Science + Religion

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten back into classes, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the relationship between science and religion. In my anthropology class, we started by reading Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in which he argues against the idea that science will supersede religion (many scholars of the day thought that all societies were moving towards increasing secularization and that eventually religion would be completely replaced by science). According to Durkheim, science could take over the function of the part of religion that categorizes and explains how the world works but it would never be able to provide the sense of the collective, the moral force that holds people together. However, as we discussed in class, the sense of the collective could be provided by other secular events (for example, a sporting event or the singing of the national anthem). So, while Durkheim does not agree with his contemporaries that science is better than religion and will eventually replace it, he also doesn’t necessarily provide a space in which religion and science can exist side by side.

Meanwhile, in my biological anthropology class, we’ve been talking about human evolution and, as is very evident in contemporary dialogue, evolution is not very popular in some sections of the religious community. Darwin took forever to publish his work On the Origin of Species in part because his wife was very religious and he didn’t want to hurt her with these ideas that seemed to contradict aspects of her faith. We also discussed the Scopes trial, alternatively known as the “Monkey trial”, in which a school teacher was tried and convicted for teaching evolution in schools. And then there is the movement that would like creationism and/or intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution in classrooms because, they argue, students need to be exposed to all sides of an argument. In all of these discussions in our class, religion is cast as the bad guy—the ill-informed, stubborn, and backwards who refuse to listen to reason while trying to impose their views on everyone. For many, religion is viewed with disdain and even contempt while science is the golden child—a logical way to describe and examine the world that is rooted in fact.

I have always been so puzzled by rhetoric that creates a war between religion and science. There is nothing in science that prohibits the existence of an all-knowing, powerful force (we just have no way to test or define it). Neither is there anything in religion that prohibits a rational approach to the world based on observation and experimentation. Religion and science occupy different territories—science examines the world around us while religion asks deeper questions about life and death, purpose and community. Science asks ‘how?’ while religion asks ‘why?’ Science feeds my brain while religion feeds my soul.

In a class I took several years ago, we read The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. In it, he speaks of science and spirituality (which, for the purposes of this blog, I equate with religion):

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

I don’t know why our society has this need to pit religion and science against each other. I don’t know why science treats religion with disdain while religion views science with suspicion. But I know that there are people out there who don’t see religion and science as opposing but complementary, who sit in the pews on Sunday and work in a lab on Monday, who can see the Divine working through evolution while finding the most intimate workings of a cell more proof of the complexity, vastness, and wonder of God’s creation. Science and religion are like filters through which to see the world. When used separately, you can see some things, but when used together, the world blooms into being, fuller and more intricate than you could have imagined. Science is not the opposite of religion but its complement. And I pray that the rhetoric of those who live in the realm of science and religion can be heard above the clamor of those who would pit them against each other.


Claudia Smith posted on September 26, 2016 at 7:56 pm

Kasey, so nice to see you are expanding in your thoughts and doing such a fine job of articulating!
My personal debate since early childhood is why if there is but one source, would we need multiple religions? My belief unfortunately is that religion is much like capitalism and strives to shame and judge rather than promote the glory of life!
Would enjoy further discussion on this if you are so inclined.
Be well and keep up the good work!

kmshultz posted on September 27, 2016 at 8:13 am

Claudia, thanks for you comment.
You raise a couple points and I’ll try to respond as best I can! With multiple religions and one source, I think those religions arise in part from differing interpretation of that source. I wrote a blog post over a year ago ( that sort of touches on this–there is one source but it’s so vast and complex that we all experience it in different ways and focus on different aspects of it. As such, there is a wide range of experiences and world views within the umbrella term of ‘religion’ (another term that is full of a myriad of meanings and associations) because there are so many different interpretations and experiences of the Divine.
I agree that some sections of the religious community can be very exclusionary and judgmental but there are other sections that are overflowing with grace and love, care for creation and care for one another–I think Holden at its best is one such community. Holden is a very spiritual community but it’s also rooted in religion. It may not be the kind of religion that people typically think of, but ‘religion’ can encompass a lot of things. I suppose some things that I call ‘religion’ others might call ‘spirituality’ but for me, religion both encompasses and transcends my own faith and beliefs and spiritual experiences, as well as that of a fellow community of believers.
I hope I have been able to articulate where I’m coming from. Thanks again for your comment!

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