Many people assume that science and religion conflict. Who believes this? The religious people, right? They are the ones who are anti-science, right? No. Pew Research indicates that those most likely to see a conflict between religion and science are not the most religious, but the least religious.
Why is that? It could be that the most religious people are scientifically illiterate, and are unaware of the conflict between their faith and science. But this is opposed to the meme that the most religious people are the most anti-science because they recognize that science conflicts with their religious faith. One cannot be both scientifically illiterate and know enough about science to determine that science conflicts with one’s faith.
Perhaps the most religious people do not see a science-faith conflict because they are scientifically literate and have found a way to reconcile the findings of both (e.g. theistic evolution).
Or perhaps the most religious people do not see a science-faith conflict because they understand that there is a difference between the method and empirical findings of science, and the interpretations of what is found. Clearly there is no conflict between the methods of science (observation, experimentation, testing of competing hypotheses, etc.) and religious belief. The conflict only arises when scientists force-interpret empirical findings through a particular philosophical understanding of science. Here I have in mind the view of methodological naturalism. This is the view that scientists must offer only naturalistic causes to explain naturalistic phenomena; i.e. to qualify as science, an explanation must invoke naturalistic causes rather than intelligent causes. While it makes sense to first look for a naturalistic explanation for naturalistic phenomena, it does not make sense to limit oneself to naturalistic explanations when the evidence points to the involvement of a personal agent rather than a natural cause. Such a restriction means that science is geared toward finding philosophically acceptable answers rather than the right answers. Indeed, such a restriction may prevent scientists from discovering the truth about the physical world. Richard Lewontin is very candid about the philosophical bias of scientists. In The New York Review of Books he makes this remarkable admission:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs…in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
The situation is similar to a coroner who receives a dead body from the police chief and is charged with finding the cause of death, but the coroner is told he must provide a naturalistic explanation for the man’s death. He cannot appeal to an intelligent cause, and thereby conclude that it was murder. And yet, when the coroner examines the body he discovers stab wounds in his back and three bullet holes in the back of his head, all of which points toward an intelligent cause and away from a naturalistic cause. The coroner should be allowed to follow the evidence where it leads, whether it be to a natural cause or an agent cause. But because of the rules, he must deny the obvious (that the man was murdered) and continue searching for the most plausible naturalistic explanation for how the knife and bullets found their way into his backside.
We see this very thing happening in the origin of life research. Science has discovered that DNA is the basis of life. That is solid science. But where did DNA come from? This is the point where religion and science part ways, because it is at the question of origins that scientists invoke methodological naturalism. DNA contains an unbelievable amount of complex biological information, and even utilizes a coding system to build proteins. The only known source of information and codes is intelligent agents, and thus an intelligent agent is the best explanation for the origin of DNA. But those who subscribe to methodological naturalism say this is not a scientific conclusion according to the modern definition of science. They insist that science must and will find a naturalistic cause for the origin of DNA. And yet, all attempts to find a naturalistic cause have resulted in failure.
The point of all this is not to undertake an exhaustive look at the origin of life, but to illustrate how the religious believers can fail to see any conflict between their faith and science. It’s because they understand the difference between the empirical findings of science and the interpretation scientists make of those findings. Interpretations guided by methodological naturalism may conflict with religious faith, but methodological naturalism is a philosophy of science, not science itself – and there are good reasons to reject methodological naturalism as a stricture for empirical interpretation.
Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, January 4, 1997.