I recently came across the explanation that

Science explains things that can be explained, religion explains things that can not be explained.

Is this true? I feel like this is true because science explains how the world works(elements, atoms, air pressure, etc.) and religion explains "godly" things like human's afterlife, heaven, and hell.

But it also feels kind of off because religion also explains where the Earth came from which science also explained. So both religion and science explains the existence of the Earth.

Does this quote make sense? Or how could I refine it to make it true?

  • You might want to see this post: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/24083/… Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 17:20
  • You could just say, "Science attempts to explain the natural. Religion attempts to explain both the natural and the supernatural."
    – user18800
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 18:33
  • 2
    "religion explains things that can not be explained." This is a contradictory statement. Only Chuck Norris can do that which cannot be done.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 13:30
  • "Science explains things that can be explained". It would better be : "Science try to explain things that could be explained ..." with sometimes .... "errors", it is a search without end. And it is a "religion", by "definition".
    – Antonio51
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 5:24

6 Answers 6


Of course, it will depend on who you ask. Most religious people would not agree with that statement.

There is, the little matter that "religion explains things that cannot be explained" is an oxymoron (if they can't be explained, then nothing can explain them). Let's leave that aside.

If you look at, for example, Thomas Aquinas, the Summa Theologica has a lot of explaining that takes place in it. He explains things in pain-staking detail. The same goes for much of Augustine's work (see, City of God, On the Trinity as two examples that are more like this). There is also a great tradition among Jewish philosophers (Moses Maimonides, Philo) and Muslim philosophers (ibn Sinna, Averroes as just two examples) of explaining rationally different aspects of God. So, based on that, it doesn't seem quite right to say that religion is only about the unexplainable (or, as is sometimes stated, the "irrational").

To take this a bit further, if you look at anyone of Augustine (Confessions), CS Lewis (Surprised by Joy), or Thomas Merton (Seven Story Mountain) as examples, there are many people who felt logically the need for God's existence before believing in any particular religious tradition. If you believe what they have to say, that points that to some degree God is knowable just based on natural law before knowing anything about, or believing in, revelation. They would disagree with the idea that religion/theology is just some separate (and therefore unnecessary!) sphere.

To get to your question about how to write a quote that distinguishes between science and religion, I feel there are a few approaches:

  • Science is evaluated by the scientific method with empirical data. Religion is evaluated by a mixture of historical methods and internal experiential data.
  • The focus of theology is to know God better, the focus of science is to understand matter better; sometimes (of debatable frequency: some would argue for more often, some less often) they happen to inform each other.
  • Religion explains the purpose behind things, science explains simply how they happen. (Most atheists I know reject this saying that many things just don't have a purpose.)
  • Do we have any evidence for purpose?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 12:22

The quote

Science explains things that can be explained, religion explains things that can not be explained.

does not make any sense, notably not in the context of a philosophical discussion. The second part of the quote is contradictory. Because things which cannot be explained, cannot be explained. Also religion canot achieve the impossible.

Actually religion does not explain human's afterlife, heaven, and hell. Religion claims that an afterlife exists. And Christian religion employs heaven and hell in the service of a moral assessment of human behaviour.

In contrast, an explanation first presupposes some observed phenomena. And secondly – at least in a scientific context – an explanation derives the special case from a general, confirmed theory. Both is lacking in the examples from your quote: Afterlife has not been observed. Hence there is nothing to explain about afterlife. A similar assessment holds for the concepts of hell and heaven.

Asked for improving the quote I would recommend:

Religion does not explain anything. Instead it satisfies the yearning of many people to cope with circumstances they cannot manage by themselves.

For assessing religion from the view of psychology and sociology of religion see e.g., Kay, Aaron et al.: Religious Belief as Compensatory Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 14(1) 37-48, 2010. The references of that paper point to several recent papers about the whole subject.

  • We needed psychology and got religion instead. That can be corrected.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 13:17

There are a number of people discussing this issue which you may find very interesting.

I would start by looking at some of the work of Daniel Dennett, and from there you can find links to others that are discussing the same topics with different perspectives. Dennett is a philosopher that has a number of collaborators that are scientists, and an engineer that he discusses this topic with to expand on his perspective. There are some great panel discussions on exactly this topic hosted by Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and some great commentary from Bill Nye.

