On science and religion

In his book, Rock of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould has this to say about science and religion:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain those facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.

I have been accused recently of being a religious bigot with an aim to furtively introduce religious dogma behind a scientific facade. In addition to making ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims (“…[I] criticized NARTH in order to make way for his own version of reparative therapy by another name”), Peterson says I put religious beliefs before science in thinking about matters of sexuality. I have addressed these matters before but I want to do so again in a more general manner.

Briefly and generally, about science and religion, I suggest that science concerns itself with “what is;” while religion is more concerned with “what ought to be.” Science is descriptive, religion prescriptive. As Gould notes above, values cannot be reliably inferred from the factual discoveries of science. Einstein said similarly: “For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.”

For those who believe science directs moral choosing, I would be interested in hearing how individuals should gain their moral compass from a fact or finding of research.

44 thoughts on “On science and religion”

  1. Barbara,

    “Why can’t we all agree and save our planet’s future?”

    Because the ego takes us over and causes the disconnect between the inner Child and the outer Adult. It is so interesting that you have brought this up at this time. I read a book recently on exactly this topic and it was very revealing. The problem, as I see it, is that our Western Culture has been focused on competition as the route force in nature ever since Darwin and the Industrial Revolution. When we acknowledge that it is not competition, but cooperation that needs to drive us our need for dominance is no longer as important.

    I do not see any difference in Religion or Science. They are both looking for truth, but in different ways. When both come to the realization that they are looking for the same things perhaps we will see some progress in the areas you have concerns about. I believe there is an ultimate truth it is just not that clear to us in our journey through life, that is where faith comes in, whether it is in ones religious tradition or the scientific process in its purest sense.

  2. The Wisdom of Truth

    There is no doubt in my mind that intelligence in microorganisms (The God of Higher Being) creating an environment that could sustain life for all its creations of Living beings that live now and the ones that lived in history.

    The interpretation of its meaning that began with spiritual beliefs in all religions is the children’s story version in a general overview of how life was created for our species to understand it. It is also the voice of wisdom from experience that gives instructions on encouraging healthy Human behavior that serve to protect us from ourselves and all others that we share this planet. Our emotions and our self awareness of them are still in its infancy stage of learning that self discipline and cooperation with our environment is important for our survival.

    This is centered in the subconscious mind

    Our emotional being

    “The Child”

    Science in all fields of research is the adult’s story version in the complexity of details of how life was created. The information is enormous in data for human comprehension.

    This is centered in the conscious mind

    Our Self Awareness

    “The Adult”

    Religions since early human civilization have warned us that by not living by the behavior guidelines that we are taught to us as sin, immoral acts from our spiritual faith will have severe consequences.

    These work as a destructive mechanism to the health of the planet.

    Science is also telling the same story that what we are doing in destructive behavior on a global scale to the planet will also produce severe consequences.

    Our spiritual belief that tells us the rules for moral human behavior and scientific facts tells us why they should have been obeyed.

    Religion and Science is the Truth of Creation of Life

    Why can’t we all agree and save our planet’s future?

  3. @Frank Elliott: I will ask you what I asked Peterson Toscano and his commenters – Is there a way in your view to determine via science what kind of sexual behavior any given person ought to engage in or refrain from engaging in?

  4. Religion has its own “anthropology,” a model of human behavior. Calling this model “normative” doesn’t excuse the model from fault if the model makes faulty predictions or if adherence to the model causes harm. Science can demonstrate that the assumptions such a model are demonstrably false; scienc can also reliably predict outcomes. Religion isn’t equipped to run societies alone.

  5. jayhuck ~ May 3, 2008 at 2:30 pm


    Go homosexual

    Dat’s right.

    You see, the sin nature with which we are all created, thanks to Adam and Eve, offers up all kinds of ungodly options; and homosexuality, according to God, is one of them. So, when that ungodly notion pops up, you gotta choice whether to go homosexual, or to go to the Word of God and avoid all the trouble homosexuality brings.

