The word science comes from the Latin scientia, which translates literally "to know," and humans want to know the answers to the fundamental questions of our own existence: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? How did we get here?
While there have always been people who factor religious, metaphysical, or spiritual elements into their answers, lately, there seems to be a growing rift between those who do and those who do not. Fundamentalists of any sort can be rather stubborn, and the writer of the Proverbs reminds them, "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way."
Perhaps no intellectual issue is more deserving of this quote than the origin-of-life debate. There are de facto assumptions in all origin-of-life theories, and given the persuasive scientific and scriptural evidence indicating that the material existence was vastly different throughout the distant past, all honest scientific origin-of-life theories must recognize the disadvantage in saying anything with any real certainty. The religious origin-of-life theories can say whatever they want and not have to back it up at all, because religious claims cannot be verified empirically, and if a claim can be verified empirically then we are no longer discussing a religious claim, but some other statement about some other condition that is true, in actuality.
At any rate, any humble human must admit that we can test gravity, measure electromagnetism and formulaically standardize the chemical composition of sulfuric acid, but the beginning of the universe was a one-time event and attempting to define its ultimate cause by simply studying the aftermath is not unlike attempting to define the exact attributes of a rock thrown into a pond by studying the outermost ripples in the water. Obviously, there are inherent disadvantages in the situation, let alone the dwarfing magnitude behind the idea that perhaps Somebody threw the rock.
Despite the pervasive position that the two fields are mutually exclusive, the position of this website is that science and religion actually represent complementary templates for human attempts at answering life's basic questions. It is true that science deals with the realm of accessible, observable phenomenon, and a similar albeit subjective argument can be made for religion as well. Although genuine differences exist between them, science and religion do not deal with separate realms; rather, they are better represented as two branches of a common ancestor, and that common ancestor is truth. Of course it goes without saying that neither all science nor all religion is always true, and that some science and some religion is undeniably false.
Perhaps most discouraging is that even our brightest modern scientists unnecessarily confine the two in separate realms. In his cleverly-titled book Rocks of Ages, the famed Harvard paleontologist Steven Jay Gould describes the thrust of science as discernment of the “…factual character of the natural world,” then relegates religion to an “…utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings and values.” This statement unfairly disassociates the Hebrew scriptures and other religions from the factual world of which they arose and seek to explain. In the above statements, Gould assumes science deals with objective facts, while religion subjective values and ideas(or possibly objective; he does not specify).
The unfortunate result is often a false dichotomy that misleads the reader to believe that religious values and ideas have no basis in objective fact, and that objective fact remains silent in attributing religious value or meaning to the universe. In actuality, scientific discovery imparts great religious meaning to human existence, for example Carnot and the notion that the entire phenomenon of life is transitory begs religious and philosophical inquiry. Also, scripture contains identifiable scientific statements by every meaning of the word, and continuing with our reasoning from thermodynamics we might cite Paul’s statement foreshadowing Carnot that nature itself is in bondage to decay. And if in fact God is behind it all, which honest science must always allow as possible, then at some point science and religion were one.
Unlike the Church, the Bible itself is actually quite heavy in the encouragement of inductive reasoning and numerous scriptures contain admonitions to prove, to test, to think and to taste. Taken simply, the word Christian translates to Christ-like, and Christ-likeness could not possibly be an impediment to science. However, closed-minded religious tradition can impede science, and it usually does. Any reasonable exegesis of the Bible is often illuminating, not retarding; what is retarding to both science and cultural progress is unyielding dogma – precisely what stifled science throughout the Dark Ages and still to this day.
A good general guideline is that the truth usually lays somewhere between two extremes, and in the final analysis the scientist and religionist are both in the same unsteady boat. After all, both are actively engaged in a search for answers, both work under the disadvantage of insurmountable difficulties and both believe in an objective reality that is what it is regardless of man's opinions about the matter.
When taken to extremes due to intellectual polarization that is often emotionally-based, neither side wishes to yield, and as could be expected, religion generally demonizes science or any other field that disagrees with orthodox doctrine – and science is generally intolerant of religious, spiritual, or metaphysical explanations concerning the past, present, or future. On one end we have the dogmatic, intellectually polarized religionist, spewing subjective dogma that he or she doesn't always necessarily know how to explain nor care to. On the other end we have the dogmatic, intellectually polarized scientist, refusing to acknowledge anything that cannot be tested empirically and often mistakenly basing an entire worldview on the lack of testable, observable evidence for the religious, spiritual, or metaphysical aspects underlying human existence.
So if I'm arguing that science and religion do not inherently conflict, why is there a demonstrable history of disputes between religion and science? That is a very good question, and a perfect lead-in to Part 2 of our discussion about the conflict between the two.
The history of science itself rests on a foundation of thinkers open-minded enough to embrace both religion and research. For many of these pioneers, the research was evidence of the religion. While another needless battle in The Great Culture War rages on, the important question is worth restating: Regardless of your education, your current belief system, your lifelong faith, your faith in reason or science or rationalism or religion or extraterrestrials or any pre-commitment to atheism or theism or agnosticism or whatever, are you intellectually polarized? Or of an open mind and willing to learn?