Complicated Correlation of Science and Religion Interpreted in a New Way

With no certain answers, comparing the complicated correlation of science and religion is no easy feat.

  • Religion and science are contemplated all over the world.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Romolo Tavani
  • “The Big Question,” by Alister McGrath shares his philosophy of the troubled interrelationship between science and faith.
    Cover courtesy St. Martin's Press

The Big Question (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), by Alister McGrath, an accomplished scientist and scholar, provides a powerful lens to which we comprehend our universe and our human weakness. He paves a logical well-argued road to the compatibility between science and faith. This excerpt from chapter three, “Theory, Evidence, and Proof,” helps us to understand science and religions complicated correlation.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

How Do We Know What Is True?

We all like things to be simple. As a teenager I exulted in the simplicity of the natural sciences. They proved things! They offered certainties, based on rigorous engagement with the evidence. I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when I was about sixteen, particularly enjoying its anti-religious polemic. Yet Russell irritated me at one point. He declared that one of the chief benefits of philosophy was to teach us “how to live without certainty.” This was ridiculous, in my view. Did he not know anything about science? Did he not realize that it proved its theories? Why did we have to live with uncertainty when science gave us certainty?

The Human Yearning for Certainty

At that time I saw science as a wonderfully honest and reliable way of thinking about the world which offered proven answers to the big questions of life. As far as I was concerned, faith — especially religious faith — was just about guesswork and hopeful thinking. I held to what I later realized was a simplistic scientific positivism from which faith was totally excluded by the evidence — a view later expressed so well by Richard Dawkins:

“[Faith] is a state of mind that leads people to believe something — it doesn’t matter what — in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence, then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.”

You only believe what you can prove. That, as far as I was concerned, was why science was so great. When a matter needed to be settled, the scientific community devised experiments that resolved the question. When did anyone ever do an experiment that proved there was a God?

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There are many Christians and people of other faiths who do not practice their faith because they seek or need certainty. I invite you to explore the written work of any of the mystics; individuals who engaged with and celebrated the mystery of life. Some fundamentalist religions worship their "laws" as representing some ultimate truth. Others, and these are growing in number, meditate (pray) and reflect on and celebrate what we cannot know, trusting that there is an empowering path forward for themselves in following love/God/source.

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