A Dialogue on the Science and Religion Dialogue: William Schweiker and Eric Weislogel

A Dialogue on the Science and Religion Dialogue: William Schweiker and Eric Weislogel

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 “In true dialogue,” writes Vietnamese monk, activist and author, Thich Nhat Hanh, “both sides are willing to change.” In fostering the constructive engagement of science and religion, we encourage both of these “dialogue partners” to be open to appropriate change and transformation.

In the three articles below, William Schweiker and Eric Weislogel offer an interesting exchange over the nature and scope of the science and religion dialogue. Their exchange was posted in a recent edition of “Sightings” an email newsletter published under the sponsorship of the Martin Marty Center and featured on the University of Chicago Divinity School homepage http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/sightings. Writing on the recent news of philosopher Anthony Flew’s revised stance on theism, Schweiker’s passing comments on the science and religion dialogue sparked a response from Weislogel. Rather than a heated debate of “my side versus yours,” the final result was an affirmation of trans-disciplinary approaches to knowledge and wisdom, the growth of religious understanding, and the possibilities of dialogue itself.

William Schweiker is Professor of Theological Ethics at The University of Chicago Divinity School and in the College.

Eric Weislogel is the Director of the Local Societies Initiative of the Metanexus Institute in Philadelphia, whose mission is to explore foundational questions by fostering the constructive engagement of science and religion.

Sightings 12/16/04

Faith and Flew — William Schweiker

Atheism seems under revision. For the masters of suspicion, religion was nihilistic will-to-power (Nietzsche), class ideology (Marx) or expressions of repression (Freud). Modern science from Bacon through Darwin to the socio-biologists has revoked the idea that God helps explain the origin and development of the world. Of course, the secular world never really arrived. And surprisingly, the certainty of scientific criticism now seems shaken by the critics themselves.

The revision in the criticism of theism has come from an unexpected source. British philosopher Anthony Flew, who taught at Oxford, Aberdeen, and Reading Universities, made his name in the middle of the last century around debates about how to verify or falsify arguments. He insisted that religious beliefs cannot meet scientific tests of validity and therefore have no rational grounds for assent. And so he argued for decades. The Chicago Sun Times reports that Flew, age 81, has changed his mind. Investigation into DNA has, he claims, “shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved.” The emergence of life backs scientifically the rationality of the idea of “God.” Flew quickly noted that his “God” is more of a deistic version than traditional theism, an intelligence or first cause rather than a personal God. As the Sun Times reports (12/10/04), Flew mused that “I’m thinking of a God very different from the God of the Christian and far and away from the God of Islam, because both are depicted as omnipotent Oriental despots, cosmic Saddam Husseins.” Flew’s God is about intelligence, purpose, and design but “utterly uninvolved in the lives of human beings.”

Some religious believers, theologians, and philosophers will take delight in this admission (maybe repentance) of an ardent old atheist. Advocates of creationism, rational design, or versions of process theology will chuckle, “We told you so.” The cottage industry of religion and science will have more papers to publish, better to get tenure. Church boards and ecumenical working groups will continue, rightly, to align religion and the (post)modern world. At last, Flew and Faith, science and religion, agree that the complexity of life demands some origin in intelligence and purpose not involved in people’s lives. These are important claims and genuine advances in understanding. Let the papers be published!

Yet before one rushes to join the triumph of theism, one ought to ponder how little Professor Flew is saying. First, he grants philosophers and scientists the possibility of changed minds and so growth in understanding, even to the point of rejecting earlier judgments. Yet the possibility of growth in religious understanding is never admitted. While in the distant past monotheistic faiths drew images of divine sovereignty from prevailing cultural forms, it is hardly the case that the “Religions of the Book” remain fossilized in their conceptions of God. Believers must insist that there is deepening of religious insight and, further, that genuine faith reflects and empowers that growth. Faith seeks understanding. Does anyone really believe that the God to whom they pray is a cosmic despot? Is that what the theistic traditions are claiming when ideas about human equality and rights press for recognition? Flew denies advances in any sphere of mind other than science and philosophy, a denial that makes his endorsement of “God” a narrow thing in the traffic of human ideas.

There is a more troubling fact about Professor Flew’s theism. Flew apparently endorses theoretical theism arm in arm with practical atheism. By practical atheism Jews and Christians and Muslims mean the belief that God is “utterly uninvolved in the lives of human beings,” and, thereby, indifferent to love, justice, mercy, and the striving for goodness. This is not a God worthy of worship, but simply an explanatory item in the philosopher’s bag. The moral orientation of human life is uncoupled from beliefs about the shape of reality. Alas, there has not really been much change in the atheistic story.

Believers must show that growth in understanding God comes precisely with the insight that matters of love, justice, and mercy are at the core of the human project. Explanations of DNA are to be sought and treasured; they provide limits on plausible claims about God’s interactions in the world and aid in grasping the meaning of the integrity of life. Yet removed from the labor of justice and love, these scientific conclusions are hardly the stuff that brings forth lives worth living. It is better to endorse theoretic openness, even skepticism, bound to a practical, living faith. Yet in making that point, believers ought not to cling to false consolation. There is religious, practical work to be done. People of good will must struggle to live the truth of convictions about God, goodness, and justice lest images of cosmic tyrants once again fuel human discord.

Science and Religion in Dialogue – Eric Weislogel

In his comments on British philosopher Anthony Flew’s recent admission of the existence of God, William Schweiker claims that among the effects of this former atheist’s ‘conversion’ will be the following: “The cottage industry of religion and science will have more papers to publish, better to get tenure” (“Faith and Flew,” Sightings, December 16, 2004).

