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G-7: Insight Out: Science + religion: the 'how' and the 'why'


science + religion


The relationship between science and religion concerns the values on which we base society and our lives. Debate has raged between the two ever since the emergence of modern science in the fifteenth century, when Copernicus argued that the Earth orbited the Sun. He and his supporters, most notably Galileo, were persecuted by the Christian Church. It remains a common view that religion and science are rivals and opposites - that the scientific and religious routes to understanding are irreconcilably different.

This is based on an inaccurate caricature of both disciplines. True, science has the greater rational component and religion is more non-rational, but they are not opposites. They do not attempt to answer the same kinds of questions: science aims to answer the 'how?' and religion aims to answer the 'why?'. Science tells us what we are able to do while religion tells us what we should do with that knowledge. there is room for both approaches in our minds and in society.

E.F. Schumacher distinguishes the two kinds of problem as 'convergent' and 'divergent'. Convergent problems are those for which each step towards a solution gets closer to a single best possible solution on which little improvement can ever be made (converging). This type of problem is solved through logical reasoning which scientific method provides. Divergent problems are those with several possible solutions. Each step towards any one of these solutions takes us further away from the possible solutions (diverging). These problems cannot be solved by purely rational methods. Intuition, wisdom and inspiration are needed and the answer is often a paradox.

It is broadly true that science is concerned with convergent problems and religion with divergent, but there is some overlap. For example, in the field of quantum physics (where problems are often divergent and the solutions paradoxical) and in the historical criticism of sacred texts (where questions may be convergent). But the characteristics of religion and science remain, perpetuated by fundamentalists and the media.

Fundamentalists in both religion and science have a narrow view of the world, believing all other views to be irrelevant or false. They tend to set up 'either-or' alternatives because they cannot live with doubt or uncertainty. The media often reinforces conflict between the fundamentalist scientific and religious view in order to create sensational articles.

In past centuries, religion formed the basis on which society operated, while science was the preserve of a distinctly eccentric minority. With the Enlightenment, science began to command great respect and even reverence. Today the scientific approach is dominant in Western society. The popularity and rapid growth of technology and 'social' and 'political' sciences have shown this.

Many people are still wary of scientific 'experts' though. The beef crisis in Britain has caused the public to question technologically enhanced farming methods. The development of nuclear technology and genetic engineering have also forced people to question the ethics surrounding use of new technology.

Science is not a source of absolute truth - it never has been. It needs the framework of a system of values that religion provides. Progress must be constantly checked to ensure that new knowledge and technology is applied ethically - respecting both people and the natural environment. We must constantly ask: just because we have the ability to do something, does that mean that we necessarily should?

Katy Roucoux, UK

Last update: 2000-03-04 18:45:11 (EEST).
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