Edward O. Wilson, biology professor emeritus at Harvard, and author of some of the most insightful books I have ever read, wrote in USA Today (January 16th) that we should accept the fact that religion and science are irreconcilable. We should assign each its sphere of influence, and then find areas for mutual cooperation, such as preserving the environment. I think this is bad advice. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: science without religion is dangerous; religion without science is stupid.
When we had no science, religion passed as science, but once we invented science and the scientific method (“discoveries and the testing of discoveries” as Dr. Wilson puts it), religion became pseudo-science. The solution is not to indulge the pursuit of sacred nonsense, but for religious leaders to stand up and free religion from the need to be science at all.
Religion cannot defeat the truth of science; it can only ignore it. The refusal of the Church Fathers to look through Galileo’s telescope and see for themselves that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth as the bible suggests, did not impact the solar system one bit. Religion can deny truth, even suppress truth, but it cannot make it less true.
Religion needs to embrace science, and to adapt its teachings to reflect the truths that science reveals. Such an embrace is the not the end of religion, but the liberation of it. Free from having to be science, religion can confront science with what science lacks: a moral and spiritual compass.
Science is amoral. It goes where the truth leads it. There is nothing in the scientific method that speaks to right or wrong, good or bad. There is nothing inherent in science that dreams of human holiness or posits the sacredness of life. This is the realm of religion, and it doesn’t need pseudo-science to do legitimize this realm.
Religion must challenge science the way the prophets challenged the priests and kings; it must speak ethical truth to power, and uphold a vision of humanity that places science in service to global justice, compassion, and humility.
As long as religion denies or competes with science, it is mired in defending its own ignorance, and cannot speak its truth. What we need are theologians rooted in science who can adjust theology to reflect reality even as they challenge science to serve humanity.