What – Really – Is the “Science and Religion Dialogue” All About?

What – Really – Is the “Science and Religion Dialogue” All About?

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The 20th century may very well come to be considered the “age of hyper-specialization.”  Through the increasing division of labor—both economic and intellectual—humans have certainly made enormous progress.  We see the acceleration of specialization not only in industry, but in higher education as well.  Does hyper-specialization, however, with its intensification of complexity and multiplication of information, also produce significant problems?  Does it—and must it—lead to disintegration, a fracturing of knowledge, of culture, and of the soul?  What impact has hyper-specialization had on education?  And what are its implications for that which goes by the name of “science and religion dialogue”?

Today, universities are divided into a dizzying array of academic departments and research centers.  There is no longer any guarantee that colleagues in the same general field will have an understanding of what their colleagues across the hall are doing.  Specialization has also meant an exponential growth in information—call it the “Big Wad of Facts” (or BWOF).  And along with all the facts comes an enormous increase in the number and complexity of vocabularies and methodologies for marshalling them.  For instance, for the English-speaking American undergraduate student today, simply taking an introductory biology class is as arduous as studying Arabic.  There are as many new vocabulary words and “grammars” for using them per page in a science textbook as there are in any language textbook.  And just as it is difficult to transfer knowledge of the set of vocabularies and grammars from one language to the next (say, between Arabic and Spanish), it is just as troublesome among the various sciences.

There are no longer any guiding threads to tie together the various disciplines or even the classical divisions between the natural, social, and human sciences.  University curricula tend to be nothing but cafeteria menus of disparate courses, with no genuine attempt at a synthesis—intellectual or existential.  Taking a disconnected set of courses that give us the BWOF is supposed to constitute an education.  But it is ultimately a sham unless we can begin to say what it is we know now that we know so many disciplinarily distinct things. The failure to provide a means for doing this has {1} caused the deterioration of the humanities, {2} decreased the effectiveness of undergraduate (and secondary) science education, {3} created obstacles to sound critical thinking, and {4} driven colleges and universities to be more like job training programs, which {5} still cannot draw the relationship between working life and every other aspect of a fully human existence.  The result is the fragmentation of the human person, the human soul. 

In the words of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and former president of Brown University:

The fundamental problem underlying the disjointed curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge itself.  Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, subdisciplines, and sub-subdisciplines — breaking it up into smaller and smaller unconnected fragments of academic specialization, even as the world looks to colleges for help in integrating and synthesizing the exponential increases in information brought about by technological advances.  The trend has serious ramifications.  Understanding the nature of knowledge, its unity, its varieties, its limitations, and its uses and abuses is necessary for the success of democracy….  We must reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge.”

Thus the challenge of the 21st century will be to integrate or synthesize the exponential growth in human knowledge (the BWOF) into a meaningful whole.  It’s not that specialization needs to be overcome; it’s that individuals, communities, and civilization in general will need to develop the complementary means by which to appropriate and take the measure of all particular expertise.  We must attempt to follow the imperative of Periander, one of the seven sages of ancient Greece (ca. 625-585 BC):  μελέτα τό παν, which the German philosopher Martin Heidegger translates as, “Take into care beings as a whole.”  We must regain our ability, a facility, an adeptness, at taking the whole into our most profound concern.

Metanexus is committed to recapturing this ability.  Metanexus also has a reputation as a leader in the field of what is commonly known as the “science and religion dialogue.”  But does such a dialogue really take up the whole into a caring concern?  Does the S&R dialogue provide the much-needed intellectual and spiritual synthesis, the antidote to the sorely lacking unity of knowledge?  And does a dialogue really take place at all?

In order to find answers to these questions, we need to explore what might be meant by the phrase, “science and religion dialogue.”  Although there are many who describe themselves as engaged in the S&R dialogue, they are not all doing the same things, nor do they have the same understanding of the terminology.   This, in itself, is not a bad thing.  In the following pages, I will describe some of the more common varieties of S&R dialogue.  However, I will argue that these commonly held views about what constitutes this “dialogue” are inadequate for providing a means to laying hold of the whole.  In fact, some varieties are completely unhelpful.  Further, some of these varieties actually preclude there being a genuine “dialogue” at all.  In general, the defect of these views and practices is that they attempt to write a script for the S&R dialogue, which is an artifice that leads not to true dialogue but back to the idiosyncrasies or particular agendas of the various proponents.  This, in turn, leads toward further parochialism and away from a fruitful synthesis and the unity of knowledge.

