I went out for dinner last night with an old friend from my university days and invariably it was a night filled with sharing recent news as well as reminiscing about our time spent in all those lab sessions and seminars. During the course of one of our many conversation threads, we ended up comparing notes over the growing debate between religion and science and the typical rise in louder and more obnoxious participants on each side as such issues go “mainstream”. It was no surprise to me that, as products of a science education and from working in the sector, we were in agreement about the need for both the science body and the general public to wrestle back control over these two aspects of our society from those who are clearly abusing both to further their own myopic agendas. It’s thanks to that wonderful and engaging conversation that I decided to write this entry to start clearing the air on this whole absurd debate.
The reality is that there is no need to draw lines in the sand between science and religion any more than one would need to do such between politics and cooking. Simply put, one cannot put science and religion on the same yardstick because religion is nothing more than a philosophy for how to live one’s life whereas science is more interested in the examination of the physical world, with that which can be empirically measured or quantified. In other words, one deals with the intangible aspects of our collective existence while the other is more interested in the tangible and concrete. This is why there shouldn’t be any comparison or competition between the two since they aim to address completely separate issues regarding how we understand our universe and our context within it.
This was a big reason why we were both so amused recalling comments from people who make absurd statements about living their lives according to science. Here’s a little science lesson for all these “science fans” – all living creatures are subject to the scientific realities of life on Earth. There’s no “life choice” in the matter; it’s just the way it is. Period. Whether one is religious or not doesn’t alter the effects of gravity on our bodies, nor does it differentiate the biochemistry of how our bodies function. We can’t just suddenly decide that from this point on only science will rule our world since it already does and will continue to do so all on forms of matter long after we’re gone. It’s not the job of science, and thus by extension scientists, to serve as “life coaches” in providing guidance on how one should live their life. Rather, our role is to learn about the nature of things. Plain and simple.
And what about those religious types who insist on portraying the scientific drive for knowledge as being an affront to their beliefs? Although I am well-versed with the religious beliefs of one of the major world faiths, from what I know of the other two major faiths, none of them expect their followers to live in ignorance of the world that they believe was created by God/Allah/Yahweh (for the record, I am ignoring the religious institutions that surround some of these faiths since their removal doesn’t alter either the faith’s teachings or how one is supposed to live one’s life according to the respective teachings. Also note that Allah, Yahweh, and God all refer to the same God of Abraham). It’s even more difficult to comprehend why some religious people would think that a supernatural being could be put in danger because of the machinations of a subset of the human population that wears lab coats. Working as a clinical embryologist aiding couples experiencing infertility issues, I was often queried about whether I was comfortable ‘playing God’. The typical answer I would give to such questions is that I could only ‘play God’ if God wanted me to in the first place. Obviously, the acceptance of the existence of God/Allah/Yahweh requires a willingness to believe in the concept of a supreme being. However, it should also come with the logical understanding that something which created the cosmos could never be threatened or usurped by mere biological entities like humans. It just doesn’t add up and those who think otherwise are probably more driven by egocentric notions of the importance of humanity than a true understanding of what the belief in a supernatural entity being the originator of existence implies.
Of course, on the other side of this debate between religion and science we have a handful of scientists who love to trash the concept of God being responsible for everything in existence. But here’s the clincher regarding that – that’s merely their opinion and should not be confused as scientific fact. Why? Simple – because there is no way for science to create an experiment that would prove/disprove the existence of such an entity with reproducible results under ideal conditions. It’s no different than if I were to state while watching chromosomal replication that I’m bearing witness to God’s will orchestrating the event. Sure, I’m welcome to say or think such, but it doesn’t mean it’s scientifically accurate simply because I’m a scientist (albeit off the bench of late). Indeed, this is also why the ideas of “creationism” and the more recent repackaged version “intelligent design” simply do not belong in science classes – there’s no way to prove, or disprove, these concepts through the process of the scientific method. Speaking of which, did you know that the person who formalized the scientific method – the process we use today of defining a problem for examination, creating an experimental model to test this theory, collecting data for review and analysis which would then be published for evaluation for proof of reproducibility – was the Muslim physicist Ibn al-Haytham? Yep, that’s right – the foundations for our current understandings of scientific examination and discovery were based on the teachings of a man who believed in God. Interesting fact, isn’t it.
In the end, the real sticking point between the religious and science supporting camps that insist on perpetuating this battle between the two boils down to the question of how the human species came to be. And yet, the reality is that the “how” is really a matter that only science should be interested in. A proper reading of the various religious scriptures demonstrates their goal instead is to focus more on the “why” regarding our existence on this planet and the universe. Perhaps if those that occupy the middle section of the bell curve for both these camps would step up and reclaim the voice for their respective parties, we’d realize that there’s simply no reason why science and religion can’t co-exist in helping us to better understand these respective and divergent questions.
As a postscript of sorts to this entry, Scientific American has just posted a blog entry regarding some comments made by Howard Stern on his show regarding evolution and the whole debate between religion and science. It’s a wonderful reminder of how there still is a lot of misinformation being spread about evolution, if not also the stance of most of the major religions in regards to this issue.