The Rift Between Science and Religion?

It is often said that science and religion are polar opposites.

But this notion may not be true and is, instead, based on popular misconceptions, the ongoing struggle between the two concepts for social dominance, and misunderstandings of both the scientific method and the underlying idea of faith.

In fact, the two meet at countless points and often take parallel paths.

Before continuing, this critique centers on Western religious and scientific constructs. When it wants to, an organized religion can stop scientific progress in its tracks – take historical Islam, for example. Once the primary protector and advancer of knowledge (although they were invented in India, we call them Arabic numerals for a reason), Islamic leaders in the Middle Ages proclaimed edicts -- enforced often at scimitar point – that put an end to all of that.

While doubtlessly some Western sects have persecuted knowledge seekers under the cloak of dogma, those efforts had as much to do with secular societal dominance as they did with saving souls. The Galileo affair illustrates that process. 

Galileo’s experience is seen today as the ultimate example of backward religion crushing glorious reason, but the facts of the matter do not support that view. Pope Urban VIII, Galileo’s friend, and, at the time a supporter, encouraged him to write a treatise on the two opposing cosmological concepts -- heliocentrism (Earth around the Sun) and geocentrism (everything around the Earth). 

Urban, it seems, was expecting the book to be a relatively even-handed debate but would certainly not have had a problem if it leaned towards heliocentrism (he had defended Galileo’s support for heliocentrism previously). What Urban was not expecting was Simplicio - the character in the book tasked with defending geocentrism. He was portrayed as an idiot, a fool who made no sense whatsoever. Simplicio was also, rightly or wrongly, interpreted as a caricature of Urban himself. Suffice to say, the Pope was not amused.

And Urban had a trump card up his sleeve for the coming kerfuffle – he knew Galileo could not actually prove the Earth revolved around the Sun. It turns out that Galileo was right, but at the time the math and mechanics were simply not there to definitively prove so. Geocentrism was on its last legs – with Galileo’s physical observations and the work of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe (one of the very few astronomers who have ever had to wear a false silver nose due to an ill-fated drunken duel), et.al. making sure of that. Meanwhile, the torturous mathematical and mechanical hoops geocentrists had to jump through to make it work were expanding exponentially. Galileo, by applying Occam’s Razor, simply knew he was right.

The Galileo debate is, even if incorrectly, rather well-known and has been the subject of significant public discourse. Another “science versus religion” conflict is far less well-known: The initial debate around the Big Bang.

First postulated by a Catholic priest and theoretical physicist Georges Lemaître in the 1920s, the Big Bang theory didn’t really come into its own until after World War II when physicist George Gamow took hold of it, blended in new information and better math techniques, and made it a real contender when compared to the then-dominant “steady state” theory (very nutshell, the Big Bang theory postulates a singular event to start an expanding universe while the steady-state concept says the universe does not grow or shrink and always existed and always will).

One aspect of the competition between the two theories was that many mocked the Big Bang as a way to shoehorn God back into the creation picture. The (simplified) criticism was based on the idea that the eternal nature of the steady-state not only does not require a God, it really does not allow for it. God becomes at the very least extraneous, if not impossible, to existence because a supernatural (in the literal sense of “beyond nature”) being could not exist outside of an eternal and unchanging universe.

The Big Bang theory, while it assumes (simplified) the idea that gravitational interaction of random particles adrift in the nothingness is the causal event of the universe, cannot and does not flatly state that God is impossible. It allows for the possibility that another force was at play and maybe that force could be God. Of course, it also allows for the idea that our universe is just an extra-credit middle school class project of a pan-hyperdimensional teenager but it may not be best to dwell on that possibility, especially if you have kids of your own.

It wasn’t until new radio-telemetry data began to be collected in the 1960s, showing that the steady-state was essentially impossible, that the Big Bang gained the upper hand.

How does the Big Bang call into question the supposed split between science and religion? For one, surprisingly, it puts the story of creation from Genesis back on the table.

Genesis, day one – formless and empty and utter nothingness and then “Let there be light.”

Big Bang, day one - formless and empty and utter nothingness and then, well, “Bang,” for whatever reason.

And then from there, both Genesis and naturalism track rather closely to one another. Simplified, again, the Genesis “timeline to today” goes: the beginning of everything. undifferentiated stuff, sky, ground, vegetation, stars, fish, animals, and then humans. Also, simplified, the naturalist evolutionary “timeline to today” goes: the beginning of everything, undifferentiated stuff, sky, stars, ground, vegetation, fish, animals, humans.

Except for the stars/vegetation glitch (seven out of eight is not bad at all for pre-scientific storytelling), the two ideas are not at all mutually exclusive. They are not identical and they tell the story in very different ways, but they do not, when boiled down to their basics, conflict with one another. And if there is no truly fundamental conflict then there can be no complete and final split.

Like faith, science is a journey. Although technically a noun, in practical effect “science” is a verb, a process for trying to best explain the discordant carnival called life in which we are immersed. Like the winding journey towards betterment that can exemplify faith, science is never “settled.” In fact, “settled science” is the least science-y thing that can exist and is the opposite of the process. It is the equivalent of a merely skin-deep type of faith of transitory convenience because it denies the very concept of change in order to take advantage of the circumstances of the present.

Like faith, science cannot be “followed;” it can only be experienced. The core of the scientific method is the endless search for the best possible explanation of everything. Attempting to “follow the science” is as impossible as it would be to follow your own car while in the driver’s seat. Data can be followed, observations can become more accurate, probabilities can be drastically increased until a hypothesis becomes a theory and then a very likely accurate description, but the scientific process continues ad infinitum.

Like faith, science is a journey and while there are times that their paths seem to diverge, they can always remain visible to one another. And that might be the best of both worlds.

Thomas Buckley is the former Mayor of Lake Elsinore and a former newspaper reporter who studied the history of physics and philosophy of science in college.  He is currently the operator of a small communications and planning consultancy and can be reached directly at planbuckley@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at https://thomas699.substack.com/

Image: Quasar Tsunamis Rip Across Galaxies. Hubble Space Telescope.

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