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The conflicts between science and religion:

A more detailed overview

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Differences between science and religion:

Scientific findings and religious beliefs are normally quite separate: 

bullet Science deals with the study of nature, its forces, processes and development. It is based on the analysis of evidence. It assumes, as a working hypothesis, that processes and events happen due to natural causes, not through divine intervention. It has rarely intrudes in matters of morality, the existence and nature of deity, spirituality, etc. However, this exclusion is in a state of flux as neuroscientists, biologists, physicists, cosmologists investigate topics like deriving moral codes, 1 how the universe started, etc.

bullet Religion deals with matters of faith. Its main basis is often revelation from a deity -- either orally transmitted from generation to generation, recorded in a sacred text, or revealed to individuals through prayer. Most faith groups teach of the existence of one or more deities who created the universe, and continue to play a major role in managing it -- sometimes bypassing the laws of nature to create miracles. A main function of religion is to teach moral principles, mankind's relationship to the god(s) or goddess(es), behavior towards other humans, spiritual matters, etc.

The main battles between religion and science are in areas in which they overlap. Here, both often hold conflicting positions.

Many people feel that their own religious tradition is absolutely true, whereas science and all other faiths are artificial and deeply flawed belief systems, invented by error-prone humans. This attitude often fuels religious conflict, sometimes escalating into mass crimes against humanity and genocide. The result is that different religious traditions battle each other, as well as disagree with the findings of science.

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Areas of overlap and conflict:

Some of the areas where science and religion overlap, and make conflicting claims, are:

bullet Cosmology, geology, astronomy, etc. Many believers within the conservative wing of Christianity claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years of age. They interpret the creation and universal flood stories in the Biblical book of Genesis as being literally true. 95% of scientists reject a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. They believe that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, that no world-wide flood has happened, that humanity and other species evolved from a common ancestor, etc.

bullet Linguistics: Most conservative Christians claims that the Tower of Babel story in the Biblical book of Genesis describes precisely a past event in the Middle East in which humanity abandoned a single language. They then separated into many different cultures, with various languages. Scientists generally disagree that languages developed in this manner.

bullet Medicine: There are many conflicts in health related topics:
bullet Some faith groups promote methods of healing using prayer and spiritual techniques that they believe are superior to modern medicine. Physicians tend to disagree in the effectiveness of prayer.

bullet Some faith groups teach that human personhood begins at the instant of conception. Upon this belief they base their assertion that abortion is the killing of a human being -- a practice than they feel should be seriously restricted. Others teach that life becomes human life much later in pregnancy and that abortion is sometimes the least immoral choice in certain circumstances.

bullet Some faith groups believe that only God gives life and only God should take it away. They oppose physician assisted suicide. Others believe that when a terminally ill person is in intractable pain and wishes to die that physicians should be allowed to assist them in dying.

bullet Religious practices:
bullet A common Pentecostal practice is "speaking in tongues" where one believer will speak in what appears to be gibberish to the casual observer, while another believer interprets the meaning of the speech for the congregation. Pentecostals and investigators have reached different conclusions over the significants of speaking in tongues.

bullet Most theists believe that they can assess the will of God. The sponsors of this web site have conducted a pilot study which appears to indicate that determining God's will is not possible.

bullet Religious events: Various faith groups make certain claims about historical events. 

bullet One example is the belief by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, that there were three mass migrations from Palestine to North America circa 600 BCE. This belief has been rejected by essentially all non-Mormon archaeologists. 

bullet Another is the Shroud of Turin which many believers regard to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Many scientists disagree, having dated its material to the middle ages.

bullet Human sexuality: Many conservative Christian groups teach that homosexual behavior is not normal, unnatural, chosen, not genetically determined, and can be changed through prayer and counseling. Researchers into human sexuality generally believe that homosexual orientation is normal for a small percentage of the human race, natural, not chosen, at least partly determined by one's genes, and cannot be changed through prayer and counseling. 

Generally speaking, in these areas of overlap:

bullet When religious claims are evaluated using scientific methods, they are found to be false. 

bullet When scientific claims are evaluated using the methods of faith, they are found to be false. 

The result is stagnation. Neither side can easily convince the other of their truth. Sometimes, the conflict continues over centuries before being resolved. Some conflicts, like abortion access, may be permanently irresolvable.

