Faith and Science: Ways of “Knowing”
Written over three days in order to address a key discrepancy when people of faith speak with secular people. Enjoy.
One of the pressing question in recent memory is: how do we reconcile religion and science? The answer, to me at least, seems obvious. Science and religion are competitors at discovering truths about nature. And science is the only field that has the ability to disprove the truth claims of religion, and has done repeatedly. Religion, on the other hand, has no ability to overturn the truths found by science. In Moral Landscapes, Sam Harris challenges his readers to think of just one example where a scientific claim was improved upon thanks to a faith claim. You won’t be able to think of one. It cannot be stressed enough: It is this competition, and the ability of science to erode the hegemony of faith – but not vice versa – that has produced the copious discussion of how the two areas relate to each other.
One can in fact argue that science and religion have been at odds ever since science began to exist as a formal discipline in sixteenth-century Europe. Scientific advances, of course, began well before that – in ancient Greece, China, India, and the Middle East – but could conflict with religion in a public way only when religion assumed both the power and the dogma to control society. That had to wait until the rise of Christianity and Islam, and then until science produced results that called their claims in to question.
And so the last five hundred years there have been conflicts between science and faith – not continuous conflict, but occasional and infamous moments of public hostility. The two most notable ones are Galileo’s squabble with the church and his sentence to lifetime of house arrest in 1632 over his claim of a Sun-centered solar system, and the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” involving a titanic clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over whether a Tennessee high-school teacher could tell his students that humans evolved (the jury ruled no).
But these episodes of conflict didn’t give rise to public discussion about the relationship of science and religion until the nineteenth century. Ignited by Charles Darwin 1859 publication of Origin of Species, it quickly became the greatest scripture-killer ever penned, though that was not its purpose. What Darwin’s book did was demonstrate that purely naturalistic processes – evolution and natural selection – could explain patterns in nature previously explainable only by invoking a Great Designer. From this point on, a modern discussion was launched that highlighted a war between faith and science.
The purpose of this essay is to defend the claim that science and faith are incompatible when it comes to ways of knowing truth. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that it is indeed science – not faith – that provides the best method for understanding the nature of the world.
From the outset, it’s important to begin with this point: faith is not a way of knowing, nor is it a good method for knowing. Faith, unlike science, is not a method but rather a confidence or trust in something. Modern apologists inextricably link post-Enlightenment descriptions like “reason” or “objectivity” to faith so that it can appear to have more credibility when juxtaposed to science. According to our historians and linguists who have studied the first three centuries, the early church is absolutely in disagreement with modern apologists hijacking faith and putting it under the guise of objectivity. Furthermore, faith cannot be a valid way of knowing or even about right beliefs when – throughout history – faith looks so wildly different everywhere you look. After all, there is a second century Syrian way of being Christian, but also there is an 8th century Irish way, a 12th century Eastern Orthodox way, a 15th century Chinese way, and a 19th century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way. Faith is not about finding objectivity or reasonable beliefs, but rather, something else. First though, how can we define it?
Succinct definitions vary, but James W. Fowler states that faith is the way one structures their values, the patters of love and action, the shape of fear and dread and the directions of hope and friendship in one’s life. Faith is not always religious in its content or context. To ask these questions seriously of oneself does not necessarily mean to elicit answers about religious commitment or belief. Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life. It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives. Faith is a person’s way of seeing himself or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose. In short, faith involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties.
Shifting from Fowler’s understanding of faith to scripture, the Bible says faith is “the substance of the things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Notice its saying it’s a hope (or a confidence) concerning things not seen. While pistuou (faith) was an accepted understanding, albeit a direct contradiction to reason, Christian apologists are unsatisfied with this [as a side note we have extensive evidence showing that church history drew sharp lines between faith and reason from Paul in I Corinthians 2:14, Tertullian and Martin Luther]. The Oxford Dictionary definition defines faith as a “Belief in and acceptance of the doctrines of a religion, typically involving belief in a god or gods in the authenticity of divine revelation. Also (Theol.): the capacity to spiritually apprehend divine truths, or realities beyond the limits of perception or a logical proof, viewed either as a faculty of the human soul, or as the result of divine illumination.”
