Science and religion – where’s the conflict?

May 17, 2009 | 14 comments

This post was originally published on October 29, 2007.

I’ve been on a physics kick lately, and my current nighttime reading is Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. I’ve been eager to read up on string theory for a long time, and am really enjoying the book. One thing I’m reminded of as I go through it, however, is just how much science and religion overlap.

The way I think of it, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both tackle different questions about the human experience: science defines that which is measurable and seeks to understand how the world and universe around us work, as seen from our limited perspective as animals with five senses who inhabit a little planet in a big spiral galaxy; religion attempts to explain why it’s all here in the first place, and to make sense of the part of human experience that is not measurable — love, beauty, hate, evil, etc.

The more I get into both religion and science the more I see how very complementary they are — one inspires me to learn more about the other.

Yet it seems like the prevailing attitude these days in the scientific community is that science, by being able to measure stuff and see how it works, somehow rules out the possibility of God (or any sort of “power” or “realm” outside of the material world). This mentality made sense to me back when I thought that all religious people used their holy books as science and history books, but now that I understand the questions religion attempts to answer, which are not the same questions that science attempts to answer, I don’t see where we get this idea that science disproves (or proves) God’s existence either way. Science can offer us data to complement our understanding of the world that we gain through religion, and religion can offer us ideas to complement our understanding of the world that we gain through science.

For example, as I was reading Greene’s chapter where he talks about how string theory may perhaps be the unifying “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces in the universe, I felt so inspired. I’d read about this before, but now that I believed in God it was all the more powerful to learn about it. The fact that this theory of vibrating strings may lay the foundation of our understanding of the universe from which everything else flows, to me, spoke of the sleekness and beauty of a designed universe.

So I was caught off guard when Greene explained that many others have a totally different take on the implications of string theory. He writes:

Many find it fatuous and downright repugnant to claim that the wonders of life and the universe are mere reflections of microscopic particles engaged in a pointless dance fully choreographed by the laws of physics. Is it really the case that feelings of joy, sorrow, or boredom are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain — reactions between molecules and atoms that, even more microscopically, are reactions between some of the fundamental particles, which are really just vibrating strings?

He goes on to quote Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who writes of people who are “appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science”:

I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science. The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.

I don’t get it. Why does string theory suddenly make everything so bleak? Before we came up with strings we knew that all the wonders of the universe and human experience were caused by the interactions of electrons, protons and neutrons. Why are strings more repugnant than atoms? There is no denying that tiny physical particles are involved in everything from sensations of happiness to supernovae. It seems to me that whether science reveals their fundamental building blocks to be atoms or quarks or strings or this, it’s irrelevant to the questions of religion.

Greene writes that “a staunch reductionist would claim that…in principle absolutely everything, from the big bang to daydreams, can be described in terms of underlying microscopic physical processes involving the fundamental constituents of matter. If you understand everything about the ingredients, the reductionist argues, you understand everything.” I think the problem lies in that last sentence. That does seem to be the prevailing attitude in science today — yet it just doesn’t sound right.

Even if you could have a perfect understanding of the ingredients, you’re a long way away from understanding everything. You might be close to understanding how it all works, but the lines between science and religion start to get blurred when your quest to understand takes you to those final questions, “Why is this here at all? For that matter, why is anything in the universe here? Why is there something instead of nothing?” It’s when we ponder those questions that we can set our telescopes and microscopes and calculators aside, and seek answers in the disciplines that speak to those and all the other mysterious questions that science could never answer, and, in this life, we could never fully understand.

Here is a part II to this post in which I shared an interesting experience I had while reading this book.


  1. lynda

    Not sure if you’ve read this yet, but I really recommend the book “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. It addresses this very topic.

  2. kevin

    “I think the problem lies in that last sentence. That does seem to be the prevailing attitude in science today — yet it just doesn’t sound right.”

    Certainly there are reductionistic physicists, however, I don’t think that’s the prevailing attitude in science because people are still studying biology, chemistry, psychology, sociology, etc.

    Along the theme of being against reductionistic ways of thinking, if you haven’t already, you might be interested in reading Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. In it Nancey Murphy proposes “nonreductive physicalism” as a unifying perspective of human nature for science and theology.

    Along the theme of science and theology, I’ve read the three books by LeRon Shults about Christology, Doctrine of God, and Anthropology, and I think they’ve provided me as a lay person an excellent introduction into the present conversation between theology and science.

  3. Ginkgo100

    “[A] staunch reductionist would claim that…in principle absolutely everything, from the big bang to daydreams, can be described in terms of underlying microscopic physical processes involving the fundamental constituents of matter.”

    Not quite. That is what a staunch materialist would say. And a materialist makes the assumption that there exists nothing but the physical universe of matter and energy in space-time. This assumption is not required to do science, nor is it even scientific.

    Jen, I hope you don’t mind that I plug my science-and-Catholicism blog in my comment on this post. It’s called Leave the lights on.

  4. Solveig

    I have nothing to offer to the dialog other than great appreciation. In fact, you can’t know how much this blesses me. God’s creation is go great–and we’re meant to study it and appreciate it. Thanks.

  5. Jim T.

    “Why is this here at all?”
    Yes, that is the groundwork in my conversion.
    That question will not be answered for us except by faith.
    To know and love God and share that love with others. Jesus
    gives us his body so we can do that.

  6. Sara

    Science tells us “how”. God tells us “why”.

