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April 18, 2024

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Science, religion can complement each other despite history of conflict

University professor John Laird bridges two worlds some perceive as destined for conflict.

To Laird, a practicing Christian and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the key to understanding their compatibility is asking the right questions.

“I’m a Christian as well as a scientist, and I think the two are clearly compatible,” he said. “Science focuses on the mechanics of how things work, and religion asks questions about purpose, moral issues and what is right. Those are questions of why, rather than how.”

Keeping the right questions in mind is sometimes difficult, Laird said. This often results in some people “seeing conflict where none exists,” creating tension and debate.

“I’m sure there are Christians who clearly see a conflict with science,” Laird said. “Likewise, I’m sure there are scientists who would claim belief in a God is fundamentally incompatible with science. Mine isn’t the only view, which I recognize … but in my experience, even people who don’t agree with me on questions of religion are certainly very tolerant of my beliefs.”

To some, however, comprehending science and religion’s compatibility isn’t so black and white.

Michael Bradie, a professor of philosophy of science, epistemology and logic, noted that since the times of early scientists like Galileo Galilei, science and religion have been marred by conflict.

“There’s a historical division when people believe things on only faith, when evidence isn’t considered,” he said. “At that time, churches were still endorsing earth-centered cosmology.”

Bradie has published several articles discussing the relationship of biology, evolution and religion during his years at the University.

His findings: conflicts between science and religion are still possible today, depending on an individual’s beliefs. Fundamentally, however, nothing in science says a God’s existence is impossible.

“Stephen Gould, a pre-eminent evolutionary biologist [and self-proclaimed agnostic], once said the role of astronomy is to tell how the heavens go, and the aim of religion is to tell us how to get there,” Bradie said. “He didn’t see any fundamental conflict between the two.”

Brian Rutter, a graduate student studying biology, shares a similar view, although it is rooted in his Roman Catholic upbringing, which emphasizes faith and reason working together.

“Often when there is conflict, there is an abuse committed on one of the sides,” he said. “Scientists observe the world to find out things about nature, but it’s beyond the scope of science to fix a meaning to what’s observed … similarly, to use the Bible as a source of natural history is an abuse of scripture. This is when conflict arises, and when bad science and bad theology meet, it isn’t pretty.”

Evidence of science and religion’s compatibility is available to those who are willing to do the research, Rutter said.

For example, the Big Bang theory – often a point of religious and scientific debate – was proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Roman Catholic priest and physicist.

Such research is essential for young scientists grappling with inner conflicts during their early careers, Laird said, referencing his own experiences.

“During high school and on to college, I often wrestled with how Christianity and science fit together, and that was something I had to deal with,” Laird said. “I gave it serious thought, and talked to both Christians and scientists while doing research.”

Although a religious lifestyle isn’t for all scientists, Laird said he now knows he isn’t alone in his beliefs.

He is a member of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists who seek to “integrate, communicate, and facilitate properly researched science and theology in service to the Church and the scientific community,” according to its website.

“I’m comfortable with their compatibility, my career and my personal beliefs,” Laird said. “Religion is personal, but that’s what’s unique and good about it – conversation is useful, even when there’s conflict, and we all have something to contribute to the conversation.”

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