What are some of the common understandings of the “science and religion dialogue”?

1.  We might say the S&R dialogue is about religion determining science, as if somehow sacred scriptures can teach science how to do its business.  If this were the nature of the S&R dialogue, it would be easy to “operationalize” and “institutionalize” (at least in principle):  you can write controversial texts, develop curricula, curry favor with supporters, raise money, introduce legislation, force legal issues, become demagogic. 

But science ought not to be dictated to by religion.  As Dennis Overbye put it in his recent essay in the New York Times (3/14), “I’d like to believe that, like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, ‘without hope or fear,’ as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it.”  Seeing the world “as it is” is the business of science (but not only science).  Investigate honestly, and let the chips fall where they may.  It is inconceivable that religious texts or dogmas could add anything to the scientific method.  The Intelligent Design movement is rightly seen as misguided insofar as it purports to have, because of certain theological presuppositions, the outcome ahead of the exploration.  ID has lifted off from scientific practice into the realm of philosophical or theological speculation.  There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is a mistake to confuse it with the pursuit of science.

2.  We might say that the S&R dialogue is about apologetics.  In this case, it is not that religion determines science but that science can be shown independently to support religious claims, known in advance to be true.  The trouble here is that it cuts both ways.  If science can prove a religious claim, it could disprove it as well.  And it is not a good idea to entwine one’s theology too tightly with an given scientific theory.  A character from John Updikes’ novel, Roger’s Version, warns of the danger:

“Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned. In the sixteenth century astronomy, in the seventeenth microbiology, in the eighteenth geology and paleontology, in the nineteenth Darwin’s biology all grotesquely extended the world-frame and sent churchmen scurrying for cover in ever smaller, more shadowy nooks, little gloomy ambiguous caves in the psyche where even now neurology is cruelly harrying them, gouging them out from the multifolded brain like wood lice from under the lumber pile.”

There is also the danger that an allegedly “scientifically acceptable god”—an intelligent designer demonstrated by the fact of “irreducible complexity”—turns out to be no more than the god of deism, who would be just as responsible for the “irreducible complexity” of nasty killer viruses as for the marvelous human eye or bacterial flagella.  This is not necessarily a triumph for the apologetic effort, so be careful what you wish (or pray) for.

And this all seems a bit crabbed, anyway.  Science proves (or attempts to prove) scientific claims and religion proves (if that is the right word) religious claims.  Whatever else they are, religious claims are not scientific claims.  It may turn out that religious believers find their faith bolstered by the wondrous discoveries of the natural sciences—and this is not existentially insignificant.  But viewing the S&R dialogue to be mainly about apologetics would be a narrow, subjective or parochial understanding of the promise of a genuine and constructive engagement of science and religion.

3.  We might say that the S&R dialogue is about science explaining religion–not just sociologically, psychologically, anthropologically, or economically (this has been done time and again) but now also evolutionarily, biologically, or neurologically.  Science will, it is purported, explain religion like it explains “everything” else—via reductionistic materialism.  But what of religion would remain after doing this?  What happens to the propositional content and the lived experience of religion after reductionistic or eliminative materialism has its way with them?  If science were able to do such things, as many seem to be claiming today, there would not be any S&R dialogue at all, but just scientific discourse.  Some would applaud this, no doubt, but they were never really interested in pursuing science and religion dialogue in the first place.

As one who thinks there is something to religion, perhaps I am just being a bit peevish after reading Dawkins and Dennett and Wilson.  Wouldn’t it at least be interesting to know if there were an evolutionary or neurological root or impulse to religion?  Certainly, it would.  But when, say, I hear a lecture by Andrew Newberg on the brain states of meditators or see a book, like Pascal Boyer’s, boasting Religion Explained (surprised he resisted an exclamation point!), I cannot help thinking of Socrates’ speech in the Phaedo

As Socrates sits in his prison cell awaiting execution, he reflects on his quest for understanding and wisdom.  He tells his friend Cebes,

When I was young, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called Natural Science; this appeared to me to have lofty aims, as being the science which has to do with the causes of things, and which teaches why a thing is, and is created and destroyed; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of such questions [96a-b].