Note that what promotes acceptance of religious doctrine are revelation, “divine illumination,” and spiritual apprehension, leading to acceptance of “realities beyond the limits of perception or of logical proof.” Theologians don’t like this definition of faith, but it surly is, as is any system that requires supporting a priori beliefs without good evidence. In religions, not science, that kind of faith is seen as a virtue.
From Definition to Etymology
I will now attempt to lay out a brief history of faith, I hope that it becomes apparent that faith is not about one’s reasoning or cognitive capacities. In other words, it’s not a way of knowing. Moreover, to ask rhetorically, “Oh, so faith is just mindless?” is to ask the wrong question and miss the point of faith altogether. This is not to invalidate or minimize its meaning, rather, it is to say that faith serves a different purpose while possessing little to no use within the arena of epistemology. Let’s begin with the morphology of words.
If a friend says you’re “nice” you would most likely thank them for the compliment. Certainly seems like a nice thing to say. But that’s because you’re defining the word “nice” in a twenty-first century context. Way back in history, “nice” meant “ignorant” (Latin), then it morphed into “stupid” (Middle English). The importance of original meanings of words becomes paramount when the words express foundational “truths” of an ideological faith. “Faith” is one of those words that deserves prudent scrutiny.
The Modern conundrum is that Christian faith has morphed into beliefs that are properly supported by proposition backed by evidence. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in your head- as if “believing the right things” is what God is looking for. As if having “correct beliefs” is what will save us. And if you have incorrect beliefs, you may be in trouble. It’s remarkable to think that God cares so much about “beliefs.” Moreover, when you think about it, faith becomes a relatively impotent and powerless word. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.
In order to understand early understandings of faith, we need to look at the Latin words of assensus (“assent”), fiducia (“trust”), fidelitas (“commitment of the heart”), and visio (“a way of seeing the world”). We can begin with faith as assensus, and its pre-Modern meaning as a way of (assent to) approval. Assensus took a turn during the Reformation and morphed into assent to propositions. I’ll come back to assensus in a little bit. Faith as fiducia, connotes a radical trust. This kind of faith is like floating in a deep ocean. I owe the metaphor to Soren Kierkegaard, a radical Christian and one of the philosophical giants on the nineteenth century: “faith is like floating in seventy-thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink.” Faith as fidelitas means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self as its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart.” Simply put, it is a radical centering of God. Faith as visio, is a way of seeing the whole of life. This way of seeing the whole of life, makes possible a different response to life. It leads to radical trust. It frees us from anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints (paranoia, the universe is against us). It leads to the “self-forgetfulness of faith” and this to the ability to love and to be present to the moment. As an aside, the Modern era also elevated the word “notitia” (sounds like “no-shay”) from the Latin word “knowledge” and linked it synonymously with – you guessed it – faith. Never-the-less, all the way through history up to Martin Luther, faith was not assensus, but rather fiducia, fidelitas, visio. The importance of highlighting this is to illustrate how faith moved from the (pre-Modern) heart to the (post-Enlightenment) head. And this is where faith as assensus takes off.
Faith as assensus sees belief as giving one’s mental assent to a proposition as that of believing a claim or proposition is true. Christian faith became believing in the right things, and having right beliefs instead of wrong beliefs during the Enlightenment. This development, for example, even changed the meaning of the word “orthodoxy”. Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orthodoxy referred to “right worship” or “correct worship”. If you did the liturgy right, the practice right, you were orthodox. Then, in the aftermath of the Reformation, orthodoxy came to mean “right belief” or “correct belief”. And faith began to mean “believing the right things.” The Enlightenment identified “truth” as “factuality.” Truth is what can be verified as factual. Modern Western culture is the only culture in human history that has made this identification.
For many people, faith as assensus has become primary because the central claims of Christianity have become questionable – thanks to the Enlightenment challenging so many Christian claims. For many today, faith means believing in spite of difficulties, believing even when you have reasons to think otherwise. It means believing “iffy” things to be true. This is very different from what faith as assensus meant prior to the modern period. Imagine for a moment what assensus meant in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Most people took truth of Christianity and the Bible for granted. If was the conventional wisdom of the time. There was no conflict between science and religion. In that setting, faith as assensus was effortless, and the emphasis was thus on the other meaning of faith. But now, faith as assensus has become effortful. Again, this makes the propositions of one’s theology (soteriology, inerrancy, Christology, etc.) the main concern. Ask any fundamentalist Christian if you can remain a Christian while believing that you can get to heaven by just being good or believing that all religions lead to heaven. You can safely bet that they will immediately challenge your faith because your propositions are “invalid.”
