Can Science and Religion Be Friends?

Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight

It comes as no surprise that the earliest pioneers of science were also men of faith. Religion was far more central to society in general and was the predominant sponsor of academic institutions during the time of Copernicus, Bacon, and Kepler.

Galileo, known in popular culture as a rebel against church authority, actually held the Bible to be infallible and his sun-centered system just an alternate interpretation. Michael Faraday, the inventor of the first induction motor, was a fundamentalist Christian. And moving into the 19th century, we find a monk, Gregor Mendel, making breakthroughs in the mechanics of genetic inheritance from the garden of his monastery and a young Einstein remarking on how God sparked the enormous scope of his scientific interests, “I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.”

As modern society becomes predominantly secular, many assume that good science means rejection of the mysteries inherent in religious or spiritual pursuits. Yet recent surveys belie this seemingly logical conclusion. Elaine Howard Eklund, director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, found that almost half of the 1,700 scientists she surveyed between 2005 and 2008 identified with a religious label and 20% attended religious services at least once a month. Continuing her research, Eklund interviewed 10,000 adults, finding that over 35% of the scientists among them were confident God exists with 15% identifying themselves as very religious, compared to 19% among the general U.S. population.

Eklund concluded that many scientists practice what she calls a “secret spirituality,” feeling that being more public about their beliefs will negatively impact their professional esteem.

Nevertheless there are those who are frank about their dual interest in science and religion, including Charles Hard Townes, Gerhard Etrl, and William D. Phillips, all Nobel prize winners. This doesn’t mean that believing scientists have a uniform view of the relationship between the two. Some, like Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health see no overlap: “If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence.” Others are in science writer Victor Udoewa’s camp, seeing a qualitative similarity in the two methods for seeking truth:

“I’ve experienced that science and faith have a commonality: What you believe is not as important as how you believe. There are climate scientists who do not believe global warming is caused by man. Though they are in the vast minority, they are scientists not because of what they believe, but rather because of how they believe or practice. They arrive at their conclusions based on the scientific method and their concluding judgment.”

Perhaps the most promising “theory” about the interaction of faith and science comes from Townes, who sees them as complementary. According to Townes, science is the study of what things are and how they work. Once we ask why things are the way they are, we enter the realm of religion, the aspect of human endeavor that can potentially reveal the plan or design that has resulted in us being here as we are. The Pope himself has recently come to similar conclusions.

Copyright: rolffimages / 123RF Stock PhotoScience and spiritual pursuits may well be two lines of inquiry that ultimately intersect at the truth. While the empirical precision of science may seem antithetical to direct spiritual experience, conclusions drawn from either depend on keen observation and a healthy skepticism about the potentially distorting influence of the instrument of observation. Moreover, the more exotic truths science reveals, the more parallels to spiritual wisdom seem to arise.

For instance, string theory posits string-like structures that vibrate as the core mechanism of the observable universe. This aligns with the spiritual concept of the Om or the Great Amen: the vibrational “word” of God that sets creation in motion and sustains it. The fact that a string must have two ends, two poles, in order to vibrate also echoes the recognition of duality (Maya or good and evil) in spiritual traditions of many stripes.

While seeming opposites are not the ultimate reality, they are necessary for the Creation to come into being.

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About the Author

I have a BA in Psychology from Wellesley College and have been a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda for over 25 years, including 15 years of teaching Sunday School children the fundamentals of yoga meditation. I'm also a deeply committed student of Catholicism especially interested in the basic harmony between eastern and western spiritual principles, practices and experience. I live with my husband in rural Northern Arizona. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and