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Religion and science can be partners

Both science and religion have something meaningful to contribute to a universal ethic.
By Bruce Sheiman
Winter 2009 11.1.09

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Science and religion (Robert Neubecker)

(Robert Neubecker)

Ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which proclaimed the inexorable secularization of society, it has generally been assumed that the advance of scientific understanding would supersede religious authority based on unchallenged faith. Religion, presumably, belonged to the primitive past, while secular science and technology belonged to the mature future. Yet today we see the flourishing of both.

I have been a student of philosophy and theology for thirty years; I am also an atheist. In my book, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than Without It, I explore the idea that on the deepest level modern science and religion are not contradictory—they arise from the same urge toward progress, transcendence, and salvation found within the human spirit.

The science-and-religion relationship model that dominates the modern cultural agenda is characterized by an irreconcilable conflict between extremists on both sides of the ideological spectrum: biblical literalists and creationists versus militant atheists and scientific materialists.

Unfortunately, the vehemence of both sides only serves to perpetuate the conflict. On one side we have a doctrine that uses the tools of science to deny the existence of God. As such, it is a rival belief system to theism that reaches beyond testable science. Science by itself is a method, not a creed. It is a way of formulating knowledge of the natural world; it is not a belief system and thus not a refutation of anything outside the natural world. On the enduring mysteries of divinity, science remains officially agnostic. Yet when science is used by unbelievers to deny the divine, religious people see in science the negation of their most revered beliefs.

On the other side are creationists and biblical literalists who use any ploy to introduce divine origins into the science curriculum of public schools. I am of the mind that only science should be taught in science classes, and that creationism is definitely not science. This is an unfortunate instance of religion encroaching upon science, which is no more justified than science encroaching upon religion.

In the science-religion conflict model, the only way there can be a resolution among extremists is in defeat of the other side. The tragedy is that a polarized, competitive view debases both science and religion. Ultimately, when devout believers deny the Big Bang and evolution, this is not religion; it is ignorance. And when militant atheists claim that natural empiricism invalidates spiritual beliefs, this is not science; it is arrogance.

In the spirit of reconciliation, the famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed the idea of “respectful non-interference,” whereby science and religion occupy distinct “non-overlapping magisteria” or domains. In Gould’s model, “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values.” Essentially, if the two disciplines never interact, there can never be any conflict.

The problem with the non-overlapping paradigm is that religion and science are still seen as incompatible. This represents an agreement to disagree, to be civil, but ultimately not to take each other very seriously. And it suggests that there is no way for the two to relate to each other in any meaningful manner.

In affirming science and religion as two distinct realms of knowledge, the non-overlapping model makes some very important pronouncements: Science cannot say with certainty that there is no spiritual world. What science discovers is not necessarily the whole of reality, and that should not cast doubt on what it does not discover. The success of science in its own domain does not negate other domains where its instruments are silent. Science cannot assign meaning or purpose to the world it explores. Questions about good and evil, about the meaning and purpose of existence, have no place in science because they cannot be addressed by the scientific method.

An integration model goes one step further to acknowledge that science and religion are two dimensions of people’s lives, and thus cannot be compartmentalized. It is plausible to think that science and religion can engage in a dialogue and can actually enhance one another to some extent, but the nature of that relationship depends on the person holding the beliefs.

Religious scientists are inclined to see “the language of God” in the advancement of science. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, used the term in reference to the Human Genome Project: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”

It is possible for religious moderates to reconcile God and science, much the way Newton and other religious scientists did in previous centuries. These are people who say that scientific knowledge can strengthen faith in God, not eradicate it, because, like their scientific predecessors, it reveals the works of God through his creation.

Collins is enthusiastic about this reconciliation of religion and science, but it is hugely unsatisfying to the nonbeliever. He is saying: All we have to do is believe in God as the creator of the universe and evolution, and the issue is solved. While it is an admirable way for believers to reconcile religion and science, it is not a solution that nonbelievers can accept.

To the chagrin of militant atheists, religion is not a vestige of an earlier phase of human development that would wither away as society became more secular and scientific. Religion is just as much a component of modern human life as is science. And there is no doubt that both science and religion are beneficial for humanity.

What is characteristic of religion today is that, while it remains largely God-centered, it is increasingly human-centered. And while many religions still see people as creatures in relation to the creator God, today the nature of that relationship is more a partnership than one of unquestioned obedience.

It can be claimed that science does not speak to ethics and values, but that is not entirely correct. The scientific method is truly values-neutral, dedicated only to understanding the natural world. The institution we call science, on the other hand, is motivated by a genuine desire to improve the human condition: increasing food yields, curing disease, overcoming the conditions that foster poverty, understanding the reasons for criminal behavior, distributing low-cost personal computers to poor children—the list of science’s humanistic aims is endless.

Thus, the two disciplines—science and religion—continue to express humanity’s teleological quest for progress and perfection: “the best and most complete form of goodness,” in Aristotle’s words. Science and religion come from the same human aspiration—the quest for transcendence and salvation. Both disciplines strive to understand the essence of the universe, the “language of God.” And in a sense, both seek to recover humankind’s “lost divinity.”

Through technological advancement, humans seek understanding of the universe and deliverance from our earthly existence. Science may tell us that nothing exists beyond the natural realm, but at the same time it seeks to push humanity above nature to omniscience (information technology), immortality (medical science), and omnipotence (mechanical, electrical, computer engineering). Thus technology and the power of reason have come to be identified with progress and the perfectibility of humankind—a “secular eschatology” where human beings are liberated from their earthly limitations.

The most salient commonality between science and religion is the drive to advance the human enterprise. Like religion, science promises a collective salvation of humanity. Both are devoted to the alleviation of human suffering and the advancement of humankind. The time has come to affirm science and religion as partners.

Adapted with permission from An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than Without It, © 2009 by Bruce Sheiman, published by Alpha (Penguin Group USA).

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