26 Religion and Science

Introduction: Science, religion, dilemma

Scientific practice and religious belief are two contrasting realms, with relations between the two having been in flux for as long as science and religion have existed. Presently, this scientific-religious relationship can be described as differential, at best, and can perhaps be described as contentious, in many cases. The everyday reality is, as it pertains to the direct influences of religion and science, most human beings live a life in compromise. Two aspects of belief exist – the aspect of scientific logic, rationality, and evidence, and the aspect of religious spirituality, sentimentality, personality, and tradition. In terms of their fundamental set of beliefs, these two aspects are largely incompatible with one another.

Take, for example, a person of Catholic faith. They attend Communion, place a piece of bread in their mouth, but simultaneously believe to be consuming the body of their divine spirit. There is an alleged contradiction of faith versus fact, a difference in opinion regarding what is true. One would suppose that, logically, a person must choose between the faith-based conviction and the fact-based conviction (“Richard Rorty: Is Religion,” 2011 ).

However, many people do not attempt to do so. They hold both an objective understanding of the fact – that what they’re putting in their mouth is bread – and they hold a subjective understanding of the religious implications – they believe the communion to be the body of Jesus Christ (“Richard Rorty: Is Religion,” 2011). The subjective religious faith is what has come to irk scientific rationale, while that same rationale has come to disturb religious interpretation.

This chapter will analyze scientific-religious contention through a case-by-case perspective, incorporating the historical and contemporary. It goes without saying that at various points in history, religious faiths were at the center of cutting edge scientific and educational development. Religion drove science . There is a clear pattern in the examples: the more historical the example, the more likely it is that religion supported scientific inquiry; the more recent the example, the more likely it is that religion did not support scientific inquiry.

There are two goals in this section. The first is to obtain a keen understanding of the discrepancies between religious and empirical thought. This will entail assessing examples as a means of learning reasons for the current issues that religion and science have with one another.

The second goal is to maintain unbiased examination. This means that, in attempting to understand the religious and scientific perspectives, one does not let their own belief(s) affect judgment. A stark difference exists between disagreement and controversy. This chapter seeks to explain that the former is necessary in today’s world, while the latter is not.

Examples: the scientific-religious relationship over time

Islamic Spain

It could be contended that the period of Islamic rule over Spain reflected one of the most scientifically advanced societies ever established up to that point in history. Beginning in 711CE and extending until 1492CE, Muslim forces invaded and successfully settled in the Iberian Peninsula (“Muslim Spain (711-1492),” 2009). For the next several centuries, several revolutionary innovations were driven by Muslim influence – including innumerable contributions to science and scientific inquiry. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge and value of language were taken quite seriously, viewed as an ideal synonymous with the Islamic religion itself (“Cordoba: Historical Overview,” n.d.).

Algebra was one of the greatest achievements of the period. Elements from Greek geometry and Indian arithmetic were used to produce an Arab creation that is now used universally (“Cordoba: Historical Overview,” n.d.). Decimal notation and the concept of zero were also incorporated into mathematical practice during this period. The Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages were constructed according to this mathematical form (“Cordoba: Historical Overview,” n.d.).

In addition to mathematics, other fields were supplemented by networking within the Islamic Empire – specifically, between Córdoba and Baghdad. Medicine, astronomy, and botany were other areas of intense study, backed by Islamic faith (“Cordoba: Historical Overview,” n.d.). In the library of al-Hakam II, the second caliph of Córdoba, there were estimated to be 400,000 volumes of text. Interestingly, many of these books, especially those concerning philosophy, were burned by the subsequent caliph, al-Mansur, to satisfy the Muslim clergy (“Cordoba: Historical Overview,” n.d.).

Thus, within this civilization, it is clear that the Islamic Empire was in full control and support of intellectual – and often scientific – inquiry. However, as a consequence, this inquiry had to fall in line with the religious faith itself.

