Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Religion-Science Smackdown

Monday is Religion Day at USA TODAY and this week’s paper featured an essay by Henry Brinton on honoring religion and science. The gist of Pastor Brinton’s piece is that religion and science answer different questions and therefore should not be in conflict. Religion, he says, speaks to why things are the way they are, and science speaks to how things are the way they are. If this were true there would be no conflict. But it isn’t true, at least not when speaking of the three Abrahamic religions. (The Buddha demanded from the beginning that people test his truth claims for themselves.)

To speak of science this way is to ignore the implications of science and the scientific method. Science isn’t simply a collection of facts about the mechanics of the universe; it is a philosophical stance toward that universe. Science insists that anything that cannot ever be tested and potentially disproved is irrelevant. (This leaves room for many hypotheses that may not be testable today but are open for future testing when such testing becomes possible).

The three Abrahamic religions are not about proof-tests but proof-texts. A matter is true if it appears in or can be made to appear in the holy book of your choice. Jesus is God because the New Testament says he is. Jesus is not God because the Hebrew Bible doesn’t say he is. The Bible Code was a very popular method among some Orthodox Jews for proving that the Torah was true because it showed that the Torah predicted Hitler and the Kennedy assassination (among many other historical events). It quickly fell out of favor when Christian decoders proved that it also predicted Jesus. Adherence to fixed belief rather than a willingness to undergo rigorous testing is the hallmark of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Religion and science offer two very different worldviews. Science is rooted in naturalism, religion in supernaturalism. Science can’t disprove God (God is not testable), but doesn’t need God to explain reality. Religion can’t prove God (God must not be tested), but doesn’t need proof in order to insist that people believe; indeed belief is irrelevant if a matter can be proven.

Nor can religion be confined to abstractions about “why” or lovely pronouncements about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. If religion were only about universal meaning, justice, and love we would have no conflict between religion and science or between one religion and another. But religion demands more than this. It demands loyalty to a set of untestable propositions that elevate some people over others and sanction horrendous acts of violence against those others either in this world or the next. In this sense religion is more like politics than science, more about power than truth.

Science doesn’t need religion to make sense of the world. Nor does science need religion in order to find life-affirming values that transcend human whim and ego. The more science reveals the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life the more it finds scientific justification for an ethic based in mutual caring and support. True, science can be used for evil ends, but so can religion. Neither of which suggests that science and religion are without ethics, only that people ignore ethics when they no longer serve our purposes.

Similarly, religion doesn’t need science to explain the world or to live in it meaningfully. Hence the Taliban, Creationism, and any other fundamentalist faith that ignores or denies the facts of science. So what if they would never get to the moon or split the atom? Getting the heaven is the point of life, and compared to that going to the moon is a distraction.

I understand that many people want to keep religion and science separate. It makes life easier if we compartmentalize things this way: I can live as if the earth orbits the sun six days a week, and pretend that it doesn’t one day a week. What’s the harm? I can live off the oil produced by dinosaurs millions of years ago, and yet insist that in fact there were male and female brontosauruses on Noah’s ark some few thousands of years ago.

But I don’t want reductionist science or ridiculous religion. I don’t want to compartmentalize reason and faith. I want science and religion to work together and the challenge the reductionist tendencies of each. I want priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, swamis well trained in the fundamentals of science, and scientists engaged in the exploration of spiritual potential.

For me religion and science are different languages, different ways of speaking about reality. And as with all languages the each have their brilliance and their blind spots. Science speaks in facts and numbers, religion in myth and metaphor (though some scientists are discovering that metaphor is necessary for them as well). Science is prose, religion is poetry. Science would never posit, “My love is a red red rose” but that doesn’t make the statement false, just metaphoric. Science can help me understand the grandeur of a tree; religion can help me experience its magic. Science can reveal the majesty of the heavens; religion can help me feel its love. Should we separate poetry and prose, or simply recognize them as being unique unto themselves?

Science is like the score of a great symphony; religion is the act of playing that score or listening to it being played by a fine orchestra. They compliment one another. Can we separate the score from the music? Of course not.

The battle between religion and science is silly. It only happens between reductionist fundamentalists in both camps—people who wish to see their way as the only way. At the Science and Spirituality Forum I help direct at Middle Tennessee State University we invite people from all fields to offer their various understandings of life from their various disciplines not to decide which is right, but to discover that all are incomplete and in need of the others.

1 comment:

dtedac said...

What a great commentary. When science and religion work together as complementary fields of thought rather than competitors, then we will see great ideas and great discoveries come forth.