Science and Religion

Have science and religion ever been compatible with each other? 

Science and Religion Science and Religion

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Table of contents

    According to some beliefs, the two cannot coexist with each other, people choose either one or the other. There have, however, always been scientists who believed in God and religious individuals who supported the development of sciences. We will look at what sociologists hold of the two in relation to each other.

    • We will start by looking at a summary of science and religion.
    • Next, we will outline the differences between religion and science in sociology.
    • Then, we will look at the relationship between science and religion in more detail.
    • Finally, we will look at sociological perspectives on science and religion.

    Science and religion: a summary

    Some sociologists see a clear conflict between science and religion, while others believe in a more compatible relationship between science and religious belief. Karl Popper argues that science is an open belief system based on empirical data collection, continuous criticism and value freedom.

    Traditional religions are usually closed belief systems with absolute truths based on God's words, recorded in ancient texts, rather than on experiments and questioning.

    Differences between religion and science in sociology

    The table below displays the contrasting characteristics of science and religion, respectively.

    Science

    Religion

    The main concern of science is the physical, while religion focuses on the supernatural world.

    • Scientific knowledge is gained through empirical methods, such as experiments.

    • Experiments are standardised, so any scientist, anywhere, can repeat them and confirm or deny the results.

    • Religion's basis is faith. Knowledge in religion comes from God (or the gods), whose existence is based on belief rather than empirical evidence.

    • Religious belief is subjective and cannot be proven (or disproven) by anyone.

    Science is an open belief system, while religious beliefs represent a closed one.

    • Data and information obtained through scientific research are open to testing by other scientists and institutions.

    • According to Karl Popper (1959), scientists must purposely try to find mistakes in their peers' research, as this is the only way to ensure scientific facts are correct and unbiased.

    • Theology teaches that fundamental ideas, figures and knowledge in religion are sacred and should not be criticised by believers.

    The scientific knowledge system is ever-evolving, while religious belief is based on an absolute knowledge system.

    • Scientific knowledge has evolved and improved through the repetition of experiments, challenging previous works, and debates and discussions between many scientists.
    • The ideas and practices of religious texts are usually seen as stating absolute truths that do not change over time.

      • Many fundamentalist Christians, for example, reject the scientific concept of evolution and believe that God created the world just as it was written in the Bible more than 2000 years ago.

    Scientists aim to be objective and value-free, while religion is a highly subjective belief system.

    • The personal feelings, values and opinions of scientists must stay out of the scientific process.
    • The level of participation and commitment in religious practices are highly dependent on personal experience and belief.

      • Prayer, for example, is a very subjective, personal experience.

    Science tries to remain independent of government and state, while religions have historically been, and often still are, closely linked to the state.

    Table 1 - Differences between science and religion.

    Conflict between science and religion

    Many sociologists, like William Bainbridge (1997), argue that the relationship between science and religion is complex and cannot be explained simply by stating that they stand in opposition to each other. There have been developments and changes in both areas that made them seem more compatible than before.

    Relationship between science and religion

    • Religious pluralism and diversity: Some religious subgroups are not as strict about the scripture and dogmas of ancient texts any more. They are open to new ideas both from religion and science. Many changes have happened within traditional religions, which suggests that religions overall can evolve as well. Theology has always had different strands.

    • New religious movements and New Age movements are more compatible with science than conservative, fundamentalist religions.

    • Scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould (1999) claim that science and religion are compatible because they deal with different areas of life that do not overlap and can exist side by side.

      • Science aims to define the evolution and the laws of nature.

      • Religion is set to define the meaning of life and provide moral guidance and psychological relief.

    • Deism: According to deists, God created the universe, but then it evolved on its own. Scientists can discover what the workings and laws of this God-created universe are.

    • Some religions use science as a foundation for their theories.

      • Scientology, for example, developed the E-meter, which is said to track people’s spiritual progress. However, its validity is questioned.

    • The existence of scientific paradigms, like gravity, suggests that there are also fundamental, closed rules in science.

    Science and Religion, Crystals on table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - New Age movements are more compatible with science than traditional religions, according to some sociologists.

    Science as a closed system

    Though some theorists argue that science is open and critical, science historian Thomas Kuhn (1957) points out that scientific 'facts' proven in well-established fields, e.g. geology or physics, are based on shared assumptions - a paradigm.

