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Reason and Faith

Updated on March 18, 2013

Can this dichotomy be resolved?

In the face of incontrovertible evidence that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors over the course of millions of years, the belief in a Higher Power has not waned one iota. At the time of this writing, a new Pontiff was chosen to lead the Catholic world in ecclesiastical matters. That is just one example of how the West, with its storied scientific tradition, has maintained an uneasy coexistence between reason and faith up through the present day.

Why should anyone believe in a God when all the facts point in the opposite direction? Science furnishes us with proven explanations as to why things are the way they are. Radioisotope dating and analyses of rock strata have estimated the age of the earth to be approximately four billion years. Within the expanse of geological time, human life has existed for a mere blip. Yet the Book of Genesis, with its much shorter time frames, remains high on the reading lists, as can be ascertained by church attendance and the popularity of Christian religious programming on television.

The automobile, a marvel of engineering, is seen roaming our highways and byways bedecked with bumper stickers that proudly proclaim the owner's religious beliefs. The name "Jesus" may be inscribed within a fish symbol upon this feat of technological know-how, another instance of applied science and faith paradoxically intertwined.

Moreover, seeing science and religion exist side-by-side appears to be the norm, not the exception. How many students have prayed during a challenging physics or chemistry examination?

What we call science is a product of the limited sensory perception of the animal known as Man. Visible light constitutes only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. There are so many other forms of radiation that our senses do not pick up, coloring our conclusions with the palette from that narrow band. If there is so much that is imperceptible or unknowable, that void can be filled with faith or belief, the basis of religion.

Man is unique in that he has endeavored to explain natural phenomena in what he believes is a systematic way. In reality, it is biased by the perceptions of the ape-like creature who devised the systematization process. This, in turn, has led to the germination of a huge body of knowledge that provides the subject matter of countless abstracts, articles in journals and encyclopedias, and exhibits in museums. The trip to the science museum will give us little or no understanding of our place in the universe. The spectacular images that have come to us through the Hubble Space Telescope offer us only this anthropically biased view.

Multicellular organisms that we are, we are driven by the same instincts as life-forms in other taxonomic phyla whose purposes for existence appear quite obvious: namely, the drives to survive and reproduce. In fact, all human activity can be reduced to this. The organism known as Homo sapiens will instinctually follow its innate drive to survive by obtaining matter suitable for consumption. It will follow its drive to reproduce by searching for a mate. When we observe other species we realize how little they differ from our own. The music departments of retail stores are rife with examples of what are essentially human mating calls!

When an organism follows its instinctual drives, it is fulfilling its purpose for existence. The promulgation of science as a means of explaining our existence and our role in the universe implies that there is a break between the corpus of knowledge called science and other human fields of study. Against the backdrop of geological time, it makes little sense to divide human endeavor into this or that sphere.

The principal branches of science that have come into general convention -- astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, geology -- are limited, once again, by the perceptual capability of the creature who devised them. Modern science is part of the same continuum as medieval alchemy and Chaldean astrology and ought to be taken about as seriously. Why? Because a thousand years hence many of the tenets we hold will be superseded. Science was once called natural philosophy and its practitioners did not attempt to create artificial barriers between it and other branches of knowledge.

If it was devised by an ape-like creature, the purpose of science is not to explain natural phenomena but rather to assist the creature in its drives to survive and perpetuate its kind. A plethora of facts have been gleaned from the study of science but scientists themselves are not free from the survival instinct and the desire to reproduce. They have not transcended these innate human drives. So, to say that a scientist is somehow more highly evolved than other men and women just because he or she is a scientist is quite false. For the impetus behind the scientist's drive to understand natural phenomena is a manifestation of his or her survival instinct.

Faith persists in the midst of this flurry of scientific activity because it assists in survival. In fact, religious belief may be an adaptive trait unique to Homo sapiens, along with the opposable thumb and large brain, that has contributed to its remarkable success as a species.


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