    Jesus showed us how to avoid such temptations from the sin nature.

  6. Evan,

    People who simply won’t or can’t agree with science will ALWAYS go their own way – just look at supporters of Creationism and Intelligent Design – that doesn’t mean that mainstream science should somehow give these individuals its blessing – LOL

  7. Evan,

    Science should always listen, but that doesn’t mean it can or should respond in the way people wish it would.

  8. Eddy,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Just to be very clear about my message – maybe my words were a bit too grand for the simple ideas behind them (yeah, my English is kind of stiff). All I am saying in that closing remark is that science works best when left alone by ideological or cultural wars. However, my concern goes to individual people and the hardship they go through every day of their life. I say these people must be listened to as individuals, not as supporters of ideologies. If a need appears among people and science can work towards empowering people more in the choices they make (sometimes against all odds), I say science should listen to the needs people express. After all, science should work for people, not for ideologies. It’s not about winning a war or deciding who’s right or wrong, it’s about ending this divisive approach. I hope I’m not being too naive!

    It would be a real disappointment to hear scientists setting out to prove some religious beliefs ‘wrong’ or some sexuality camp ‘right’ — or vice versa. I’d say it’s irrelevant to the point in question. We need to move on. If you won’t, people will find ways to do it without all the emperors, kings and captains of the day in the high chairs of science or opinion.

  9. Eddy,

    I’m just not sure it is completely outside its competence Eddy – it DOES impact how we view the world and our values – like it or not – so I guess I’m struggling between what Evan believes should be the case and the reality of the situation.

  10. jayhuck ~ Apr 30, 2008 at 5:59 pm


    Well first of all, there isn’t a choice – When people say they wouldn’t have chosen such and such its usually in response to conservative Christians telling them that they CHOSE to be gay. No self-respecting Ex-gay, Ex-Ex Gay or Gay person I know of would ever say that anyone chooses to be gay.


    Yet, they do. It’s a crazy world.

    jayhuck ~ Apr 30, 2008 at 5:59 pm


    What they are trying to say is that they did not choose TO BE GAY!


    They would have to say that in order to feel justified in having chosen to go homosexual.

  11. And Evan is simply saying that science is outside of its area if competence when it assumes that role. You concede they may have impacts for ‘right or wrong’ which suggests that you concur with Evan’s original statement. I’m trying to understand what distinction you were trying to make between your view and his; from this corner of blogville, I don’t see the difference.

    Here’s the sentence you appeared to be troubled by in post 99024:

    It’s outside its competence to attempt at creating values or to purposely work to supply one side with arguments in a value-charged debate.

    It sounds like you’re saying you disagree, at least in part, but I’m unclear as to what you disagree with. Were your comments an attempt to build on Evan’s or were you trying to point out something you disagree with? if so, what?

  12. jayhuck ~ Apr 30, 2008 at 4:50 pm


    Religion, and then only some factions of some religions even suggest that people should. Other factions embrace homosexuality – but the idea that homosexuality SHOULD be changed is arguably first and foremost, a religious one – NOT scientific.


    However, with no other way to judge but by oneself and his own, fluctuating, moral notions, he cannot tell whether he should change, or not, and, so, because it “feels” natural, he decides it IS natural. That’s why they reject God, Jesus and Their Word, unless they can twist the Word to mean what they want It to say.

  13. Dave G. ~ Apr 30, 2008 at 7:36 pm


    … “sin” refers to human behavior that is detrimental to human development and well-being…


    Actually, “sin” is “separation from God.”

    Those who are not born again at stuck with the guilt original sin of Adam and Eve, no matter how many ungodly deed they do now. The unborn again person who does nothing ungodly is going to the same place the one who commits 25 bazillion ungodly deeds.

    There are sins unto death and sins not unto death.

    Those who are not born again commit sin unto death.

    Those who are born again, not unto death.

  14. Ann,

    What I’m trying to tell you is not to confuse people who use the who-would-choose-to-be-gay argument with people who have unwanted SSAs – they aren’t necessarily the same.

