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Science vs. Religion

Faculty and students talk about faith in the sciences

To an 18-year-old living away from family for the first time, BU can be a vast and confusing universe. Jeremy Weber navigated that cosmos when he arrived on Comm Ave with a compass that has never failed him: Judaism.

“I walked into the Hillel and immediately I connected with 10, 20 people, because we spoke the same way,” says Weber (CAS’16), who will begin studying chemistry in the fall. “We grew up with the same exact customs. We observed the same exact holidays. Judaism is the thing that ties us together.”

A chemistry major and lifelong science addict, Weber is not traditionally religious; he treasures religious culture, not spirituality: “Judaism is about doing,” he says. “It’s not about what you believe.” His chiropractor father exposed him to biology textbooks and museums, and what he learned ruled out for him a literal reading of scripture with its miracle stories.

When BU Today asked Weber’s faculty advisor, College of Arts & Sciences senior lecturer Binyomin Abrams to recommend someone to help interview students and faculty about science and religion, Abrams had just the person. Weber wound up talking to both those of faith who study science and those whose scientific knowledge caused them to part ways with religion.

Weber is intrigued by people who shelve religion and science side by side more comfortably than he does. He says that for Abrams, a Metcalf Award winner, “belief in Judaism enhances his appreciation of the science. Whereas for me, my scientific training teaches me to be more critical of Judaism, of the things that are a little bit fantastic. And I guess it is a fault on my side, because Judaism always needs to prove something to me.”

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

20 Comments on Science vs. Religion

  • Ryan Roth Gallo on 01.30.2017 at 9:51 am

    What a fabulous video! I loved hearing all these intelligent and thoughtful perspectives. Thank you to everyone involved in crafting this gem.

    • Osman on 02.10.2017 at 7:59 am

      This is excellent! Right in time for my research

  • Ari Trachtenberg on 01.30.2017 at 10:31 am

    Science has its own axioms that we take on belief, for example:
    * A singular, non-changing and uniformly applicable truth;
    * Reproducibility and repeatability of experiments in discerning this truth; and,
    * The ability of Occam’s razor to capture this truth through the lens of human subjectivity.

    • anon on 02.07.2017 at 2:46 pm

      Those are very different kind of axioms than “God exists and he wants us to do xyz”

      • Ari Trachtenberg on 02.12.2017 at 5:39 pm

        The difference is qualitative (and subjective). You can neither prove nor disprove either.

        • Jose Artigas on 08.06.2017 at 6:40 pm

          Unfortunately the similarities that Ari highlights are simplistic & misleading. The essence of science is evidence produced through the scientific method. Scientific theories (which are NOT “just guessing”) are grounded in evidence, & question & perhaps overturned on the basis of other evidence. Not so with religious beliefs; they require no evidence at all, just faith, which is not evidence.

          I’m with those who believe that science (or social science in my case) is compatible with religious belief. But claiming that the two are actually the same thing does nothing to reconcile them.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 01.31.2017 at 2:08 pm

    I must take exception to Ari’s phrasing as being so succinct as to be almost opaque.

    Ari is pointing out that modern (last 400+ years) science has developed with a focus on unchanging physical, natural laws governing material existence. Gravity, the laws of motion and thermodynamics, and so forth, are examples of such laws. What many fail to appreciate is that these are not “laws” in the slightest. These are hypotheses that were formulated based on experimentation and observation, then corroborated by what is now centuries of further experimentation. For me, I treat these as if they were “laws,” I treat them as immutable facts of the universe. However, this is a belief. I’m very glad the same observed processes such as the sun rising daily are continuing to reinforce this belief.

    The phrasing “law” really arises from the notion of a Divine law-giver and the thought, more religious than scientific, that there is an intrinsic order to the universe. This is what Ari meant by “axioms we take on belief,” and “laws of nature” are Ari’s “singular, non-changing, and uniformly applicable truth.” Most scientists are well into this belief system without even realizing it. Moreover, this view of material reality was not common before the rise of scientific method.

    As a Roman Catholic, I must note the crucial role that Jewish and Christian thought had in the formation of scientific method. Unlike the capricious gods of polytheism, the God of Abraham was repeatedly identified as never changing throughout time. This is fundamental to any notion of laws governing the material world. This gave rise in the West to systematized empirical experimentation and scientific method pioneered largely by Christians, from Catholic monks to Protestants like Isaac Newton. Even theory was predicated on this for many, for example Einstein’s famous phrase “God does not play dice with the universe.” More recently, Pope John Paul II presented a masterful exposition of the critical mutual dependency between religious belief and science in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (1988).

