The pursuit of justice through “just” science requires a deeper look into its complicated history and relationship with religion. Should science be faith-based or should faith be scientifically founded? Or neither? Perhaps religion has more of an influence on science than we’d like to admit. We’ll be exploring some of the effects this exchange has on society and how science and faith can work together for social justice.
I’ve never felt a true connection with science; at least, not in the way I did with religion. I’ve belonged to a church for as long as I was alive. My upbringing with religion has shaped more of my thought processes than my academic training in science up until now. I am currently a student at an Adventist medical school, and yet, I feel out of place at an institution that aims to train the next batch of “Christian physicians.” I shut down when we are asked to discuss the role of prayer in healing. What does it mean that now most scientists do believe in evolution, yet those who also believe in God must reconcile the two? Before I even began to question my faith, I recall specific memories in my eighth grade classroom at an Adventist middle school watching science videos about the beginning of the universe, and my teacher interjecting that we (as Christians) cannot possibly believe that the earth is billions of years old. I was told that the universe was created in seven literal 24-hour days. I believed in every single story in the Bible down to every last drop of water that was turned into wine. Was my allegiance to religion too strong to feel a deep connection to science, or was I intuitively skeptical of scientific doctrine, especially when it didn’t agree with my religion’s teachings?
In many ways, science and religion are quite similar. Like religion, science itself is complex, diverse, and requires some form of trust. Since scientific knowledge is commonly held up as the “gold standard” of truth, access to scientific knowledge and critical reflection is key. One problem is not necessarily science itself, but the gatekeeping and abuse of science by those who can reach it, namely, the “elite.” Who in our society is deemed “credible” when it comes to making claims about scientific findings? Likewise, whose teachings and interpretations receive more recognition and acceptance in religious communities? Unequal power relations and bias are a problem with any institutionalized power, but does this justify mistrust in complex and fundamental ideologies such as religion and science? Can we trust religious doctrines despite the power dynamics within the institution, just as we seem to trust science with its subtler elitist structures in place? For example, science is filled with uncertainty; it’s about ruling out what doesn’t work, about theories, about narrowing down premises. But in the face of uncertainty or error, are scientists willing and accountable for misinformation or lack of evidence? Likewise, what are these “certainties” claimed by each religion and do they lead to a better understanding of our world and ourselves, or do they ultimately limit the imagination and propensity for discovery?
As similarities between religion and science abound, it is a point of contention whether science and religion really have the same goals. Some may posit that both seek an understanding of the universe, whether through laws of nature or a supernatural power. Other perspectives may include more nuanced views of religion or science that acknowledge ulterior motives and corruption. One way in which science and many denominations of religion differ most dramatically is how each gathers and configures their accepted truths. For many fundamental religious denominations, truth requires little to no empirical evidence, but rather a literal understanding of sacred texts and a generous heaping of faith. Science, on the other hand, purports to be an accumulation of tested knowledge built upon a foundation of observation and predictability. Without reproducible results, scientific claims can only have as much credibility as any other theory and should be consumed with some salt and pepper. In practice, however, these lines between science and religion are not so black and white. Religious denominations range vastly, from those that take each word and teaching at face value, to those that elevate human rationale and experience over holy texts, and everything in between. Science is also quite diverse. Rather than being the monolithic entity that “Science” conjures up in people’s minds, science is not all the same, and thus, not all equal. Perhaps this is where the lines blur – some people make claims in the name of science while others claim truths in the name of religion, neither taking the rigorous methodical approaches necessary to support these conclusions.
Furthermore, it’s almost impossible for religion and science, as broad and complicated ideologies, to be in full support of each other – and we should not expect that they ever will. The diversity of religions includes those that believe in the supernatural (Supernaturalism) and others that believe that the world and the universe operate only within the bounds of natural laws and forces (Naturalism). Within Supernaturalist beliefs, science cannot be used to prove or disprove such claims because of what Supernaturalism entails: deviance from the natural, rendering natural laws and forces irrelevant. However, where Supernaturalism and Naturalism lie in direct contrast is in how they approach issues such as the origin of the universe and human life. For religions that accept Naturalism, religious texts and tenets are adjusted to human experience and changing social norms, including scientific knowledge. For religions that subscribe to Supernaturalism, many of its beliefs, such as Creationism or the resurrection of Jesus, are directly negated by science. As a former believer, I can attest that in these cases, science was simply overruled by faith and there was not much more to argue about. That is not to say that all who believe in the supernatural simply throw out science as a body of knowledge or as a means of understanding the world, but that they can easily get around it with an “exception-to-the-rule” standpoint.
What I am here to argue for is a more just look at science and faith. While it’s not productive to constantly pit science against religion, we must recognize that the shared origins of science, magic, mysticism, and faith may no longer fit into our evolved ideas of science (but this is a different article for a different time). To illustrate this dissonance, we can see that in holy texts such as the Hebrew Bible and the Quran, menstruation was considered unclean and impure. Women were prohibited from holy rituals, worship, and even touching other people based on these principles, and many were often sent to the outskirts of their villages during their monthly cycles. From these exclusionary verses, we can only begin to imagine how men and women were unequal and justified in the process. However, science would tell us that menstruation is not only an indication of healthy hormone balance and a normal result of not being pregnant, but that it also cleanses the body of bacteria and pathogens (particularly those transported by sperm). While we have moved toward the inclusion of women in the workforce and other primarily male-dominated areas of society, we can still taste the bitterness of inequality through attitudes surrounding women, especially when it comes to menstruation. Not only is openly talking about periods taboo and shameful, but women are also stigmatized as hysterical, crazy, or too emotional as a result of PMS. Sexism also has a way of influencing scientific findings; while some women do experience significant physical and psychological symptoms as a result of their menstrual cycle, recent research suggests that scientific studies on PMS are less reliable than previously thought. We can see this gender inequality manifest not only in science and religion but also in the gender wage gap, disparities in female leadership, and the sheer volume of emotional and domestic labor women do on a regular basis. Scientific knowledge has since expanded and cannot support religious texts’ claims for how women should be treated every month (or every day), but there are many forces at play (including religion, socioeconomic status, and access to education) in the preservation of such power imbalances that still linger today.
A religious science, or what I would define as the study or use of science guided by religious texts, is not only dangerous, but also disingenuous. Scientific inquiry that is driven by claims already taken as true does not seek truth, but validation. Findings that contradict accepted truths, regardless of how thoroughly tested they are by scientific communities, are easily dismissed by those who take this approach to science. This is an example of how biases work – new information is only taken in if it reinforces the narrative one has already adopted but is excused when it doesn’t coincide with one’s beliefs. Sometimes, these biases are obvious, but most of the time, we are unaware of how our biases shape us until we finally realize the cognitive dissonance in our own minds. However, scientific religion, which I define as a religion that aligns itself with science and constantly updates its values based on scientific understandings, is not enough either. Science, too, is expanding, changing, and in flux. What is considered true today may be disproven in the future. Thus, I propose an alternative – a science and religion that are both oriented toward social justice. If science and religion were both centered on social justice values, I believe that not only would there be less conflict between the two, but that there would also be more real-life solutions to the problems science and religion try to address.
**The author of this piece does not aim to reduce all religions to Christianity, but primarily uses examples found in this faith tradition because that is what she is most familiar with.