Culture of science

Culture of science

Does science disprove the existence of God?

Science doesn’t have the processes to prove or disprove the existence of God. Science studies and attempts to explain only the natural world while God, in most religions, is supernatural.

Tell me more about the differences between science and religion.

Science and religion draw on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations are based on evidence drawn from observing the natural world and conducting experiments. Because these explanations are based on evidence, they can be checked independently by others.

Scientific questions (aka hypotheses) are framed in ways so that they can be confirmed or disproved by evidence. If the evidence shows that the hypothesis is wrong, the hypothesis must be reframed and tested again or rejected.

Religious beliefs don’t depend only on empirical evidence. They can also be based on faith and typically involve supernatural forces or entities.

Where do we come from? What happens when we die? Do science and religion agree on anything? We paired scientists and religious experts and asked them to tackle these big questions in a small space. (Important note: This was filmed pre-Covid, when conversations in small spaces were actually still possible!)

So they are different ways of understanding the world?

Yes, and they focus on different kinds of questions. For example, science is a powerful tool for understanding and explaining the mechanisms and dynamics of the physical universe. But science can’t examine or explain the purpose of the universe. That’s a question that falls under theology or philosophy.

Pitting science and religion against each other makes both less able to contribute to a more meaningful experience of the world.

Are scientists religious?

Scientists hold a wide range of positions about religion. Many scientists who believe in God, either as a primordial creator or as an active force in the universe, have written eloquently about their beliefs. For example, in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Francis Collins, a scientist who is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote: “God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.”

Do religious people see a role for science in explaining the world?

Theologians and other people of faith have a variety of perspectives on science. Some theologians have proposed critically important scientific ideas and undertaken scientific exploration. For example, Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest, was one of the first people to propose almost 100 years ago that the universe first began when extremely condensed matter rapidly expanded (now called the “Big Bang theory”).

And for centuries the Vatican has maintained an astronomical observatory and has appointed a scientifically trained chief astronomer.

Can people who are religious accept evolution?

Yes, many people who are religious don’t see a conflict between their religious beliefs and evolution. They accept evolution as a foundational concept in science while also believing in God.

The Clergy Letter Project has collected signatures from more than 12,000 religious leaders from different faiths in support of a letter that advocates the teaching of evolution.

From 1935 to 1980, the Vatican Observatory was headquartered in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo (above), about 15 miles outside of Rome. Light pollution led the Vatican to relocate the observatory to much darker skies more than 6,000 miles away in Tucson, Arizona. Credit

How do they explain their acceptance of evolution?

In the Clergy Letter Project, different religions explain their perspectives on evolution via letters. For example, the letter from Christian clergy reads:

“We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”

Why is evolution so important?

It has transformed science’s understanding of the diversity of life on Earth. Evolution…

  • provides a scientific explanation for why there are so many different kinds of organisms on Earth;
  • demonstrates why some organisms that look quite different are in fact related, while other organisms that may look similar are only distantly related;
  • accounts for the appearance of humans on Earth and reveals our species’ ancestral biological connections with other living things;
  • details how different groups of humans who are living today and human-like species that are now extinct are related to each other and how we acquired many of our traits; and
  • provides a framework of understanding that suggests pathways for the development of effective new ways to protect ourselves against constantly evolving bacteria and viruses.

As the prominent biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Can science explain the origins of life on Earth?

Figuring out how life began is both an exciting and a challenging scientific problem. Re-creating conditions that led to the earliest known organisms in the fossil record is difficult because a lot remains unknown about the chemical and physical characteristics of the early Earth.

Nevertheless, researchers have been developing hypotheses of how self-replicating organisms could form and begin to evolve, and they have tested the plausibility of these hypotheses in laboratories. So far none has reached scientific consensus, but much progress has been made.

Paleontologists view Archaeopteryx as a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and modern birds. The fossil is considered strong evidence of evolution. Credit

From a scientific point of view, what’s a rough outline of how life started?

For life to begin, three conditions had to be met. First, groups of molecules that could reproduce themselves had to come together. Second, copies of these molecular groupings had to show variation, so that some were better able to take advantage of resources and withstand challenges in the environment than others. Third, the variations had to be heritable, so that some variants would increase in number under favorable environmental conditions.

How are scientists studying the specifics of the origins of life?

To find a credible theory of life’s origins, many questions must be answered. Scientists who study the origin of life explore which sets of chemicals could have begun replicating themselves. Even if a living cell could be made in the laboratory from simpler chemicals, it would not prove that nature followed the same pathway billions of years ago. But the principles behind life’s chemical origins, as well as plausible chemical details of the process, are open to scientific investigation in the same ways as all other natural phenomena.

The history of science shows that even difficult questions such as how life originated may one day be answered as a result of advances in theory, the development of new instrumentation, and the discovery of new facts.

Take a Deep Dive

If you’re curious and want to know more, check out Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

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