  15. Eddy,

    I agree with Evan to a degree – but I do think that science does play a role in shaping our collective – not personal – values – right or wrong.

  16. Ann,

    But its NOT just about what the client thinks Ann – it never is. We’ve had this discussion before, but just because a client WANTS something doesn’t mean that a therapist can or even should offer that thing to them.

    I think we agree on more areas than we disagree – we’ve had this discussion ad nauseam so I thought we understood each other.

    Should clients be able to pursue a life that is in accordance with their values? YES – absolutely. They already can though Ann. Eddy and Mary are good examples of this, as are the many people who belong to Exodus or even those who’ve chosen other paths. No one today is being prevented from seeking counseling that aligns with their beliefs.

    When it comes to governing bodies though, like the APA – they have no responsibility to bless such therapies – and in fact, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest such therapies cause harm, which is why I’m sure the APA does not currently do this. The APA is also a secular body – Ex-Gay issue are primarily religious – Just as mainstream science does not endorse Creationism or Intelligent design (conservative religious attempts to discredit Evolution), even though there are scientists out there practicing them, neither does it endorse Reparative Therapy or its other incarnations, just because there are some therapists that practice these.

    When it comes down to it you are right, it is not up to what you or I or anyone else thinks – but clients are already free to pursue therapy that they want – The APA, however, does not have to endorse such therapy.

  17. Jayhuck,

    No, I am not confused – I have always been concerned for the individual who has unwanted SSA and is dimissed as though they and their feelings and their life does not matter. I also completely understand about the individual who is content and happy and has been unfairly questioned about their choice. It was the first example I am referring to and always have referred to. It’s not what you or I or others think – it is about them and until they are recognized and treated equally within the theraputic arena, there is always going to be this contention.

  18. Evan said:

    It’s outside its competence to attempt at creating values or to purposely work to supply one side with arguments in a value-charged debate.

    Jayhuck countered:

    That really all depends on how one defines the terms values and science, doesn’t it?


    I’m trying to picture different definitions and perceptions of both ‘values’ and ‘science’ and I don’t see how that affects the truth of Evan’s statement. What different use of either or both words would be untrue or misleading in his statement?

  19. Evan,

    It’s outside its competence to attempt at creating values or to purposely work to supply one side with arguments in a value-charged debate.

    That really all depends on how one defines the terms values and science, doesn’t it?

    Religion and science both have their place in this world – both have a great deal to tell us about creation. The problem is we don’t often understand the strengths or limitations of each.

  20. Evan–

    You said that so well, I’m copying it to send off to a few friends!

  21. Eddy — The remarks you made on the positive conflict of competence between science and religion in matters of health could re-open that interesting debate on who defines what is healthy and by what criteria.

    I think both science and religion are liable to error insofar as they are professed and employed by humans. As a believer I would not let any people stand between me and God, because I know how easy for the human mind is to err (including mine); in the end, whatever someone might tell me about God it either clicks with what I believe or it doesn’t (I do seek people who share at least partly my belief). My relationship with other people relating to God is more like a conversation rather than religion. I think we all are as entitled to talk or remain silent about God and none is more qualified than others in matters of belief.

    In all things scientific, the relationship is altogether different. Everything we conceive is subjective even when we abide by rules designed to make our explanations as intersubjective as possible. We should bear in mind that whatever we explain works within the same perceptual system that works for most other people (our perceptions converge), so what we consider a fact is just a common subjective experience of humans, nothing more. A fact is a human experience, just like belief, only it’s more standardised by shared protocols. They both can be clouded by error, but scientific facts can be tested, which give people who believe in facts more grounds for their own type of subjective experience. However, scientific or not, our ideas about reality are not value-free. Some people value facts more, others value non-testable ideas about purposes beyond tangible reality. Maybe it’s a boldly simplistic statement, but science is about building new hypotheses upon accepted hypotheses and all hypotheses have a life cycle. Some people are aware of how limited science is and choose to live in a world that is not defined by transient hypotheses. Try to fit a human life in a world strictly defined by scientifically proven hypotheses… People who have been around the scientific community and know the mechanics of what is needed for something to be declared a fact may have even more reasons to take scientific practice for what it’s worth, for whatever purposes it can be instrumented to support individual people in their life difficulties. It’s outside its competence to attempt at creating values or to purposely work to supply one side with arguments in a value-charged debate.

