Monday, December 12, 2005

Religion and Science

The religion vs. evolution debate has broken out once again, and certain groups are trying to get their religious views into high school classrooms -- this time in the thinly-veiled form of "intelligent design," a broad tent where young earth creationists, old earth creationists, and people who simply prefer to remain more abstract can join together in common cause. In an online discussion devoted to the issue, one individual said that he couldn't really understand what the controversy was about. He argued that if God is omniscient, omnipotent, exists outside of the world He creates, and expects us to believe in Him through faith alone, then surely He would not have left any traces in His creation which would provide an empirical alternative to that faith. Viewed this way, the world discovered through science -- including evolution and the big bang -- is simply the divinely opaque means through which God created the world we now see.

I agreed. Properly understood, there is no conflict between religion and science: each deals with different human needs (and for some people, philosophy may satisfy the same needs that religion serves for others). The realm of empirical knowledge belongs to science, whereas religion ministers to the need for normative guidance. The question of whether or not God exists lies beyond the realm of empirical science, and properly belongs to religion and philosophy. Many scientists (including a good number of evolutionists) are in fact religious -- they simply do not let their religious views interfere with the quest for empirical knowledge. (For one example, see the "Science and Religion" interview with Kenneth R. Miller.) Properly, scientists will respect these beliefs of their religious colleagues, realizing they may very well provide those colleagues with the moral guidance which makes them better scientists. The importance of moral guidance, and, more specifically, the moral courage to deal with the ever-present possibility of failure in both the existential and cognitive realms, is not to be underestimated.

In the existential realm, religion properly provides the individual with the moral courage to act despite the possibility of failure, where failure can sometimes mean the possibility of actual death, and the fear of failure itself can often be experienced as such. Likewise, the fear of being mistaken -- where being mistaken may threaten our beliefs about who we are -- is at times experienced as a threat much like death itself. Here, too, there is need for moral courage, although of a somewhat different kind. Properly, religion encourages in its own way the view that while recognizing one's mistakes may be experienced prospectively as a form of death, the act itself brings a form of rebirth and self-transcendence, giving one the courage to revise one's beliefs when confronted with new evidence.

However, when people attempt to mix the realms of religion and science -- attempting, for example, to use science to promote a given religious or philosophic view -- in the long run, given the very nature of the relationship between religion and science, the results will be the reverse of what is intended, and may end up damaging what in fact they hold most dear. For example, a proponent of science who believes that faith in God is absurd in the age of Science may end up creating a religious backlash against science itself among those who take a different view. But properly, empirical science cannot speak of the metaphysics of that which lies beyond the empirical realm and the ontology required by its naturalistic explanations.

Alternatively, those who attempt to use science to prove the existence of God will end up with a God susceptible to empirical criticism, when belief in God should be a matter of faith. A religious view rooted in science will be grounded in the shifting sands of scientific discourse, placed in constant threat of being uprooted by the newest scientific discoveries. For the better among those who initially accept this substitute for true faith, such a view will at first seem intoxicating, but will soon prove poisonous to their religious beliefs.

For others, the proper religious stance becomes transformed, and the proper intellectual courage to revise one's beliefs when confronted with new evidence is transmuted into its polar opposite. Intellectual "courage" becomes the will and the power to challenge, doubt and deny any body of empirical evidence or knowledge whenever it comes into conflict with their religious or political beliefs. At this point, one of the most fundamental ethical virtues -- honesty -- has itself become undermined, and with it all the virtues which would normally be encouraged and taught through the moral guidance of religion. Properly, religious leaders who understand what is at stake will oppose "empirical" faith both for the contradiction which it embodies and as the antithesis of the true faith they seek to protect and nourish.

When properly understood, this unnecessary conflict between religion and science will be consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves. Yet more could undoubtedly be done so as to avoid such misunderstandings and consequent conflicts in the future. Science has been and continues to be responsible for a great deal of humanity's material and intellectual progress. Religion is responsible for humanity's moral and spiritual guidance. The roles they serve are complementary and to a significant extent in today's world, interdependent. Religion and science each have their own inner dynamic, but religious and scientific communities share a common concern for humanity as a whole. If religion and science are to perform their proper functions in human society, they must remain separate, with their fundamental natures respected. But still there can be dialogue.

Some time ago, Pope John Paul II visited with biologists to discuss evolution and then ended official Catholic Church opposition to evolutionary theory. This was a good beginning, but unfortunately there wasn't much follow-up. If a dialogue were to begin between the religious and scientific communities, one born out of mutual understanding and respect, such a dialogue could serve the interests of both communities and perhaps even the interests of humanity as a whole. As one interesting possibility, a scientist of the same denomination as a given church might occasionally make a good guest speaker, particularly if he were to discuss the role that religious belief has played in his life and work, and he were to share a few of the more interesting, recent discoveries in his particular field.

In a sense, such religious scientists might serve as bidirectional ambassadors between the two communities, and would deserve honored places within both. If properly promoted, such guest speakers might help to boost church attendance, particularly if they are good speakers. And perhaps when church services are not being held, churches could make available rooms where scientists could discuss their work with the public, and even their concerns for some of the problems which currently face humanity. This could also serve as good public relations for the religious and scientific communities as a whole. I myself do not know where a dialogue between these communities would lead -- this would be up to the participants. But I have little doubt that it could become quite interesting and enlightening for everyone involved.


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