Science and religion do not contradict

One can be scientific and believe in God, writes Prof. William Reville

I am both a scientist and a Catholic, a combination that many people find surprising. A well-known Irish academic colleague of mine once publicly explained my ‘odd’ condition as a failure to overcome childhood religious conditioning – I don’t think it ever occurred to him that he himself had failed to overcome his adult agnostic conditioning in the academic community.

Many people think it contradictory for a person to believe both in science and in God. The most prominent advocate of this position currently is Professor Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist and proselytising atheist, who holds that, after the theory of evolution, it is no longer tenable for any educated person, let alone a scientist, to believe in God. I believe that Dawkins is entirely wrong.

Rational argument

Prior to the theory of evolution, a Protestant clergyman called William Paley (1743 – 1805) developed a rational argument to demonstrate the existence of God, called the argument from design. Basically Paley called attention to the innumerable intricate parts of the living world that are clearly designed to perform certain functions, e.g. the eye is designed for seeing. Design implies a designer and Paley argued that the designer of such marvellous devices must be the all-powerful Christian God.

Paley’s argument was very good, given the extent of biological knowledge at the time, but it was knocked down by the theory of evolution through natural selection introduced by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858. This theory convincingly shows how the designs seen in the living world are unconsciously constructed by the mechanism of natural selection. The living world unconsciously builds itself.


But because Paley’s argument no longer holds water doesn’t mean that no other rational arguments exist that point in the direction of God – they do. Many scientists are impressed by the striking fitness of the basic fabric of the universe for life. For example, if the values of many of the basic physical constants of nature differed ever so slightly from the dimensions they have (and it seems they could have fallen out differently when the world began), life would either never have got started on Earth or else would never have evolved into anything interesting.

This scientific observation opens the possibility, going beyond science, that the world is designed at a very deep level to allow life to start up and to evolve. It is important of course to acknowledge that this argument doesn’t prove that the world is consciously designed and doesn’t prove the existence of God. Far from it – the argument is little more than a straw in the wind – but the wind is rational and it blows towards the possibility of deliberate design.

Science and religion cannot contradict each other when each sticks to its proper role. The role of science is to provide natural (materialistic) explanations for the natural (material) world. Science has nothing to say about values, morals, ethics, aesthetics, the purpose of life or the supernatural. The American National Academy of Sciences has stated: “Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose to human existence are not questions for science.” On the other hand, religion has no competence to explain the mechanisms that underpin the natural world. The function of religion is to explain why humans exist, to explain our purpose in life and how to live a good life. 

Science and religion can only contradict each other when either strays beyond its proper boundary.  If such a dispute ever arises, then the party that finds itself beyond its boundary fence should retreat and declare its incompetence to adjudicate on the matter in question. For example, if religion explains a part of the natural world in contradiction to the well-established scientific explanation, then the scientific explanation should prevail.

The Bible

This was understood a long time ago by the eminent Doctor of the Church, St Augustine (354 – 430).  Augustine said that the Bible is not a textbook of any of the natural sciences. He wrote in his commentary on the Book of Genesis: “If it happens that the authority of sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning, this must mean that the person who interprets scripture does not understand it correctly”.

Many people assume that because science is materialistic in its method, it is also materialistic in its philosophy. This assumption is wrong. Science does not deny the supernatural, it simply has nothing to say about it. Religious people need not be worried that science is materialistic in its method. This limits the scope of science to the material and precludes science from making assertions beyond the material world. 

There is no contradiction in being a scientist and believing in God (about 40% of scientists believe in God). I will again quote the US National Academy of Sciences: “Many people, including many scientists, hold strong religious beliefs and simultaneously accept the occurrence of evolution”. Of course Richard Dawkins would probably be more impressed if I quoted his idol, the great Charles Darwin, who said in a letter to John Fordyce in 1879: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.”

Science is very powerful and has provided technologies that greatly affect our lives, e.g. skyscrapers, rockets to carry us beyond the Earth, telephones, internet, computers, vaccines and drugs to conquer disease, etc. Half the economic growth in America since the Second World War can be attributed to scientific knowledge. But science purchases its great power by severely limiting its area of operation to the processes that account for the natural world. Matters of value and meaning are beyond the scope of science. Its materialism marks its limits and, even though very successful in its own domain, a purely scientific view of the world is completely inadequate, missing many matters of equal or greater importance than scientific understanding of the natural world.

Valid knowledge

Some scientists claim that the only really valid knowledge we have comes from science and that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws and no absolute guiding principle for human society. They deny that there can be valid knowledge about values, meaning and purpose in the world.  Richard Dawkins said in his book River out of Eden: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind piteous indifference.”

But there is a huge contradiction here. While the materialistic method of science does not allow it to derive values, meaning or purpose from scientific knowledge, this does not license scientists to deny that values, meaning or purpose exist. A scientist may well hold this opinion personally but he/she has no right to claim that it is a scientific opinion. Historically science began by asserting that it could only answer certain types of questions. We must take care that we don’t allow some scientists to bully us into believing that these are the only types of questions worth asking.

A very good article on the contrasting natures of science and religion was posted by molecular geneticist Francisco J. Ayala on The Guardian science blog May 28, 2010.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.