  22. Ann,

    No it wouldn’t because while the words aren’t directly used, they are implied. I think we are confusing those people who have unwanted SSAs with those people who use the No-one-chooses-this-lifestyle argument against those who claim SSA is chosen. I used this argument many times with people who claimed I chose to be gay – I never chose to be gay, and I often asked why anyone thought anyone would choose to be part of a discriminated-against minority – but that never meant that I wanted to be straight. Hope that helps 🙂

  23. Jayhuck,

    If the words “anti-gay” and “Christian” were not factored into this as it does not always apply in all cases, would it be fair to say that some people are not content with their orientation, and verbalize that, if given the choice (which they never had), they would not have chosen this?

  24. DaveG:

    I have been on discussion forums for years talking to those who think like you do about homosexuality – so no I am not particularly sensitive. Nice little Ad Hominem attack though with the reference to needing ‘constant reinforcement’.

    But lets ignore that for the moment and just talk about what you view presupposes. You presuppose that something goes wrong in the upbringing to make someone homosexual, which was evident that by your remark that ‘normal healthy development’ avoids someone becoming homosexual. In other words, by that statement you are presupposing an etiology for homosexuality (namely improper upbringing). Which as I pointed out, was contradicted earlier by your statement that etiology is not important here. But your whole viewpoint hinges on a certain etiology being correct – so indeed it is very important for your viewpoint.

    As for you comment about identity – yes I am aware that ex-gays reject the identity of ‘gay’. Although really just choosing to your identify yourself in a different way is no indication that the SSA will disappear. Perhaps it has worked this way for some exgays – but for others it obviously hasn’t (witness ex-ex-gays).

  25. Patrick:

    I think you missed the point. (This happens often when the topic is homosexuality, because some people are super-sensitive about it. I guess because it requires constant reinforcement to seem acceptable.)

    My point is that if someone has acquired a homosexual identity, which is culturally, not scientifically, defined, he or she can with help walk away from it. Former homosexuals indicate experiencing an “identity make-over” (my words, not necessarily theirs) such that even psychologically conditioned attractions and physiological responses can be handled effectively (ignored) until they fade into the background. It’s not much different from ceasing any other addictive behavior.


    Knowing that the Bible uses the word “whole” to mean healthy, physically as well as spiritually, helps me to avoid the false dichotomy that science and religion are mutually incompatible. Since “sin” refers to human behavior that is detrimental to human development and well-being, I have no problem seeing that “plenty of healthy and happy homosexuals in this world” still does not bode well for the next generation, much less the seventh generation.

  26. Eddy,

    It may be true that religion does cross over into dealing with emotional things, but whereas science usually comes to consensus on things, we have all manner of religions and religious factions saying ALL SORTS OF different things. Some religions even believe that their faith can cure all bodily as well as psychological ills and never set foot inside a doctors office.

    I personally believe that God gave us doctors of many kinds to aid in our healing. My church even uses the analogy of the Church as the Physician for our souls – so I get much of what you are saying – I just know that when it comes to many emotional and physical things, I will let those trained in that branch of science treat me first, and if it is something that involves my spiritual self, I will seek out the advice of a “spiritual doctor”.

    You are correct though – sometimes these things are not well-defined and different types of illnesses can overlap and be intertwined with each other – one could even cause another as you suggested.

