One way of dealing with the apparent conflict between science and religion is to say that they are two different ways of looking at things, and that it is pointless to try to relate them, or to try to find common ground between them. This is an idea that crops up occasionally in discussions about the two fields. It attempts to preserve for the two disciplines their own territories, and to disarm any conflict between the two of them by disallowing the significance of rapprochement. This manner of dealing with the subject was updated in Jay Gould’s engaging treatment in Rocks of Ages. Gould refers to religion and science as Non Overlapping Magisteria (magisterium = domain of authority in teaching).
Interesting though this thought may be, it is not a good approach.
Both (organized) religion and empirical science represent highly specialized views of the world. Neither one of them is either prima facie evident or easily arrived at. They do not represent common sense appraisals.
It is intellectually hazardous to generalize extensively about either religion or science, since each is quite diverse within its own sphere. However, we do have to make summary statements in order to carry on the discourse, so we recognize the dangers, and assume the responsibility of picking up whatever wreckage we may scatter as we pursue the project.
Religion, as it developed in the West, rested on two foundation pilings driven deep into the matrix of history: 1) an intuition of God in the universe, and 2) a conviction that God had interacted directly and powerfully within the racial experience of mankind. There were always aspects of human life which operated outside the pale of religious theory and practice, but the dominant train of thought in Europe came to be, for almost two thousand years, religious. The Renaissance saw a flowering of humanism and secular thought, but even that occurred within the boundaries of a Christian world view.
Empirical science, generally, turned away from ideas of revelation and authority, and anchored its foundations in the observable. Theoretical pursuits were “ok,” as in mathematics, but they had to be capable of being related to physical realities such as time and distance. The final authority for scientific observations and theory is sensation or its derivatives. Scientific thought, ultimately, is only as good as its reference points in experience.
So, science and religion rest on quite different foundations. Once these distinctions are made, it is easy to see that science and religion are irreducible. Neither can become the other.
Same World, Same Observer
Yet, it is somehow disquieting to take the position that science and religion simply are different magisteria, and that that takes care of the matter. Certainly this is not a self-evident truth. It is not as though they talk about different worlds. Their points of view may be different, but they both deal with clouds and clods, with events and eventualities. They both study human life and attempt to make statements that are relevant to it. It is not as though religion talks about radishes and science about rectangles, and so have very little to say to each other. On the contrary, they both talk about the same world and the same universe, and in some sense take the entire range of reality as their territory. There is no segment or span of reality that either would cheerfully relinquish title to.
And, the observer is the same: ourselves. Mankind. The mind of man (woman). The sensing, thinking animal in the stream of history. Us.
Organicity of Thought
A much more satisfactory position is that science and religion are different ways of studying the same territory, that they have different kinds of things to say, that they are different phases in the human attempt to understand the world, and that they have each a strong contribution to make to the efforts of humans to cope with life. Understood correctly, they may both be true.
Time has waggishly been identified as what keeps everything from happening at once. As a literal statement, that isn’t worth much, but it does draw attention to the sequentiality of events in history. No human being decides where and when he is going to enter into the adventure of mankind on our planet. We come on board spaceship earth at the whim of happenstance. We do not choose which station platform to depart from. We start from where we find ourselves. There is an organicity in the human effort to learn. Certain things systematically precede others.
We strive to make a comprehensible whole out of the matrix of our consciousness. Our distant ancestors came out of the mists of antiquity with their world peopled with spirits of forest, mountain and stream. Probably this arose from a sense of cause and intentionality in their own activities.
But, out of this wellspring of inspiration came the richness of the world’s religions. Religion tends to see purpose and a need for relationship in man’s moral surroundings.
There are in general two aspects to religion. One is practice; the other is theology.
There is a strong tendency in human beings to develop rituals for doing things. By a ritual I mean an action that tends to be repeated and that we invest with special meaning and significance. Some people make rituals out of their meals, their dress, their daily activities. We all do this sort of thing to some extent.
Theology tends to be made up, in its turn, by two sets of statements, or spans of cognitive content: 1) statements about things which have happened or are thought to be somehow factually true, and 2) metaphysical statements: things that are transcendently true about existence and an existing universe.
In Christianity, for instance, ritual is the observance of the Lord’s Supper and the saying of personal prayers. Doctrinal statements are like the Trinity and that Jesus died to redeem man. Metaphysical statements are like that the material world relies for its existence on an omnipotent and unchanging Spirit, which we refer to as God.
Now, that’s crowding religion into a brief analysis, and the formulation may seem a brutal oversimplification to some, but it is adequate for our purposes here.
We want to emphasize a fact: the world’s great religions were developed at a time when empirical knowledge of the universe was rudimentary. This is not meant to be negatively critical, as though we had a different choice. We had to start somewhere. It would be foolish to fault the embryo for being underdeveloped.
Some doctrinal positions end up being demonstrably false, like geocentricity. Mr. Galileo suffered no little inconvenience because of this. Giordano Bruno even more so.
There is a weighty bill to pay concerning the world’s religions. This springs from the fact that since empirical knowledge was shallow at the time of their birth, their doctrinal statements are intermingled with factual inaccuracy and myth, whatever their truth content and value may be. It couldn’t be otherwise.
