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Science and religious faith


What is Science?

You have done lots of Science at school but trying to describe what science is can be very hard. For a start, think about what the following scientists would do: an ecologist studying the behaviour of a group of chimpanzees; a researcher in chemistry producing new types of plastic; a theoretical physicist studying nearby stars and a genetic counsellor helping parents make a decision about fertility treatment. These people are all scientists and all doing science, but they go about it in very different ways. One useful way of thinking about science is that it is a way of organizing knowledge that allows for predictions to be made that can be tested; this allows laws and theories to be developed which help to explain how things work. A special feature of science is that, as new ideas and evidence comes along, theories change and are either replaced with new ones or become better or more ‘robust’.


What is Religion?

Just like science, trying to define religion is difficult. Religion normally relies on beliefs and some sort of spirituality and is part of what we call culture; also most say something about how people should live and teach moral values. Most religions have a god or deity that followers pray to and think of as being very important. Many religions use stories in special texts which explain the origin of life or the universe and they often have symbols which have important meanings to the people who follow the religion, for example the cross in Christianity. Unlike private faith, religions are organised and often have special rules about what followers may or may not do, such as what food they can eat or which festivals they should observe. Religion is very often passed down through generations, something called tradition.


Evidence and faith

In science, evidence is collected through observations and, sometimes, by doing experiments. Evidence is used to build up and support ideas (or hypotheses) which help to explain how something works. As more evidence is collected then the hypothesis can be further tested, if the evidence doesn’t fit with the hypothesis then the idea has to change. A really important feature of scientific evidence is that scientists share their ideas in special journals; getting an article published involves other scientists checking how reliable the evidence is and if the conclusions and ideas make sense: this is called peer review.
Religious faith means believing in a god, religious leader or a certain set of teachings and ideas. Unlike evidence in science, faith is often based on things that can’t be measured and that can be very personal. Some people have ‘religious experiences’ which they say are a type of evidence and these help to strengthen their faith and belief in a specific religion. Some people criticise faith because it deals with evidence that can’t be measured or tested, while others argue that it is impossible to live without faith of this type and it is part of being human.


Science and religious faith

So, can you be a scientist and have religious faith? Well there have been, and are, plenty of excellent scientists who carry out brilliant work who have strong religious faith and beliefs. Some of these people separate their faith from their scientific work and treat both of them individually, while others think that they complement one another and make them better scientists and people in general. On the other hand, some people argue that you can’t be a real scientist if you believe in supernatural (things outside of nature) ideas and some religious people deny some scientific ideas because they contradict their religious beliefs.

© 2011 LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)