Other Scientific Contributions of the Islamic Empire

Baghdad’s scientific contribution did not end with its collaboration with Córdoba. Most notably, the city was home to the House of Wisdom. Formed in 810CE, the House worked to translate Greek and Indian astronomy works into Arabic language. In addition, Baghdad was home to the conception of the binomial theorem – any power of a binomial could now be known through formula instead of tedious multiplication (“Islamic Mathematics,” n.d.). Islam supported this intellectual work: “The Qur’an itself encouraged the accumulation of knowledge, and a Golden Age of Islamic science and mathematics flourished throughout the medieval period from the 9th to 15th Centuries”  (“Islamic Mathematics,” n.d.).

Elsewhere in the empire, the pursuit of knowledge was apparent. In Fez, Morocco, the University Al Karaouine was founded in 859CE, marking the start the oldest degree-granting university in the world. Apart from the degree-granting university, the Islamic Empire generated institutions that are now contemporary strongholds in academia and scientific advancement – the public hospital, the public library, and the astronomical observatory (“Islamic Golden Age,” n.d.).

A key figure in scientific contribution during the Islamic Golden Age was Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen). A pioneer of experimental physics in the 11th century, a pioneer of the scientific method, and a pioneer of the psychology of visual perception, al-Haytham has been described as the “first scientist” (“Islamic Golden Age,” n.d.). He used the methods of “experimentation and quantification” to delineate between scientific theories that appeared to contradict one another (“Islamic Golden Age,” n.d.). Perhaps one of his greatest works was the Book of Optics. He empirically proved that the reason for vision was due to light rays entering the eye. To demonstrate the physical nature of light rays invented the camera obscura. In doing these things, the field of optics was changed in perpetuity (“Islamic Golden Age,” n.d.).

Creation and Evolution

The book of Genesis states: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27, English Standard Version). When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, a great schism between religion and empirical science was formed. For Christians, especially, Darwin’s work was conflagratory – the notion that human life was not created by God, but instead descended from ape-like ancestors, was preposterous. As time has progressed, evidence supporting Darwin’s theory has further proved the likelihood of it being true (Chivers, 2009).

A bizarre example took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. In the 1920’s, a law was passed in Tennessee that forbade the teaching of evolution in state-sponsored schools. In the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, town officials sought to host an event that would draw people and money to the town – the result was a staged trial regarding the teaching of evolution in schools. John Scopes agreed to be the defendant. Scopes was a substitute biology teacher who apparently taught out of a textbook that featured evolutionist principle (Linder, n.d.). Though staged, the trial reflected the views time period and region. There was a collision between “social and intellectual values” (Linder, n.d.). The trial was less about Scopes being innocent of guilty, and less about whether or not a law was violated, but instead about the law itself.

William Jennings Bryan, a formidable politician, led a “Fundamentalist crusade” against Darwinian Theory (Linder, n.d.). He is presumed to have done this to defend the traditional beliefs he had held, and to remain in the political limelight. Dr. Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins, stated for the prosecution that evolutionists had man descending “not even from American monkeys, but from Old World monkeys” (Linder, n.d.). Scopes was found guilty for the purposes of being able to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, but the decision was reversed and the case was dismissed on the grounds that the ordeal was rather outlandish (Linder, n.d.).

In the big picture, however, this trial marked a social turning point with regards to science and religion. Education, from this point forward, would see a departure from Bible-based study and a trend toward secularization.


In the last several decades especially, there has been a clash between fundamentalist Catholic doctrine and sexuality. An example can be seen from Providence, Rhode Island, where Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s response to Supreme Court ruling represented the contemporary difference in opinion. In June of 2015, the United States Supreme Court declared that same-sex marriage was a Constitutional right. Tobin incited controversy in his reaction, stating same-sex marriage as “morally wrong and a blatant rejection of God’s plan for the human family” (Reynolds, 2015). Pope Francis made similar comments during his stint as archbishop in Argentina. Tobin explained that, in his eyes, the church must “redouble” their efforts to uphold the exclusive tolerance for heterosexuality (Reynolds, 2015).