Most of Christianity emphasizes the creeds (Nicaean, Chalcedonian, and Apostles Creed) to form the foundation of the Christian belief. The emphasis on the creeds assumes that faith garnered its power and meaning in the “I believe” propositions stated in the creeds. It is paramount to state at this juncture that the premodern meanings of the English words “believe” and “believing” and the Latin word credo are very different from what believing has come to mean in our time. By recovering these premodern meanings, we will see that faith is a way to love.
We commonly translate credo as “I believe.” And because most modern people understand “I believe” as “I give my assent to,” many Christians have difficulty with the creeds. Marcus Borg states that “if I were to make a list of the ten questions I am most frequently asked when I talk to Christian groups, on that list would be, “What are we going to do with the creeds?” The reason: they think saying “I believe” means giving up one’s mental assent to the literal truth of each statement in the creed. Assensus and literalism are often combined in the modern world, by believers and unbelievers alike. But credo does not mean, “I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.” Rather, its Latin roots combine to mean “I give my heart to,” “I give my loyalty to,” and “I commit my allegiance to.”
Just as credo involves a level of the self, deeper than the intellect, so do the premodern meanings of the word “believe.” Prior to the seventeenth century, the word “believe” did not mean believing in the truth of statement or propositions, whether problematic or not. Grammatically, the object of believing was not statements, but a person. Most simply, “to believe” meant “to love.” Indeed, the English words “believe” and “belove” are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God.
To relate this to the four meanings of faith, originally the word “believing” covered all of these meanings. But in the modern period, we have suffered an extraordinary reduction in the meaning of “believing.” We have reduced it and turned it into “propositional believing” – believing a particular set of statements or claims to be true. But originally, believing included all of the dimensions of faith that I have included. The premodern meanings of “faith” generate a relational understanding of the Christian life.
I return to the words of Jesus as he spoke about the greatest commandment. Relationally, look at the two commandments: “You shall love the Lord God with all of your heart, life force, mind, and strength.” And the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the passage concludes with “upon these two relationships hang all the law and the prophets.” In the time of Jesus, the law and the prophets, the first two parts of the Hebrew Bible, were all that had been canonized.
Science, Fact and Truth
As I now shift from faith to science, I hope to clearly articulate and demonstrate how science – unlike faith – is the most reliable way of knowing. Let’s begin by attempting to come to an agreement as to a definition of science. A reasonable definition of science is that it is a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. In addition, Michael Shermer says it’s a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” The key word in both of these definitions is “method.” It is precisely this method that overturned the thought that the continents are static, when actually they move at the same rate that our fingernails grow. It is this method that helped Edwin Hubble (1929) show that the universe is expanding when it was previously believed to be static as well. It is also this method that helped Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, when so many before thought that the genetic material was a protein. The examples are never-ending, from advancements in medicine, technology and architecture; science has been the most reliable method to help us get to the best way of knowing the facts.
Since the dawning of Modernity, the idea of truth has been the captivating siren. As if “truth” is floating out there waiting to be found by the smartest and brightest. Oxford English Dictionary defines truth as “conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy and correctness.” Religious people have attached themselves to the idea of, not just truth, but absolute truth. But as history has shown us, the best trait is humility when dealing with fact claims, because the elusive “truth” is usually changing and evolving.
Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional: there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. Absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic, not empirically based science. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” Furthermore, scientific truths are transitory, some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but strength, for our best understanding of phenomena will alter changes in our way of thinking, our tools for looking at nature, and what we find in nature itself. What moves science forward is ignorance. The danger of absolute truth is that is puts an end to further inquiry and questioning. Why? Because for the religious, the “[T]ruth” has been found and, therefore, no need for further progress. Science on the other hand, looks at theories as provisional and keeps the quest for understanding alive and ongoing.
