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Conflicts between science and religion

A brief overview; examples; causes

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Why is there a conflict?

Actually, science and religion are often not in conflict. Theologians don't care much about the tensile strength of steel when they have church buildings built. Scientists are generally not particularly interested in the functions of a soul. However, science and religion overlap on some topics. Each then generally puts forth conflicting beliefs on the same topic.  The results of these conflicts can often strain the culture. cause needless suffering. and even generate loss of life.

Typical conflicts:

An early conflict:

Perhaps the earliest known conflict between science and religion occurred in ancient Babylon in what is present-day Iraq. The priests had taught that lunar eclipses were caused by the restlessness of the gods. They were considered evil omens that were directed against -- and threatened the lives of -- their kings. Then, local astronomers discovered the 18 year and 11.3 day (223 synodic month) interval between lunar eclipses. This suggested that the eclipses had natural cause. The discovery did not affect the superstitious beliefs of the priests; they still regarded eclipses as a time of great danger to their kings. However, armed with an accurate prediction of the next eclipse, they were able to substitute a temporary king during the interval around the eclipse, thus giving protection to the real king. The substitute was killed afterwards, so that omen was always fulfilled.

A famous conflict:

Perhaps the most famous conflict was between Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and the Roman Catholic Church, largely over the movements within the solar system. At the time:

  • The Church interpreted the Bible as teaching the geocentric system in which the Earth is at the center of the universe. The Sun, Moon, other planets and stars revolve around the Earth.

  • Some scientists taught the Tychonic System in which the Earth is at the center of the universe; the Sun and Moon revolve around the Earth; The other five planets revolve around the Sun. The stars revolve around the Earth.

  • Galileo taught the heliocentric system in which the Sun is the center of the solar system, the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun, the Moon revolved around the Earth, and the stars were at incredible distances.

Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, condemned as a heretic, and spent the rest of his life in house arrest. According to an article in the web site of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), on 1992-OCT-31, some 350 years after Galileo's death:

"... Pope John Paul II gave an address on behalf of the Catholic Church in which he admitted that errors had been made by the theological advisors in the case of Galileo. He declared the Galileo case closed, but he did not admit that the Church was wrong to convict Galileo on a charge of heresy ..."

Current conflicts:

Two major examples of conflicts between science and religion at the present time are:

  • Creation science & evolution:

    • Many conservative Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Although they have are many competing theories over details, many conclude that a literal interpretation of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures indicates that God created the world during a six day, 144 hour period, sometime between 4004 and perhaps 8000 BCE.

    • Cosmologists have reached a near consensus that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and that the Earth coalesced about 4.5 billion years ago.

    • Many conservative Christians accept a literal interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis which seems to imply that all of the species of plant and animal life were created during this six day interval.

    • Essentially all biologists believe that the various species evolved over hundreds of millions of years, mainly or completely through the processes of natural selection.

  • Beliefs concerning lesbians, gays, bisexuals  transgender persons and transsexuals (the LGBT community):

    • Human sexuality researchers and therapists have reached a near consensus that homosexuality is a minority sexual orientation, one of three natural, normal orientations, mainly caused by genes. It is considered to be unchosen and unchangeable -- or essentially so -- during adulthood.
       
    • Many religious conservatives believe that it is an unnatural, abnormal lifestyle, mainly caused by inadequate parenting and/or sexual molestation during childhood; it is chosen, and can be changed.

    • Researchers and therapists have reached a near consensus that transgenderism is caused by hormonal imbalances in the womb; they often recommend gender reassignment surgery if the individual qualifies. Transgender persons often describe themselves as being female trapped in a male body, or vice versa. Many religious conservatives believe that it is a caused by gender confusion and is treatable through prayer and counseling; many feel that gender reassignment surgery is a very serious sin.

