Religious truth and scientific truth


A quote from a newspaper column by Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project:

Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.
I recently got into a discussion in another blog about this question of the different roles of science and religion. A fellow interlocutor took a position not uncommon among atheists that purported that religion and science both attempt to explain the same basic "reality", with one using the proper means of trial and error and empirical evidence and the other using blind faith and unsupported assertions. I disagreed, suggesting instead the following:
Science can observe the ''what", but makes no statements about the "why'". That's where religion comes in.
Science and religion addresses wholly different orders of reality. Science looks at observable behavior in the physical world, while religion offers a deeper framework with which humans can ascribe meaning the selfsame world that science investigates. Fundamentalist religion notoriously confuses the matter by literalizing myths and thus confusing religious claims with scientific ones, but they aren't the only ones who commit this fallacy that assumes that both science and religion deal with the same questions about "reality". Many militant atheists also make the same assumption. But religion is at its root about meaning and transformation, not about making scientific explanations of physical phenomena. The two serve, or at least should serve, different functions.


Connor said...

"Science can observe the ''what", but makes no statements about the "why'". That's where religion comes in."

I think that is pretty good, but you might want to include a broader term for what explains the "why." Maybe something along the lines of philosophy. Otherwise the irreligious can't go after the why although I would say that people's answers to the "why questions", are somewhat religous in nature even if one is an atheist.

Rob said...

I think that is an insightful point Conner.

In my own philosophy of living, I view the role of philosophy as the mediator between scienctific knowledge and religious experience. It is the self-critical evaluator of facts, meanings, and values, from a reflective viewpoint based in reason and logic.

I base or ground my philosophy in science in the sense that what self-reflective and critical thinking reveals as fact, is a starting point of evaluating other truth-claims. So, for example, what I mean by this is that if someone comes to me and claims to have revelatory truth that the earth is 5,000 years old, I would call BS as science has to a very high degree of certainty already proven that the earth is within reasonable certainty 4.5 billion years old.

On the other hand, it is the same philosophical critical analysis that questions the claims of scientists so as to distinquish fact from assumption, to avoid falling into the false philosophy of scientism, which makes unwarranted claims in the name of science, such as it is a proven scientific fact that mind emerges from matter when no such claim can be proven by science, but rather is a philosophical a priori assumption of the scientism founded upon metaphysical (philosophical) materialism.

I think you are correct to include philosophy in the quest for "why," for it is really an attempt to integrate our experience of facts through philosophical meanings informed by sane and balanced spiritual values (insights).

Wisdom is born of sound balanced philosophy founded in practical human reason rooted in the facts of experience, informed by the insight into the values of living spiritual experience.

Such is my view of philosophy, anyway.

Doorman-Priest said...

I couldn't agree more. This is exactly what I am telling my religious studies students.

James F. McGrath said...

I hope that you (and your readers) can manage to join in (and spread the word about) the Evolution Weekend blog-a-thon focusing on this subject!

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

As a long time Evolution Weekend observer, I believe that science and religion are complementary vehicles of understanding. They approach reality from different angles, and at times they do overlap -- with one interpreting the other, or with one depending on the other.

This year I'm going to combine the usual defense of science with a meditation on the revelation that science brings about the importance of caring for the creation.

Frank said...

Interesting comments. It seems to be a western phenomenon that we can so hung up over "beliefs" and whether something is "true" or not.

The Nicene Creed's "I believe in one God..." actually originally read more like "I be-love in one God..." It had more to do with commitment with the whole being than some kind of head trip about factual belief or not.

Matthew said...

>>Science can observe the ''what", but makes no statements about the "why'". That's where religion comes in.<<

Religion, science (and philosophy) can't be so easily segregated. They all study and attempt to clarify what it means to be human; with it's complexity of experience, thought and meaning (to name a few).

There ARE many places where science addresses and gives statements about 'why'...

one example, "Why do objects fall?"


Mystical Seeker said...


I do think that philosophy impinges on this subject as well.

I wonder what kinds of questions atheists would supply to the deeper "why" questions. For example, when asked why the universe exists if there is no Creator, wouldn't the atheist simply say, just cuz--in effect, saying that there is no "why", no deeper meaning or reason for the universe other than it just is?

Mystical Seeker said...

Bob, I am curious in what way you think religion impinges on science? I think that this is potentially a very dangerous direction to go. It seems to me that every time religion tries to impinge on science, it gets things badly wrong. From Galileo to evolution, I seems pretty clear to me that religion needs to stay out of scientific questions.

On the other hand, I do think that for religion to make an attempt at explaining the deeper questions of the universe, that presupposes some understanding of how the universe operates. That is why I think that religion can be dependent on science.

Mystical Seeker said...

There ARE many places where science addresses and gives statements about 'why'...

one example, "Why do objects fall?"

True, although I think this is a different order of "why" then a religious "why". I was thinking more of the "why" questions about the meaning of our lives. If you say that objects fall because of gravity, that doesn't really answer the question of why there are laws in the universe (like gravity) in the first place, or why the laws are just exactly a certain way as to permit the creation of planets and the evolution of life, or, why there is a universe that even has a law of gravity, instead of there being no universe at all. None of the scientific "why" questions can ever really result in "God" as an answer, while religious "why" questions can and do take one towards some kind of Ultimate, Transcendent, Infinite, or Divine end point.