Faith and Science, as They Really Are (Part One)

During the Vietnam War, a string of malaria appeared that was resistant to chloroquine, the most prevalent treatment at the time. Malaria was already a huge killer – in 1967 alone, the disease infected over 5.8M people – and a resistant strain could have spelled disaster. In response, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai launched a secret research group to find a new treatment; in May 1967, an undistinguished female scientist named Tu Youyou joined the team.

By that time, scientists around the world had already tested over 240,000 compounds with no success. And yet, the community at large and the Premier’s team continued to research – the latter sent Tu to the island province of Hainan to research malaria patients in person.

In 1969, Tu had an unconventional idea: why not study traditional Chinese herbal medicine for new ideas on compounds? To their credit, the research team allowed her to pursue this train of thought – for although herbal medicine was considered just one step better than witchcraft, they were desperate – and the team was rewarded for their confidence. After analysis of a 1600-year-old text, on a page titled “Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve” to be prescribed for “intermittent fevers” (a classic malaria symptom), Tu discovered the sweet wormwood plant as a possible remedy. Upon testing, Tu found that this was not only the most effective compound of the 240,000+ found to date, but also objectively effective as a remedy for malaria. Her discovery could – and eventually would – save literally millions of lives when brought to the world at large.

Unfortunately, however, that “when” wasn’t realized as fast as it could, and should, have been. The difficulty was that the compound was so closely linked with the “superstitions” of ancient Chinese medicine that it was largely ignored on the world stage. It took the World Health Organization another 24 years to approve the use of the compound; and Tu Youyou was only awarded a Nobel Prize for her discovery in 2015. (When she was given another, similar award in 2011, Tu simply commented: “I am too old to bear this.”)

Tu’s discovery had an incredible impact on the world. But could it have been still larger if the world was more receptive to spiritual, or religious, hypotheses? I have to think so.

And I have to wonder what other powerful ideas we might have missed out on – and what future ideas we might let pass – due to skewed notions of what our worldviews really are, and what they ought to be.

For the better part of the last four years, I’ve worked to understand science, religion, and the world in between the two. (Read more: Agnostic-ish, by Christian Keil.)

From the outset of that research, I’ve decided to study science and religion as they actually are, not as any argue they ought to be. This was a surprisingly uncommon decision. Many in the modern debate will subliminally jump from how religion (or science) “is” to how it “ought to be,” as if there was no difference between the two. The difference, however, is vast, and can lead to an unnecessary divide between adherents of both belief systems.

To help us understand how people perceive these different worldviews, consider the following 2×2 grid. (And forgive me for letting my inner consultant shine.) On the vertical axis: worth. And on the horizontal: scope.


The vertical ranges from laughable to laudable. Some worldviews, like that of a child whose only goal is to be the White Power Ranger when he grows up (e.g., the author circa 1995), might be considered laughable. Other more successful and mature worldviews effectively explain the real world, and for the sake of this framework, we’ll call those useful worldviews laudable.

The horizontal ranges from prescriptive to descriptive. Some worldviews are entirely prescriptive, and, leaving reality behind, only hope to explain the world as it should be (e.g., utopia). Others are entirely descriptive, and eschew all that is not empirical, provable, and concrete. To echo the language from before, prescriptive worldviews make “ought” statements, and descriptive ones make “is” statements.

Illustratively consider the perspective of a scientifically-minded atheist. This could be someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris (or the author circa 2010). From that perspective, where do science and religion fall?


The L/L dimension is self-explanatory. P/D, however, is worth a brief explanation.

To many, science and religion occupy entirely separate domains – as Stephen Jay Gould put it, they are “non-overlapping magisteria.” In theory, then, they can peacefully co-exist as long as they stay on their own sides of the fence. Science gets to describe the descriptive facts of the world, and religion gets exclusive domain over moral judgments; science gets the age of rocks, and religion gets the rock of ages.

This division makes intuitive sense. The scientific method can’t prove a moral law to be true. We can’t deduce Newton’s laws from the Bible. This is a non-confrontational, seemingly fair way to subdivide the world.

That religion and science are separate is one notable characteristic of what I we can call the “scientific normal” 2×2. And, as noted earlier, here science is superior to religion given its position on the L/L axis.

In future posts, we’ll explore these two characteristics – separation and superiority – in depth.

In the meantime, how would you place science and religion on the 2×2? Would one be superior to the other? Would the two worlds be entirely separate?

[Keep reading with Part Two here!]

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