Sunday 21 September 2014

Religion And Science | Differences And Similarities


Concepts - Spirituality

Similarities And Differences Between Scientific Models And Religious Myths

By: Carolyn Smith



Most religions of the world are founded upon invisible entities. For instance, all religions believe in a supernatural being or God yet the latter cannot be seen by the naked eye. Additionally, this supernatural being is usually a complex character with numerous attributes to his name. Additionally, religions are characterized by certain virtues such as love which are not present in the physical realm. So in order to understand these complex issues, religions simplify them through the use of models or representations. (Mc Grath, 2006) Similarly, in the sciences, many concepts cannot be detected by the five senses thus causing scientists to use models or representation to understand them. In deed the use of representations is one of the similarities between Christian myths and scientific models. The essay shall compare the two disciplines and the differences or similarities explained.

Similarities between the two entities

Both religion and the natural sciences are similar in that they both utilize analogies to explain complex systems. For instance, in the sciences, it is common to find the use of models to explain certain phenomena. In this case, a scientific model is a simple representation of a complicated system that is designed to create an understanding of part of the complex system. Usually scientific models are designed in such a manner that they resemble a certain quality of the complex system under study. Also, in religion, religious myths resemble the concept they are explaining. For instance when trying to understand God, many religious myths use qualities that resemble creation to describe him.

In both disciplines, representations are used to help the human mind understand complex issues. For instance, in physics, scientists utilize a model to explain the behavior of a complex system of natural gases. In this model, scientists presume that when gases are placed within a container, then there are certain laws that govern the behavior of those gases irrespective of their identity. For instance, they assume that gases do not collide with one another or that they do not loose any kinetic energy upon colliding with the wall. By using this model (that has certain assumptions) it was possible to identify common patterns and thus enable an understanding of an otherwise complex/abstract system of gases. Similarly, in religion, myths are the means with which human beings try and understand abstract concepts. In other words, myths act as a go between the brain and the complex idea. For instance, in order to understand why human beings work, many religions use myths to demystify such a complex idea. (Malinowski, 1992)

Scientific models and religious myths are also similar in that both of them have inherent similarities to the things they are trying to explain. In the sciences, experts linked the behavior of planets around the sun to the behavior of electrons around the nucleus of the atom. In this case, the solar system was used as a model and the atom was the complex system being analyzed. These two systems both had certain similarities between them such as forces of attraction between particles and orbits. On the other hand, religious myths are also similar to the characters that they are trying to define. For instance, many religious myths attempt to explain the characteristics of their gods or God. In this case, a myth may describe God as being all powerful or omnipresent. By using these myths, one can see a similarity between God and story describing him. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Taking another example; many religions attempt to explain the origin of the earth through myths. For instance, in the beginning of the earth, God created nature, consequently, there is a link between God and nature. It is assumed that there is a form of continuity between the creator and the creature being created because one begets what is similar to them. However, one must not assume that every part of that creation is like God. Also, it must not be assumed that God is the same as a creature; on the contrary, on should understand that the creature resembles God but that the latter two characters are separate and distinct from one another. One can therefore see that religious myths attempt to describe the nature of God. They use examples that bring out an understanding of some of God's properties. (Eliade, 1998)Therefore, there is similarity between the myths and God himself.