Having heard E. O. Wilson lecture, and having seen those marvelous pictures of him both as a boy and as an old man crawling about in the back yard looking for bugs, I can imagine his saying the same things!

However, Socrates goes on to relate how he eagerly read the books of the great natural scientist of his day, Anaxagoras, only to be sorely disappointed.  For Anaxagoras promised that he would explain all things (as ordered by Mind or νους) , and yet Socrates says

As I proceeded, I found [this natural scientist] altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities [read: “matter”].  I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here [in jail, awaiting execution] because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have ligaments which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture: that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort [read: “materialist”], forgetting to mention the true cause, which is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off to Megara or Boeotia — by the dog of Egypt they would, if they had been guided only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen as the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, to undergo any punishment which the State inflicts.  There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. [98b-99b, emphasis added]

A strange confusion of causes and conditions (and, I would add, of subjective existential conscious experiences), indeed.  The scientific study of religion and religious experience will yield no more than the input plus methodological restrictions will allow.  My colleague William Grassie, Founder and Executive Director or Metanexus, likes to say: “Place a physicist under a PET scan while she is doing her mathematics, and we might learn something interesting about how her brain  states correlate to her mental processes—but we will learn nothing about whether the physics is true or not.”  One might accept these sorts of interesting findings about meditators and physicists as scientific insight, but never as religious (or philosophical) insight.  This would not be dialogue, but simply scientific monologue.

The same sort of monologue will likely be the result of the confrontation of religion with “secularism” in the sense of the term found in the popular press (setting aside for the moment the important research into the religious roots or essence of secularism); that is, secularism as atheistic materialism.  For example, Slavoj Zizek writes in a recent New York Times op-ed piece (“Defenders of the Faith” 3/12):  “What, however, about submitting Islam, together with all other religions, to a respectful — but for that reason no less ruthless — critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.”

Zizek’s piece, despite being another sober warning against idolatry (a term he does not use), is nevertheless simplistic and (at least) double-minded when it turns to dealing with actually existing religions.  We are to treat religionists as adults responsible for their beliefs by taking a critical stance on the propositional content of religions, on a religious claim such as the Virgin Birth, for instance.  But what would the stance be of secular critique (or even of the “science and religion dialogue” as it is currently practiced, for that matter) regarding such a claim?  Would it be, “It happened as it was written”?  Somehow I doubt it.  Zizek would seem to imply that his analysis would not be an instance of reductionist scientism (disqualified for being a “violent imposition” and a “clear insistence on truth”), but I bet it would…or something nearly indistinguishable from it.  If not, the alternative would end up being an instance of the “liberal tolerance” that Zizek also despises.  He wants it both ways.  He doesn’t want the beliefs of religious adherents to remain immune from questioning, which, he alleges, is to not take them seriously; but he implies that we can only take them seriously if we, in effect, do not take them seriously—i.e., if we subject these (infantile, unserious) religious beliefs to rigorous, adult criticism.  Which is atheistic, and therefore reductionistic, scientistic, materialistic. 

There is even the risk of something similar happening in the field of academic religious studies.  It would appear to be beyond question that comparative studies of the world’s religions and about the nature of religion itself, in addition to being intrinsically interesting, have beneficial and peace-promoting effects in a religiously troubled world.  But today, despite the fact that we certainly know (in an academic sense) so much more about the various cultures and religions of the world than at any time in history, our times are as violent, if not more so, than ever before.  It appears that the more we study religion (read: attempt to translate religion and religious practice and experience into “objective” terms), the more overwhelmed we become with data and information and the less able we are to cope with our differences.  In offering this pessimistic analysis I am not arguing that we should cease our intellectual and academic efforts to understand religion and religious differences.  Rather, I am arguing that we also need the complement to the analytic, objectifying methods of the social-scientific approaches we employ in the academy, a means and methodology for synthesis and integration of all the newly generated data.  I recognize that this is not an easy demand to satisfy, and I recommend the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 2006) for a vigorous debate on the nature and role of the academic study of religion.