    The paradigm tells scientists about the nature of reality, what questions to answer, what is acceptable as evidence, etc. A scientist who challenges this paradigm may be ridiculed and even shunned by the scientific community. This is what makes science, argues Kuhn, in reality a closed system.

    Science and religion: sociological perspectives

    How do different sociological perspectives see science as a belief system? You can find the answer below.

    Functionalists on science as a belief system

    Robert K. Merton (1973), a functionalist, claims that science only works when supported by other institutions and values, including religious ones. He defines four leading norms that guide scientists in their research under the acronym CUDOS:

    • Communism: scientific knowledge is the property of the people. Scientists must share their findings with other scientists so that science can evolve.

    • Universalism: the validity and reliability of scientific knowledge is judged by universal, objective criteria.

    • Disinterestedness: scientific knowledge must be pursued for its own sake.

    • Organised scepticism: all scientific findings are open to criticism and challenge.

    Interpretivists on science as a belief system

    Interpretive sociologists argue that all knowledge, including science, is socially constructed. They argue that rather than being objective truth, scientific facts are produced within a paradigm that tells practitioners what they should expect to see and what instruments they ought to use.

    Marxists and feminists on science as a belief system

    Both Marxist and feminist theorists are critical of science as a belief system. They view science as serving the interests of dominant groups and view scientific developments as being driven by the need for certain types of knowledge.

    Modernists on science as a belief system

    Modernist Anthony Giddens argues that science is becoming more and more significant in people's lives, but this is not because of the decline of religion. It is due to the decrease in traditionalism.

    Postmodernists on science as a belief system

    Theorists who follow the postmodernist tradition, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984), argue that science is based on meta-narratives, which they - in general - reject. They claim that through the meta-narratives and the concept of absolute truth, science also plays a role in the domination and manipulation of the people, just like religion.

    Protestant theologist and sociologist Peter L. Berger believes that even though religion's importance has fallen in many areas, science will not take its place. He argues that people need to rediscover the supernatural in everyday experiences, allowing religion to remain the dominant belief system in society.

    Science and Religion, Road sign with faith and reason directing to opposite directions, StudySmarterFig. 2 - There are differing perspectives on science and religion separately and as compatible belief systems.

    Science and Religion - Key takeaways

    • Some sociologists see a clear conflict between science and religion, while others argue for a more compatible relationship between science and religious belief.
    • Karl Popper argues that science is an open belief system, based on empirical data collection, continuous criticism and value freedom. Traditional religions are usually closed belief systems with absolute truth, that are based on God's words, recorded in ancient texts, rather than on experiments and questioning.
    • Interpretive sociologists argue that all knowledge, including science, is socially constructed.
    • Marxism and feminism are critical of science as a belief system. Both view science as serving the interests of dominant groups, and view scientific developments as being driven by the need for certain types of knowledge.
    • Postmodernists claim that through the meta-narratives and the concept of absolute truth, science is also playing in the role of domination and manipulation of people, just like religion.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Science and Religion

    Do science and religion go hand in hand?

    Some sociologists see a clear conflict between science and religion, while others argue for a more compatible relationship between science and religious belief. 

    Can science and religion coexist in secularism?

    Many sociologists argue that the relationship between science and religion is complex and cannot be described simply by stating that they stand in opposition to each other. There have been developments and changes in both areas that made them seem more compatible than before.

    What's the difference between science and religion?

    Karl Popper argues that science is an open belief system based on empirical data collection, continuous criticism and value freedom. Traditional religions are usually closed belief systems with absolute truth based on God's words, recorded in ancient texts, rather than on experiments and questioning.

    Where do science and religion meet?

    Stephen Jay Gould argues that science and religion deal with different areas of life, which do not overlap or meet. Science is set out to define the evolution and the laws of natureReligion is there to define the meaning of life and provide moral guidance and psychological relief.

    Why is religion important in science?

    Functionalists thought that religion provides scientists with norms to guide them in their scientific research. They believed that this was the only way that science could work, with the support of religion (and other institutions).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Religion's basis is faith. True or false?

    What did William Bainbridge argue?

    Which of the following did Merton (1973) claim?

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    Team Science and Religion Teachers

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