While this example is not as directly scientific as other examples, it is valid in light of the social stigmas that may be created in within church and intellectual circles. For homosexuals who continue to profess their Catholic faith, there is increased difficulty in compromising their sexuality for the religion they have practiced for their lifetime.


For hundreds of years, Christianity vehemently accepted the thought that, in simple terms, planet Earth was the center of the universe. Earth represented the orbital center of the solar system. The Bible seemed to support this – “He has fixed the Earth firm, immovable” (1 Chronicles 16:30, English Standard Version). Today, we regard the Sun as the solar system’s orbital center. This contemporary belief was introduced by Copernicus and Galileo. Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius in 1610 (Heilbron, 2010, p. 218). Between 1610 and his publishing of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, Galileo came to defend heliocentrism. He justified the movement of the Earth citing tides. Using a telescope and similar technologies, Galileo defined heliocentrism in his work, stating his belief in the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. The Church’s reaction was harsh. Galileo was condemned to lifelong house arrest from 1633 until his death in 1642 (Chivers, 2009).

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this affair between Galileo and the Church – apart from theory of heliocentrism itself – was the Church’s response. It was not until 1835 that the Church stopped denying heliocentric belief, and it was not until 1992 that the Church issued an official apology (Chivers, 2009). It took hundreds of years for the Church to accept well-supported scientific theory concerning the structure of the universe.

Climate Change

Fundamentally, certain religious doctrines provide reasoning for global climate change, and this reasoning does not agree with science. The Quran states:

And to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And we have instructed those who were given the Scripture before you and yourselves to fear Allah. But if you disbelieve – then to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And ever is Allah Free of need and Praiseworthy (4:131, The Glorious Quran).

Islam credits the environmental state of the planet to be a direct result of obedience and belief in the religious creed. It is implied that natural environmental disasters, such as hurricanes or drought, can be linked to religious disbelief.

In the Bible, Rabbi Lawrence Troster explains that in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy make it “evident that our right to live in peace and prosperity on the land is dependent on our moral behavior and commitment to the covenant with God” (Raushenbush, 2014). It is believed, according this text, that if the covenant is disregarded, God with be responsible for devastation of the planet and its land.

Certain aspects of this Biblical phrase have been cited by policymakers who refute the facts of human-caused global climate change. Senator Jim Inhofe cited the book of Genesis in his book:

“As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night,

will never cease” (Genesis 8:22, English Standard Version)

Inhofe defended the use of this passage in saying,

The Genesis 8:22 that I use in [my book]…  My point is: God’s still up there. And the arrogance of people who think, that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is, to me, outrageous (Raushenbush, 2014).

There is a split as it pertains to the role of religious spirit in climate change. Some feel that Senator Inhofe’s use of the Bible to justify the unlikelihood of climate change is poor use of political theology. Other people are supportive of the fundamental religious references incorporated into policymaking. As Rabbi Troster mentions, however, climate change forever remains “…an idea of justice. This is a moral issue, more than anything else” (Raushenbush, 2014).

Stem Cells

Religious disagreement with the study of stem cells came to the fore in 2001, when President George W. Bush was deciding whether to support Federal funding of the study of embryonic human stem cells. The issue revolved around week-old human embryos. Stem cells exist inside these embryos, and the cells can grow into various types of human tissues; scientists believe severe illnesses can be cured with these cells (Wheeler & Sowle Cahill, 2001). However, obtaining stem cells kills the human embryo. Thus, the debate revolves around a hot button similar to that of the debate regarding abortion: it is a question of the extent to which human life is being compromised, and of the moral grounds of this compromise.