4.  We might say that the S&R dialogue is about finding out that science and religion, deep down, “say the same thing.”  Do not confuse this idea with my call for synthesis.  Some would argue that the S&R dialogue will lead to a practical, concrete and objective synthesis, a syncretism not only among religions but among all manners and fields of knowing or appropriating reality.  In other words, pursuing the dialogue will come to generate what might be thought of as a new religion, one resulting from something like the Aufhebung, in Hegelian terms, or something like the “transcending and including,” in Wilberian terms, of science and religion.

Our managing editor at Metanexus, Gregory Hansell, gets several submissions a week that propound this very thesis.  But you don’t get to read those essays in our publication because, quite frankly, none of them is any good.  The line runs something like this:  quantum mechanics (or complexity theory or developmental systems theory) is “weird,” so every weird religious idea is also true or plausible, ergo science and religion are one. 

Even if it had ever been possible to “say the same thing,” hasn’t all of 20th century thought taught us that translation is always interpretation?  Does a translation of the “same” poem from one language to another really “say the same thing”?  Jacques Derrida, when lecturing in English, would frequently reference one of “his” works in translation by saying, “Now in the original English version of…,” indicating a work signed by the translator.

Perhaps that is only an instance of Derrida’s playfulness.  But when we speak of “science” and of “religion” as if they were two monolithic things-in-themselves—which is already to be seriously misguided—and then claim that they simply “say the same thing,” we are at that stage likely to be saying nothing at all.  We will have stretched the meaning of the terms beyond any recognition.  Most of the new age attempts at a S&R dialogue are, again, monologues informed no more by genuine science then from profound religion.

I should say, though, in the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas, that I am not advocating for a “Two Truths” metaphysical position.  It may be, metaphysically speaking, that being is one, and therefore that, ultimately, truth is one.  But this insight, if true, may be impossible to articulate.  We certainly cannot do so at this stage of our cultural and intellectual evolution.  It may be an ideal, or a regulative idea in the Kantian sense, that guides our quest for the unity of knowledge, but it is a case of our reach always exceeding our grasp.

5.  We might say that the S&R dialogue means something like fostering a personal transformative aestheticism, to coin a phrase.  The scientist can learn to see her work as “religious” in the sense that it is undertaken in awe and wonder, and that the very undertaking of scientific work is analogous to ascetic or meditative or contemplative spiritual practices and contributes to, or is even constitutive of, a life of wholeness.  And all this might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go all that far in an academic sense.  Great scientists know this already.  That’s one of the reasons they tend to let go of actually existing religions.  The “psychological need” (if that is the root and source of religion) is fulfilled for them in the pursuit of science.  However, trying to add to or somehow institutionalize this insight will only lead to new-ageism of the same sort proposed by those who think science and religion “say the same thing.”

6.  We might say that the S&R dialogue is about academic political action, plain and simple.  The idea is to destroy the taboo against one’s admitting to having religious views while in the academy.  But when it comes to religious people in the academy, like gays in the military or the priesthood, the fact is that they’ve always been there, and maybe the idea might be to get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  You have to do X,Y, and Z in order to be a good scientist, regardless of your religious orientation.  You also have to eschew certain moves; for instance, you can’t depend on private or spiritually revealed evidence in your work in physics.  You can be motivated by it, just like you can be motivated by the need to earn a living or to achieve fame (as for James Watson in his quest to “find the secret of life”), but you cannot list as data anything that is not publicly available to anyone playing the game of science, regardless of religious orientation.  So unless the S&R dialogue is about defending religionists who are willing to play the academic game by the established rules but who are nevertheless barred from the academy (and I think to do so we’d have to be lawyers, not the academics we are), then this is probably not really what we mean by the S&R dialogue at Metanexus, however much we are opposed to such discrimination and even outright bigotry.

But this leads to the question of the rules of academia themselves.  Are we suggesting that religious beliefs can and ought to influence and change those rules? 

