Ask A-theist is a column by Aaron L. Scheinberg G, an atheist, and Stephanie S. Lam G, a Christian, which uses contrasting worldviews to explore questions and misconceptions about philosophy and religion.
Q: Is there a conflict between scientific and religious thinking? Where do we draw boundaries between the two?
It seems to me that the major religions consist of cultural tradition, claims about reality, and a philosophy of living guided by those traditions and beliefs. Having spent time in Jewish and Christian traditions, I think such traditions enrich us and I am happy they continue, provided they harm no one. We all seek to contentedly lead our lives; our predecessors’ approaches are invaluable guides.
However, claims about reality must be evaluated carefully whether the source has religious affiliation or not. Making claims, while enjoyable, is only Phase One of finding truth. Phase Two is more daunting: distilling true statements from a sea of unfounded assertion.
Claiming something doesn’t make it more likely to be true. If the claim regards reality, our reasoning must somehow reference reality, which we call “using evidence.” Over centuries, we’ve established what constitutes reliable evidence and fallacy-free reasoning. Claims gain some legitimacy only after their reasoning and evidence withstand scrutiny.
We shouldn’t treat “why” claims differently. Though nonmaterial, motivations still either affect observable reality or are unfalsifiable. Unfalsifiable claims fail automatically — some quick math shows they cannot have supporting evidence, so they can only be unfounded speculation.
Phase Two is the core of scientific thinking. It’s not about lab coats or explosions, it’s about distinguishing fact from unfounded speculation. Science isn’t close-minded, it’s inclusive: any new methodology that can be shown to make that distinction with even slight success becomes part of science.
We associate scientific thinking with the study of natural mechanisms only because it’s more easily applied there. The great influence that historical and cultural forces exert on our lives spotlights the need to distinguish fact from speculation in those domains too. So when someone professes to have a path to truth separate from science, but their Phase Two is less demanding than science’s, let’s ask why their claims deserve such leniency. It’s no coincidence that those advocating “other ways” to determine the truth about reality often also advocate claims that would fail reasoned scrutiny.
In starker terms, “unfounded speculation” means “stuff someone made up.” I love exercising my imagination, but when we don’t distinguish imagination from reality, we run a serious risk of imperiling our common goals. After all, one who conjures up facts can justify any action.
How do we know what we know? The primary way we gain knowledge of the external world is through our observations and interaction with it. This is true whether in science or faith. What might seem troubling is that, whereas science seems carefully controlled and reproducible, religion in contrast seems like an arbitrary set of beliefs accepted unquestioningly. Presented in that way, the two ways of thinking are incompatible. But I don’t think that’s an accurate picture of “religious thinking.”
How do people become Christian and thereby get inducted into “religious thinking”? How do we become convinced that the “Christian hypothesis,” so to speak, is true? By looking at the evidence. Central to the Christian faith is the existence of a loving God who wrote himself into human history in the actual historical figure of Jesus Christ. In order for Christianity to be true, Jesus must have existed, been crucified, and then been resurrected. But this happened once in history; it is not reproducible. Same goes for the Big Bang. Therefore the evidence available is indirect and more akin to legal testimony. We examine the historical records, which includes but is not limited to the Bible, and we draw our conclusions in the same way as for anything else.
Christianity also goes beyond mere historical facts. There are far-reaching implications for our own lives as well. We look at the data we have and ask if it is consistent with the hypothesis. Do we see evidence of changed lives in those we know? Do we see evidence of a God loving us, intervening throughout history, and speaking to us even now?
If, after evaluating the evidence, we conclude that Christianity makes the most sense of the world, does that still make us arbitrary and dogmatic? I would argue that science similarly exercises such faith. Have you personally tested every theory in your chemistry textbook? Or have you just seen enough proof to satisfy you that chemistry is true and your textbook will not mislead you? The nature of the evidence might be different between science and religion, but the fundamental process of obtaining knowledge is similar. Both begin with evidence and end with truth.