Science and Religion Are Different

by Bradley Knockel

Science and religion accomplish different goals, yet some people are determined to make these two be enemies.

Rather than choosing a side—science or religion—that prevents us from seeing the other side's perspective, let us entertain new ideas even if we do not accept them. Let us seek reason rather than listening to whoever is loudest. This won't be on the test, but maybe that's why it's important!

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.


As we learn in class, science is a process of learning about how the world works. To be scientific, a theory must be testable and continuously tested. These theories are correct only to the extent that they are tested.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the scientifically verified effect that those with the least knowledge have the most confidence that they are correct. They even have more confidence than the experts! This occurs because, before we are educated or experienced, we don't have enough knowledge to even see that we don't have enough knowledge (we project our limited ability to think onto everyone else). A very important aspect of our education is learning how little we know. Science avoids many pitfalls of ignorance by embracing the idea that we should not have confidence until we very carefully test something. Even then, we must never be completely confident.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance. -Confucius

So what are these well tested theories? As an example, we presently understand the universe precisely, and we can literally see (using microwave telescopes) the universe in great detail as it was 13.8 billion years ago since that light is just now reaching us from far away. We have many independently verifiable observations to confirm the Big Bang theory: the existence of a background microwave light from the Big Bang, various detailed features of the microwave light, the exact abundances of hydrogen and helium in the universe, the exact ratio of photons to atoms, the size and number of galaxies, the amount of dark matter, and, hopefully soon, the gravitational waves created much before the universe was a microsecond old. We see objects in our galaxy that are in all stages of formation, and some are ten billion years old. We never observe anything much older! And science would love to find something older since this would allow us to learn something new about the universe.

Like all theories, we can never be completely confident. Even though scientific theories (such as the Big Bang or evolution) are precise, they are not complete. Even though the details we know are vast, precise, and consistent, we don't know certain details. For example, the theory of gravity is a scientific theory just like evolution and the Big Bang. It at first seems to say that all objects on the Earth's surface fall the same. This theory is correct, but it is incomplete because we know that feathers do not fall at the same rate as rocks, so we improve the theory of gravity to say that all objects fall the same in vacuum. Drop a feather in vacuum and it falls like a rock! Einstein later improved the theory of gravity, and even he knew that he isn't completely correct. But all theories of gravity are correct in that we must acknowledge the existence of gravity! We will never learn that gravity isn't true. We will never learn that the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, that evolution isn't true, or that the Big Bang didn't happen. And science will keep improving our theories. For example, we now know that the Earth—though not flat—is hardly perfectly round due to an equatorial bulge and uneven densities! We will hopefully soon be learning the exact composition of dark matter and why the universe is made of matter instead of antimatter!

To not believe science because it is incomplete or because it constantly questions itself is a great error. Science's ability to question itself and to carefully categorize what it does not know and how well it knows what it does know is why you should believe it! Science is constantly being carefully refined and improved.

Of all the things to not believe, how can you choose science? That's like rejecting a blue-sky theory in favor of a violet-sky hypothesis (interestingly, the sky does actually contain all colors to some extent). Science must be based on observation! Believing science is not based on faith but based on careful observations and tests. Its theories are not crazy in that they simply describe the world based on what we see.

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it. -Neil deGrasse Tyson

Whenever we reject any part of science, we only further lower the importance of science in our culture. When science is not respected by the majority, we elect politicians who will not listen to the climatologists or economists. Truly, a healthy society depends on an educated population accepting science.


Science is about figuring out how the world works, but religion is about giving life meaning. Is the meaning of life to love God and others? Is there some unifying purpose to everything? Unlike science, an idea about the meaning of life cannot be tested as being true or untrue. But many great things cannot be tested! Art cannot be tested!