Webmaster comment: (Personal opinion; bias alert)

Competing beliefs concerning the origins of the species, of the Earth itself, and of the rest of the universe are hardly life and death matters. However disagreements over sexual orientation and gender identity too often cause family breakup, homelessness, unemployment, profound depresson, suicidal ideation and even completed suicide. A real tragedy is that this conflict is allowed to continue without significant debate or dialogue between the two sides. One result is an ever-lenthening row of coffins containing the dead bodies of youths and young adults. I feel that the lack of dialogue exhibits depraved indifference by the two sides. They need to engage each other.

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Why do conflicts exist:

Disputes arise because science and religion are two very different disciplines. They are based on different foundations:

bullet Science is ultimately based on observation of nature. Scientists assume that things happen because of natural causes. Some scientists do not believe in the existence of one or more Gods or Goddesses. Others personally believe that one or more deities exist, but assume that he/she/it/they do not interfere with nature. In any given area, from astrophysics to medicine to zoology, a general consensus exists about most fundamental beliefs. Arguments among scientists exist at the frontiers of each area of science, where new discoveries are being interpreted and hotly debated. The debates are eventually settled by evidence, debates, dialogue, and consultation.
 
bullet Religion is largely based on faith. There are over one thousand religious organizations in the U.S. and Canada within Christianity alone. By one account, there are 270 large religious groups in the world, and thousands of smaller ones. They hold diverse and often conflicting beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. Many consider that their own faith is the only completely true one. Many believe that God revealed their faith to humanity in the form of sacred books; many believe that religions -- other than their own -- are all man-made. They believe that the consensus of scientists, and the beliefs of all other religions are at least partly false.

There is no simple way to resolve these conflicts:

bulletReligious beliefs are typically based on faith. Most religious folks believe that, through revelation, God has taught them absolute truth. Any compromise with the beliefs of scientists would require them to reject their own religious beliefs. Very few are willing to do that.
 
bullet Since different religions trace their beliefs back to different revelations from God, it is common for different faith groups to conflict with each other concerning humanity, deity/deities, and the rest of the universe.
 
bulletScientific beliefs are generally based on observation. Any compromise would require a scientist to reject hard evidence.

Reaching a consensus is generally impossible. Sometimes, debates are settled by a conscious decision to tolerate each other's beliefs. This is difficult to achieve  between two groups who are certain of the validity of their own beliefs.

The core difference between science and most faith groups:

Religion vs. science conflicts have existed for hundreds of years and will probably continue indefinitely because the two sides have different concepts of "truth."

  • Most faith groups beileve that God exists. Further, most regard a specific sacred book or books as either:

    • Composed by God and dictated to a human (as in Islam) or,

    • As written by bronze age, pre-scientific, authors in a tribal-based society who were inspired by God to write accurate text (as in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism and Christianity).

The result is that Islam considers the Qur'an to be without error and conservative wings of Judeo-Christianity consider the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) to be without error. They see the role of science as being restricted to only find out how the universe and natural laws that God created actually function.

  • Scientists assume that the functioning of the universe can be discovered through the use of the scientific method. This involves:
    • Collecting data about a phenomenon,
    • Postulating a possible tentative opinion about how a part of it works,
    • Testing the opinion to see if it is accurate,
    • Rejecting it if it is not accurate, and
    • Recycling the entire process if the opinion seems to be accurate.
    • Publishing the results in peer-reviewed journals so that other scientists can attempt to replicate the findings.

Often, this process will result in ideas that have predictive power which lead towards greater understanding.

After many cycles and general acceptance of the opinion within the scientific community, the opinion might eventually rise to the level of a theory, as in the theory of evolution.

Thus, truth in a religious sense means agreement with a particular interpretation of a sacred book while truth in a scientific sense means agreement with observations. Working independently, scientists and theologians might be able to agree on some phenomenon, but in practice it seems to ocurr mostly by accident. Sometimes passages in the sacred book can be interpreted in such a way that they agree with scientific findings, but this often takes some creative thinking and imagination.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-NOV-28
Latest update: 2012-MAR-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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