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Is faith incompatible with science (and vice versa)?

After speaking at a secular conference recently I was asked a very thoughtful question (via email) by one of the persons in attendance.

In short, the question asked whether with my background in science (neuroscience in particular) I did not find a conflict with my faith as a Christian.

This is a common question.  It is a good question!

I'd love your input and response!

Here is my answer:

It is great to hear from you!  Thanks for taking the time to drop me a line.  The question that you pose below is one that I have heard many times before.

My area of specialization is neuroscience (rather than neurology). Of course the disciplines are linked, but my specialization is much less diagnostic in nature (it deals with understanding rather than pathology).  

I have had a longstanding interested in science, with a particular interest in physics, having done work in that area in my first degree and work in quantum theory (specifically quantum mechanics and quantum physics) in my master's degree.

The basic supposition of many people who ask this question is that there is a dualism (an ontological separation) between science and spirituality. This is a false supposition.  Please see the link below for my reasoning on this.

Even some of the most ardent atheistic scientists don't hold this view (for example of you read Richard Dawkins' 'God delusion') you'll see that he proposes a method of viewing the world from a scientific point of view - this form of spirituality is  known as scientism.  Basically any way of understanding the world in its entirety is a form of faith (in its most basic form).  For some people their meaning and greater value is found in service, some find it  in politics, some find it in spending, sport, sex and others in formal (and non-formal) forms of religious belief.

Sadly, many scientists do pseudotheology and many theologians do pseudoscience.  However, those who do solid epistemological study in both science and belief soon come to realize that there is not a great divide between science and faith.  In fact the opposite is true.

What we soon come to realize is that science depends as much on faith as faith depends on science!  Think about this for a moment.  The central 'proof' that something is scientifically true is based on a process of experimental repeatability.  The scientist has a 'hunch' or 'belief' that something is true and sets about to test that hypothesis.  This is an act of faith.  When the experiment is largely repeatable with the same results it is believed to be true... However, how many times have we discovered that what we believed to be entirely true was only partially true when we discovered another level of complexity in material reality?  However, faith in our results allows us to build bridges and fly in airplanes!  Science relies on a 'kind of faith' - we learn things, we believe they're true, we structure our lives accordingly. However, as times passes we learn new things that contradict old things we believed to be completely true. In the process we discover that not all science is 'absolutely true' - all faith is fluid in some senses.

Faith (in the traditional religious sense), on the other hand, relies a great deal on science!  I was asked to review a wonderful book entitled 'The fall of man and the foundation of science' (Oxford University Press, 2010, Peter Harrison).  It is an exceptional explanation of the relationship between contemporary science and religious belief, and religious belief and scientific methodology. See the book here: <>  It is not an easy read!  My review will be published in Studia Historiae Historiae in the next edition.  I'll gladly send you a copy of you're interested.

Whereas science is epistemic, religion tends towards phenomenology (i.e., the interpretation of what we hold to be true).  If a person comes to hold something to be true they will test their belief (consciously or unconsciously).  When they find evidence to support their belief they integrate it into their framework of dealing with joy and tragedy, bliss and suffering in their daily lives.  It is this process that helps us to deal with disappointment, discouragement, fear, opportunity, hope and a myriad of daily realities.  As I point out above some people frame the way in which they deal with these existential realities through relying on science, others (like Christopher Hitchens - a fellow anti-theist with Richard Dawkins) rely on secular humanism, others on religion, others on economics...

Can I suggest that you take a look at one of my posts on belief and the neurobiology of the human brain here:  <>

My friend Gregory Benvenuti (an atheist from Australia) made some super remarks in the comments.  Please also see my reply to him.

Please feel free to come back to me with your input, thoughts etc. Would you mind if I published my response to your basic question on my blog (no names mentioned of course)?

Grace and peace,


Reader Comments (5)

Hi Dion,

I’ve now had some time to go through this and your previous post on the subject of reconciling (or at least the claimed absence of dissonance between) religious faith and scientific advancement – a broad field, touched by many different disciplines such as neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, sociology etc.

An obvious viewpoint to start with, is Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (also mentioned by Greg) which is described as follows:

the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.

I suspect both you and I will agree that this viewpoint has been largely discredited. If it were indeed true that supernatural “deities” can’t or won’t influence the physical magisterium (either in the past, present or future) and therefore fall outside the ambit of scientific analysis, then, besides the more fanciful claims such as virgin births, talking animals, miracles, resurrections etc., this also excludes the possibility of revelation (or at the very least makes revelation indistinguishable from any of the many “normal” delusional experiences and neurological pathologies that science has identified). No revelation, no religion.

So what can we say?