We all ask ourselves what the meaning of our life is. Religion—organized or otherwise—is the pursuit of meaning, so I think we are all religious even if living life (finding our unique path by walking it) is our only religion. I would encourage anybody to explore religion further to ask and search for how God or the universe would want them personally to live, just as I would encourage them to pursue science and art further. A life without meaning is a sad life.

I would say more, but, to me, religion is more private than science is. And religion cannot be tested, so I can't say much for sure.

They actually get along!

It's sad that some religious people feel that science and religion are incompatible. These two things answer completely different questions, so how can they be incompatible? Luckily, rejecting science is actually rare. The Catholic Church has accepted science (Big Bang, evolution, etc.) for over 50 years, and most countries accept science more than the United States. Whenever American politicians say that they do not believe in evolution or whenever some religious group tries to force science classes to lie about there being a scientific debate on evolution, the media gives this lots of attention, so it seems to be a popular view. But most people in the world believe science. Did you know that Bush Jr. acknowledges the existence of evolution?

As I mentioned, rejecting science weakens science and the world, but it also weakens religion. If you reject science due to your religion, some educated people will associate your religion primarily with ignorance instead of with its good qualities. You do not have the right to make your entire religion look bad. Also, some Christians do their religion a disservice by completely misunderstanding the point of Christianity: faith (that is, trust in God's plan for you). By making your religion too much about a search for scientific proof, you are missing out on the main point of your religion.

Certain Christians (usually only American Christians) believe that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old, which rejects huge amounts of science. What we must understand is that anything written must be interpreted (and interpretation takes effort!). For example, Genesis 2 describes a different order of creation than Genesis 1, so Genesis 2 is often interpreted to be more figurative than Genesis 1. Or, when Genesis 2 mentions that Adam was formed before plants and animals, the word formed is often interpreted to mean planned. So, especially considering the lack of scientific vocabulary and interest for most of human history, why should the word day in Genesis 1 be interpreted so rigidly as to cause people to reject science? Doesn't the Big Bang support Genesis 1:1, and doesn't evolution support the increasing order of complexity described in the rest of Genesis 1? Can't science and religion complement each other? Science can describe the how, and religion can provide the meaning.

To make clear the distinction between science and religion, let's look at two different ways of thinking: Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that time is unending in both past and future directions. Christianity teaches that it has a beginning. Science knows that the Big Bang marks the beginning of our time, which seems to support Christianity. However, it may likely be that we live in a multiverse, in which time could be eternal and there would even be no preferred direction in time. In this situation, both religions are correct since our time had a beginning but the time of the multiverse did not. Science simply cannot answer these questions.

Now what?

Even if we are morally open to believing science, there are still many obstacles to accepting good science, so it is important that we know how to interpret scientific results in this complicated world.

The world is not run by gentle nerdy scientists who are just trying to share what they know. Instead, the world is run by corporations and politicians who are interested in money and power (including Al Gore). This is a good thing actually! We need corporations and politicians to make money and have power, but we should not necessarily be believing them regarding things of science, because they are interested in money and power over truth. Besides corporations, other people get money and power in other ways such as by creating "health" websites selling their products to the naive public.

What if over 99% of bridge experts predicted that a certain damaged bridge would collapse if someone drove over it. Would you drive over it if you knew this? I wouldn't believe for a second that you would. This is a beautiful example of knowledge leading to a helpful understanding of the world. This example shows the two steps to interpreting scientific results: (1) find the appropriate experts, which in this case are bridge experts, and (2) look at what the majority of them are saying.

There is no debate about the existence of global warming. The world is getting warmer. The debate is about how significant the role of humans has been on this warming. Over 99% of climate scientists believe that humans have played a primary role (as of 2014). Climate scientists are the relevant experts, and the vast majority of them believe a certain thing. Of all the people in the world, scientists are the most aware of their limitations and biases. They have been shown time and time again in their training how what we first think is often not true and how mistakes are easy to make, so they will look for every possible alternate explanation, and a good scientist will not support something without a very careful analysis. Unlike the very simple examples we learn in school, in the real world, there are typically many plausible hypotheses and no simple single solution. The real world is messy, and good scientists are trained to figure it out. Global warming is primarily caused by humans with over a 99% certainty! There is no argument to this!