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How each adapts to change:

Science and religion have different methods of adapting to change:

bullet Science generally welcomes change. Many false hypothesis are proposed and later rejected or modified as new data becomes available. This is the method by which science continually advances. It is ultimately self-correcting. All scientific beliefs are subject to being falsified if new evidence is uncovered. One example is the cause of stomach ulcers. For decades, physicians treated patients with ulcers by using long-term stress relief programs, permanent dietary changes and continuing medication to reduce stomach acid. They achieved only moderate success. Then an Australian doctor proved that many forms of stomach ulcers were caused by a bacterium that could be eliminated with a single shot of antibiotics. He single-handedly triggered a revolution in patient treatment.

bullet Religious beliefs, particularly those based on a sacred text, change much more slowly. In fact, many faith groups stress the unchangeable nature of their beliefs. There are three main methods by which religions modify their teachings. In Christianity, for example:

bullet Some Biblical passages that were once considered to be literally true are now interpreted symbolically. Heaven is no longer considered to be somewhere "up there.Hell is no longer believed to exist inside the earth. Over the past century, Bible passages that describe torture methods inflicted on Hell's inhabitants (worms, pain, flogging, heat, thirst, darkness, unbearable heat and flames) have been downplayed and often treated as symbolic. Hell is now viewed as being isolated from God.

bullet Some Biblical passages are ignored. We no longer execute prostitutes. Sections of the Bible that condoning and regulate slavery are rarely if ever quoted. The Bible contains dozens of passages that are profoundly immoral by today's secular and religious standards of behavior. These verses are largely ignored today.

bullet Still other passages are interpreted as perhaps being valid for the culture and age for which they were written, but not binding in a different society or era. Male control over women, treating wives as property, restrictions on female ordination, prohibiting women from certain professions, etc. have being largely rejected as sexist, at least by mainline and liberal Protestants.

Change eventually happens. Most people no longer believe that:

bullet The earth is flat. 
bullet The sun goes around the earth.
bullet Lightning and thunder are caused by Satan and his demons.
bullet Mental illness, epilepsy, etc. are caused by demonic possession.
bullet God expects that a certain number of children will die young; thus we should not inoculate our children against childhood diseases.

But there are still many points of major conflict between science and religion. In each case, only one will eventually win public support. The historical record indicates that religion wins very few of these disputes.

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Stages in conflicts between science and religion:

In 1898, Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), a professor and co-founder of Cornell University, wrote a rather notorious book called  "A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom." 1 He tracked many religiously-based conflicts, and showed that they often take decades or even centuries to resolve. Although his book exhibits a heavy -- sometimes vicious -- bias and opposition against religion, he did document a pattern in these conflicts: they often go through eight stages before being finally resolved:

  1. Some individual or group will propose a new belief system that is in conflict with established religious beliefs. The official religious institutions generally ignore this.

  2. A growing number of people will start to disagree with church teaching.

  3. Churches issue statements which condemn the proposal, citing Biblical passages as justification for their stance.

  4. Support for the proposal continues to grow among the public.

  5. Churches issue statement pointing out that belief in the proposal negates the entire Christian message, or attacks a fundamental Christian principle.

  6. Public support continues to grow.

  7. Churches begin to ignore the proposal, and sometimes ignore the Biblical passages that it once quoted in opposition to the new idea.

  8. Many decades or centuries later, churches may incorporate the proposal into their beliefs.

Since the advent of the modernist/fundamentalist divide in Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, religious liberals have tended to readily accept scientific findings and incorporate them into their theology and morality. Thus White's eight step process now mainly applies to religious conservatives.

The theory of evolution is a classic case. "A scientific theory of evolution [was] first proposed by Charles Bonnet (1720 - 1793)...The theory was developed by Charles Lyell (1797 - 1874)." 2 But there was minimal theological reaction until Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859. At the present time, evolution of the species has been accepted by the Roman Catholic church, by liberal Christian denominations and by many mainline faith groups. Some have integrated the theory of evolution into their educational programs. Conservative Christians generally retain belief in one of the literal interpretations of the biblical creation story in Genesis.

Of course, there are many scientific theories that never pass through these five steps. Psychological hoaxes like the recovered memory movement, multiple personality disorder, abuse in former lifetimes, etc. are introduced, gain some acceptance, and collapse due to lack of evidence, typically within two decades. Eugenic and race-based quasi-scientific theories similarly did not endure.

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Related menus on this web site:

bullet Conflicts between science and religion

bullet "Hot" religious topics

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Reference:

  1. A.D. White, "A history of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom," Prometheus Books, (1896; Reprinted 1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe, "New religions as global cultures: Making the human sacred," Westview, (1997), Page 96. Read reviews or order this book
  3. Sam Harris, "The moral landscape: How science can determine human values," Simon and Schuster, (2011). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Site navigation: Home page > Science & Religion > here

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Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-JUN-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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