Firstly, all religious claims, when applicable to the physical world, are in principle investigable by science. This includes, for example, the issue of whether there is some sort of persistence of an individual (call it the “soul”) after death (and possibly before birth). As physicist Sean Carrol writes on his timely blog earlier this week:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Secondly, religious and spiritual experiences themselves are in principle open to scientific investigation, such as your example of the so-called “God-spot” shows. With the latest advances in neuroscience, biology and evolutionary psychology, a picture is starting to emerge of the evolved mechanisms underlying the human brain’s predisposition to look for and identify causation in the streams of sensory data it constantly processes, even when random. As Michael Shermer explains in his column on “patternicity”, “people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things”. In other words, even though we’re not being hunted by tigers anymore, our brains are still primed to look for causes where none exist, and God is the ultimate convenient catchall cause.

As an aside, I’ve just finished reading (actually listened to the audiobook) evolutionary psychologist Douglas Kenrick’s new book, “Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life”, and it contains some truly fascinating and provocative research. In short, we humans are far more beholden to our animalistic and evolutionary “wiring” than we would ever consciously admit to, choosing instead to rationalise after the fact. Religious participation may in fact be, at source, just another mating strategy, with the level of religiosity varying according to the ruling “mating environment”. This is not meant to debase the whole religious cultural enterprise, but it does provide some interesting (and, importantly, testable) pointers towards its evolutionary origin (a summary of that section can be found on Kenrick’s blog).

In summary, it seems to me that advancement in the sciences (by which I include the more rigorous human sciences) has had (and will continue to have) three major effects on religion:

1) Debunking the more obvious incorrect physical claims of religious texts, to the point that only extreme fundamentalists are still insisting on the truth of supernatural occurrences, be they historical (the virgin birth, resurrection, original sin), current (prayer efficacy, faith healing, exorcism) or future (rapture, judgment day).

2) Secondly, describing in evolutionary and neurological terms how and why personal religious experiences are generated in humans.

3) Thirdly, describing in sociological, psychological, political and historical terms how and why the religious enterprise may have started, how its dogma developed and how it continues to offer perceived value to certain sections of society.

I really don’t see how any thinking person, and especially scientists, can reconcile even a passing knowledge of some of these advancements with religion. Would love to hear your thoughts!


May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheo

Hi Theo,

Thank you for your detailed and challenging comment. I appreciate the time you took to read through the previous posts and write such a thoughtful reply. I have read through it a few times and given myself a day or two to process what you've said.

Unfortunately I am not able to give the necessary time to offer an equally detailed reply! I am to leave for the US on Sunday and face a few urgent little pressures at the office before I go! So, here are a few scattered thoughts.

Let me start by saying simply that the one struggle I have with your argument is that assume that I would accept the dualistic understanding of 'magisteria' as proposed by Gould. I'm afraid that is not the case.

I do not believe that science and faith are ontologically different kinds of 'knowledge' that need to occupy separate spaces in reason. In part this was why I posted about David Bohm, Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber (among others) who have helped me to see the flaws in such a view of reality. The categories we impose upon science are not a-priori categories of reality, rather they are schemas that we have created to order and communicate our discoveries and beliefs that result from those discoveries. As I said, science is as much a form of 'belief' as 'religious faith' is a form of belief. The category is less important than the truth is tries to communicate. As such I cannot accept that there are ontological differences between what we discover to be true through various forms of inquiry.

Having made that point you then go on to suggest that somehow scientific inquiry is the more acceptable, or dominant, framework within which one comes to understand all of reality. Is this not a contradiction of Gould's perspective cited above? Are you not conflating religion into science when you make this point?

I would, however, tend to agree with the point that science does offer us a great deal of insight into spiritual experience (and vice versa). This was the central thrust of my doctoral work! However, what worries about your suggestion is that it smacks of exclusive fundamentalism.

Theo, I'm afraid that I have encountered many persons from various perspectives who have tried to assert their their view of the order of reality (their statement of 'faith') is the truest expression of reality - to the exclusion of other positions. This is dangerous territory.

I am cautious of all fundamental ideologies. I guard against them from religious groupings, political groupings, economic perspectives and also the sciences.

I fear, in truth, that you would not 'love to hear my thoughts' as you write in concluding your remarks.

It seems clear to me that you have made up your mind about what you believe to be true (for your self, and what you believe about what I believe). As such you seem to hold a rigid conviction about what you believe is not the truth. You have adopted a corner of conviction. This is unfortunate. It does not allow for encounter and dialogue. Often such a perspective cares more about the ideas that people hold than the people who hold them.

Within the Church, and outside of it, I have encountered numerous persons who have said "I really don't see how any thinking person... can reconcile [insert position here]". That statement betrays your judgement of me. It also bears your fundamental perspective plainly to those who read it. The statement says, in essence, that because I hold a position of reconciliation I cannot be a thinking person. Again this judgement is unfortunate. I don't regard myself as a particularly deep thinker. However, I can say that I have devoted some scholarly thought to the area unders consideration in this discussion.