A number of religions, especially between the various sects of Christianity, have taken positions in support and opposition of stem cell study. For example, within Protestantism, there are supportive and prohibitive opinions – interpretations vary among Protestants, for there is a lack of scripture-based opinion. Those who support stem cell research do so with caution, preferring that it is conducted with “embryos that cannot be used for the reproductive purposes for which they were created,” said Sondra Wheeler in a PBS interview (Wheeler & Sowle Cahill, 2001). Prohibitive opinions rise out of the fact that “the context of the marital relationship” is disregarded upon the killing of the embryo (Wheeler & Sowle Cahill, 2001). Many are strongly opposed to the death of the embryo, and simply believe that it is no different from killing a human being.

A particular article pointed to the media’s coverage of the stem cell debate. In particular, media coverage was found to sensationalize the issue, and evoke various social reservations regarding research versus religion:

Competing interests in the stem cell controversy also played on familiar themes of tradition versus progress. If on one side of the debate was the image of a mad scientist experimenting on human embryos, on the other side was the notion of a religious zealot impeding scientific and social progress (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, n.d., p. 10).

The issue of scientific progress versus religious tradition rests at the heart of the stem cell controversy. Eventually, President Bush vetoed the possibility for Federal funding. Socially speaking, it remains unclear as to what defines the limits of science, and the extent to which science and religion can compromise.

Suggestion: Achieving scientific and religious progress

            The examples provided show a mixture of cases, wherein religion supported and defied scientific research. In additional to religious doctrine crossing hairs with science, there is a heavy social component. Especially with regard to race and sexuality, many people are contradictory in their personal beliefs versus the doctrine itself. One may be tempted to seek something to blame for this – too often, people assume that live logically, a person must either change their personal beliefs to conform to the religion, or terminate their religious faith entirely.

One may say, however, that religion is contracting  itself as well. For example, while Catholicism shuns certain sexualities, John 6:37 also states: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37, English Standard Version). It may make more sense for religious institution to change. In fact, for the sake of maintaining membership and popularity, certain faiths may be required to change. For example, with the Galileo affair, the Catholic Church came down harshly in response to his findings, putting him under house arrest. The Church did change their stance on the subject of heliocentrism, but this wasn’t until 200 years later. It wasn’t until 350 years after the fact that they even issued a formal apology (Chivers, 2009). This brings forth the view that perhaps religions and their doctrines should adapt to public sensibilities more readily and accordingly, being ongoing in their response to newly-introduced scientific concepts. This would be mutually beneficial for the public, the religion and the religion’s membership – and this may help to eliminate poor public opinion condemning certain faiths as irrational. Religious institutions need to come to terms with fundamentalism versus contemporary change – religious institutions cannot be so fundamental that it discourages doctrinal adaptation. However, staunch religious traditionalists may be opposed to this.

Science, however, can change in its attitude and understanding toward religion. In certain academic circles, religions that contradict scientific findings are frowned upon, or seem to be considered rationally inferior. This disposition seems to be almost solely influenced by scientific theory and fact – that this theory and fact is the closest thing to truth, and that therefore, it is most rational to adhere to these principles.

But what are not considered, or respected, are religious spiritualism, tradition, sentimentality, and personal connection. Additionally, as shown by early examples of the Islamic Empire, religion has made critical contribution to science – including the inventions of algebra, the scientific method, and others. These contributions came early, temporally speaking, and supplemented subsequent scientific research.

A potential course of action for scientific institution would be to consider religious principle before the release of certain findings . This would be done due to the fact that it is partly science’s obligation to be aware of the possible consequences, disagreement, or outrage that may follow the release of data, given that religion is universal and grounded in fundamentalism.

A central point to the scientific-religious dilemma is the concept of progress. In this case, progress is not exclusively scientific or religious; progress symbolizes the collaboration of the two to contribute to human existence. What defines the ideal forms of collaboration and contribution is not objective. What is apparent, however, is that scientific and religious parties have the capacity to change .


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