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The dumb way we talk about religion and science

Jesse Carey
Jesse Carey

Everyone knows that religion and science can’t ever be reconciled. Religion stifles scientific curiosity, while science pokes messy holes in religion. Religion is inflexible and unchanging, a relic of a bygone age. Or no, wait, it’s science that’s inflexible, papering over what it can’t explain and destroying the wonder of the universe’s mysteries.

Religious people are the worst, full of dogmatic and ignorant notions of what life is all about. Hold up, I’m hearing that scientific adherents are actually the worst, full of arrogance and an empty skepticism about the potential of life’s meaning.

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Those are but a few of the arguments made any time a serious discussion about religion and science springs forth, whether it’s a formal debate or not. In my own experience, many of the conversations about the two topics revolve around questions of inflexibility, ignorance and arrogance. Both sides are convinced of the other’s fault to the detriment of everyone.

Science and religion are not as inflexible as the other side makes them out to be. Science has to be flexible to incorporate the unknown and the hypotheses of the future. Religion is also flexible, molding to fit the beliefs of the society around it. And that’s the beauty of religion. Religion is expansive enough to fit multiple interpretations, and flexible enough to adapt to the times. For an example of how religion has changed with the times, the notion that the Sun revolved around the Earth was one that science debunked. Originally, the response from the church was one of refutation. There was simply no way that the notion of heliocentrism could be reconciled with the prevailing religious views of the day. And yet, here we are 600 years later, with religious authorities and scientific authorities in consensus that the earth does orbit the sun, and not the other way around. There is plenty of room for scientific discovery and religious worldview to coexist.

Another harmful way that the debate is often framed is that the science adherents will enter into the debate with the belief, explicit or otherwise, that the religious people are willfully ignorant. Religious adherents are routinely portrayed as blind zealots, anti-intellectual or fools confident in their own belief system with no regard for anything outside of it.

In truth, many of of the intellectual giants of western history—from theologians like C.S. Lewis to scientists such as Max Planck and Isaac Newton—have been devoutly religious. A belief in God or in Gods does not automatically reflect an anti-intellectual bent, and it’s time that our conversations acknowledged this.

Finally, the accusation leveled at scientific adherents by religious parties concerning their arrogance of daring to suppose they understand the universe, or that they could ever hope to understand the universe. The thing is, scientists don’t (and can’t) claim to understand everything. As mentioned above, science must be flexible, and part of that flexibility entails admitting that there are limits to your knowledge, and admitting that your process is still fallible.

So how did we get to this flawed discussion? Re-read the first sentence of this article again. It is that belief — that science and religion are irreconcilable — that I believe has warped our conversations to the toxic, and meaningless, place that it is at now. If science and faith are irreconcilable, then there is only place for one of them. If there is only place for one of them, then you must pick a side. In picking a side, you must tear down the other side. This a false and dangerous dichotomy, and one we must work to overcome if we ever want to produce meaningful dialogues about science’s place in religion, and vice versa.

Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey is all about disrupting the lame-stream media narrative, except for when it suits him, and can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @Junotbend.

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