    The fundamental issue underlying the whole needless debate is materialism. For some reason our belief in empirical method about discovering the truths of the universe is now construed as excluding the existence of any non-material truth. This mindset underlies whole cavalcade of assumptions ascribed to scientific knowledge: the non-existence of the supernatural/immaterial, treatment of such beliefs as irrational, exclusion of divine or supernatural intervention in the physical world, and the assertion that all existence and life arose randomly.

    The whole supposed opposition of science and faith is predicated on the materialist assumption, itself neither provable nor scientific. Those of us religionists who make no such assumption don’t have the least problem with the interplay of science and faith.

    • anon on 02.07.2017 at 3:28 pm

      Materialism (more appropriately called physicalism) is not an arbitrary thing to believe, nor are the assumptions that you say arise from it. There are a litany of centuries old logical problems with dualist philosophies that have seen little or no movement towards resolution.

      In what way is the non-existence of the immaterial an arbitrary assumption? If said substance (the immaterial) is capable of interacting with mundane substances, those interactions can be investigated and described like all other phenomenon – namely, with the goal of defining and quantifying. A substance capable of interacting with the physical world and being described by the same set of rules as the physical world would seem to be simply another part of the physical world, and not some separate magical part.

      If the immaterial is not capable of interacting with mundane substances, however, then in what sense can it be said to exist whatsoever? It is an entity whose existence cannot be described and which cannot interact with the world in any observable way. A universe in which such a substance exists is identical, in every way, to a universe in which the substance does not exist.

      I liked what you wrote up until you mentioned materialism, but your dismissal of physicalism is premature. It seems you dismiss physicalism out of hand because you imagine that is how physicalists deal with dualist philosophies – rather than dealing with the very real problems with dualism and advantages of physicalism as a coherent world view.

      • Andrew Wolfe on 02.07.2017 at 4:06 pm

        You misunderstand. Materialism or physicalism (and I see now that philosophers are divided on whether these are different) is the assumption; it is the a priori from which one begins reasoning in order to make sense of the world. No one is drawing assumptions starting from this belief; they are using it to form conclusions.

        Please note that a rejection of physicalism is not a rejection of immaterial intervention in the physical. That would indeed be dualistic and again, would not be consistent with the worldview I draw from the incarnationalism of Christian metaphysics. Most precisely, actions of any immaterial world are by no means excluded from having influence on the material, but they cannot be induced predictably (which would be essentially magic spells).

  • Gunnar on 02.07.2017 at 8:27 am

    Is there a place for religion “in the lab”? Meaning, “in the life of scientists”? Yes, absolutely. Consider for example that Gregor Mendel, the “father of modern genetics”, and Georges Lemaître, the first scientist to posit the “Big bang Theory” – were both Catholic priests. Science is more than “cold, hard facts”. It can be informed or inspired in some sense by wonder, awe, mystery, beauty, and service to humanity, all things that scientific research doesn’t require of course, but things which give it a human face. These things also go hand in hand with religion. Those who believe in God, in soul, can’t “prove” the existence of those things, but neither can a scientist dissect and analyze a human brain to learn why someone prefers Bach’s music to Lady Gaga’s.

    There will always be “mysteries” in the scientific world; no good scientist dismisses possibilities because they can’t be proved. Time travel hasn’t been achieved for example, but there are scientist who believe it possible, via theories. To believe that something exists, without proof that can be shared and replicated, based on instinct or subjective experience, is integral with religion – and often a prelude to scientific discovery.

  • Tom on 02.08.2017 at 12:23 pm

    I’m a scientist who tries to be spiritual and I don’t think there is conflict between science and religion. I haven’t studied “philosophy of science” because I don’t need anyone to explain to me what I do. Science makes models of the physical world. It’s wrong to say they are no better than other models, because a scientific theory must have predictive power in the real world. As I tell my students, quantum mechanics was just made up – no stone tablets. Nevertheless it describes complex systems that were far beyond anything considered by the founders. It’s not science unless you can do something with it. Evolution and biochem allow you to make a new drug. “Creation science” does not.

    It seems to me that modeling the physical world – learning the rules of the game we are born into – says absolutely nothing about why the game is here in the first place, which is the realm or religion and spirituality. Of course a naive version of religion, like saying lightning is a superbeing firing his weapon, might conflict with science, but there is no ocnflict in the larger picture.

