The Philosophy of Religion


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Philosophy refers to the study of the meaning of existence, thought, and knowledge (Blackburn, 1996). One prevailing view amongst philosophers is that philosophy is essentially a method of enquiry, a means of understanding the world, and human nature. Within this domain emerged a philosophy of science, a view that the world can be understood through quantification and experimentation, characterised by rigour, control, objectivity, and replication (Krige & Dominique, 2003). It has evolved over time, shifting away from an emphasis on theory falsification (scientific realism) towards a requirement for explanation and prediction. Fundamental to science is positivist philosophy, the idea that only phenomena which can be measured and quantified are worthy of scientific inquiry (LeGouis, 1997). Thus, phenomena such a God, spirits, and the ‘afterlife’ aren’t worth studying. Religion refers to a set of commonly held beliefs and customs, concerned with supernatural phenomena, notably the existence of a divinity, god, or higher ‘power’ or ‘entity’ (Lindbeck, 1984; Jones, 2005). It represents a particular world view characterised by faith, spirituality, holiness, doctrine, and reverence, and often shapes a persons entire life, reasoning, and culture. Thus, it generally follows from this that science, and its associated philosophies, are generally incompatible with religion. But what are the precise sources of this tension?


Origin of Life

Where did life come from? Evolutionary theorists, notably Charles Darwin, argued that species evolve over millennia through a process of ‘natural selection’, whereby only the fittest are able to secure mates, reproduce, and hence ensure the survival of their particular genetic footprint: the weak, by contrast are unable to compete, and ultimately become extinct, in a kind of evolutionary ‘dead-end’ (Darwin, 1852, 1869, 1872). Scientists take the view that life may have emerged ‘spontaneously’, through purely accidental but favourable biological conditions, whereby basic molecules notably amino acids combined to form more complex elements, like carbon dioxide, water, and ammonia (Martin & Russell, 2002; Hazen, 2005). These biochemical events were triggered accidentally, for example by random cosmic events (e.g. meteorite/comet activity, hot-springs), as the earth formed (Russell, et al, 1988; Fernando & Rowe, 2007). Religion offers a completely different account. God or some other deity, created life (Dawkins, 2006)! For example, in Christianity the earth was created by God, in six days. Scientists completely reject this view however (Dawkins, 2006). In science, notably astronomy and nuclear physics, the earth and universe are the result of a ‘big bang’, whereby all the matter we observe around us today emerged suddenly in a rapidly expanding fiery explosion of matter emanating from a single point (Peacock, 1999). Before the big bang, there was nothing, no time or matter. Although science fails to account for events preceding the ‘big bang’, the notion that it may be ‘created’ by a supernatural entity is regarded with scepticism.


A major feature of religious beliefs is faith (Harris, 2006). To have faith is to have trust in an appropriate divinity, notably God, and also to believe in this divinity or deity without question or reason. So, for example, in Judaism there is considerable emphasis on the notion of Emunah (faith), Christians view faith as an essential aspect of worship, while Muslims have faith – known as Iman – in the prophet Mohammed and his teachings. Faith is also an important element in Buddhism, where it is known as Saddha, meaning to have a conviction in or be determined about something. The requirement that one believes in God without asking any questions, or requesting a reason or justification is utter essential in most religions. It means that even when there is evidence to the contrary, such as an apparent failure of God to answer a prayer, the belief and trust in the divinity must be unshaken. In science by contrast, faith is a highly undesirable and hence discouraged concept (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). It is virtually non existent amongst scientists. In medical science for example, rather than having faith the effectiveness of a new treatment procedure, there is a universal requirement for evidence-based practice (Tonelli, 2001). Faith is also anathema amongst philosophers who believe in rational thought, the notion that any position or argument must be justified, that is, backed up by reason or evidence (Bonjour, 1998). The truth, rather than been accepted unquestioningly according to religious teachings, is entirely based on the soundness of reasoning or evidence that accompanies it (Kenny, 1986).