    However – we do have a branch of science that deals with things emotional – that’s really what I wanted to say. We are free to ignore it – in whole or in part – of course even as some ignore the medical sciences. Or we can pick and choose what we want to use for ourselves personally – which is what I’m sure most of us will do anyway 🙂

  27. Science has been defining emotional health for some time now Eddy. When we are emotionally unstable we seek specific types of doctors or specially trained people called psychologists. If I had someone who was bipolar or clinically depressed, the first person I took them to would not be a priest or pastor

  28. Ann,

    Well first of all, there isn’t a choice – When people say they wouldn’t have chosen such and such its usually in response to conservative Christians telling them that they CHOSE to be gay. No self-respecting Ex-gay, Ex-Ex Gay or Gay person I know of would ever say that anyone chooses to be gay.

    When people say this they aren’t saying that they would never have chosen to be in a relationship with another man – that’s not the point. What they are trying to say is that they did not choose TO BE GAY! This statement you hear people make is, like I said earlier, almost always in response to someone (an anti-gay person usually) telling them that they chose to be gay/have SSA feelings. The response is usually something like: I did not choose to be gay – who would choose to be part of a group that is discriminated against, and that has violence leveled against it on a daily basis.

    Hope that clears that up 🙂

  29. It would seem to me that science can only define physical health. Emotional and spiritual health are, for the most part, outside its scope. Science has begun to discover that a person’s unhealthy emotions or spiritual conflicts often impact their physical health but they don’t yet have a lock on emotional and spiritual health in themselves. Both science and religion can recognize and attend to unhealthy bodies, emotions and spirits; medical science may come out a winner with the unhealthy bodies but I wouldn’t trust my emotional or spiritual development or well-being to scientists.

    I know many churches that address issues of emotional and spiritual health. The Bible verse that indicates “a double-minded man is unstable in all of his ways” is often used to assess emotional and spiritual health (or the lack thereof). Phrases such as ‘inner healing’, ’emotional healing’ and ‘spiritual healing’ are common in the church. This seems to indicate that religion does delve into what things are healthy or not quite frequently.

  30. Ann,

    I think that would be like asking if most people actively involved in opposite gender relationships that include sexual activity between them consider it healthy and happy? I’ve heard yes and no 🙂 I couldn’t answer either question either way, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say Yes 🙂

  31. Jayhuck,

    Do you know if most people actively involved in same gender relationships that include sexual activity between them consider it healthy and happy? I have heard “yes” and “no” but was wondering what most (the majority) would say. I have mostly heard that if there was a choice, they wouldn’t have chosen this.

  32. Dave G –

    Those who have gravitated in this direction can turn their lives around –with some help from true friends, community, family, and ultimately one’s Creator who had a different plan in the first place.

    That is absolutely not true. We have enough horror stories now, some research, and enough Ex-Ex Gay people, to illustrate that not everyone, or even most people can change (whatever that means). Religion, and then only some factions of some religions even suggest that people should. Other factions embrace homosexuality – but the idea that homosexuality SHOULD be changed is arguably first and foremost, a religious one – NOT scientific.

  33. Dave G.,

    Normal healthy development avoids homosexuality? Is that what you were trying to say? Please tell me you’re kidding.

    Healthy development is something that is established in the scientific realm rahter than in the religious realm. Religion can say that something is wrong, but it almost never delves into whether something is “healthy” or not. So its fair to say that homosexuality is a sin, or that its wrong, if that speaks to your particular belief system, but its not ok to suggest that it isn’t healthy, because the reality is that there are plenty of healthy and happy homosexuals in this world.

  34. So for homosexuality, for instance (since you brought it up), etiology really doesn’t matter. What you do about it does. Normal, healthy development avoids it.

    You do realise you just contradicted yourself. If etiology wasn’t important than having a ‘normal healthy development’ would not necessarily avoid it (If for example the cause of homosexuality was genetic, prenatally determined, due to microbial exposure or some combination of the three).

    As it does stand on the is/ought gap – yes the etiology of homosexuality is irrelevant to the moral status of homosexual relationships.

