Science versus Faith


Gregory Farrington, executive director for the California Academy of Sciences, has written a column for today's San Francisco Chronicle, in which he uses the recently opened Creation Museum to explore what he sees as the differences between religion and science. Unfortunately, I don't think he got it quite right, in particular because I think he disparages religion and misconstrues its role with respect to science. Farrington writes,

That's the key difference between the scientific and religious journeys toward truth. Fundamental religion is based on unquestioning faith, science is based on reason that is continually questioning. They are very different paths. Visitors to the Creation Museum must understand that it is not a science museum -- it is a religious museum, whose re-imaginings of geological and biological evidence have no support from the scientific community.
When he says "fundamental religion", I don't think that this was a misprint in which he meant to say "fundamentalist religion", although if it were, what he wrote might be closer to the truth. But from the context of the rest of the column, it is clear that he is making a generalization about religion as a whole. And I would dispute in the strongest terms possible his assertion that "fundamental religion is based on unquestioning faith." I don't know where he gets that idea from--well, actually, I have a pretty good idea. Conservative religion has done such a good job of equating its own dogmatic take on religious faith with faith in general, that many people really do think that religion is about unquestioning belief.

Certainly, some religious elements do promote a mindless version of faith--one based on acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible, or of creeds, or of dogmas that followers are supposed to accept in their entirety, without question. And, furthermore, some of these dogmas spill over into areas that legitimately belong to science, whose methodology of questioning and testing of theories are clearly inconsistent with this brand of religion. But not all religious people buy into that paradigm; for many, questioning is part and parcel of their faith. There is nothing inherent about unquestioning dogma in the definition of religion.

I would furthermore question the assertion that the Creation Museum is, as he puts it, a religion museum; rather, I would call it more simply a museum of misapplied religion, or perhaps one of pseudo-science, or simply one that commits the error of equating religion with bad science. A bona fide religion museum would not intrude on scientific findings, because a bona fide religion museum would not confuse the realms of religion and science. It would understand that religion and science address different realms of human experience. This is one reason why their methodologies are different. Religion isn't about explaining the steps involved in how the universe formed or how life was created, but rather about the transcendent meanings of our lives and how they relate to the the fact that the universe was formed and life was created in certain ways. Some religious perspectives, indeed, overstep their bounds by attempting to answer scientific questions, but religion has proved time and time again to be really bad at that; and when you take the pseudo-science from theology, religion doesn't go away. This illustrates the point that religion's inherent role involves a different set of questions than what that science tries to answer.

I would also go so far as to suggest that it makes sense that the questions that we ask about transcendent meaning can change as our scientific understandings evolve. Contrary to what fundamentalists might tell us, religion has always been an evolving process of the human understanding of this transcendent reality, which we might call God; and, as such, our understanding of immanent reality of the here and now, as it evolves over history, can be one of the inputs into this evolving process. For example, when we discover that the universe has evolved over billions of years, this may influence our view of the way that God acts in the world. There are theological implications to scientific knowledge. How we address the relationship between the world we sense and the deeper Reality behind it depends on our comprehension of the nature of the world we sense. Thus, I think it is fair to say that some aspects of religion can be dependent on science (but not vice versa). This loose dependency does not change the fact, however, that they answer fundamentally different questions.

It seems to me that it is important for progressive people of faith to get out the message that religion need not compete with science--that science and religion, far from being alternate ways of answering questions, are in fact intimately involved with different sorts of questions altogether. Science and faith need not step on one another; on the contrary, they can actually complement each other.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

This writer seems to have the same problem as Sam Harris--he reads the Fundamentalist and assumes that's religion. Yes there are those who believe without raising any questions, but millions more remain faithful despite their questions.

If Gregory Farrington had read Borg, Tillich, Moltmann, Bultmann, Polkinghorne -- hec if he'd read my blog -- he'd realize that such a generalization isn't true!!

The Creation Museum no more represents religion than it represents science. Thanks for offering an excellent clarification -- and send it off to Mr. Farrington.