(UN?) HOLY ALLIANCE: Why the Titans of Science and Religion Continue to Clash
As humankind advances into its increasingly globalized future, one of the most pressing existential issues of the modern age is the growing tension (and sometimes hostile sparring) between religious systems and the scientific enterprise. Tenants of religion would claim they have suffered blow after blow at the hands of faithless scientists with little regard for the killing of God. And that science, in its attempt to corner the market on truth and understanding, has belittled religion to a state of being little more than destructive dogma grounded in the parochial and patriarchal superstitions of iron-age peasants. Additionally, the scientific community often charges religion with being fantastical, anti-progress, radical, tribalistic, and even governmentally favored. Some would say that we need only to turn on the news this week to see the latest evidence of religion's destructive tendencies.
With so many points of contention and incompatibility, it is not surprising that there is such a large number of people, particularly within the secular scientific community, who believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive.
Is this a progressive or even healthy view of the compatibility issue? Perhaps what it takes is a moderate view from the middle to uncover the fact that the tension between religion and science is often misguided - terribly misguided. The issue lies mainly with the communication between both domains and their understanding and interpretation of one another.
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The current paradigm of much of the public-facing scientific community is that we humans are, as physicist and public intellectual Lawrence Krauss has so often put it, "completely insignificant." And that we humans are each mere blips of matter on the grand cosmic stage of the universe.
Well, are we?
Indeed, Krauss is completely correct, from a certain point of view. Like many of his fellow materialists, when Krauss looks at the universe he sees elementary particles, fundamental forces and the gradual evolution of those particles and forces. And that is certainly a fair way of seeing the universe if you're a physicist or a cosmologist. Indeed investigations into ethics, faith and philosophy do not bring a cosmologist closer to new discoveries in Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. From the physicist's point of view, planet Earth orbits around an average star, situated in an unremarkable neighborhood of an unremarkable galaxy in an average cluster housed among a network of trillions of galaxies that together make up less than one percent of all matter in the universe. From this vantage point, we are insignificant. Adopting this outlook as a view of the human condition, however, is as incomplete as it is dangerous.
The scientific method was devised to ask one question: How? And it does so over and over again as the burgeoning field of the sciences expands our knowledge of the physical universe deeper and deeper. Questions such as What is the speed limit of light? or How many quarks are in an atom? are the kinds of "how" questions which fall unquestionably to the feet of the empirical, scientific-method-wielding scientists of the modern age. And they solve them.
Science, through its rigorous scrutiny, gives us testable answers backed by observed and collected data. Through scrupulous peer review and academic scrutiny, scientists devise every possible method of falsifying a claim in order to discredit a hypothesis. After developing no known way of disproving the claim, the hypothesis is deemed to be "true" - or at least true for the time being. Should any new and contending data arise in the future, scientists will happily replace or revise a hypothesis to fit the latest data. And the ultimate knockdown blow for a scientific hypothesis is whether or not it has predictable outcomes in a given system.
Science makes verifiable predictions as to how the world works. This is what science does.
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What is religion? Or more appropriately for this context, what is religious doctrine and how is it meant to be interpreted? The narratives of the world's great monotheistic religions are archetypal stories that have been passed down through the generations in the form of oral and written forms in order to preserve and communicate deep ethical, philosophical and utilitarian wisdom. Religious and mythical narratives are archetypal in the sense that, although the events of the story happened only once, the realities they represent happen all of the time. The purpose is to guide and inform us as to how we should interact and behave in the world. That is to say, how to navigate as conscious and social agents along a spectrum of experience that is roughly situated within a good/evil or order/chaos dichotomy.
Religion, if attempting to operate in the domain of experiential inquiry, has virtually nothing to contribute to anything regarding the phenomenology of the material world. Religious thought and religious systems are not equipped or designed to inform us about the workings of the natural world. Religion is simply the wrong tool to use if one were to inquire, for example, as to what the strength of the weak nuclear force is or if the Earth orbits around the sun. It does not even provide us with a reliable guide when seeking accurate documentation of linear human history. It seems natural then that a metaphysical system of moral prescription, which is not designed for measurement or analysis, should not be expected to contend with such inquiry. Much like in the creative domains, the principals of music such as tempo and key are of little use to the painter wielding paint onto a canvas - technically speaking. Likewise, does it make sense for non-physicists to view the world in the way Lawrence Krauss views it?
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Humans are born into the world with an existential need to navigate it progressively, cooperatively and meaningfully. With our large brains and infinitely complex social structures, we as communities and societies require a universal, metaphysical framework which provides us with an ongoing moral orientation for how to navigate throughout life. From an evolutionary standpoint, this might be expressed as a behavioral framework which encourages non-zero sum interactions between organisms in a given population.
Once a culture deemed certain moral ideas and intuitions to be particularly universal and important, they were canonized into creative stories through the use of powerful narratives. The moral imperatives of the human condition (at least as they were determined in the agricultural age of their creators) were told in fantastical stories containing virtuous characters who communicated their wisdom through example, miracles and feats (sometimes supernatural) of grandiose display; Christ healed the sick and was resurrected, Moses parted the Red Sea, Muhammed flew to heaven on a winged horse and the Buddha defeated the evil god Mara. Many are familiar with these stories, but were they meant to be understood as fact? Do some believers in the factual truths of their religious doctrines have it wrong in this way?
When uncovering the historical evidence of ancient religious peoples, scholars of religion and myth find that the historical facts and accuracy of the narratives of holy books (particularly of the monotheistic variety) was not something ancient peoples were concerned with. What a story meant was of far greater importance to the reader than whether or not the story contained a reliable timeline of factual history. For example, while there were certainly sub-sects of Christians who for centuries believed in the factual literalism of the Bible, this was not necessarily the default mode of understanding for many of Christianity’s adherents.
