When science and religion clash, the debate is often cast in polarities. Each side is very black and white. For instance, the conservative Christian will claim that the Bible is God’s direct message to human beings. If you subscribe to this belief, then you are expected to adopt the biblical reality as your reality: God created the earth in six days; the first two humans were created 6,000 years ago; and Noah fit all the animals in the world on a boat before God flooded the entire world—no questions asked. Once you adopt this perspective, it is clear you must reject scientific explanations of the origins of the universe because they contradict the biblical worldview.
Likewise, if you subscribe to a scientific worldview, then you believe the earth is billions of years old, humans evolved from lower primates over millions of years and the animals of the earth were never rescued from extinction by being shoved into a boat. Once you adopt this perspective, it is clear you must reject Christianity because the biblical explanations of the origins of the universe contradict the scientific worldview.
The choice is simple, and depending on which side you’re on you will frame your opposition in very different ways. If you believe the Bible is literally true, then you view people who reject your belief as morally corrupt and destined for eternal damnation. If you believe the Bible is composed of mythology, then you view people who read the Bible literally as deluded and unwilling to embrace the realities of the universe that have been revealed through the study of science.
On both sides there is fear because each believes they have located the fundamental flaw with the other. For the religious, the fear is that science may replace the need for God. If science is capable of revealing all the mysteries of the universe, then God and religion will become inconsequential, preventing people from finding salvation. For the anti-religious, the fear is that religion stymies forward progress. One only needs to look at the turmoil in the Middle East to understand that religion has the potential to motivate people to act in highly destructive ways. Each believes that if the other would just submit and renege their ideology, then the world would be a better place.
Unfortunately, portraying this issue in black and white skews the reality—there are many people in the world who are firmly in the middle. I am one of those people. I believe strongly in precepts of science, while also allowing the Bible to guide my religious identity. I don’t do this because I am unable or unwilling to choose one over the other. Rather, I hold the two together because I have found that one informs the other. Indeed, each discipline is stronger when held in tandem than when they stand on their own. In my opinion, science needs religion as much as religion needs science because each discipline is designed to answer a different kind of question.
Science is designed to answer the question, “How?” How does a virus infect its host? How did the dinosaurs end up extinct? How is the sun able to burn for billions of years without using up all its fuel? How did we evolve to become the dominant species on the planet? These questions often begin as a “Why,” but the answer that science provides is how the mechanics of a certain event played out in terms of geology, biology, astronomy and physics. For instance, if you want to know why the sun burns for billions of years, then you turn to science to understand how nuclear fusion works. If you want to understand why the oceans have tides, then you turn to science to understand how the moon’s gravitational pull impacts the earth. If you want to understand why certain people have Down’s syndrome, then you turn to science to understand how DNA replicates. I think you get the point.
Unfortunately, there is a common perception in our modern world that by understanding how the world works, you have also stumbled upon the answer to the deeper question of why the world is the way that it is. This is a false association. The question of why is a philosophical and theological question that can be informed by the discoveries of science, but never fully answered. Just because you understand how something happens does not necessarily tell you why it happens.
For instance, almost all scientists agree that our universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a singularity, a moment in time where everything that occupies our universe was crushed together into an infinitely small space. Within the span of a few seconds, the matter within that singularity expanded, setting into motion the evolutionary process that would eventually produce us. This event is commonly known as the Big Bang.
However, just because we know how the universe began doesn’t mean we know why it began. Understanding the mechanics of how our universe came into existence doesn’t tell us why the universe exists in the first place. Many scientists believe that if we can simply gather enough information about how the world works, then eventually we will eliminate the need to answer the question of why. For instance, if we can understand what caused the singularity 13.8 billion years ago, then that would tell us why we exist. But this line of thinking fails to recognize that the question of why cannot always be answered with observable phenomenon in the same way as the question how. How is always linked to something observable. Why can sometimes be observed, but more often is linked to something much deeper and intangible.
Why do I exist? Why am I here? These are challenging questions that are usually broken into one of two black and white answers. Either I am here because a higher being created the universe and I attempt to derive my meaning from that higher being, or I am here because life simply happens and I am pressed to create my own meaning. For people in the former category, they depend on documents like the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas to gain insight into God’s meaning for their lives. They do this because they believe that God literally spoke to the people who wrote these religious texts. Therefore, by studying these texts, humans hope to glean some meaning for their lives because the God that wrote them possesses the ultimate answer for why we are here.
For those in the latter category, scientific discovery determines their meaning. With each new development, they attain a more sophisticated understanding of the universe and, as a consequence, they attain a much deeper appreciation of life’s beauty and complexity. For many atheists, this appreciation is, in and of itself, enough meaning to give their life purpose.
But the truth is, nobody is just one or the other. Everyone represents a combination of both answers—we all rely on a higher power and we all create our own meaning. Though the religious claim to use God to derive their purpose and meaning, often this is only as long as God justifies their own personal well-being. There are very few people who will sacrifice their desires and ambition for their God. Christians are especially good at using God for their own self-interest and such failings are a big reason why Christians are rightfully called hypocrites—what Jesus tells Christians to do and how Christians actually live are usually two very different things.
Likewise, for those who disregard God as an acceptable answer for discerning meaning, each new scientific advancement is revered in the same way as religious scripture. Thus, atheists often find themselves dealing with a performative contradiction: on the one hand, they view belief in God as a sign of ignorance, but, on the other hand, they have engaged in the very behavior they find so repulsive. They have placed their faith in the higher power of the human mind to unlock the secrets of the universe.
Both the God-fearing and the atheist are steeped in the blind allegiance that comes from faith; each has simply focused their worship in different areas. When a scientific theory is proved correct, then like the religious who see God actively working in their lives, the atheist knows that their belief is properly invested. Likewise, when a scientific theory is proven inaccurate, then like the religious who explain away the inconsistency of evil in the world by saying, “God has a plan,” the atheist will say that given enough time and persistence, humans will inevitably discover the correct answer.
The point I am trying to make is that, at their core, the God-fearing and the atheist are not so different. The desire for meaning is at the center of both their worlds and they both attempt to derive their meaning from the focus of their faith. The difference is merely one of perception. The religious perceive their meaning as coming from a force beyond themselves, while atheists perceive their meaning as coming from a force within themselves. We would do well to recognize that both are necessary to experience the meaning life has to offer.