Now, let me make a confession: I too hold a few fundamentals in my faith. Some of them I hold gently, and others I hold more robustly. One of the central things that I believe is that I do not hold the truth, rather, there is a truth in reality that holds me. I discover it in the lives of women and men who throughout the ages have struggled to make sense of the world in their daily lives. Some have done so in science, others have done so through philosophy and others through various faiths. I am open to learn.

In conclusion, simply because some form of knowledge is categorized as 'scientific' and another form of knowledge is categorized as 'faith' does not mean that there is no truth to be found in it. Rejection of knowledge because of an imposed category would be an oversimplification - it was one of the great mistakes of modernism that still pervades much of western determinism.

So, I am responding to your comment because I care to connect with you and learn from the truth that you have discovered. However, I would caution you to examine whether you are not, perhaps, falling into a form of scientific fundamentalism that excludes the possibility of truth outside of the (narrow) confines of what you have discovered in life this far?

Grace and peace,


May 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterDr Dion Forster

Thanks Dion,

I think you missed my rejection of Gould's proposed dualism, so on that score we are ad idem.

As for the rest of your reply, there's not much there that I can really comment on, apart from saying that I really do have an open mind and that I welcome dialogue that's based in reason, logic, evidence, falsifiable hypotheses etc. This is after all the nature of the scientific method and broader philosophical discourse.

I am also painfully aware of how little we still know about this beautiful multiverse and our place in it -- unlike most religions, I am fine with that, and don't need to invent a cause where none are apparent.

Regarding my (perhaps too) general question about the reconciliation of science and religion, maybe it will help to be a bit more specific? For example, what do you think of the miracles and physical impossibilities described in the Bible, such as Original Sin, personal revelation to the so-called prophets, eternal souls and Christ's virgin birth and resurrection? Fact or fiction? Do you think such miracles, faith healing and other supernatural interventions can and still do happen? As regards people's reported spiritual and religious experiences (which undoubtedly do happen), do you agree that they could be spontaneously generated by brain activity under suitable conditions?

Have a safe trip to the US!

Yours in humanity,

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheo

Hi Theo,

Thanks for your comment - and for the clarification about Gould.

Let's continue the dialogue! Although my input will be a little curtailed for a few weeks as a result of travel.

I would like to ask you a question. What is your understanding of 'belief'? You ask me if I believe in certain Biblical events (and details in the Biblical narrative), as well as certain contemporary phenomena that are largely associated with religious groups and individuals, but I would like to know what you understand by the word / concept of 'belief'? I am particularly interested to understand whether you think that belief is common to all persons (of course 'beliefs' differ from person to person)?

Then, I would like to share a quote which has frequently reminded me to be far more open about life, in fact not just open, but to live with a greater measure of wonder at the Universe and its mystery, and comfortable uncertainty with what I believe.

“I know only one thing: that any worldview - be it religious or secular - that doesn’t start and end with the recognition of paradox will become a tyranny.”

Frank Schaeffer

June 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterDr Dion Forster

What I mean with belief should be clear from the context used, but one does sometimes hear accommodationist attempts to conflate the scientific and religious usages arising from the word's polysemous nature. I like the following definitions, based on a recent blog entry by geneticist Jerry Coyne:

Scientific Belief: Confidence, based on lots of experience, that questions about reality are best answered by a combination of evidence and reason.

Religious Belief: Confidence, based on no experience (indeed, even contrary to experience), that questions about “reality” are best answered by personal revelation, authority, scripture, ancient word-of-mouth and dogma.

So yes, belief is common to all persons -- this is, after all, how we learn from our parents, teachers, specialists, each other, experience etc. Scientific Belief, however, has an auto-correcting feature that allows for its beliefs to be continuously evaluated against new evidence and to be modified, refined or even completely rejected when seemingly contradictory observations emerge. Religious Belief does not possess this independent methodology to get (closer) to the truth, hence the myriad competing theologies out there and over time.

The questions I posed above were not about religious beliefs (although of course whole sets of dogma have been built around these supposed happenings), but about decidedly real-world claims that are in principle open to scientific inquiry. I'm interested in your views, as a scientist, about the veracity of these claims.

Thanks for the Schaeffer quote... not quite sure what to make of it yet, but I'll mull it over a bit and try to find the context. I did find this interesting interview with the author (an ex-fundamentalist agnostic, IIUC?), in which he says the following:

Religious people have a choice. They can either worship their books, like the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, or they can try to find God and worship God, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive. And so perhaps it has been a handicap for religions to be defined by holy books that can’t be questioned, and we would actually do better to question these books and look for God independent of these books that supposedly are revealed truth. So that if an actual God exists, I think it cripples our attempt to find that God if we do so only by looking at him, her or it through our holy books.

Instead, we ought to be looking at our own experience of life, the love we have for our children and grandchildren and one another in relationships, the beauty in the world we see around us, and this human aspiration to long for meaning, which we share in all culture, and which is why we invented religion to begin with. These things are actually much better testimony to the possible existence of a creator than anything we find in any flawed book.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheo

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