Science and faith: where does one end and the other begin?

Op-eds Opinions

On Sept. 26, 2013, the Kansas City Star reported that a group called Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) is suing the Kansas State Education Board for adopting new guidelines that require the teaching of evolution and climate change to primary and secondary school students. The group filed the lawsuit on the grounds that the new standards would lead to atheistic explanations of the origins of life, the universe itself, and the universe’s greatest mysteries. COPE’s lawsuit argues that these guidelines interfere with people’s religious freedoms. According to their challenge, excessive government interference in religion is a violation of the U.S. constitutional First Amendment.

Hopefully, this suit will not succeed in Kansas District Court, though COPE hopes it will.

It seems as though COPE may be implying that such teaching of materialistic and scientific concepts is actually a religious endeavour. Ann Coulter makes that argument in her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, wherein she portrays evolutionary theory as a “religion” while claiming that intelligent design is legitimate science. The arguments of COPE, Coulter, and others raise the question of whether science may itself be a religion—a debate that seems to be happening down in the U.S., and is probably happening to a lesser extent here in Canada.

Religion is a set of beliefs, world views, and cultural systems that explain humanity’s place in the universe. We also know that various religious ideas were historically used to explain natural phenomena. For example, lightning was described by Norse mythos as Thor using his hammer, and by the Greeks as Zeus throwing lightning bolts from Mount Olympus. The Book of Genesis is meant to be the Christian explanation for the origins of the universe.

Both science and religion serve to explain and describe the natural world and its origins. However, science itself actually has a rigorous foundation and set of guiding principles. Ideas are tested using mathematics to obtain precise figures which indicate specific phenomena and patterns that we should see in the world. These hypotheses are checked against real world data. If the hypotheses balance with what is observed and replicable, then an idea may be accepted. If evidence is not found, or if something comes along that directly contradicts a hypothesis, it is supposed to be tossed away in favour of a new idea. Take lightning again, for example. It was found that lightning occurs due to an electrical discharge, either between clouds and other clouds or clouds and the ground. Or, reconsider the creation story in Genesis in the face of science. Radioactive decay and light from distant stars and other phenomena indicate that the Earth and the universe are approximately 4.6 billion and 14 billion years old, respectively. If Genesis were presented as a scientific hypothesis, the notion of creation in seven days would have to either be modified or jettisoned.

There are four major scientific ideas that are often misconstrued as religious ideas within science, rather than properly confirmed scientific theories: the Big Bang theory, the theory of evolution, the greenhouse gas theory of climate change, and the theory of dark matter (although it’s still in the infancy stages of hypothesis). Evidence for the Big Bang theory was inferred from the rapid expansion of galaxies as they move away from one another, as well as the presence of leftover thermal or cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. The theory of evolution is supported by multiple experiments: most notably, a laboratory experiment that demonstrated observable speciation (the development of new and distinct species) with two species of fruit fly that share a common ancestor. The evidence for climate change is overwhelming, including the known ability of CO2 to release infrared radiation through the atmosphere, the shrinking arctic ice, the rising ocean temperatures, etc., etc. Finally, evidence of dark matter was detected and measured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

In short, science is ideally supported by the ongoing vetting of evidence. This evidence-based system has consistently led to developments in our society (such as curing various diseases, expanding human life expectancy, a population explosion, and increasing our standard of living) and helped us understand more about the world. Religion has yet to show contributions to our lives that I weigh to the same magnitude. In my own personal opinion, an evidence-based system of thought or philosophy beats a faith-based system any day.