Schweiker’s claim, offhand though it may be, evidences at least two misunderstandings that should be noted. The first misunderstanding, surprising because uncommon, is that, to date, publishing in the field of religion and science has not been the fast track to tenure or professional success. This is so because of the second, quite widespread, misunderstanding – the idea that the religion-and-science dialogue is a “cottage industry.” A cottage industry is, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “a small and often informally organized industry,” one often conducted in private homes. The connotation is that science-and-religion exploration is parochial, idiosyncratic, and marginal to the larger intellectual and academic world. This misunderstanding is shared, alas, even by many of those scholars and thinkers who are working in this arena.

But, recognized or not, the fact is that the science-and-religion dialogue – far from simply being a niche intellectual industry – instead goes straight to the heart of humane learning and the core curriculum of liberal education. Science and religion are two main paths we human beings have taken in our efforts to know and understand ourselves, our communities, and our cosmos. The religion-and-science movement is not (or ought not to be) attempting to develop some new academic discipline; rather, the community of scholars and religious practitioners engaged in it are helping us all to re-learn the art of “seeing the forest for the trees,” helping us to transcend (while respecting) the various academic disciplines to reach toward unity of knowledge, a trans-disciplinary integral wisdom. The movement is attempting to mitigate the deleterious effects of our “analytic obsession” in our pursuit of knowledge. While respecting the power and success of our methodology of breaking all of reality into smaller and smaller bits in order better to know it, the religion-and-science dialogue is attempting to provide a complementary mechanism for synthesis in thought and understanding.

There is, perhaps, a third misunderstanding evident in Schweiker’s comments: Anthony Flew’s change of mind is more or less insignificant to the broader religion-and-science dialogue and, in itself, is unlikely to spur on much more than a little journalistic notice. As one man’s considered point of view, Flew’s position might have been wrong prior to his recent change of position – or it might be wrong now. His revised view will not provide grounds for a research program.

The main point of Schweiker’s piece, however, is indisputably correct, and well worth reiterating: “Explanations of DNA” – and, I would add, all the other wondrous discoveries of science – “are to be sought and treasured; they provide limits on plausible claims about God’s interactions in the world and aid in grasping the meaning of the integrity of life. Yet removed from the labor of justice and love, these scientific conclusions are hardly the stuff that brings forth lives worth living.”

Indeed, we should hope that justice and love continue to animate our scientific, no less than our religious, pursuits.

 Agreement and Misunderstandings: A Response – William Schweiker

One of the great things about Sightings is that people actually read it! My little essay “Faith and Flew” has evoked various responses: a pastor thankful for the ideas and their usefulness in the pulpit; general readers gripped by the issues discussed; a Chicago NPR program that wants to feature the topic in an open conversation between myself, the host, and another scholar; an invitation by Phil Hefner on behalf of Zygon, the premier journal on the interface of religion and science in the this country, to publish the essay in expanded form. And now one more response from Eric Weislogel, Director of the Local Societies Initiative at an important institute dedicated to these matters! What’s a scholar to do? Usually the ivory tower is a bit quieter. But then, tracking the hubbub of public discourse about important religious matters is part of the mission of the Martin Marty Center. That is why folks read and write Sightings articles.

The great nineteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher thought that most of the time human beings misunderstand each other. That is why we have to work so hard to attain the precious gift of understanding. And that is why many thinkers believe that hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, is at the core of humanistic inquiry. Thankfully for me, Dr. Weislogel, in his response to my essay, understood my main point. In fact, he judges that it is “indisputably correct.” I could not have said it better myself! Yet agreement having been attained on the main point, my worry is that misunderstanding still abounds on lesser matters. Let me try to dispel these confusions and thereby aim at the good called understanding.

First, dictionaries are great things, especially when they are on computers and can run spell checks. That being said, a dictionary can never capture the vitality of living language and how terms and ideas are used in a variety of ways: rhetorically, idiomatically, just good old shop talk. This is why we update dictionaries. While Dr. Weislogel reached for Webster’s, all I meant — and I think a lot of us academic types mean — by the expression “cottage industry” is a thriving academic venture that is getting stuff done and advancing careers. I wish there were more of them in the academy! I like the idea of scholars getting tenure to work on important matters, and hope that the science-and-religion discussion flourishes.

Second, Weislogel insists that the science-and-religion discussion is aiming at “a trans-disciplinary integral wisdom” because it mitigates “the deleterious effects of our ‘analytic obsession’ in our pursuit of knowledge.” The “religion-and-science dialogue,” he continues, “is attempting to provide a complementary mechanism for synthesis in thought and understanding.” Bravo! I do not see where my essay denied that aspiration, even if it opens epistemological and hermeneutical issues beyond the scope of the essay. My only plea was for acknowledging growth in religious understanding just like the growth in other domains of knowledge, such as science. I think Mr. Flew simply misses or denies that possibility.

Finally, I can certainly accept that some people will not find Flew’s comments important for their work. But I think we should admit that scores of newspaper articles, radio programs, and published interviews with Professor Flew show that at least some people think these matters, when philosophically considered, are, well, worth considering. And that is all I attempted to do in my short essay, and I tried to do so from the perspective of theological ethical reflection indebted to the biblical traditions.

I am not sure that these few words will secure complete understanding, a goal we probably ought not expect to reach, despite our strivings. That being said, I am profoundly happy that at least the main point of my essay has found the support of this important leader in the science-and-religion dialogue. For that simple fact, I am genuinely thankful.