Billionaire investor Sir John Templeton passed away last month. A devout Presbyterian, Templeton devoted much of his fortune to the study of the relationship between religion and science. He believed that faith and the scientific method could work harmoniously to advance knowledge about the world.
Such a position may seem plausible at first. After all, many scientists today actively practice religion while still performing their research superlatively. But can science and faith actually co-exist?
They fundamentally cannot.
The scientific method requires us to make observations of our surroundings to form knowledge about the world. Knowledge, according to this method, ultimately rests on evidence found in reality.
In contrast, religious faith demands belief without evidence or even in contradiction to the evidence. Instead of looking outwards to reality to systematically gain knowledge, faith rejects a methodical processing of facts and urges us to look inwards. In practice, this means feeling-based convictions become the final arbiter of truth.
To illustrate this inescapable clash between science and faith, consider the controversy surrounding stem cell research. (See “Defining Life: The Moral Case for Stem Cell Research.”). Evidence suggests that stem cells possess the potential to cure debilitating diseases. In spite of this evidence, however, many people criticize stem cell research because they believe that a higher being opposes it.
Likewise, consider 15-month old Ava Worthington, who died earlier this year from an easily curable disease, bacterial bronchial pneumonia. Instead of taking her to a doctor for treatment, her parents prayed for her recovery while watching her perish. These examples demonstrate that science and faith lead in completely opposite directions.
But what about the scientist who also practices religion? Or the religious individual who still visits the doctor when his child falls ill? If science and faith fundamentally clash, how do these people get by?
These individuals are inconsistent. Like a diabetic who engages in a sugar-free diet one day and consumes donuts the next, their actions are the product of two contradictory approaches. To the extent they practice one, they undermine the other. For example, the scientist achieves success in his research only to the extent that he implements the scientific method. Acting on blind faith in the laboratory only serves to undercut this approach and ultimately, his success.
Science and faith are at war because they implement contradictory approaches to knowledge. One depends on evidence found in reality while the other deliberately rejects it. While individuals try inconsistently to practice both, Ava Worthington’s case shows that in principle, it is one or the other.