Science and Faith

by Greg Coppack, BSc Chemistry with Biological and Medicinal Chemistry. Originally published in issue seven of Resonance.

CandlesHistorically the two disciplines have been separate; even at war. In the modern era though, does this have to remain true?

Religion and science have not traditionally mixed. In 1633, Galileo was famously tried by the Catholic Church for publishing “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, in which he offered his theory of heliocentrism (that the Earth revolves around the Sun). This directly contradicted biblical teachings – by claiming that the Earth was the centre of the Sun’s rotation. Galileo was branded a heretic and placed under house arrest after confessing under threat of torture. This was merely one clash under ‘The Inquisition’ – a wider campaign against scientific findings that rebutted Catholic scripture.1

Almost 400 years later, the influence of religion has waned: in the 2011 UK census, the percentage of people who deemed themselves to be ‘irreligious’ was 25.7 % (more than double the figure in 2001)2 and there are entirely secular countries (with no official state church) such as France, Australia and China. The UK, however, is directly linked to religion: Queen Elizabeth II is both Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Considering this, the fact that many scientists identify as religious/people of faith is noteworthy, given that most major religions are rooted in ancient history,3 an era far removed from science as we know it today. Is it possible to study and work in science while maintaining one’s faith?

It could be asserted that the decline in organised religion is a result of advances in science: as more answers to existential questions are provided, the fewer people may look to a higher power for those same answers. I interviewed several students within the chemistry department who practise religion with varying time commitments. All shared a familial religious background but agreed that they began to consider their religion as their own belief system between the ages of 12 and 14. Asking whether the recent deterioration in popularity of traditional religions was an indicator that they may one day become completely redundant, I received a particularly insightful answer:

"The need for complete open-mindedness and tolerance, while important, is becoming a belief in itself and seems to replace religion, which is an obvious threat."

While the statistics show that commitment to a single faith is on the decline, this answer suggests that a more fluid system of belief is beginning to usurp organised religion.

Central to this matter is the following question: can the two institutions of scientific study and faith (and all their subdivisions) coexist, and indeed work together, to further society in any way? Or are they conflicted to the point of being irreconcilable? When this was posited to the students, the responses were overwhelmingly in support of the former; one student pointed out that they are tools used to answer different questions. To many people, God represents a higher reasoning, a divine purpose for a seemingly incomprehensible teeming mass of humanity – in short, religion deals with the ‘why?’ questions. Science, on the other hand, seeks to explain the mechanisms behind the world in which we live – the ‘how?’. On this note, it was put to me that the two are not mutually exclusive at all: the world that we study through scientific methods and everything that we observe – evolution, the Doppler effect, respiration – could simply be the design of an omnipotent being.

It was ceded, however, that there are some points where scripture and science clash. For example, studies of the Earth’s geology estimate that our planet is 4.54 billion years old, while the Bible claims that God created the world between 6000-10’000 years ago. I decided to press this issue, questioning how the students drew the line between what they believed in (regarding religious teachings) and the evidence proffered by scientific theories. The answers seemed to indicate that each individual’s belief set was comprised of what instinctively made sense and sounded correct rather than considering what was more likely.

It is plain to see that, while a few loud, fervent voices among atheist and religious communities would have you believe differently, the majority of rational people of faith see no reason why science and religion should conflict. Furthermore, whilst the role of organised religion may naturally diminish with time, it is not necessarily because people have abandoned it in favour of science, and undoubtedly it still has a large role to play. Ultimately, it can be said that there are very few occasions where science and faith are unreservedly in contradiction.

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  1. This Day in History: 13 February 1633, Galileo in Rome for Inquisition,
  2. © Crown Copyright 2006 Source: National Statistics / Ordnance Survey Extracts are Crown Copyright
  3. Islam was thought to be founded in the 7th century, Christianity in the 1st