Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | March 5, 2009

Scientia Et Religio: Ex Uno Fonte

“Scientia et religio: ex uno fonte” is the motto of the college I went to — I won’t mention how long ago.  I never paid much attention to it then and had long forgotten about it, but recently I realized that I now believe exactly what it says, though probably not quite the way it was originally intended.  If you’ve forgotten your Latin or (like me) never took it, it means “science and religion: from one source”.  I would have to guess that the person who came up with it a hundred and some years ago had a particular source in mind: God. 

The way I look at it, that source is the human propensity for pattern recognition and our irresistible urge to know “why”, so that we can predict outcomes.  These drives are the essential asset that kept our species alive in the days when we lived in caves and had to outsmart the other predators to survive.  Both science and religion are the results of our applying these urges to ourselves, and to the things around us.  They both attempt to explain everything that we perceive, and for that matter, things we can’t directly perceive.  The essential, qualitative difference between them is that science is developed on the basis of empirical evidence, and religion is developed based on revelations.

When people attempt to explain something scientifically, they begin by thinking of a hypothesis.  Hypotheses are testable, and those tests can be replicated by other scientists in other places.  Only when a hypothesis has been thoroughly tested through well-designed experiments, supported by the experimental results, and those results have been independently verified, does it become accepted as a theory.  That acceptance, however, is and always remains conditional.  If just one counterexample to the theory is ever found, or if someone thinks of another theory which provides a better explanation of the observed data, the first theory will be discarded.  Theories are continually judged based solely on how well they explain things. They are considered especially good, when they continue to explain things that are newly discovered after the theory was promulgated.  A theory such as this is very useful for decision making because it will reliably predict the outcome of our actions.

Religions go about explaining things very differently.  The two largest religions, and many others, got started through a divine revelation to a single human being.  Revelation is not something that can be replicated by anyone else.  It is not testable – it is impossible to conduct any experiments that would determine if the revelation is valid, in the sense of a scientific theory being accepted as valid.  People decide whether to accept a religious revelation as valid based on their personal experience of it.  It is individual rather than collective, and cannot be otherwise.  Counterexamples have no influence over believers because belief in revelation is based in faith, not fact. 

What does all that have to do with peace?  This:  basing one’s understanding of the world on a revelatory religion requires one to accept the very dangerous idea that evidence is unnecessary, irrelevant even, to truth.  Only when someone accepts that idea, does it become possible to say, “I am right, so we must all do things my way, no matter what the other side says.”  That conviction takes away all motivation for seeking meaningful peace.  “Peace” becomes something that will happen only when the other side finally sees that “we” are right, and becomes willing to live on our terms.  But this attitude makes it impossible for real peace to exist. 

The solution is not to do away with religion, however, as some recent authors on atheism have recommended.  First, it can’t be done, so it’s not accomplishing anything to spend efforts in that direction, and second, it shouldn’t be done.  Religions all have some very beneficial teachings and practices that we would not be fully human without.  What needs to happen is to decouple those beneficial teachings and practices, from the need to accept one particular revelation as “true”.  The latter is not necessary to the former.  The question is, is the former sufficient without the latter?  That is what must be answered to the minds of believers.  I will have to take up that question in a later post…



  1. This is a really interesting post. Are you religious yourself? I ask because I find the fifth paragraph incredibly troubling, and not fully true. Yes, there are some religious people that can get into that mindset, but I don’t think it’s ‘faith’ is the dangerous part. You yourself have strong faith that peace is achievable, even though on a macro scale there has not been evidence yet of it happening. Sure there are trends, but there are many many counter examples.

    Also, “facts” can be just a dangerous. Look at social darwinism during the turn of the last century. Many people used science and hypothesis testing to “prove” inequality. Both faith and facts are powerful tools that can be used for good or for not so good ends, much like a hammer can build a house, or hit someone on the head.

    I do agree that unfortunately many people have warped religion into an “I’m right and you’re wrong” phenomenon and it has led to conflict throughout the world. I see that as springing from fear and from politics as people manipulate religion for their own ends, because if one were to actively look at the tenets of each faith peace is highly revered, as is forgiveness, and not judging others. Murder is forbidden. All these should point toward the religious being proponents of peace and many are.

    My faith actually acknowledges the beauty of all religion. It is explicitly revealed in my religion that we should consort with people of all faiths in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. Since there is one God there is only one religion because everyone that believes in God worships the same God. It’s just that the one religion takes many forms. It’s like light. It can be found in a candle, or in a lamp, or a lightbulb, but it’s all light.

    I really liked this post and it has gotten me thinking, because I do believe that religion and science both are ways of searching for truth. Science focuses on the material world and religion the spiritual. Without each other problems can arise. As Albert Einstein said:

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

    Thank you so much for writing this post!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts – you always make me think as well. I will try to respond…

    It’s impossible for me to answer the question “are you religious?”, because whether I say “yes” or “no”, it would be misleading in some way. The same is true for the question “do you believe in God?”. There is a religion whose teachings I study and whose practices I somewhat, (OK, not much) follow, and a congregation I participate in very regularly. But it is a language issue, because despite all that, according to what most people imagine when they hear the term “religious”, I am not. I used to be, though, and that is why I am sensitive to the difference.

    I have a question for you: do you think it is possible for a person to have faith, yet at the same time regard truth as something that requires evidence? Do you see truth and faith as separate matters? What I was speaking of in the fifth paragraph was the danger of determining truth through faith, not necessarily faith itself. Without faith, there is no hope, and without hope, we cannot achieve anything because we would give up before even trying.

    The social darwinism example you brought up is actually a good example of how reliable science really is. When something is simply not true (i.e. inherent superiority of one race over others), it is scientifically doomed — there are no social darwinists now. Only with religious matters is it even possible for a person to make the statement “despite all evidence to the contrary, I still believe ________________”. This is why people need to accept that while religious teachings and practices have their good points, religion in general must be subordinate to science. Look what happened to Galileo! But in the end, religion found a way to accomodate reality and continue to thrive. That is the way it must be.

    I think that Einstein made the common error of conflating ethics and morality, with religion. His statement is much more accurate, to my mind, as “science without ethics and morality is lame, ethics and morality without science are blind.” But his way is much more catchy. 🙂

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