  7. amy

    I guess it all depends on how you look at it. I don’t see science as being complementary to religion. I don’t see it as having any relationship to religion whatever. And mainly it’s for the reason you listed–science deals with the “hows” of the universe, and religion attempts to deal with the “whys.”

    I say “attempts” because for me, religion (Christianity) doesn’t do a satisfactory job of answering the whys. The answers it gives me always create more whys. Just like the answers science give always lead to more hows.

    But I think there’s a big difference between science and Christianity, because as I see it, the prevailing attitude in Christianity seems to be, “This is the way the world is. This is the way God is. We have it figured out. No need to look further.” Science is more like, “This is what an atom is like. Now what else can we discover?” Science is continually correcting and refining itself, continually challenging itself to make new discoveries. Science is willing to change its mind and to go in a different direction when it hits a dead end. And except in more progressive types, I don’t see that same attitude in Christianity. The canon of Christian scriptures was closed almost 2000 years ago. The canon of science will never close.

    And I don’t think scientists have an attitude of ruling out the possibility of God. Science looks at evidence, and I just don’t think there is hard, testable evidence of the truth of religion (which is fine because religion isn’t about proof). So if scientists say there isn’t evidence for God, they aren’t trying to “disprove” God, there just pointing out the lack of empirical evidence. Just pointing out the fact that God can’t be proved or disproved, to which I think most people, atheist or religious, agree.

    I think the universe is an amazing, miraculous place simply because it exists. There is order in chaos, and chaos in order, and it all fits seamlessly together. The fact that I exist at all is, in my mind, a “miracle,” and probably (along with beauty) the main reason I still believe in God even though I’ve pretty much thrown in the towel trying to accept Christianity. Just because I see existence itself as a miracle though, doesn’t make it any easier for me to believe Bible miracles like virgin births and walking on water and resurrections.

    Even though I don’t always agree with your conclusions (in this and other posts) I do want to tell you I think you have a lovely way of expressing your thoughts. It’s why I keep coming back to your blog again and again, and why I look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

  8. Anonymous

    The Soul in the bottom line. Science will never understand the Soul.

    I love your thoughts. I share them.

  9. asinamirror

    A great website to check out is The BioLogos Foundation was started by Dr. Francis Collins (an author recommended by another commenter here). The website seeks to answer questions about faith and science, showing harmony between the two.

  10. Amity

    If you haven’t read “A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature” by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, do! Do! Some really inspiring ways to look at geometry, Shakespeare, etc. and see God’s hand in them. (As the title suggests, the book doesn’t insist upon God exactly, but upon intelligent design.)

  11. kevin

    Amy said, “Science is continually correcting and refining itself, continually challenging itself to make new discoveries. Science is willing to change its mind and to go in a different direction when it hits a dead end. And except in more progressive types, I don’t see that same attitude in Christianity.”

    I think the perceived difference in approach within science compared to Christianity has to do with the individuals involved in each. People we call “scientists” are all experts in their field of science, whereas people we call “Christians” range from people with only a simple blind faith in whatever their favorite preacher says to theologians who devote their lives to thinking deeply about Christianity.

    So, I think the fair way to compare science to Christianity is by comparing the work of scientists to that of theologians. Then, it seems to me that their approaches are similar. Christianity is more dynamic than it seems to be commonly viewed and portrayed. For example, despite the concept of God being fundamental for Christianity, history shows that theologians have framed God in many different, sometimes conflicting ways. And theologians, not only “liberal” ones, continue to look for new ways to articulate a doctrine of God.

  12. Maureen

    Science is actually quite a bit more restricted than theology, because it can only deal with figuring out what’s going on with the physical universe. There are more places to attack this problem, perhaps, but not more to find out.

    Theology, on the other hand, has the same clear starting point for everyone (God’s revelation of Himself), but has infinite avenues of exploration from there because God is infinite. What’s more, all other kinds of knowledge, including science, and all kinds of art and craft, are comprehended in these potential avenues of exploration. Nor are you bounded by experimentation to figure stuff out. Also, the subject of your study takes a lot more interest in your conclusions than a star does, or even than a human does.

    It is a lot like investigating a murderer, really, in the breadth of knowledge that can be drawn into the net. Except in this case, you are investigating the Creator.

  13. Sarah

    I don’t understand why string theory should challenge our views of God and creation. Instead, I think it should inspire greater awe of God.

    A really simple analogy… When I was in third grade or so, we studied the invention of the automobile, the advent of assembly lines, etc. At the time, I was awed by what I learned, but I had no concept of the mechanics of it all.

    As an adult, I understand (a little) more about the inner workings of an engine. The more I learn, the more respect I have for Henry Ford and others before and after him. It would be silly to say, “Oh, so that’s how it works. That’s no big deal, then.”

    Of COURSE there’s some common force uniting everything. Of COURSE there’s some physical explanation for emotions. And the more we learn about the universe, the more convinced I become that there has to be a Creator with immeasurable intelligence behind it all.

  14. Ray Ingles

    Even if there's ultimately "nothing but" particles or strings or whatever, I just don't understand why that would automatically be 'bleak'. As I put it once, "A rainbow is not 'degraded' by having arisen from 'mere' physical processes. Physical processes are ennobled by giving rise to such beauty."

    Even if people are 'just' fantastically complex processes of material things… they're still awfully cool.

    (Admittedly, that does mean no life after death, but that doesn't mean life isn't sweet.)

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