It was not until around the time of the Western Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, which saw reason, the scientific method and progress as the highest of intellectual virtues, that the interpretation of Christianity saw a doubling-down of Biblical literalism. Liturgical recitation of the Bible in a ritualistic context, housed in a formal religious building such as a church, had always been the dominant forum for understanding the Bible. With the advent of the printing press and higher rates of Western literacy, followers of the Christian doctrine could now break away from relying on the authoritative dissemination of information by church officials and begin their own practice of a private understanding of the Bible’s contents. This fact, combined with the growing intellectual climate which emphasized Enlightenment values over religious doctrine, made an individual’s ability and desire to approach the Bible in a secular manner easier than ever before. The result was largely not an understanding of the Bible's contents as sophisticated myth, but as fact. And not just the standard garden variety facts, but ones disseminated and spoken by the creator God himself.
As trends in literalist interpretations and understandings of the Bible continued, science pressed on. Each new decade brought about accelerated scientific growth and understanding about nature and our reality; many of which the religious community needed to contend with head-on.
In 1857, the English Naturalist Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book titled On the Origin of Species which first proposed in detail, the process of evolution by Natural Selection and how this process could create the vast, complex and diverse web of life on Earth. In 1927, a Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître, suggested that the expanding universe could be traced back in time to a single, originating point. Shortly after, this discovery was coined with the name the Big Bang. In the preceding decades scientists also discovered through observation that the age of the universe is roughly 13.77 billion years old. What these facts about the universe have in common is that they are diametrically opposed to a literalist understanding of the monotheistic religious texts, including the Christian Bible.
A famous early 20th-century example of the clashing of science and religion was the well-known Scopes Trial that took place in Tennessee in 1925. The trial made public an important and growing issue between the scientific and religious communities: Does Darwin’s Theory of Evolution belong in the classroom? The fundamentalist religious community objected on the grounds that the Word of God as revealed in the Bible should take precedence over all human discoveries and knowledge, and the modernist, scientific community argued that not only should Evolution be understood as fact, but that it was not necessarily inconsistent with a non-literalist understanding of religion.
While this particular event was concerned mainly with the Theory of Evolution, it highlights the fact that there are many points of tension between science and religion that have persisted contentiously up until the present day.
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Not everyone in the religious and scientific communities, however, see the two worlds as being partitioned from one another. Many vocal religious officials the world over believe in the compatibility of science and religion and about one in three American scientists are openly subscribers to a religious faith. Despite the wide-spread acceptance that the two domains are oppositional, a cooperative alliance between the two can be found in many of the minds of 21st century theologians and scientists.
While a literalist understanding of any text can be seen as static and unchanging, it would be untrue to view religions as a whole as such. Religious systems are constantly undergoing a process of adaptation and evolution themselves. Judaism during the era of Solomon’s Temple (957-587BCE) is not the Judaism of the 21st century. In fact, without any kind of adaptation to the modern world, many (if not all) of the world’s religions would not be around today. At a high-level, one might even entertain religious systems as undergoing their own continual Darwinian adaptation process. Karen Armstrong, a contemporary author of world religion sums this idea up nicely when she states “All religious peoples in any age have to make their traditions address their particular modernity.”
It seems that the division of religion and science is often intensified after an event in which the two domains are made to collide. In a country like the United States, who’s very foundation is grounded in the ideas of, free speech, freedom of religious expression and the separation of religion and state, tension is created when the domains intersect. As illustrated in the above mentioned Scopes trial, it is when opinions rooted in fundamentalist religious interpretations are thrust into the general public domain that the scientific and secular communities rightly launch a defense. If religious thought and dogma never bled into public policy, education, or high office, the religion vs. science discussion we see today might have been only seen in the occasional philosophical quibbling among specialized intellectual circles. While a “stay in your own lane” philosophy is clearly difficult for both domains to maintain, it would be useful to accept that the functions of both science and religion are of vital and often independent utility.
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A cooperative bridge between the domains of science and religion is strengthened when religion understands science and its advancements as the engine of progress that has allowed our species to flourish, grow and enhance material well-being over the past three centuries. Science should likewise not view religion in a wholly disparaging light. While anti-theist, scientific rock stars like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris see a hypothetical world without religion as being more just and moral, they often fail to see the apparent pitfalls of a Godless and faithless humanity. Without the permeating moral substrate that religion so often provides, the human mind is left vulnerable to seek out other systems in which to fill its God-shaped hole. Humans derive much of their meaning from the archetypal concepts that thread through almost every religious system. Without much of the emotional and spiritual orientation which religion provides, the human mind can be left to contend with a deep nihilism (and too-often collectivism) which should be seen as the philosophical antithesis of a meaningful life.
The absolute primacy of the individual and an individual’s pursuit of meaning over the group is a sentiment that is not only deeply embedded within religions such as Christianity, but also what secular countries like the United States were founded on. This deep and important overlap is too-often unacknowledged and should be cause for celebration. After all, the secular mind was born out of the religious mind.
While science will continue to march on and as the global secular and non-affiliated communities grow in population each year, we should still expect religion and faith as we understand it today to be around for a long, long time. The 21st century mind must acknowledge and respect that faith, reason, science and religion are all important players in the grand human experiment; all of which can make life rich and worth living, and all of which can and do co-exist in the same time and place. The sheer existence of these enterprises over the vast timelines in which they have existed should speak to the fact that they continue to provide some element of value to the human condition. While we might not always agree on the particulars, life is better when we don’t encroach our beliefs on others, whatever they may be. As the saying goes, live and let live.