Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Religion vs. Science

I've never quite understood the perennial conflict between religion and science. I've commented indirectly on this in the past, but I think it's worth addressing the issue head-on.

Science and religion are fundamentally different things. I'd use the common analogy that comparing them is like comparing "apples and oranges", except that those are at least both fruits. In this case it's more like apples and screwdrivers. An apple is a tasty and nutritious fruit, and the fact that it sucks as a fastening tool doesn't diminish its value at all. Similarly, one doesn't worry about the taste and vitamin content of a screwdriver.

Yet we seem to treat science and religion as if they actually encroach each other's turf. I think we get confused when we see such encroachment.

As I see it, religion (whether formal and organized, or informal spirituality) provides 3 specific roles in human life: it provides a moral/ethical framework, it provides a cultural framework (traditions and norms of behavior), and it provides meaning. And faith is an integral aspect to each of these, as it must be: while I suppose one can make utilitarian arguments to suggest that one moral position has a net human benefit, no moral system is strictly utilitarian. And one certainly cannot "prove" that one cultural tradition, or one interpretation of the meaning of our existence, is "correct." Ultimately, one's embrace of a particular culture, understanding of meaning, and moral system must be based on faith.

Science addresses none of those three areas. Sometimes science is viewed as answering "why" (as in "why does the world behave the way it does?"), which arguably encroaches on the "meaning" attribute of religion. But I think it is more accurate to say that science helps us answer not "why" but rather "how." For example, Newton's theory of gravity says how the apple falls from the tree to the ground. But it doesn't actually answer anything as to why the world is set up such that gravity works that way.

In answering questions of "how," science is fundamentally based on direct evidence, predictability, repeatability, and constant revision/refinement. None of these are attributes of religion. But that's precisely my point: since science doesn't do the things that religion does, and religion doesn't do the things that science does, it seems to me that there is no reason for these two areas of human life to come into conflict.

The big-bang theory provides an explanation for how the universe came to be (perhaps correct, likely to be revised/refined), but doesn't say anything about why it came to be. The creation story from the Bible doesn't explain how God created the universe, but pretty clearly provides a statement of why we're here.

Religion does a truly lousy job of answering "how." Creationism simply doesn't cut it as an explanation for how we got here (nor does "Intelligent Design," for that matter). Nobody ever successfully predicted the weather or created a new medical treatment or designed a car using the Bible or Koran as their guide. And science does an equally lousy job of explaining why young children die of disease or whether stem-cell research or abortion are ever appropriate or under which circumstances.

One of them is an apple, the other is a screwdriver. I leave it to the reader to decide which is which.