As we verge into the 21st Century, science has its shaggy edges. When we get into black holes, the lives and qualities of subatomic particles, and the niceties of evolutionary theory, we have to admit that there is still much we do not understand. But, although there is considerable intellectual fog obscuring our vision, it is still true that over the last couple of centuries, we have come a very long way.
There is little doubt concerning the existence of galaxies, the interconvertability of energy and matter, the power and import of molecular biology and the evolution of the life mass on planet Earth, including our race. We still have far to go, and we assume the responsibility that if better theories come sauntering down the road we will modify the ones we have, but still, in the couple of hundred years from Newton to Hawking, we have made great inroads into the realms of empirical adventure.
Solution: Not Doing Either One Better
So, we live in a universe in which there is religion and there is science. Theories about the ultimate nature of things, man, the universe, and man’s place in it are either religious or scientific. Culture presents these to us, and it is up to us to make of it what we will.
The two magisteria (to use Gould’s reference) frequently have things to say about the same subject matter. To say that each exists and must be evaluated restrictively in its own sphere is intellectually condescending, at best. That assumes a conclusion in no way in evidence. It creates a strange duality which is analogous to, though different from, a Cartesian mind / body separation. It denies to us our striving for ever more general theories and for seeing our universe holistically.
The universe is one. The observer is one. There may be different ways of understanding the universe, but to say that my beliefs on Sunday are in a sector distinct and compartmentalized from my convictions as I peer through the microscope is a needless and debilitating set of mental shackles. That is not the way to go. We are responsible for our stewardship of the universe. The more power over it we develop, the more we are accountable for the choices we make. Science has a weak voice when it speaks of ethics and obligation. Religion speaks equally faintly concerning where in the Milky Way the earth finds itself. As we move towards an exhaustive understanding of empirical data, the importance of unified theory becomes not only a matter of intellectual purity, but a necessary compass for guiding us into an uncertain future. The different insights of religion and science need to be unified. We need not only to know individual facts in isolation, but to be able to listen to the symphony they create in concert.
Order and Plan in the Universe
The point is that to know things completely, we may have to know them in different ways.
The clearest bridge between religion and science is the intelligent order we find in the external world. Not a simplistic order, as earlier was championed by those who wished to press for an Argument by Design as proof of a deity, but a span of objective values found deeply imbedded in nature at the core of matter itself.
Some scientists thought for a while that the universe was completely random, and that finding any sort of order and plan in reality was imaginary. That has had to be rethought.
In a recent book, Martin Rees has focused on six numbers he considers to be structuring constants in the material universe. The book is interesting reading, and quite convincing. It is also important as an example of an increasing realization that the world is not haphazard at core, but constructed on a stable set of fixed internal principles and physical values. It is true that certain expressions of reality depend on chance, such as whether a particular planet might have the capacity to evolve life, but the underlying matrix of the universe is in many ways highly specific and apparently immutable.
From the viewpoint of evolution, the capacity to develop life, and intelligent life in humans, is what has come to be known as the anthropic principle. These observations are constructed not in metaphysics, but on empirical observations.
Science and Religion
Some aspects of the world can be known through empirical observation. Others, through religious thought. Science without religion is soulless. Religion without science is superstition.
From our view of the created world, we can penetrate to the source of uncreated reality, the sea of being. As human culture developed, we gave a certain primacy to knowledge of God and our relationship to God. For the time, this was appropriate. If it had been adequate, we would never have moved beyond it, but move we did. It became clear that certain suppositions about the world around us were not true, and that we needed to plumb the depths of what specialized observation and mathematical theory could teach us. We get to the edges of empiricism, however, and there is still more beyond. That beyond is God.
If we separate the essence of religion from the sometimes mythological constructs in which it was handed down, what we find is that the universe depends on a spiritual reality beyond it, and that that reality is in some very real sense the destiny of evolving mind on planet earth. We can read the development of history as God revealing himself in his creation. We find the core root of responsibility and human rights in the orientation of all human life toward this destiny.
God is still the end and goal of creation; how we get there is a meta dimension of evolution.
We cannot know for certain where we are heading. We can continue to learn more and more about how we got here, and what the universe is like.
Some would have it that as a species man is less successful than, for instance, the bacteria or the ants. To make statements like this is to deal in oranges and apples, and not to know the difference. Man is much more fragile, and has a shorter history than other life forms. He is also at the pinnacle of evolution on the planet … so far. The criterion for that claim is the breadth and nature of knowledge of which the human mind is capable.
Religion is the way we recognize and act upon our perceptions of meaning in our lives. We need to love each other and be ultimately concerned about each other’s persons and destinies. We need to recognize that all humans are equally ordered to God, and that that forms the foundation for equal rights. Those are religious conclusions, not scientific ones.
Ultimately, our earth will be incinerated as our Sun goes critical. But that’s another five billion years down the road, and more urgent things will occur first. We do not know that we are at the end of the evolutionary adventure. We may be transitional. To date, evolution has occurred without the conscious compliance of what was evolving. What may happen if our understanding of evolution becomes additive to the process itself? We name the ultimate source of being and intelligence God. That is still our racial destiny.
Science tells us more and more about how things work. Why they work, and what is the overarching reality, are issues of an evolving religion.