Some people feel that it is impossible to believe in God and to be an honest scientist who understands the scientific method. As a man of faith seeking to have a career as a researcher, I have pondered if this is really true. I would like to explore how I can sympathize with such concerns while disagreeing with the conclusion.
A common criticism against combining science and religion is that believing scientists compartmentalize their life and thinking: for religious and ethical matters they rely on faith while for professional pursuits they employ the principles of science. This is true to some degree of many believing scientists I know. However, I am not convinced that using a variety of tools to understand the world around us is incompatible with the tradition of scientific thinking. In order to limit the scope of the post, I will not discuss the question of why someone would believe in science or in God in the first place. Instead, I will argue that one can be intellectually honest while using different frameworks to make sense of the world around us.
I would like to compare the division of labor between religious belief and the scientific method to two different frameworks within science. There are suitable examples from any discipline from biology to geology. I will focus on quantum mechanics and general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. Both theories have been experimentally verified to an incredibly high accuracy in their respective domains of validity; no credible physicist questions their usefulness in describing nature. Furthermore, most researchers believe that these two theories can be unified into a harmonious and elegant framework which includes both of them as approximations.
The last belief is interesting, since we have no experimental data from a situation that would require the combination of quantum mechanics and general relativity. As far as I can tell, the expectation of their ultimate unification relies on two things: their explanatory power in their respective domains of validity and the conviction that the world can ultimately be explained within a single consistent framework. I trust these arguments and believe in the existence of a quantum theory of gravity. Nevertheless, if one needs to make a practical calculation in the microscopic world, no one seems to object to only considering quantum mechanics. We blithely ignore the complications that would result from attempting to also include the ideas of general relativity. These theories deal with mostly different realms. Although there are areas of overlap, such areas are largely untested and of little significance to most current concerns.
Physicists use either quantum mechanics or general relativity depending on the question at hand. There are many similarities between this approach and the way believing scientists approach different issues through the lens of faith or scientific method depending on the topic. However, I would be deeply unsatisfied if we were forced to draw a clear line between science and religion and always assign every question to only one of these realms. Instead, I have found several areas of overlap where my scientific understanding and religious faith are consistent with each other. For example, I have sometimes received prayer answers that were quite surprising to me and thus most likely from a source outside myself. Yet often guidance received through these answers has proven to be extremely helpful. Such experiences do not prove that God exists but they give support to my belief the same way that experiments can support a scientific theory. I look forward to a time when it is clear that our currents patches of understanding are imperfect approximations to the glorious reality of the universe.