Religious myths are similar to scientific models because both analogies have boundaries or restrictions. Taking the example of the theory describing ideal gases in the natural sciences (kinetic theory of gases); there were a number of assumptions in this theory. One such example was the fact that under low pressure, the volume of a gas can be considered negligible. This assumption must be noted in order for the ideal gas equation to be true. The ideal gas equation in this case is PV-NRT where P denotes pressure, V denotes volume, N is the number of moles of the gas, R is an ideal gas constant and T is the temperature of the surrounding. However, scientists found that volume occupied by gases is not always negligible. When one increases pressure within a container, then the amount of space occupied is large comparable to the distances that those particles must travel. Consequently, it becomes necessary to use another equation and discard the ideal gas equation. It can therefore be said that the limits of the ideal gas equation are reached once pressure within a container starts increasing. The ideal gas model therefore ha restrictions. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Similarly, many religious myths have their own restrictions. For instance, in Christianity, it is assumed that Christ died for man's sin. Consequently, his death was described as a ransom for man but the extent of applicability of this trait is limited. For instance, by comparing Christ's death to a ransom, it can be assumed that man was to gain liberation through Christ's death. Also, by comparing his death to a ransom, it can be regarded as a form of payment.  Lastly, since ransoms have to be paid to someone, then Christ's death was a payment to another party. The last aspect of this religious myth has been the object of debate and has thus placed restrictions in the applicability of the myth. Some scholars have asserted that the ransom which was Christ's death had to be paid to the devil because he was the one who held man in sin. It should be noted that God cannot considered as a possible recipient for the ransom because he is not the one who caused man to sin; it is therefore plausible to assume that the devil was the recipient. However, this assumption was found to be wanting because by claiming that the devil received the ransom, then this implies that God (through his son Christ) was using deceit to gain something. Such an attribute is unacceptable in Christian faith because God cannot be false. In this sense, the limits of the religious myth have been reached and one cannot apply this myth in all aspects of the faith. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Scientific models can also be likened to religious myths because in both cases there are usually implied meanings in the way issues are depicted. In other words, both religious myths and scientific models utilize metaphors to facilitate an understanding of complex phenomena. For instance, one of the major principles governing the natural sciences is Darwin's' theory of the origin of natural species.  In this theory, Darwin uses artificial selection of cattle's and plants as a model for understanding natural selection. According to the author, many cattle breeders usually look for certain desirable traits in their animals and then use those cattle in the process of producing other offspring with those same traits. Darwin applied that analogy in natural selection in that he asserted that nature selects the most desirable characteristics necessary for survival and that those characteristics are perpetuated in subsequent generations. If one analyses this model, one can see that there are certain metaphors used there, for instance, Darwin refers to nature as a selector of desirable characteristics. Nature in itself cannot be personified yet Darwin was trying to label it as a selector. This is a trait that implies intelligence which is only synonymous with living creatures and not nature. Nonetheless, Darwin was not trying to personify ‘nature', he was simply trying to describe it through the use of a metaphor.

Similarly, many religions of the world use metaphors to describe various aspects of their faith. For instance, in order to understand God, Christians describe him as a King. If taken literally, a King can sometimes be tyrannical. However, Christians understand that this description implies that God is their leader. There are many other examples, in which supernatural beings are described using natural traits hence showing the applicability of metaphors in the same manner as it is used in scientific models.

Both scientific models and religious myths combine various attributes of a certain compels system in order to under stand it further. Some religious myths may bring out the ‘tough' nature of the gods they are trying to describe. However, in order to fully understand those super natural beings, it is then necessary to use other myths that show their god's ‘compassionate' side. (Eliade, 1998) Consequently, many faiths are founded on the combination of these religious myths so as to gain a comprehensive understanding of their super natural beings. On the other hand, various scientific models can be used to explain or understand one system. Fro instance, when trying to understand the behavior of planets within the solar system, one needs to combine a number of scientific models in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of it. For instance one needs to understand gravitational forces through a different model, centrifugal forces in fluids through a different model and many others. In this regard, both religious myths and scientific models are similar in that both of them require a combination of myths/models in order to understand complex systems. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Sometimes the use of scientist models and religious myths can bring about misunderstandings in those disciplines and thus cause controversy. In religious myths, supernatural beings are described using natural qualities and this can sometimes be confusing. For instance, when God is described as a ‘father' then this can bring problems because earthly fathers are sometimes unreliable. Scientific models are also problematic because they also cause confusion. When Darwin claimed that ‘nature' selects desirable characteristics, other scientists opposed him claiming that nature cannot be personified and this brought great discourse amongst them. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Differences between scientific models and religious myths

