Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Religion & Science, Marriage Made in Hell?

Jerry Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, argues in yesterday’s USA TODAY that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. I disagree.

Good science, as Dr. Coyne says, is rooted in reason and evidence, and at home with doubt and testing. I suggest the same is true of good religion. Good science uses math and machines to investigate reality, good religion uses contemplative disciplines such as meditation, imagination, literature, art, and music to do the same.

Good science should be used by good religion to free itself from bogus notions about reality: the sun revolving around the earth, creation being only 10,000 years old, etc; and bogus history: there is no evidence for the Jews’ enslavement in and exodus from Egypt, for example. Free from the burden of affirming what is bogus, good religion can then use the tools of comparative literature and mythology and psychology to find the wisdom articulated in the myths it used to mistake for fact. Good science frees good religion from irrationality.

Of course Dr. Coyne isn’t talking about religion and science in this way. He is pitting the worst of religion (people killing other people over inane dogma), against the best of science: open minded rational seekers of truth. But science doesn’t work that way. New ideas are not welcomed in scientific establishments any more than they are in religious ones. True, scientists don’t kill one another over their findings, but they do seek to kill one another’s careers and funding.

Dr. Coyne sums matters us this way: “In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.” Nonsense. First of all he is mistaking “faith” for “belief.” Good religion and good science are both rooted in the faith that the universe can be understood and navigated wisely and well. And just as religion has faith in its contemplative methodologies, so science has faith in the scientific method and reason. What good science and good religion both reject are dogmatic beliefs. Bad science and bad religion, on the other hand, revel in dogmatism.

Dr. Coyne reduces religion to superstition. To the extent that religions are tied to superstitions and demonstrable falsehoods, they should free itself from these. That is how science can benefit religion. But the opposite is also true: the extent to which science is blind to realities uncovered by contemplative practice, or closed to the notion that meaning and value can be found in the human condition, or that the human condition is as much rooted in narrative as in physics, science needs to open its eyes.


eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Gut gezogt! Rabbi David Wolpe's recent book "Why Faith Matters" is a wonderful read on all of this;
specifically, chapter four, "Does Science Disprove Religion?" In this chapter one can read of Rabbi Wolpe's debate with scientist Stephen J. Gould z'l. Good stuff.

Another book on this subject is "Faith and Doubt"
by Rev./Dr. John Ortberg. His PhD is in clinical psychology.


Old Lady said...

Interesting subject. What was the religion/gods of the past is the science of today. I believe science and religion walk hand in hand, at least in my world they do.

Maskil said...

Not sure about the potshot against the Exodus. According to Richard A Freund (I’m busy reading his “Digging through the Bible” at the moment), there’s at least as much evidence for the Exodus as there is against it. I understand the principle you’re trying to get across, though.

Unknown said...

This is a wonderful and insightful piece, Rami. I have the same hesitancy about the Exodus example that Maskil has. I think that certain aspects of our history have great and enduring value as central myths that shape our faith and our identity. Factual proof is irrelevant to myth.

Rabbi Rami said...

I will check out Digging through the Bible again. I read it for my Intro to the Bible class when it came out and was not impressed.

Unknown said...

This is one reason why it is so difficult to be both religious and a scientist. I see no contradiction whatsoever, but my atheist colleagues often disagree. My god is a god of reason and, really, one of the things that separates us from the Eternal divine is the difference between our understanding of reality and that which is. It's up to us to use our reason to try and figure out as much as we can.

Scientists have faith, too, that statistical analysis of data from a sample of individuals reflects the entire population, that molecules will combine in thus-and-such a way, and so on. We are like soothsayers in that we are pretty sure we can make predictions based on observations and more often than many scientists would like to admit, we're wrong. Scientists get as emotional over their idea of the one truth as any evangelical. Talk to a phylogeneticist some time about parsimony or DNA barcoding and then sit back with a bag of popcorn.

Anyway, both scientists and theists are looking for the ultimate truth which cannot be known. We can barely touch on it at best, but both require critical thinking, keen observation, and a willingness to be wrong from time to time.

That right there is the hard part.

Unknown said...

I give Radhasoami Faith view of Creation Theory. In Sar Bachan (Poetry) composed by His Holiness Soamiji Maharaj the August Founder of Radhasoami Faith the details of creation and dissolution has been described very scientifically. It is written in this Holy Book: Only He Himself (Supreme Father)and none else was there. There issued forth a great current of spirituality, love and grace (In scientific terminology we may call this current as gravitational wave). This is called His Mauj (Divine Ordainment). This was the first manifestation of Supreme Being. This Divine Ordainment brought into being three regions, viz., Agam, Alakh, and Satnam of eternal bliss. Then a current emerged with a powerful sound. It brought forth the creation of seven Surats or currents of various shades and colours (in scientific terminology we may call it electromagnetic waves). Here the true Jaman or coagulant was given (in scientific terminology this coagulant may be called as weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force). Surats, among themselves, brought the creation into being.

These currents descended down further and brought the whole universe/multiverse into being i.e. black holes, galaxies etc. were born.

Newton said the speed of gravity is infinite but according to Einstein (and some nifty interstellar measurements), it most certainly is not.

But Newton is right.

We know that even the light cannot escape black holes. Why? There is only one possibility that gravitational force pulls light with greater speed than the speed of light. The speed of gravitational wave is many times higher than the speed of light at black holes. On Earth gravity is subordinate to electromagnetic wave but on black holes electromagnetic wave is subordinate to gravitational force.

The Universe includes everything that exists. In the Universe there are billions and billions of stars. These stars are distributed in the space in huge clusters. They are held together by gravitation and are known as galaxies. Sun is also a star. Various members of the solar system are bound to it by gravitation force. Gravitation force is the ultimate cause of birth and death of galaxy, star and planets etc. Gravitation can be considered as the cause of various forms of animate and inanimate existence. Human form is superior to all other forms. Withdrawal of gravitational wave from some plane of action is called the death of that form. It can be assumed that gravitation force is ultimate creator. Source of it is ‘God’. Gravitational Field is the supreme soul (consciousness) and its innumerable points of action may be called as individual soul (consciousness). It acts through body and mind. Body is physical entity. Mind can be defined as the function of autonomic nervous system. Electromagnetic waves are its agents through which it works. This can be realized through the practice of meditation and yoga under qualified meditation instruction. This can remove misunderstanding between science and religion and amongst various religions. This is the gist of all religious teachings – past, present and future.