Religion & Science: Can’t We Get Along?
As the semester comes to a close, I thought I might return to a familiar news topic: the conflict between religion and science. The debates in Kansas and Pennsylvania have recently added heat to the argument, but the debate over religion and science’s compatibility is not new.
I talked to a few members of the science faculty here at Oberlin to gain their perspectives on this particular issue.
A common idea I found among the professors I interviewed was that science and religion cannot be fairly contrasted because they answer totally different questions.
“As far as science and religion, I don’t see any major clash,”Jan Thornton, professor of neuroscience, commented.
First of all, science cannot answer religious questions. Science can only address the observable. Professor of Physics Dan Styer heard once that a “question is trivial if it can be answered with scientific inquiry,” implying that the questions humans truly care about are those that cannot be answered through observation and physical tests — the basis of all science.
In the same way, to say that religion contradicts science is to miss the point, since each strives to explain different phenomena. There are many scientists who are very religious, both at this institution and across the United States.
On the flip side, many devout people find no problem with fundamental scientific theories. For example, the Pope fully supports evolution and finds nothing in the theory that contradicts Catholic principles and beliefs.
“The issue arises from those who want a literal interpretation of the Bible,” said Neuroscience Professor Dennison Smith.
“The strange thing to me is that it has become so controversial,” Smith continued. “I think most world religions find no problem with the concept of evolution. They [the Christian right] want Christian teachings in the public schools.”
Science is readily available to be undermined since there is so much science illiteracy among the general public. Arguments from the religious right focusing on holes in the proof of evolution come from a misunderstanding of the science and what it strives to say. Often, it is a misunderstanding of the definition of certain science terminology, such as the word “theory.” It becomes easy to convince the public that something is scientific when it isn’t. “It looks like science, but its purpose is simply to plant doubt,” Chemistry Professor Norman Craig said when asked what purpose intelligent design serves.
“If it weren’t for the general ignorance of the American public with science, then this argument wouldn’t have traction,” said Smith.
“There’s a difference in doing what we do in the natural world and using natural laws in what we can explain to do that,” said Biology Professor Roger Laushman. “It doesn’t mean that all of your thinking requires you reject God. But to a lot of people, that’s how the choice is made.”
It has thus become an “us versus them” battle. Laushman reminded me, however, that “you can’t make scientific decisions by public opinion.”
As far as Oberlin College is concerned, all students can help clarify the issue. Currently, the idea of a cultured person is one who is well versed in humanist disciplines such as literature and philosophy, but not necessarily science.
I have heard many students in the social sciences and humanities gripe over the science classes they are required to take, seeing them, perhaps, as a less noble academic endeavor. I call to them, asking, would they rather see their children learning their science from an ancient metaphorical text?
We are all responsible for the spread of knowledge and understanding, and
have an obligation to strive against illiteracy in the sciences. Without this
respect for science, who knows — perhaps next there will be a movement to
teach that all languages originated from the Tower of Babel.