Religion 101

Religion 101

Religion and Science (Part Four)

Finally, another way of attempting to underscore and clarify how science and religion can be viewed as each occupying and specializing in very different, and even non-overlapping, domains or areas of inquiry (which, being non-overlapping, would mean that they cannot ever really contradict or conflict with each other) is by suggesting the following:

Science addresses “how” types of questions, whereas religion addresses “why” types of questions.

Science is very, very good at addressing and answering complex but ultimately somewhat superficial “nuts and bolts” types of questions about the origin and nature of empirical reality. How did the universe come into being? (What are the physics behind it?) How did stars, galaxies, and solar systems form? How do time and space “work”? How did life come about? How did human beings ultimately arrive on the scene?


Notice that all of the above are “how” questions, rather than “why” questions.

By “why” questions, I mean to refer to much deeper and more abstract sorts of questions — questions of ultimate meaning, of ultimate value, of ultimate purpose (if any).

Such questions ask not merely how the the universe came about (in a “nuts and bolts” sense), but why the universe came about (in the sense of there being some deeper, underlying meaning or purpose or value to a universe having come about). They ask not how life came about, but why life came about. They ask not how the human condition came to be what it is, but why it came to be what it is.


Existentially speaking, why is there something, rather than nothing? Why is there a universe, in the first place? Why do we human beings exist at all? Not how did we come about (in terms of physics, biology, etc.), but why?

To move from cosmic to human terms, the difference between “how” and “why” comes down to this: medical science, for instance, can tell us how a person died, but not why a person died (in the “ultimate” sense). That is, medical science can tell us all about the specific details and mechanisms of the physics or the biology or the chemistry that led to a given individual’s demise; but it cannot tell us anything about the much deeper and non-superficial ultimate meaning or ultimate purpose (if any) behind such an individual’s demise.


This is the difference between a coroner’s nuts-and-bolts report detailing how a person died, and someone attempting to respond to a loved one’s anguished and urgent existential question as to why that person died, in effect seeking to find some greater “meaning” — or some deeper sense of “ultimate meaningfulness” — behind such an otherwise seemingly senseless tragedy (as when a grieving parent asks, “But why did my child have to die?”).

I keep saying “if any,” simply because not everyone believes or agrees that there are any such deeper reasons, or meanings, or purposes, behind reality. For the non-religious, the universe simply is, and that’s that; no deeper “meaning” or underlying “purpose” exists at all, beyond just that simple brute fact.


Science simply cannot — and does not — address such deeper “why” questions about meaning, purpose, or value; that’s not its job. Science trades in empirical matters of hard facts, not in existential matters of ultimate meaningfulness.

Religions, however, affirm that there is some sort of deeper, underlying, “ultimate meaningfulness” behind life, the universe, and everything.

Of course, religions also differ among themselves as to just precisely what that deeper, underlying meaning, purpose, or value actually happens to be. Different religions will offer varying, sometimes conflicting answers to such questions about ultimate meaningfulness.

Religions may couch their answers in terms of God, or Brahman, or Buddha-nature, or Tao, or a host of other religious concepts and contexts; but at the very least, one thing that religions generally have in common is that they do positively affirm that such answers do exist to questions about “ultimate meaningfulness” — questions that empirical science, by its very nature, cannot ever provide any answers for, or otherwise even comment upon, one way or another.


To the extent that all of this is so, it would seem that science and religion do not and cannot conflict, insofar as they operate in very different domains or areas of inquiry, and so offer answers to very different and non-overlapping types of questions (“How?” vs. “Why?”).






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Graeme SHarrock

posted April 26, 2013 at 3:38 am

You interesting post includes this sentence: “Religions, however, affirm that there is some sort of deeper, underlying, “ultimate meaningfulness” behind life, the universe, and everything.” Which raises the question of the status of Buddhist insight into this problem. The sutras speak of the search for meaning as an illusion. Buddhism does not teach that there is some ultimate meaningfulness. In fact, enlightenment might be the awakening from such an illusive search and being in the constant present in which there is always meaning already, and no meaningfulness at all.

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