Science or Faith: You Don’t Have to Choose

“It won’t matter. You won’t be able to make a difference.” This was said to me by one of my colleagues when I was a faculty member at Louisiana State University in spring of 2011. We had just discussed my efforts to stop proposed legislation (HB 580) at the Louisiana State Legislature that would have drastically changed the textbook adoption process for K-12 textbooks; namely, it would have replaced the state board’s power to “prescribe and adopt” textbooks and instructional materials with the power merely to “recommend” and it would have allowed local school boards to adopt and purchase textbooks and other materials that were not on the state list with no spending limits. This legislation was proposed because of a failed attempt in fall of 2010 to stop the adoption of biology textbooks. Nevertheless, I was determined to move forward with my efforts. I was the only person to testify against the proposed legislation in the House and Senate Education Committees. The bill sailed through both committees and the full House, but was stalled in the full Senate and died with the official adjournment of the Louisiana legislature on June 23, 2011. Go here if you want to know more about these efforts and read an article I wrote about them here. If I had listened to my LSU colleague or paid attention to comments in the newspaper, I would have just given up. Yet, I believed that it was too important for me to just give up.

This anecdote leads to the logical question: “what does this have to do with science and religion?” The main reason we started this blog is to address issues related to science and religion. As that is the case, then what does a textbook adoption bill have to do with these topics? The textbook adoption bill is related to science and religion because of the groups and people who supported this effort. The primary group I worked against in Louisiana was the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), whose mission is to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family.” They are the state affiliate of the organization Focus on the Family. They were also the primary supporters, along with the Discovery Institute, of the Louisiana Science Education Act (go here for an overview of the Louisiana Science Education Act). The first thing to understand is that I do not have a problem with LFF’s mission. They are entitled to their beliefs as much as I am. They are entitled to promote their beliefs just like I am. My problem is with how they try to achieve that mission. Their goal is to redefine science to include supernatural explanations. It appears they strive to purposefully mislead the public about science.

An example of how supporters of the LFF tried to redefine science comes from a document entitled “Louisiana Science Framework” that includes phrases from the real Louisiana content standards. There are several errors in this document, but one in particular is very troubling and clearly illustrates the desire to redefine science. This comes directly from the article I wrote and referenced above:

For example, one quote on the handout said that “science should be ‘presented as a … continuing process for extending understanding of the ultimate, unalterable truth’.” I found this quote troubling, considering that I knew this is not the purpose of science. This quote leaves out some key words from the real Louisiana document, one of which changes the entire meaning. The actual passage (with the omitted words emphasized) is “science is presented as a human enterprise and a continuing process for extending understanding, instead of the ultimate, unalterable truth.” (Binns, 2011, p. 10)

I hope the difference is clear. The phrase included in the “Louisiana Science Framework” leaves out the word “instead.” This completely changes the meaning of the sentence, and thus the meaning of science. Unfortunately this phrasing was included in the Ouachita Parish Science Curriculum Policy adopted in 2006.


I want to shift focus for a moment and define a few terms: science and faith. The National Academy of Sciences [NAS] (2008) defines science as “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process” (p. 10). The Understanding Science website defines science as “our knowledge of the natural world and the process through which that knowledge is built.” They also have developed a science checklist:

  • Focuses on the natural world
  • Aims to explain the natural world
  • Uses testable ideas
  • Relies on evidence
  • Involves the scientific community
  • Leads to ongoing research
  • Benefits from scientific behavior

Note the amount of overlap between how NAS defines science and the definition/checklist from Understanding Science: natural, testable, evidence, and process.

According to Merriam-Webster, faith can be defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” The Free Dictionary defines faith as “strong or unshakeable belief in something, especially without proof or evidence.” I also like how the rector of my church, Father Kevin Brown, defined faith in a class we taught together last fall (more on this in a later post). He argued that “faith is a lens for seeing the world, for understanding human existence and faith presumes ways of knowing beyond reason and observation.”

Now that we have defined science and faith, it’s important to discuss what types of questions they can or cannot answer. Science does not make moral judgments, does not make aesthetic judgments, and does not tell you how to use scientific knowledge. Faith can answer questions on meaning or value, (e.g. why are we here, is there meaning to life, or how should I live my life). Science and faith are both important human endeavors, but they address different issues using distinct methods of inquiry. It’s inappropriate for people to use science to argue for or against a particular faith or set of religious beliefs. It’s also inappropriate for people to use God as an explanation when science does not have the answer (the “God-of-the-gaps” approach).


The main reason that I wanted to start this blog is because I was tired of reading that science and religion are in conflict. I’m tired of hearing statements like “if you are a religious person, you can’t accept science” or “if you are a person of science, you can’t accept religion.” While I acknowledge that it is a minority of people who present these arguments, these arguments are often the loudest. This is how society works; the extremes are those who are heard while the rest of us go about our daily lives. My concern is what message does this send to our children. If they are led to believe that they have to make a choice between their religion and science, do they choose religion and turn their back on the overwhelming benefits to society that science has made possible or do they turn their backs on religion and possibly lose their family? I believe that this is a decision that does not have to be made and I think it’s time for those of us in the middle to make our voices heard.

ICB (4/9/15)

References

National Academy of Sciences. (2008). Science, evolution, and creationism. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (Available here as a free download)

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