to complement each other well.