While one cannot undermine the fact that both disciplines utilize analogies in their work, it is imperative to remember that the ways in which these representations are applied differ substantially. For instance, in the natural sciences, models are normally used to represent things that are true but the model itself may not be real. For instance, when scientists attempted to explain the behavior of gases within a container, they came up with a model that had perfectly elastic gases. In reality, there are no perfectly elastic gases as all gases have to loose some kinetic energy once they collide with the walls of the container. Consequently, it can be said that these scientists were using a non-existent model to explain an existent system. However, the same characteristic cannot be used to describe religious myths. Religious myths are thought to be real tales. Many religions believe that the description they use to understand God or other natural phenomenon actually existed and that they should be treated as such. For instance, Hindus perform rituals related to religious myths. They assert that these practices must continue to be perpetuated because their ancestors did them and so did their gods. (Malinowski, 1992) Consequently, there is a belief that the religious myths describing their gods performing those rituals are true and must be taken as such in the literal sense. Scientific models differ from religious myths because scientific models are supposed to be treated as such; they are not literal replicas of the systems that are explaining. While some aspects of the scientific model and the complex system may be similar, there are significant differences between them and one should not assume that everything they posses is similar to the system they are explaining. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Scientific models differ from religious myths because the ways in which limitations are addressed differ. For instance, in the natural sciences, it was assumed that the smallest particle to ever exist in nature was the atoms. However, subsequent researchers found that there are even smaller sub atomic particles such as protons, neutrons and electrons. Consequently, the model used to describe matter had to be modified to accommodate these changes. Also, in the kinetic theory of gases, it was found that the ideal gas equation does not hold under high pressure. Consequently, subsequent scientists modified it to incorporate the new developments. The equation applicable to gases in that state now becomes P(V-nB)=nNRT  in this case, b refers to the volume taken up by a mole of gas and is distinct for each type of gas. Overly, one can see that scientific models found to be inadequate are usually modified. On the other hand, religious myths also have their limitations. However, the manners in which those limitations are treated differ significantly from the natural sciences. Whenever certain limitations are found, they are simply, treated as limitations and left at that. Nothing is done to change them in any way. For instance, as stated earlier, many religions such as Christianity or Islam describe God as a father and there are religious myths to reinforce this description. However, the myths have limitations because in order to be a father, one has to have children and those children can only come about through a spouse. Consequently, God's description as a father can be regarded as limiting because there is no spouse. Since this limitation exists, religious scholars take it as such and no individual has attempted to discard the analogy because it is understood that the analogy remains as such. ( Duce, 1996)

As stated earlier, both religious myths and scientific models utilize metaphors. However, their applicability and function are quite different from one another. In religious myths, metaphors are more commonly used and are also understood differently. For instance, in Christianity, Jesus is described as the light of the world. This metaphor implies many things to many people. Some people may interpret it as a way of glorifying Christ as the son of God. Others might regard it as a method used to illuminate the world and rid it of its darkness that is brought about by sin. Alternatively, it is plausible to assume that  this metaphor implies that Christ is a pure being. All these explanations have been accepted by many Christians as true and indeed interrelations of the metaphors forms the foundation of many Christian teachings. Taking another example in the same faith, it was explained that Christ's blood was shed to purify man's sins. This issue was highlighted in the religious myth of Christ's death. Consequently, different people have explained this in different ways; all of which are symbolic in nature. On the other hand in scientific models, the functions of metaphors are restricted because their interpretations are usually one-way. For instance, in chemistry/ physics, metaphors are sometimes used to describe the behavior of elements or particles. For instance, scientists assert that an electron is attracted to the nucleus within an atom. By describing electrons as objects that have the ability to be attracted, then this description tries to imply that electrons have some human attributes. It is common sense that the latter assertion is not true but it helps in trying to understand why electrons behave the way they do. Consequently, the model is metaphoric. It requires interpretation but its interpretation is very limited and can only be understood in one particular way. The same cannot be said of religious myths which have very many interpretations. (Mc Grath, 2006)

Scientific models differ from religious myths because the value attached to proof is much more intense in the natural sciences than in religion. It should however, be noted that none of the later disciplines discard or ignore the existence of proof; it is just that one discipline places more emphasis on it than the other. In religious myths, the existence of a certain natural object is proof of the trueness of that myth. For instance, many religions explain the origin of the earth through creation stories. It is usually assumed that because the earth exists, then those religious myths are true or the existence of the earth is proof that the creation story was plausible. ( Duce, P. 1996) Also, many religious myths explain the origin of death. Religious faithful assert that since death is still prevalent today, then that testifies to the fact that the religious myth about death has been proved. On the other hand, scientific models differ quite distinctly from religious myths because proof is their foundation. The process of acquiring proof or showing it gives validity to the model and is therefore an important part of any scientific model. For instance, when Darwin was trying to use artificial selection as a model for natural selection, he used a wide range of examples as proof that artificial selection does in fact exist and can therefore be applied to natural selection. Also, when Newton was explaining gravitational forces, he used a wide range of experiments to validate his claims. Consequently, one can see that the value placed on proof in scientific models is much more intense than in religious myths.


Religious myths and scientific models are quite similar to one another in that they are both analogies, they can be interpreted further and have limitations. However, they also differ from one another because the value placed on proof is different, the significance of metaphors also varies, the manner in which limitations are treated are different and also both disciplines treat metaphors differently.


Malinowski, W. (1992): Myth in Primitive psychology, Waveland Press, pp 100-108

Mc Grath, A. (2006): Science and religion-an introduction; Blackwell publishing

Duce, P. (1996): Complementary in Perspective, Journal of Science and Christian belief, 8, 145-155

Eliade, M. (1998): Myth and reality, Long Grove, Waveland Press

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