Science naturally divides itself into two main factions: Physical science, and theoretical science. By definition, applied science is based upon observations of the natural world – and is always potentially controvertible by additional observation. Established “laws” of nature are constantly being re-interpreted and re-formulated to best match the existing body of evidence. Unlike physical science, theoretical sciences, such as mathematics are much less open to re-evaluation – since these fields operate within extremely strict frameworks like formal logic. Many times, the two fields overlap, in that a particular theoretical model can give insight into a physical observation, or tangible evidence can lead to a new scientific theory.
However, the two fields are fundamentally distinct in that one field’s discoveries do not match the other’s definition of truth. Physical science defines truth as “agreement with the majority of reasonably-verifiable physical observations,” while theoretical science defines truth as “that which incontrovertibly follows from a set of initial axioms.” Observable science makes no claim regarding the finality of its results, and theoretical science does not address the validity of its initial axioms. Thus, the current scientific majority opinion cannot and should not be defended with the religious fervor that is attached to regarding science as absolute truth. Science is only one limited perspective from which interpret human experience – it makes no claim about the validity of alternate viewpoints.
In particular, where any set of beliefs (such as a religion) does not address physically observable information or formally provable statements, that set of beliefs is completely distinct from science. Science does not address the deeper meaning of the universe or human existence. It makes no prescriptions of morality – it does not speak of the spiritual world. In many religions, the most fundamental teachings, practices, and concepts reach beyond the scientific definitions of verifiable truth and therefore cannot be in agreement or disagreement with science.
Given the vastly distinct roles of science and religion, it is extremely unfortunate that the few instances in which science and religion overlap have generated so much conflict over the years. This is especially unfortunate, when one considers that it is often the interpretation of evidence, not the evidence itself that is the source of contention. For example, the relatively sparse nature of ancient historical data often necessitates a good deal more speculation within the scientific community than the average layperson tends to believe. Scientists rarely give “facts” about history the same weight of certainty as “facts” about the behavior of macroscopic objects under a gravitational field.
Consider, for instance, the Native American tradition of the Thunderbird. Within the scientific community, the Native American Thunderbird is currently considered to be a mythical creature. Traditionalistic Native Americans choose to interpret the oral history more literally. In this particular case, the majority scientific opinion does not have sufficient evidence to seriously question the validity of the contradicting perspective. So, while Native American religion and science might be said to hold different views, they cannot be said to contradict one another.
It is important for religious and non-religious people alike to understand that the vast majority of religious views are squarely outside of the realm of science. Moreover, most religions only overlap with science in a select few areas – and most of the conflicts stem from different interpretations of historical data. In areas where the existing evidence is open to some speculation, it is important for scientists and non-scientists alike to realize that there is value in seriously considering all perspectives even when those perspectives disagree with the current majority consensus. By recognizing the respective limitations of religion and science, modern scientists and religious leaders can avoid becoming embroiled in petty debates over differences in interpretation. Instead, the religious and scientific communities have much to gain from each other by offering different perspectives from which to experience the universe.