Religion and Science

Humanists think that the only reliable evidence for truth claims is empirical, and that scientific method is the only way of finding out how the world works. They accept that the findings of science are provisional, and that good theories may be superseded by better ones if new evidence appears, without being relativists. Many theories achieve the status of knowledge or truth because the evidence for them is so strong and no counter-evidence has been found. Humanists also accept that the vast explosion of knowledge in recent centuries means that it is no longer possible to know everything from first-hand experience; we have to take some knowledge on trust.

Many religious believers also trust in scientific method, empirical evidence and the experts for their beliefs about the world.

Humanists not necessarily or usually relativists, people who think that there things can be “true for you, but not for me” or that there are special “religious” kinds of truth. Humanists do not think that simply believing things makes them true, or that metaphors should be treated as if they were literally true, or that individual subjective interpretation of experience is reliable. They would use the word “faith” for ideas which are not backed up by empirical evidence.

Humanists would not believe something to be true simply because an authority, religious or secular, says it is. The experts they trust are those who employ scientific method and are prepared to change their minds when new evidence appears, and who distinguish carefully between matters of personal taste or opinion and matters of fact.

Most humanists do not think that science and religion have much in common, even though they sometimes use similar language. Some agree with the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, of non-overlapping magisteria, that is, that science and religion deal with completely different areas of experience, science with the empirical realm and religion(though not only religion) deals with ultimate questions. Others, such as Richard Dawkins, take the claims about the world made by some religious believers as evidence that religion and science are in conflict over the same kinds of truth claim, and that science gets them right, because its methodology is good, and religion gets them wrong because its “evidence” comes from sacred texts and traditions.

Humanists would look to sciences such as psychology and anthropology for explanations for the appeal and ubiquity of religious faith. They would not take ubiquity as evidence of the truth of religion, but would see it as an expression of human needs: for explanation – particularly of existence and death – for certainty, for rules and sanctions, for tribal cohesion, for ritual.

The evidence is that it is clearly possible to be both a scientist and a person of faith (as many people are).

Humanists tend to point to the resistance of religious authorities to the many scientific discoveries that they have seen as challenges to faith, as evidence of a clash of worldviews. Examples include the Church’s opposition to Galileo’s observations about the Universe, which were seen as undermining Christian beliefs about the centrality of the Earth and humankind in God’s creation, and religious condemnation of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which contradicts the literal truth of many sacred texts and suggests a godless mechanism for the development of the vast array of life-forms on Earth.

Because empirical and religious language sometimes overlap, for example in the use of words like “reality”, “truth” and “knowledge”, it is easy to imagine they share the same meaning. But they may well not, as religious concepts and expression are often very different from scientific or empirical ones.

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