Truth is simply what is, what exists in reality and can be verified by rational and independent observers. It is true that DNA is a double helix, that the continents move, and that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It is not true, at least in the dictionary sense, that somebody had a revelation of God. The scientific claims can be corroborated by anyone with the right tools, while a revelation, though perhaps reflecting someone’s real perception, says nothing about reality, for unless that revelation has empirical content, it cannot be corroborated.
In reality, we can consider many scientific truths to be absolute as truths can be, ones that are very unlikely to change. I would bet my life savings that the DNA in my cells forms a double helix, that a normal water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, that the speed of light in a vacuum is unchanging, and that the closest living relatives of humans are the two species of chimpanzees. After all, you bet your life on science every time you take medicines like antibiotics, insulin, and anticholesterol drugs. If we consider “proof” in the vernacular to mean “evidence so strong that you’d bet your house on it,” then, yes, science is sometimes in the business of proof.
Ways of Knowing
Richard Dawkins in an article in the Humanist, states that there is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed out by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
Allow me to provide several examples of “faith statements” and how science is able to approach them at more reasonable angles.
- “I have faith that because I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I will join my wife in heaven.”
- “I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I’ll receive seventy-two virgins in paradise.”
- “I have faith that the day will break tomorrow.”
- “I have faith that taking this penicillin will cure my urinary tract infection.”
Notice the difference. The first two statements exemplify the religious forms of “faith,” the one Walter Kaufmann defines as “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from a reasonable person.” There is no evidence beyond revelation, authority, and sacred books to support the first two statements. They show confidence that isn’t supported by evidence, and most of the world’s believers would reject them. In contrast, the second two statements rely on empirical evidence – strong evidence. In these cases the word “faith” doesn’t mean “belief without much evidence,” but “confidence based on evidence” or “an assumption based on performance.” You have “faith” that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burned out. You have faith in your doctor because presumably she has treated you successfully in the past and has a good reputation. The conflation of faith as “evidenced belief” with its vernacular use as “confidence based on experience” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. You will almost never hear a scientist speaking in these terms.
This is important because often the religious will say that the scientist has faith, not in God, but in reason. Reason is not an a priori assumption, but a tool that’s been shown to work. The scientist doesn’t have faith in reason, she uses reason, and we use it because it produces results and progressive understanding. Honed by experience to include tools like double-blind studies and multiple, independent reviews of manuscripts submitted for publication, scientific reason has produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to reconstruct the tree of life by sequencing DNA from different species. Reason is simply the way we justify our beliefs, and if you’re not using it, whether you’re justifying religious or scientific beliefs, you deserve no one’s attention.
Tests for Knowing
Contra to what Christians propagate, science is not a faith or a belief system. Rather, science is a process and/or methodology. Part of the methodological process that is relevant when discussing ways of knowing concerns parsimony, doubt and criticality, replication and quality control, and falsifiability (to name just a few). The faith fails on all of these methods.
First, faith fails the test of parsimony. Simply put, parsimony states that scientific theories ought to invoke no more factors than necessary to adequately explain any phenomenon. If we can completely explain smallpox by infection with a virus, why even consider factors like whether the patient ate too much sugar or that it is divine punishment for immorality? With the resurrection, we are in a compromising position of having to inject an ineffable [and unknowable and un-see-able] God with a plan to rid a humanity of its disease of sin brought about by the first two humans ever created in Adam and Eve and if you accept the resurrection your belief can get you a ticket to eternity in a place called heaven where you can eventually meet God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit who, by the way, are three different entities yet really one. All of the extraneous theological baggage is unnecessary, whether it’s faith in Jesus, the ascension of Romulus or the revelation of Joseph Smith.