Religion is governed by doctrine, a set of shared beliefs, faiths, teachings, guidelines, and practices, that people adhere to unquestioningly, and which dictate how they live their lives. Thus, for example, religious dogma promoted by the Christian church, such as Christian Trinity (God is one entity simultaneously incorporating the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit) (McGrath, 1987), and virgin birth (the birth of a child by a woman who is a virgin, as in the case of Mary, mother of Jesus) (Spong, 1994) are examples of religious doctrine. By contrast, science and philosophy aren’t governed by any particular doctrine, other than ethical principles which govern research and practice (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). Admittedly ‘teachings’, or ‘movement’s do exist in science and philosophy, in the form of ‘schools of thought’ promoting one particular way of understanding phenomena. Good examples in philosophy are rationalism, empiricism, realism and psychoanalysis. In science, there is for example theory or relativity in physics, or the biopsychosocial model perspective in health, medical, and behavioural science (Borrell-Carrio et al, 2004). However, philosophers and scientists aren’t required to adhere to any particular set of principles. In general, scientific movements gain greater acceptability as the body of supporting empirical evidence expands (Krige & Dominique, 2003). However, scientists are free to pick and choose what school of thought they belong to, without violating their scientific of ethical principles.


Positivist philosophy, a movement developed by the great philosopher Auguste Comte (Pickering, 1993), and on which much of modern scientific experimentation is based, promotes the notion that any phenomena which cannot be observed, measured, and quantified, isn’t worthy of scientific study (LeGouis, 1997). This ‘scientific ideology’, which implies that all true knowledge is scientific and quantifiable, is incompatible with religion, in which true knowledge is divine in nature, and based on holy scriptures (Boyer, 2001). Truth in religion is arguably unquantifiable – one cannot measure the existence of God, the effectiveness of prayer, the strength of ones faith, or the presence of the Holy Spirit, for example. Scientists generally avoid investigating religion and religious concepts, much in the same way as they side-step researching issues like UFO citings, and abductions: scientific journals with prioritise research papers on religion are few and far between (Potter, 2005), reflecting the positivist attitude that anything which can’t be measured doesn’t represent the truth. Consider the practice of medical science in the UK. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is a body set up in England and Wales, in 1999, to determine what medical treatments are considered worthwhile. Decisions are based primarily on empirical (scientific) evidence, and economic cost-effectiveness analyses (Rawlings & Culyer, 2004). Alternative therapies with religious underpinnings rarely receive approval, largely due to the lack of empirical verification (Franck et al, 2007).


In science there is an emphasis on objectivity, an ability to remain unbiased. This relates directly to the scientific requirement for verifiability and replicability. By suppressing personal feelings, biases, preferences, and prejudices, and adhering strictly to standard protocol, the work of one scientist can be evaluated and reproduced by another scientist, completely independently (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). Objectivity also has philosophical underpinnings, dating back to the nineteenth century with renowned philosophers like Plato, Gottlob Frege, and Immanuel Kant (Rorty, 1991). The basic philosophy is that the truth, knowledge, and reality must exist independent of the mind. Plato for example made a specific distinction between objective knowledge and personal opinion, the latter denoting an unacceptable subjectivity that does not offer an accurate description of reality (Taylor, 2001). In religion, the emphasis is on getting physically, emotionally, and spiritually proximal to ones divinity, rather than maintaining an intellectual distance (Boyer, 2001). Indeed, people are encouraged to wholly immerse themselves in their religions, such that it dictates their entire lifestyle (Boyer, 2001). Thus, the distinction between religion and culture often becomes blurred, such that a religion (e.g. Judaism) becomes highly intertwined with culture (e.g. being an Israeli) (Norris & Inglehart, 2007). Religion is generally ingrained in a person’s personal belief system. Thus, whereas a scientist tries to separate his personal views from scientific knowledge, in religion, personal opinions and religious teachings merge.


Whereas in most religions authority is solely and ultimately in the hands of a transcendent and supernatural deity, God, or divinity, in science, scientists themselves are their own authority. They are answerable to no-one (other than the particular ethical standards of the professional bodies to which they belong), and may publish their findings at will, helping to expand, and shape, knowledge, reasoning, and general philosophy in their particular field. For this reason, scientists (especially medical doctors) are often accused of ‘playing God’ by religious activists or sympathisers (Hayles, 1999; Stock, 2002), especially with regards to issues like abortion, cloning, and morality. This is known as the transhumanism and hubris argument (Fukuyama, 2004). Philosophers are also their own authority. They take credit and criticism for and whatever philosophy they advocate. Thus, the likes of Plato, Kant, and other greater philosophers are their own authority. In religion by contrast, God or some other deity is the one sole authority, and all worshipers are ultimately answerable to this divinity (Lindbeck, 1984). Religious leaders, such as Imams, Priests, Vicars, and Buddha’s, are merely ‘messengers’ whose primary role is to spread religious teachings: they are ultimately answerable to God, any divine authority they have is extremely limited. So, for example, it can be argued that a Pentecostal priest who purports to execute miracles on particular members of his congregation is in fact merely acting on behalf of God, serving as a ‘channel’ through which God performs his miracles.


