Bringing Science into the Churches

The Kansas Board of Education has rewritten the science standards so that they may include the supernatural. That’s OK with me, as long as they play fair: Scientists must now be allowed to investigate the supernatural, including the truth claims of religion, and their judgements must be taken seriously. Science is, after all, our most successful enterprise (especially if we count medicine and sanitation), and we should be allowed to apply the principles of science to religion or anything else that makes objective claims. I say, Bring science into the churches!

The theologian Ian Barbour argues that science and religion have more in common than many people think. Both formulate hypotheses, both test their hypotheses, and both include an element of faith. Science, however, tests its hypotheses more rigorously, while relying less on faith.

I think Professor Barbour is exaggerating, but it is certainly true that religion formulates and tests hypotheses, whether or not its adherents recognize them as hypotheses. Even a religion that stresses faith above all else seeks evidence to confirm its hypotheses. That is why you hear so many testimonials to the fact that someone “got religion” and turned his or her life around or was cured of an “incurable” disease. These testimonials are a form of hypothesis testing. Unfortunately, they are usually unreproducible stories, and attempts to demonstrate conclusively that prayer can affect the outcome of a disease have been equivocal, at best.

Scientists, on the other hand, often display faith in their theories. Quantum mechanics is one of the most successful theories ever developed. Many physicists interpret quantum mechanics as predicting that nature is wholly random at the subatomic level. Though he did not deny the validity of quantum mechanics, Einstein never accepted that interpretation, in part because of his faith that the universe could be understood rationally. Wolfgang Pauli, likewise, had faith in the law of conservation of energy and discovered a new particle. Good scientists, however, do not carry faith too far and, like Boris Deryagin, the discoverer of polywater, sometimes have to admit error or abandon a cherished theory.

Some theories are so firmly established that we may safely say they are correct, at least within certain limits, just as Newton’s theory is correct for moderate gravitational fields. Descent with modification is so well established that we may consider it a fact. The modern theory of evolution, which explains the observed facts better than any other theory, is one of the most well-established theories in science—on a par with Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The Kansas State Board wants to redefine science to include the supernatural? OK. Let them subject their religious beliefs to the kind of scrutiny to which scientists subject their hypotheses. If their beliefs are sound, they will hold up, and there will be near consensus, as there is in mature sciences. If their beliefs are not sound, or at least not demonstrably sound, then there will be no such consensus.

Fair is fair. The Board wants to introduce the supernatural into science? Fine. But then let’s also introduce the scientific method into theology. How else can we teach the controversy and let children make up their own minds?

Acknowledgement. Thanks to Vic Stenger, President of Colorado Citizens for Science, for suggesting the topic in an e-mail to CCFS.

References. Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 1997.

Matt Young, No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, 1stBooks Library, Bloomington, Indiana, 2001; .