Sunday, February 12, 2006

God Dennett

In an essay entitled “The Harsh Light of Science: Why a Scientific Study of Religion is Necessary” published in this month’s SEED magazine, Daniel C. Dennett continues his screed against religion. The tone of the essay is smarmy, but the challenge is no less real.

“The ethos of science,” Dennett writes, “is that you pay a price for the authoritative confirmation of your favorite hypothesis, risking an authoritative refutation of it. Those who want to make claims about religion will have to live by the same rules: prove it or drop it. And if you set out to prove it and fail, you are obliged to tell us.”

He gleefully awaits the falsification of religious teachings, and demands, rightly I think, that if a teaching is disproved the organizations that promote it must admit that it is false.

I can understand that such a challenge is frightening to many people of faith, but that is because they mistake religion for science. The Bible (like all sacred texts) is a blend of the timeless (love your neighbor) and the time bound (slavery, oppression of women, homophobia, etc.). Having to defend these ancient beliefs against modern science and sensibility is silly, wastes an incredible amount of energy, makes a laughingstock of faith, and perverts the very essence of religion.

Religion, from the Latin “relegare,” means (as does the Sanskrit word “yoga”) “to bind.” Religion is a means for uniting the individual self with the Whole that I call God. Those who use religion to achieve power and wealth, justify their political agendas, and excuse horrors against other humans and the planet itself erode the true genius of religion.

Can science disprove the power of religion to awaken us to the union of part and Whole? On the contrary, science can show us how this awakening happens and can be generated. Science can show us what happens in deep contemplative prayer and meditation, that we might fine-tune our spiritual disciplines to make them more effective. Science can be in the service of religion when religion is allowed to be in the service of God and godliness.

Science can do many wonderful things, but it cannot provide people with hope, meaning, and life-purpose. Science can tell us the “how” of things but not the “why.” Science can free religion from having to be science, but it cannot replace religion with science.

This should be the relationship of science and religion: science should be taken very seriously by religion so that the teachings of religion never violate the truths of science. This would not erode the power of religion, but free religion to do what science cannot: promote a way of life that furthers universal justice, compassion, love, and peace. Religion without science has no head. Science without religion has no heart or soul.

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