In the religion/atheism debate Christians often assert that they accept a scientific view of the world and the scientific method but that science has limits. “There are questions which science cannot answer. For these questions we must turn to religion”. But should science accept limits imposed by religion? And are there really separate areas of knowledge requiring the different methods of science and religion?
Evolution of religion and science
During human and social development every culture developed both supernatural and logical explanations of the surrounding world. Often the explanations were mixtures of the supernatural and logical, particularly when they were required to assist with practical activity such as navigation, building and agriculture. The rational, logical, approach developed into the scientific method. The supernatural approach was incorporated into the mythology, stories and religions of the culture.
Religions also incorporated teachings about morals, values, society, property and legal rights. Sometimes, but not always, religious mythology included concepts of supernatural gods which were given roles in the creation and management of the world. Theistic religions used their gods to explain things, to justify moral and legal positions and often to justify and promote wars. We can see the concept of a god evolving to incorporate the various roles mankind required of it ( In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions by Michael Jordan describes this with respect to war). God was a creation of man and the concept, together with the resulting institutions (churches) and dogma, was used by ruling groups to advance their specific interests. This man-derived purpose for gods continues today.
So today we have these two approaches to knowledge. The scientific based on empirical evidence producing a relative, but ever-improving, knowledge tested in practical experimentation. The scientific method has proven to be a powerful way of understanding reality as seen by the rapid progress of technology with the accompanied improvement in the quality of life. On the other hand religion is still largely based on supernatural interpretations of reality although its sphere of influence has been vastly reduced because of the advance of scientific knowledge. However, many religions still continue to advance explanations of the world, and its creation, and of human values, morals and social arrangements. They usually attempt to give legitimacy to their claims by using supernatural authority (God) and its earthly institutions and representatives. Religious teachings and dogma are in effect using supernatural claims to justify and impose human values and ideas without the normal testing of scientific method.
Those special questions?
Some of the questions claimed by religion are a bit like “When are you going to stop beating your wife? To ask: Why are we here?; What is the purpose of life? etc., in effect presuppose a god. They are not objective questions. They don’t need an answer.
A group of questions religion jealously guards for itself are those along the line of What is good?; What is evil?; How should people behave? These are questions science can consider, and it does. Science is investigating the evolutionary and neurological bases of human values and morals. We are getting a clearer idea of how our morals and concepts of good and evil evolved. We can also appreciate the relative nature of these values in different societies and at different times.
And of course questions relating to the origins of the universe, evolution of the cosmos, formation and evolution of life on earth (and possibly elsewhere) are all questions properly the province of scientific investigation. As is the big question itself – Was the universe created by a super-intelligent being?
Problems with the religious answers
A huge problem with religion attempting to claim for itself the answers to these sort of questions is the methodology used. There is no objective testing of hypothesis, rejection of theories inconsistent with reality, or development of theories as a result of new knowledge here. The religious answers are “revealed,” claimed to be derived from a supernatural god, but in practice originating out of human belief and imposed by religious (and sometimes legal) authority. God is being used by man to impose these answers.
Some people buy the argument for placing limits on scientific knowledge because they see it as an impersonal belief system with its own inflexible dogmas which will be imposed. In other words they see it as another alternative religion. Of course plenty of people will take scientific knowledge to support their own dogma (and don’t religions often do this?). But the scientific method itself is objective. It produces knowledge of reality which is always relative, incomplete, open to question, but continuously improving. For this reason it is a powerful objective method for revealing and understanding reality. It is a far more reliable way of understanding reality and humanity than a fixed dogmatic religion relying on supernatural authority to impose preconceived beliefs and values.