Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Faith and Reason: They Don't Need to Conflict

The more you know the more you don't know.

As someone who conducts research and clinical work focusing on the interface between psychological science and religious/spiritual engagement, I'm often frustrated and saddened by the faith and reason debates and conflicts. In my view, they often miss the point. 

Usually the argument goes something like how can anyone that respects science believe so many of the supernatural statements in the Bible including a virgin birth, Jesus and others being raised from the dead, the parting of the Red Sea, Moses getting the 10 commandment tablets from G-d, the earth being created in 7 days, miraculous healings, and so forth. The stories are so fantastic and any thoughtful, reasoned, and intelligent person couldn't possibly believe that these things ever really happened, right? Also, sometimes people of faith deny findings from science stating that the earth is only about 5,000 years old and that the theory of evolution is a hoax, for example.

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In my humble view, these conflicts and arguments really miss the point and are not based on good science or a good understanding of the faith traditions at all.

First off the literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent phenomenon with most religious historians agreeing that this approach to scriptures has only been around for 100-150 years or so. The Bible clearly wasn't written to be read like a newspaper. We are applying our post-Enlightenment thinking on documents that were written over 1900 years ago. Second, somehow many people have come to believe that the articulated views of those at the extremes of the faith and reason debate represent the majority view (they really don't). Third, somehow many have come to believe that if you don't embrace every literal interpretation of what is mentioned in the Bible then you can't believe any of it. All of these arguments are not based on the piles of quality data offered by both scientists and religious scholars.


Throughout the ages people have always tried to make sense of the world and of their lives through an understanding of history, science, and faith. We still do this now as we have done so for as long as humans have walked the planet. We create theories, hypotheses, and beliefs to help us understand our world and answer the challenging questions that we all entertain about why we are here and the meaning and purpose of our lives, our sufferings, and our both good and bad fortunes.

Albert Einstein once famously stated that "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." I for one agree with him completely. Religion and science, regardless of what you read about in the newspapers as it relates to these conflicts, can very much co-exist quite well. For example, I think of some of my colleagues who are Jesuit priests or Catholic deacons who have PhDs in engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, and even astrophysics who have no trouble with embracing both science and religious perspectives.

At the end of the day, science and religion don't necessarily have all the answers to all of our questions and so we must be humble and compassionate with each other in order to not only co-exist but to thrive together. Rather than attacking and insulting those who have views different than ours perhaps we should focus more on how we all struggle to make sense of our world and being without having all of the answers that we desire. More compassion and less passion for our beliefs might be called for. 

As I came to appreciate very long ago, the more you learn the more you realize how much you don't know. The more knowledge you have of both science and religion the more humbling it is to realize that there are so many more questions than answers out there. 

So, what do you think?

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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