  • Theresa on 02.10.2017 at 3:48 pm

    This is a highly thought-provoking video of brave and intelligent professors who are openly faithful while still being highly analytical and leading in the fields they do. Professor Abrams is involved in all things chemistry while Dr. Zamansky does many things in the field of humanitarian service/healthcare for countries unable to afford perhaps even basic needs on a general basis.
    Personally, I am also very spiritual and an aspiring scientist. I can say that I have never for once felt detached from belief in God, a divine Creator, when I examine what I study (biology especially). Of course my beliefs as a firm pantheist- I see God in all religions and as transcendent of religion, and that serving humanity is what pleases God. For example, if we examine the forces of evolution working throughout the course of eons and how more complex organisms begin to form- the diversity of life forms we get…even if they are not perfect at all…God doesn’t need to work through intelligent design. The world is NOT meant to be perfect but for development both physically and spiritually…and we are constantly on a road of improvement. Also I strongly believe that it is only a divine form who can enable us to live…all we are, materially speaking, are just seven simple elements from the periodic table. That is the whole world. And yet we breathe, our cells differentiate and seem to be able to effect all the bodily processes that keep us alive, our brain through a systematic transmission of electrical and chemical signals across many tree-like neurons (the myelin sheath that eases the transmission, the microglia that protects our brain from infection…) these are such great miracles in themselves. The fact that we can think, be conscious, beyond our own survival and benefit, to truly love, to truly feel alive! These are miracles.
    While I may not think much about specific stories like the parting of the Red Sea or the Transformations of Krishna, or the seven year fast of Buddha… I believe that faith sustains a person through times of trial and sometimes things DO contradict the laws of nature. One cannot be sure that a person with a stage 4 metastatic tumor MUST necessarily die as science “dictates” or “predicts.” Sometimes by a miracle truly of faith, that life can continue…One cannot be sure that by the laws of politics certain peoples will fall and others will rise. By a miracle it can all be changed!!

    • Theresa on 02.10.2017 at 3:50 pm

      Clarification: “I may not think much,” I mean in the context of contemplation. I do not mean that I do not value these stories.

  • Anton on 02.12.2017 at 12:05 pm

    Knowledge vs. ignorance, facts vs. fairy tales…. How difficult it could be?

    • Eri on 02.13.2017 at 2:10 am

      You have a very simple worldview, don’t you?

  • Benjamin Samuels on 02.13.2017 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful profile of an undergraduate student and his science professors pursuing truth and meaning through ways of relating science and religion and religion and science. Jeremy W., and other members of the BU community, may be interested to know that there is a whole track within the Religion Department at BU dedicated to Religion and Science: http://www.bu.edu/gdrs/academics/religionscience/

    The journey of faith and truth, believing and knowing, religion and science may be an individual exploration, but it certainly need not be lonely as many others continue to walk this same path, albeit in different ways. Furthermore, science offers great insight into religion, and religion can provide a matrix of meaning and cultural context to the understanding of science. The guild discipline of Religion and Science studies all of these avenues and more. Thank you again for a stimulating video presentation.

  • Matt Gill on 05.04.2017 at 12:21 pm

    Very interesting video. Nice work!

  • Abioye Abiodun on 07.21.2017 at 8:22 am

    The video is quite interesting and the comments very enlightening.

  • Valentin Voroshilov on 01.16.2018 at 8:54 pm

    Science v. Religion is an old discussion.
    Many years, many opinions.
    In fact, some time ago I wrote a post on the matter:
    What is the difference between a science and a religion? Really.
    It is too long for a short comment, but available at:
    Quote: “When I have a “science v. religion” discussion, the conversation does usually boil down to “science is based on a proof, but religion is based on a belief” statement. In that case I like offering the following logical chain: if “science = proof”, and “proof is something other people can accept of deny”, and “other people accept or deny the proof based on their beliefs”, hence, “proof = beliefs”, hence “science = beliefs”, hence “science = religion”.”

  • Valentin Voroshilov on 04.05.2019 at 12:57 pm

    The difference is how people answer a question “why is this happening?” when no one really knows – why.
    A religious person says “It’s God’s will”.
    A scientist says “I don’t know”
    A large post on the matter is available here: https://www.cognisity.how/2018/05/AntiAtheism.html

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