Are the tensions between religion, science, and philosophy justified? Several arguments are presented below which suggest that the answer to this question is an unequivocal ‘no’. Firstly, the idea promoted by positivist philosophy, and hence modern day science, that religion and religious subjects can’t be studied scientifically is incorrect. Although religious concepts (e.g. God, faith, sin, worship) are generally unobservable, and hence difficult to quantify, scientists do study religion, using scientific methods (e.g. Smith et al, 2003; Myers, 2007). Furthermore, religion offers quantifiable and testable predictions that make it amenable to scientific research. For example, the notion that God exists and/or answers ones prayers can easily be measured and evaluated scientifically (Dawkins, 2006). Secondly, the supposed tension between religion and science appears odd given that science actually emerged from amongst Christians, who were seeking new ways of seeking out the ‘truth’ about the world, and humanity (Jaki, 1996). Thus, the very scientists and philosophers who embraced notions such as quantification, objectivity, and experimentation were themselves God worshipers, imbued with faith, and adhering strictly to religious doctrine (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). Thus, despite their devotion to scriptures as their main source of truth about reality, many religions allow for the application of scientific theories to everyday problems (Migliore, 2004). So, for example, there is no apparent contradiction if a clergy advices a sick member of his congregation to seek medical treatment, in addition to relying on their faith and asking for divine intervention.

Thirdly, science, philosophy, and religion, do actually converge in certain areas, notably metaphysics and cosmology. Metaphysics refers to a philosophical movement concerned with understanding the meaning of reality, existence, and the world (Lowe, 2002; Loux, 2006). It addresses issues beyond the physical world, including questions such as ‘what is reality’, ‘why are we here?’, ‘does God exist’, and ‘Is there a soul?’ Metaphysicists have historically considered these legitimate scientific questions, especially prior to the eighteenth century before the development of modern scientific concepts such as empiricism, and quantification (Lowe, 2002). Yet, it is these very questions that religion and religious teachings are often concerned with. One of the best known fields of metaphysics is theology, the study of God (Migliore, 2004)! The word ‘theology’ means the ‘study of divine things’. In Europe, the Christian church, notably the Protestant Church and Roman Catholic Church trains their ministers in Christian theology, for example in Seminaries, or even universities (Woods, 2005). Thus, this begs the question that if religion and science are so incompatible, why would religions, for example Christianity, support academic study and scientific inquiry amongst its clergy? All in all it can be argued that there is no qualitative distinction between religion, and the philosophy of metaphysics (Hazen, 2005). Granted, the answers provided by each perspective may differ wildly. Indeed, certain questions (e.g. ‘does God exist?’) may be inappropriate in many religions. Nevertheless, the overlap between religion, theology, and metaphysics seems obvious (Hazen, 2005). Cosmology refers to the scientific (mathematical) study of the universe, and the role of humanity in it (Hawley & Katerine, 1998). Thus, by definition, cosmology and religion are concerned with the same subject matter. Cosmology appears to occupy a position between religion and modern science, posing arguments about the relationship between God, humanity, and the physical universe. A sub-branch of cosmology, known as religious cosmology specifically aims at explaining and understanding the universe based, in part, on religious teachings (Hetherington, 1993). Many religious cosmologists accept that God created the universe, but yet recognize the findings of modern science, notably Astrophysics, that the universe was created in the ‘Big Bang’ for example. These two positions aren’t necessarily incompatible; God may be considered to have created the Big Bang!


This essay considers the tension between religion, science, and philosophy, and whether this conflict is justified. Substantial differences exist between religion and science/philosophy: for example, religious notions like faith, God, and unquestioning adherence, are generally incompatible with classic scientific tenets. Similarly, traditional scientific requirements like quantification, and philosophical concepts such as rationality and empiricism, don’t ‘fit’ well with religious practice. Yet, perhaps the magnitude of these differences may be exaggerated. Religion, philosophy, and science, in fact overlap considerably, and the best evidence for this lies in the existence of fields like metaphysics, cosmology, religious cosmology, and theology. These disciplines generally involve scientific inquiry, but yet address religious concepts, and are studied by religious clergy, ministers, and other religious leaders. All in all, any conflict between religion and science/philosophy may be more myth than reality.


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