If you look these individuals up on youtube you will find hours of great discussion on the topic and lots of debate with religious leaders to provide perspective. Between the individuals that I mentioned you will have the perspective of a philosopher, three scientists and an engineer, who all spend time talking with religious scholars.

The best part is that they spend time specifically discussing the fundamental nature of science and religion from different perspectives.


This question smells so strong of the naturalistic bias that is so widespread today.

It would be closer to the truth to claim that religion explains (or tries to at least) the non-physical or what may lie outside of what is physical, the next world or the non-temporal, the immaterial.

This in stark contrast to science that only deals with the reality of the physical.

This is not to say that each one has not it's own valid domain of teaching authority. Of course, just like a physicist does have his or her own pet beliefs, and subscribes certain theories and not to others. So also do people have their own views on the non-physical but that does not make either less worthwhile to inquire about.

  • StackExchange is looking rather for well-sourced answers founded in texts considered authoritative (i.e. for any view, not in a dogmatic sense) than in original narratives. See this Philosophy.Meta post. The question having the background of a naturalistic bias would be a good comment, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 13:26


Science and religion do not have a direct relationship towards each other. What they do have is a relationship to belief.

In brief:

  • In science you will believe when there is evidence. Science celebrates belief in presence of evidence.
  • In religion you will believe when there is no evidence. Religion celebrates belief in absence of evidence.

Some religions even makes it a virtue to believe in the absence of evidence.

So you could say that these two are mutually exclusive because if you have evidence for a claim, then you are not a religious believer any more. In when faced with evidence that corroborates a claim you are simply subscribing to a known and provable fact of reality.

  • I wouldn't say "religion demands no evidence", but rather "religion doesn't require evidence". Obviously religious people would he happy if you can prove to them historical facts from the Bible or connection to God or anything like that. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 11:56
  • 1
    Religious people would be happy if you could make science out of their religion, yes, and they sure have tried. But the fact remains that as long as there is no evidence, you only have faith that the claims of the religion are true. Once the claims have been proven through the scientific process, the claims move to the realm of science and are just plain old reality.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:00
  • OK, so not you have to distinguish between faith and religion. Sure, faith, by definition, can't be evidence-based. Religion is something else though. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:03
  • @YechiamWeiss Religion is organised affirmation of faith.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:05
  • that may, or may not, involve other realms other than faith, such as science, logic, politics. You seem to reduce religion to a very dull status when in reality it's much more complicated. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 12:14

There is a tendency to portray Religion generally, or specific religions, as monolothic unchanging and clearly and uniquely codified. This is never true, and results from a mistake in buying how most religions describe themselves, and a wider reluctance from the scientific perspective to look at the development of ideas including scientific ones anthropologically. The same is often the case about science, such as in Popper's picture that scientific practice is constantly approaching it's ideal.

To get a perspective that is not rooted only in our own time, we should look not at what credos say about themselves, but what do they do for people, in practice? This was taken up by Foucault. Not in contradiction to true knowledge about how the world works, but to explain how ideas propagate and are given importance.

Scientific practice cannot be exempted from critique or set outside history. That would put it on a pedestal, instead of observing it in practice. Scientific community practice clearly has strengths, in resource-finding and technology. But there are dangers in valuing knowledge as morally neutral, because it isn't. There are ethical restraints on weapons research, on animal experiments. But frequently moral thought and training are seen as outside the scientific curriculum. Very little energy is put into the supposed gold standard of science, repeating observational studies. And power structures impede and distort the emergence of new ideas. Perhaps the greatest danger would be to write off all the lessons of human history on recurring moral dilemmas and healthy communities, which could be absorbed from reflective study of the attempts of one era to speak to another, which are religion.

Science contributes increased knowledge. But religious practice has had benefits for community cohesion and moral thinking. We shouldn't see current scientifuc culture as the end of development, in awe of where we are now, but look also for the next steps. We must not only explain, but be.

  • 1
    StackExchange is looking rather for well-sourced answers founded in texts considered authoritative (i.e. for any view, not in a dogmatic sense) than in original narratives. See this Philosophy.Meta post.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 13:25

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