Religion and Science: A Long Tricky History

Sign showing science and religion going in opposite directions main

Religion and science have played a significant role together throughout history. Religious belief and practice were not separate from scientific knowledge. The attempt to place faith and science in separate spheres was never complete. Religion has helped the promotion of science. Religion and science have also led to conflict. The study of history requires a sensitive examination of how religion has interacted with science and society.

Education is fundamental to the development of citizenship. It is not surprising that there have been many disputes over curriculum issues. Critical race theory is only one of the more obviously divisive in recent years. Religion has also led to many problems. 

What Is Religion Anyway? 

The sensitive nature of religion, including the mixture of church and state, is shown by the multiple provisions in the Constitution involving religious liberty. Many people came to the United States to freely exercise their religion. We do not want a theocracy

Religion” is often understood to be beliefs in the supernatural and worship practices arising from them. For instance, in Ancient Rome, people believed many different things. They had a civic duty to practice certain rituals. Some religions do not necessarily believe in a god.

Some people use “religion” in an open-ended way to explain views on life and our place in the universe. Albert Einstein (the great 20th-century scientist) said “God does not play dice with the universe.” However, he did not believe in a personal god. He was speaking symbolically.  

“Religion” can be a controversial word. Critics labeled Thomas Jefferson an “atheist,” even though he believed in God. Many people think “religion” only means a religion like their own. Other people use the term as a negative label for beliefs they believe are dangerous. 

Religion vs. Science 

Science is a system of knowledge involving the study of nature. It follows the scientific method based on observation and experimentation to prove a theory is correct. 

People often argue that religion and science are in separate spheres. Religion concerns belief. Science concerns facts. Religion is no more part of science than astrology is part of astronomy.

History Is More Messy 

History is more messy. Ancient philosophers debated the place of the gods in natural events. Christians argued that God was the “first mover” and was involved in natural events. 

Religious organizations were also continuously supportive of scientific exploits. The Church supported educational institutions during the Middle Ages. Science was a fundamental part of the curriculum. Islamic institutions were also centers of learning. 

The Scientific Revolution also did not erase the role of religion in people’s lives. Top scientists, including Isaac Newton, were often quite religious. 

Religion and Science Clash 

Modern times have increased the concern about protecting religious liberty. Humanism argues we should focus on human thoughts and needs. Religion has a more private role. 

Religion and science clashed over the centuries. Religious institutions often had a significant role in government. Galileo, the “father of modern science,” got in trouble with the Catholic Church when his scientific theories clashed with religious doctrine. 

The battle continued into the 20th Century. John Scopes was a high school science teacher. He was arrested in the 1920s for teaching human evolution. Many people, including three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Byran, felt evolution threatened morality by teaching an amoral understanding of human’s place in the universe. Some people still do.  

History Includes A Discussion Of Religion  

The United States Supreme Court decided in the 1960s that public schools could not have teacher-led prayers or Bible reading. This decision was and remains controversial.  

The justices underlined, however, that religion did have a place in education. Private institutions, including religious schools, teach religious faith. Public schools could teach religion in a secular way as part of our history. Students can privately pray and have religious meetings.

The study of history includes studying the religious beliefs and practices of human civilization. The Bible involves many historical events. Religion was fundamental to the settlement in America (Puritans and Pilgrims), 19th-century reform movements, and the Civil Rights Movement. Religious developments and disputes played a significant role in world history overall.

Religious practice should not have a role in science class, except perhaps for a silent prayer before an exam. Nonetheless, religion played a role in the development of science. 

History Includes A Careful Discussion Of Religion  

Teachers and educators should be carefully concerned about the diverse religious beliefs of their students. Religion, like race, is a sensitive subject. Special care should be applied when teaching about religion. A happy medium is possible.  

Students and teachers will have multiple concerns. The diversity of religious beliefs will lead to conflict. Sometimes, the conflict will result in hard feelings, public criticism, and lawsuits.

The solution is not to ignore the problem. We can not simply try to isolate religion and science. History shows this is an impossible task. It also is not a good policy overall.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.