Awkward Allies: Religion and Science

In an earlier blog essay, Religion and the Credibility of Science, I argued that religion and science are fundamentally opposed to each other. In the book Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, I make the same claim, but with a twist, namely that the two, while antagonistic, are also allies of one another! How can that be possible? I seek to explain how in this blog essay.

The key set-up paragraph in the book reads:

Modern life and personal identity rest fitfully upon an uneasy alliance and fragile weld of two contradictory belief and value systems. Reason, science, and doubt are emphasized in the world of work as the means for making a living, constructing a technological society, and booting up a lightning-fast global economy. Faith, religion, and certainty, on the other hand, are featured in giving meaning to the rest of life, and to life itself; they undergird the values of tribes, peoples, nations, and social institutions. Science and technology dominate the working hours and electronic entertainment enlivens the leisure hours up until bedtime, but religious faith takes over to comfort believers through the dark, frightful nights, and for spiritual renewal on holidays and special set-asides of the weekend. The weld is anachronistic: reason and science are current; faith and religion are ancient. Faith opposes reason. Religion opposes science. Certainty opposes and dismisses doubt. (pp. 12-13.)

The big points are that science and religion are:

  • philosophical systems
  • internalized to some extent by each and every adult citizen worldwide,
  • allied with each now and for decades and centuries past in social and economic organization,
  • premised on opposed and contradictory assumptions,
  • managed by segregating the domains, times, situations,and needs to which each applies during the week,
  • with science getting nature, economic, work, and quality of life issues,
  • and with religion getting supernatural territories, purpose, meaning of life, and next life issues.

This bond and management system between science and religion, while longstanding, is unstable, shaky and, over the long run, unsustainable. It has led humanity to exactly this moment of planetary crisis, environmental degradation, and omnipresent threat of war and nuclear apocalypse, all justified in the name of a God birthed in tribal religions. That’s the killer problem that can’t be overcome by the bonding scheme as it now exists.

My suggestion is to intervene in this system by shifting meaning of life questions over from the ancient religions to the science side of the alliance. This makes sense not only because scientific research has been steadily eroding the factual claims upon which religion depends, but also because the attitude of “pure” science has been excluded and disparaged under the prevailing relationship. It is “applied” science, not “pure” science—science for the purpose of understanding nature—that has been allied with traditional religion. That’s why religion gets to lead on the purpose, goal-setting, and meaning issues; the role of science, as the word “applied” tells us, is to achieve the means, the technology, for goal attainment. Introducing “pure” science changes everything, since it comes with the goal of understanding nature for its own sake, as an end it itself.

What is so laudable about the attitude of the scientist engaged in pure science? I value the scientist’s:

  • concentration on questions that can be answered by evidence.
  • insistence on a method of observation, information collection, and analysis that can be replicated by others in advancing truth claims.
  • stating of assumptions, constraints, conditions, and expectations in framing testable hypotheses.
  • commitment to experiment, trial and error, and learning from mistakes. A willingness to be proved wrong.
  • commitment to a community of scientists and co-learners, and to the accumulation of systematic knowledge.
  • trust in the reasoning ability and sense experience of human beings.
  • comfort with uncertainty, patience in seeking truth, and humility in presenting results.
  • curiosity, mystery, wonder, awe, surprise, and delight in understanding how nature works.

Pure science shares these last named emotions with religion. Religion and science can be seen as different methods for coping with identical emotions; (wonder, awe, terror, mystery, surprise, etc.) and for coping with common experiences in confronting nature (volcanoes, earthquakes, and storms; disasters; and varied, abundant life). Religion addresses such matters through belief in supernatural entities, faith, prayer, and ritual practices. Science addresses the same matters with study, observation, rationality, and methods of discovery. This being so, the two are competitors in meaning of life questions, each from their own vantage point. I am ready to give pure science a try in the endeavor of guiding humanity into the future.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

June 8, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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