There is a common myth in our world today that science and faith are opposed to each other. Looking on social media, many people oversimplify the relationship between the two in order to support their atheism or their fundamentalism.
From one side, I’ve had many students come to my class thinking that science has debunked religion. The idea they have in their head is that religion is superstition that has now been disproved by the scientific method. When I ask them which science has disproved religion and how, they are not sure. The closest thing they point to is evolution. On the other side, I have encountered fundamentalists who work incredibly hard to squeeze some of the Biblical stories into the scientific data or they decide to dismiss the data altogether. Both of these extremes narrows the view of both science and faith and causes great confusion when applied too broadly.
A quick search on Amazon will show you many books that can give an in-depth analysis of the issues. This article will be the briefest of overviews about some of the guiding principles to have in mind if someone brings to you this subject.
During the Enlightenment, scientific reasoning came to prominence. Dr. Peter Kreeft makes the point that science started becoming popular at the same time as alchemy. His point was that there seemed to be a similar goal in the conquest of the natural world to bend it to the will of man. The only reason why alchemy was abandoned and science adopted, according to Kreeft, is that science worked while alchemy did not.
The scientific method works so well because it is based on two fundamental principles: doubt and empiricism. Doubt is incredibly helpful to science. Every assumption is subject to challenge, question, and attack. Everything can be called into question. This is very helpful because it helps prevent you from relying on unproven assumptions that can lead into error. Albert Einstein worked incredibly hard to come up with his theory of relativity. But almost immediately, he began setting up criteria under which it could be attacked and disproved. That is because while he thought that his theory was the best explanation for the data, he left himself open to doubt and the possibility of a better theory.
Empiricism means that the only things we can know are things that are physically observed. While this is problematic when applied to some things (which we shall see later), it is very helpful for science. Everything in science must be data driven. There must be some kind of measurable data upon which you can build your theories. You cannot say in science, “I feel like my theory is right.” You must have something that is observably measurable to make your point.
Doubt and Empiricism has done wonders for science.
They are terrible when applied to faith.
Here is where we must be careful. Some people attack faith because it does not survive the scientific method. But there are a few reasons why this might be the case.
Before I move on, I want to make clear that when I talk about “science,” I am talking about what most people have in mind when they use this term: empirical scientific reasoning and data. I am talking about fundamental reason and logic. Reasons itself can prove the existence of God, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously did with his 5 proofs for God’s existence. His proofs are “scientific” in that they are rational and necessary, but they are not empirical in the sense of the modern scientific method.
Empiricism, as we said before, cannot be applied to all areas of life. When it comes to faith, it will always fall short, primarily for two reasons.
The first is that God, by His nature, is pure spirit. That means that God in His divinity does not have a body that is physically measurable. We cannot weigh God, measure God, dissect God, or see God directly with our eyes. There is no scientific instrument that can be used to quantify something that is not, by its nature, physical.
At this point, many atheists would use this point to say that this makes God less real because He is not measurable by the scientific method. But this ignores that some of the most important aspects of human life are not physical. The very laws of logic upon which science is based are not physical things. For example, there is the law of non-contradiction. This very common sensical principle is that something cannot be something and not be something at the same time. I can be human or can be not human, but I cannot be human and not human at the same time. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be combinations of unlike things: I can be soul and I can be body. But I cannot be soul and not be soul at the same time.
This principle is the bedrock of all logic and thus the bedrock of all scientific reasoning. And yet, the law of noncontradiction is not a physical thing. We see it play out in our world, but the law itself is not physical. In the same way, we can see the effects of God in this universe, but God Himself is not physical.
The second reason why scientific reasoning isn’t completely compatible with faith is because faith is ultimately a relationship. Jesus says that we should believe IN Him. Notice, it is not merely that we believe THAT He is the Son of God, which would be accepting something as fact. When you ask someone “Do you believe in me?” you are generally not asking if they believe you exist. You are asking if you trust in their goodness and potential as a person. But the only way someone can believe in you is if they have some kind of relationship with you.
The same is true in our faith relationship. We believe IN Jesus because we have a relationship with Him. Now it is true that there has to be some evidence upon which we build this relationship. Before my wife agreed to marry me, we dated for two years, during which she learned a lot of facts about me. But more so that this, she got to know who I was as a person because she was in a relationship with me. And yet for some reason, she still married me.
With God, we enter into a relationship with Him and this is the life of faith. Now, there is nothing wrong with asking questions of God or looking for proof of his fidelity. But applying doubt and empiricism as the foundation of any relationship is a bad idea. You can see this play out on shows like The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon Cooper (who is a scientific genius), tries to use the scientific method to understand his friendships and romantic relationship. It results in a lot of humorous situations, because we intuitively understand that it is not doubt, but trust that serves as the foundation of a relationship. In many ways, love is an act of faith. In any relationship, you can never have certainty that the person you care about will feel the same. But you make the leap of faith and enter into the relationship.