As for what to do with this knowledge, this is up for discussion. Sadly, this is somewhat off topic, though I will say that investing in new technology is great for a country's economy, especially since it will have to be developed eventually when oil, gas, and coal run out (though uneducated people working in those sectors will need to be educated).

So why don't many people in the United States believe that humans have played a significant role? (In fact, many people including professionals on TV do not even believe the world is getting warmer!) There is a lot of money in fossil fuels, and corporations and the politicians they fund have the power to put out disinformation. Sometimes, a scientist will be interviewed who does not believe that humans caused global warming. Never trust one scientist. For any crazy idea out there, there is at least one scientist who believes it who can be found and put in front of a TV camera. Good science cannot be learned from the news. Instead, we simply have to research what the relevant experts as a field are saying and trust that they will keep looking into the possibility that they are incorrect.

But wait! How can the world be getting warmer? Some places are getting colder, and some years are colder than the previous year! And we usually don't notice it getting warmer! You'll hear plenty of wannabe scientists using statements like this to discredit the experts. I don't even have to respond to these comments because the climatologists have been thoroughly trained in understanding and analyzing all of the subtleties and complexities. Until we or anyone studies at least eight years to become a climatologist, our analysis doesn't matter. Science often goes against our common sense, but the topics of science (climate, atoms, millions of years, etc.) are not common daily topics, so our common sense isn't supposed to work! Heavier objects fall at the same rate as lighter objects and the Earth goes around the Sun whether or not our common sense agrees with it. Luckily, scientists and educated people learn how to refine their common sense to make even the most exotic aspects of this world seem intuitive. In fact, learning some surprising truth then thinking about how to explain our common sense in terms of this new understanding is the most exciting part of science.

Only because I'm a science teacher will I explain the science behind why we don't notice the world getting warmer. Global warming actually predicts that temperature fluctuations will sometimes become more erratic, and it predicts that some locations will become colder due to changes in air and water currents. These observations actually support global warming! As for why we don't notice it getting warmer, the average temperature has only gone up by a degree, but don't relax yet because a couple degrees is enough to cause major effects! And remember, there is no scientific debate on whether or not the world is getting warmer. As a good science teacher, I must encourage you to explore climate science and become a climatologist! Then you may become the person who critically questions the majority of scientists! Until then, believe the majority of scientists.

I've talked about climate change because it's very important, but there are countless other examples of people not knowing how to accept good science. Good science rejects all the following pseudoscience (bad science) because there should be data supporting them if they were true, but the supporting data cannot be found: chemtrails, vaccines causing harm, homeopathy, alien abduction, astrology, etc. Besides misinformation by people who want money and power, there are psychological reasons why we don't believe good science such as (1) our tendency to believe the most convenient, clearly told, repeated, or sensational story, (2) changing what we believe is hard work, (3) the mind's natural ability to find patterns in randomness, and (4) the placebo/nocebo effect. We all fall victim to pseudoscience in our lives, and some types of pseudoscience are lots of fun, but we should eventually try to understand on some level that it is not true (like Santa Claus?).

Getting back to the main point, science has a limited domain. Art has another domain. Religion has yet another. Just live life and try to believe what scientists are saying. I personally enjoy the ideas behind yoga, I think that horoscopes are fun, and I think that emotional health and friendship and ritual can be important aspects of medical treatment, and these are my preferences rather than being testable beliefs about how the world works. Science often doesn't know the truth or whether you personally should enjoy horoscopes (though it says that we should not believe that they are literally predictive), but science is also very good at saying how certain science is. When science does know something, why not believe it? When it doesn't, feel free to have fun with your own personal preferences as long as you understand that they are just your personal preferences.