Science and Religion

When I was a teenager, it was popular for Christians to put a fish symbol on their cars as a marker of their faith. Sometimes, the fish contained the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ (“fish,” also an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”). In response, someone created a similar car magnet showing a fish with legs, and the word “Darwin” in the center, to symbolize atheism. Shortly thereafter, two more variations appeared: one with the ΙΧΘΥΣ fish eating a Darwin fish, and another with the reverse — a Darwin fish eating an ΙΧΘΥΣ fish. The implication behind each of these magnets was that science (here, specifically the science of evolution) and religion (specifically, Christianity) are incompatible. 

Science and religion ask similar questions in different ways, and sometimes with different purposes, so it makes sense that we would perceive tension between them. Science, like religion, arose from a desire to understand why things happen in the world. Both also explore how we should react to the phenomena we see around us. When a hurricane hits, is that a reminder to curb our greenhouse-gas emissions and work to mitigate climate change, or is it a divine call to repentance? Perhaps those two are not as disparate as we might first think. Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke about climate change to an international gathering of faith leaders.

Jesus teaches us that there are no greater commandments than to love God and love our neighbor. To abide by those commandments as a Christian today is to step up to the challenge of climate change and connected environmental crises.

The Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

He argued that a partnership between science and faith is essential to tackle environmental issues. Religion provides hope for the future and a motivation to do better; science presents us with problems and solutions. 

The two are not immune to cross-pollination, either. Scientific and religious perspectives on gender, for example, have closely interacted over the ages. Around the time of Jesus, Jewish thinkers recognized six different genders, related to one’s physical anatomy and ability to reproduce. To use scientific language, we might say they were classifying gender. Early Christian thinkers, influenced by Greek philosophy, relied more on binary ideas of male and female. So when Western scientists began studying biology, they expected to find the same binary replicated in the animal world. And now, opponents of queer inclusion (many of them religious) argue that trans identity isn’t real, or homosexuality is “unnatural,” because those aren’t found in animals. 

In fact, it was the heteronormative and cis-normative assumptions of scientists that led us to this conclusion in the first place. About a quarter of tropical fish are hermaphroditic, producing eggs and sperm either both at once or at various different parts of their lives. Female hyenas have penises. Sunfish appear to have three versions of male gender, with differences in size, coloring, and behavior for each. Same-sex sexual behavior is observed in many species of primates. These are only a few examples of gender and sexual diversity in the animal world, but such examples have often been downplayed by scientists writing off the behavior as “abnormal.” 

Is the cross-pollination of science and religion necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so, as long as we’re aware of it. We humans have a mind, and a body, and a spirit. For a full understanding of our world, we need to engage every part of ourselves. The body observes or experiences; the mind interprets; and the spirit relates. 

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