The second test faith fails are doubt and criticality. Actually, faith doesn’t so much “fail” this test as it really just illusively side-steps it. Both doubt and criticality are crucial in examining theories because in the process of scrutinizing and analyzing, theories can show up as either bogus or have validity. A striking example of the importance of doubt was the finding in 2011 that neutrinos appeared to move faster than the speed of light, discovered by timing their journey over a path from Switzerland to Italy. That observation was remarkable, for it violated everything we know about physics, especially the “law” that nothing can exceed the speed of light. Predictably, the first thing that the physicists (and almost every other scientist) thought when hearing this report was simply, “What went wrong?” And, sure enough, immediate checks found that the neutrinos had behaved properly, and their anomalous speed was due simply to a loose cable and a faulty clock. Although if such an observation were correct it would surely garner a Nobel Prize, one would risk a lifetime of embarrassment to publish it without substantial replication and checking. While we can indeed doubt and apply critical thinking to, for example the resurrection, Christians can easily deceive critical thinking by invoking spiritual language claiming that “his [God’s] ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9)” and “the natural man cannot understand the spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:14).” Such language, in all of its vagueness and ambiguity, has provided Christianity (and Islam and Mormonism) a lasting legacy throughout generations while eluding criticality because it’s claims reside in a spiritual dimension. While we can test to see if neutrinos move faster than the speed of light, we cannot test to see if Jesus’s physical body ascended to heaven.
The third test involves replication and quality control. Results become true when they’re repeated often enough to gain credibility. The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, for which Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received the Nobel Prize the next year, was deemed prize-worthy because it was confirmed by two completely independent teams of researchers, each using rigorous statistical analysis. What is interesting about this is that not only can faith claims not be replicated, but given that data shows over 30,000 different Christianities, how do we know which faith is the right one? In addition, the idea of ‘collectivity’ is paramount when assessing theories. One of the best parts of science’s toolkit is its international character, or rather, its transcendence of nationality, for although there are scientists throughout the world, they all work by the same of rules. The participants of the Higgs boson, for instance, came from 110 countries, with 20 of those nations being official collaborators in the project. Christianity, even with its major doctrinal themes, takes on completely different complexions from country to country.
A final method that faith claims absolutely fail is that of falsifiability. Falsifiability as an essential way of finding truth. What it means is that for a theory or fact to be seen as correct, there must be ways of showing it to be wrong, and those ways must have been tried and have failed. The theory of evolution is in principle falsifiable: there are dozens of ways to show it wrong, but none have done so. In contrast, string theory is an example of something scientific that is untestable. String theory is a branch of physics claiming that all fundamental particles can be represented as different oscillations on one-dimensional “strings, and that the universe may have twenty-six dimensions instead of four.” But, alas, nobody has thought of a way of testing it. In the end, a theory that can’t be shown to be wrong can never be shown to be right. Whether we are talking about the faith claims, the Easter Bunny or string theory, they all fail the test of falsifiability. Thus, we can possess faith, but it isn’t a way of knowing.
As William James argued, it is the subjective and revelatory aspect of religion that gives it the most purchase: “the feeling of certainty that religious claims are true. But when one has a religious experience, what is “true” is only that one has had an experience, not that its contents convey anything about reality.” And this is precisely my concern when it comes to ways of knowing: the epistemic content. The statement, “I’m hungry,” can be seen as extrascientific knowledge. Indeed, any feeling, notion, or revelation can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it’s true that you are feeling that way. What that doesn’t mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others.
This is where both faith and science diverge into different domains. The verification process between the two are completely different ways of knowing. Faith is confidence or trust in something or someone, whereas science is a method – not a feeling. I can say that I “know my wife loves me;” but even that is something I hold as provisionally true based on my years of experiences with her. Thus, even with love, there are tools in place to verify if it’s a reasonable claim. Now, if I went up to a complete stranger on the streets and professed my love to her, people would think I was crazy! Rightly so, the evidence of love is lacking, even if a subjective feeling is there. My point in all of this is that science, by way of the methods it employs, affords us the best way of knowing.
What about faith? Well, just look at theology. “Theology is a subject without an object. Theologians don’t study God – they study what other theologians have said about God.” The claims of a priest, imam, a rabbi, or a theologian about God have no more veracity than anyone else’s. As Dan Coyne says, “despite millennia of theological lucubrations, we know nothing more about the divine than we did a thousand years ago.” At least with science, there is progress. But even with faith, you can never know which faith is right. After all, while some Christians accept the existence of Jesus because they have mental conversations with him, Hindus have mental conversations with Shiva, and Muslims with Allah. All the revelations in the world in all of the world’s scriptures have never told us that a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms arranged in a ring, or that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is this asymmetry with knowledge that, despite religion’s truth claims, makes its adherents embrace the fallacious claim that religion and science occupy separate magisteria.