  35. Patrick:

    Who said “ought”? I was talking about an instinctive (like self- or species-preservation) response to experience: “This works beneficially, let’s do it again.” “This doesn’t work, it ultimately causes pain, destruction, etc. –let’s avoid doing it.”

    OK, so maybe “ought” is implied, but it’s based on real or anticipated consequences. But the point is, it’s not arbitrary; there’s real observation of results, and for the sake of self-preservation a judgement is made regarding pursuit or avoidance.

    So for homosexuality, for instance (since you brought it up), etiology really doesn’t matter. What you do about it does. Normal, healthy development avoids it. Those who have gravitated in this direction can turn their lives around –with some help from true friends, community, family, and ultimately one’s Creator who had a different plan in the first place.


    Spirituality is personal; religion is cultural; it’s organized and shared.

  36. Is there a difference between civility and morality? One does not necessarily need a religious component while the other one usually does but both would seem to be more effective in a positive way if religion was included as the foundation.

  37. But what’s good for the goose is also goo for the gander??? Not everyone will agree with what is good for the human race – hence killing and wars occur – justified of course (that was sarcasm). There are other wars – cultural, familial, personal, spiritual etc…

    Morality is nothing more than a religion of sorts. It’s sort of where we (from various belief systems) all agree that there are some rules that must apply for a community to function. And there are a lot of gray areas – hence courts, disputes, divorce, contracts etc…

    Science should be exact but it isn’t. We impose our hopes on it and sometimes see things that really are not there – ie: Percival’s rivers on Mars.

    Religion is entirely personal.

    The truth is OFTEN we all confuse these and let them overlap too freely.

  38. DaveG

    But this presupposes an ought – namely that we agree that causing harm is necessarily immoral. Now it may seem like – well duh? – of course it does but still it shows that facts (‘is’ statements) can only support given ‘ought’ statements – but you cannot (at least deductively) derive an ought from an is.

    Books have been written on the is/ought gap and I think for the most part it seems correct that there is no deductive way to arrive at a moral ‘ought’ statement from just looking at the facts.

    However, I do disagree that science is some ‘value neutral’ enterprise. Firstly in theory this might be so – but science is done by infalliable humans with their values and biases firmly intact. Now it may be there is a logical distinction between science and morality but the slide from one to the other under the guise of scientific opinion occurs all too often.

    Secondly there are presumptions of values in the language of many scientific enterprises. Consider for the moment the ‘germ theory’ or ‘virus theory’ for the etiology of homosexuality. It is interesting that one rarely hears it referred to as the ‘microbial theory’ for homosexuality. But why is that ? – Could it be because germs and virii are (generally) seen as only causing undesireable outcomes and this is the hidden assumption (or not so hidden assumption in some cases) of the proponents of this etiology theory.

    Thirdly, does anyone really believe that research into the etiology of homosexuality is really just a pursuit of pure knowledge. I mean lets not be blind to the fact that there are agendas at work here (on both sides).

  39. How about this: First, let’s differentiate religion and morality, since many seem to identify them as the same. Religion is the organized human response to a perception of human limitations vis a vis higher (transcendent) power. Science is the controlled observation of human experience of select phenomena. Morality grows from aggregate human experience of what is ultimately harmful to the human species, individually or collectively, over any short or extended period of time.

    Religion often becomes the repository of moral conclusions and codifications drawn from human experiences of what works and what doesn’t work for human benefit over a period of time that would comprise several generations, because these conclusions are attributed to “nature’s laws and nature’s God.”

    Therefore, science can support morality by compiling data regarding certain behaviors and their consequences, both short- and long-term.

  40. It is a bad idea if you do not want to get burned. It is a good idea if you want to get burned. Absurd? Yes, in practice, but when we get to an arena where the effects of action are mixed, multi-faceted and/or ambigous, then scientists become like the rest of us, moral philosophers.

  41. Science can inform humans that it’s a bad idea to touch a hot stove.

    However human reality is rarely that simple. Science is not equipped to govern human societies. Anyone waiting for science to create a workable, human moral code is going to be waiting for a long time.

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