Maybe we are, but I cannot think of an example of a religious belief changing a rule of science.  If Scripture or dogma dictates, we’re back to #1, above.  Religion may offer phenomena that science has overlooked in the past but that science can now investigate; then we are back to # 3.  I don’t want to argue that religious beliefs do not have a profound influence on science.  They do…or at least they have.  For instance, modern materialist science developed in the West, whose religious beliefs included a God who creates ex nihilo, and not in the East, whose religious views tend to include the idea of an eternal cosmos.  This just means that modern science is an offshoot of certain sorts of religious views, but not others.1  Once established, regularized, and institutionalized, the practice of science is able to divorce itself in a practical sense from its theological roots. 

Still, there may be great insight to be gained from recapturing an understanding of the theological roots of modern science, from becoming more sensitive to the history of science and its development, and from delving into the philosophical underpinnings of the practice of scientific discovery.  The scientific community, however, is generally (though not entirely) loathe to entertain these sorts of deep questions and is frequently as hostile to the gadfly of philosophy as they are to religion.2

7.  This last point leads to a significantly different understanding of the meaning and import of the S&R dialogue.  On this view, what goes by the name of S&R dialogue is itself neither scientific nor religious, but philosophical, metaphysical, ethical, and, therefore, institutional.  To this way of conceiving the matter, the S&R dialogue and the movement that fosters it ends up being about academic praxis.  The pursuit of S&R dialogue is an indicator of academic and educational problems calling for academic and educational solutions. 

These questions or problems can be articulated concretely.  For instance:

A.  The sciences are taught very poorly because we have confused data with information, information with knowledge, knowledge with wisdom.  We have curricula in K-12 that are exclusively “BWOF” and taught-to-the-test.  We diminish our prospects for ongoing scientific advancement by producing generations of students who get no genuine education, but only the disconnected series of BWOF.  To put it another way, we don’t teach students the spirit, the philosophy, or even the poetry in the science.3 This also contributes heavily to widespread innumeracy and scientific illiteracy, as the BWOF is forgotten the moment formal schooling no longer requires their being retained.  A practical attempt to address this problem requires developing the curriculum to include teaching, not just a disciplinarily fragmented series of science courses, but also, transdisciplinarily, the broad sweep of the history of nature of which the student, herself, is a part.  While continuing to demand rigorous age-appropriate training in the various sciences, this approach would promote synthesis and integration among the sciences and between the sciences and the humanities, and hence foster a deeper existential and spiritual commitment in students to come to understand themselves and the cosmos.  

I believe it is the failure to conceive the science curriculum in such a holistic manner that opens the door to the Intelligent Design argument and which makes it seem so compelling to the general public despite its being roundly rejected by the scientific community.  The solution proposed by the ID movement is wrong-headed, but the impetus for it (taking a charitable reading) is right-spirited.  It is at least understandable.  How is the Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jew) to understand the role or place of science in her life?  Could one find points of contact between the underlying philosophy of modern science and institutional education with one’s deeply held theological commitments and most profound religious concerns?  If science is simply taught as a BWOF, and religion is seen as merely an alternate set of facts, the religious student (and the student’s parents, pastors, and fellow parishioners) will find nothing but fragmentation and conflict.  Science needs to be taught in a fresh new integral way in order to prevent the usurpation of scientific practice by philosophical and theological speculation.  But that usurpation will only be prevented if we are also open to the exploration of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of science and the philosophical and religious commitments of scientists and their students.4

B.  This leads to the second concrete issue.  We also fail to teach anything in K-12 about religion and the religions of the world, not even as a BWOF.  This produces generations of citizens ill-equipped to understand their world and to make sound judgments on the issues of the day.  Compounded with a general scientific illiteracy, the problems are only magnified. 

We are often given the impression that we are not allowed to teach religion in the public schools, but this is not correct.  In a 1963 Supreme Court ruling in a case that raised issues of the separation of church and state, the justices held:

… [I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.  (AbingtonTownship v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963)

But there is a very significant additional difficulty here: how does one teach religion—not only in K-12, but at all—without explaining it in terms of something it is not, and therefore effectively explaining it away?  Religion is, in fact, sui generis, it would seem—despite the reams of psychological, anthropological, sociological, economic, neurological, and biological studies of it that are produced each year.  One great contribution to the enrichment of general education would be to develop a metho ology for teaching re