We live in a culture that has defined a war between the two worlds I live in, science and religion. Each has been pitted against the other in a no holds barred contest for supremacy in the elusive search for truth. On one side is the Godless heathen intellectuals and elitists of the secular left, on the other the ignorant, cultish, non rational extremists of the religious right. But this is not all that representative of the world I see as both a devoted Mormon and physician. Strange as it may sound, for me, science and religion really are intricately intertwined. Not in an evidence vs. faith sort of way. I know the two approaches to the universe are fundamentally different. It is more of an awe deep reverence for the nature of the Universe kind of thing. However, the similarities between the two, in some ways now more than ever, run quite deep. For example-
Both have their share of self righteousness
Science and religion are held by conventional wisdom to be at odds today. Headlines are very keen on the conflict. A trip across the blogosphere can provide page after page of anti-evolution or anti Intelligent Design diatribe. Skeptics dot the ether with derisive screeds making fun of “cult medicine”, herbalism, anti- global warming, or basically anything that goes against scientific consensus. In some cases this is done even when the claims of the other group, alternative medicine, for instance, may not have really been adequately studied enough to know what they are belittling is actually wrong. Some Anti-religion screeds are now decrying that the very act of exposing children to religious beliefs is child abuse. These folks seem to delight in stirring the pot even when it is difficult to see what harm a given belief can actually cause. In a word, they are intolerant.
I think most of us are well versed in the history of intolerance in religion. From Jihad and terrorism to the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, examples of religion run amok are not hard to find. It’s vices in this area are abundant and well documented. In science, it is just now really coming into its own. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have made quite a living as proponents of a new, muscular atheism that decries the evils of faith. For them, science has become a symbol of our secular society, the refuge of the atheist, bastion of the “rational and sane.”
It really doesn’t have to be this way. It seems to me that all this infighting and bickering just show that these two really are just different faces of the same thing. They are a way to define good versus evil, right thinking vs. deluded, us vs. them. Mankind has been warring over God for millennia, and this is just the newest dressed up version of the never ending battle, leading to my next point…
Science and Religion both make exclusive truth claims
When taken to the extreme this leads to conflict, dehumanization and war.
While this is obvious and self evident in religion, it is perhaps less obvious in the case of science. However, the entire mindset of science is based upon the idea of going where the evidence leads us in the search for truth. Science lauds itself with the ability to reject old paradigms when new evidence suggests they are wrong. Indeed I think this is a very good and important thing for progress and learning. It requires a little humility.
However, In the attitudes I describe above, this humility is turned on its head as it then leads to value judgements about others who may not share this worldview. The arrogance comes with the assumption that empiric truth is the only truth. This is a very western concept, alien to much of the world’s population to an extent I think is difficult for us to fully comprehend. Skepticism, which serves us very well in scientific advances, has a downside when we generalize it to the beliefs of others. So many of the big things that really touch our lives, that really matter to our humanity are subjective. Whether they be about ethics, nature, God, or the universe. So much of our wisdom can be intuitive or emotional. Often our reason is just a way to explain what we already believe.
When your entire belief system demands objective evidences for any and all beliefs, all who lack these things quickly become anathema, something to be ridiculed and despised. Religion is then defined by it’s worst attributes, violence, intolerance, dogma, in order to put the opposing position in it’s best light. As this happens a new us vs them situation arises. The rational vs the irrational, the open vs the dogmatic, the wise vs the ignorant unwashed masses. Religious people are seen as unstable, unpredictable and frightening. It becomes something to fear. Fear is a quick step from anger and retribution. Fortunately the war so far is only one of words. We are not killing each other over this divide…-yet. Let us be thankful.
But enough about the dark side, is there any light? Well here is what I see.
Both religion and science involve a quest for truth and understanding.
At their heart, both science and religion are driven by a desire to make sense of the world around us. Religion does this through the power of myth, intuition, revelation and mysticism. Science does this through the empiric collection of data and testing of hypotheses. Now both of these of course end up answering the big questions differently. In science the answer to why we are here is a question of the big bang, expansion of the universe, distilling of elements, primordial ooze and a process of evolution. In religion, these are just details. Why we are here is something different entirely. It is a search for meaning or purpose, not just something that happened because it happened. Because there is no empiric way to answer this question, this is where the two philosophies can be intractably at odds with each other. This is only true if you fail to realize that one of these approaches to truth can never eliminate the value of the other. It turns out truth can mean fundamentally different things depending on your point of view.
Both are driven by a curiosity and drive intrinsic to human nature
To be human is to question. We are born with an sense of awe and wonder about the world. Any good scientist and any deeply spiritual person can describe this feeling. There is a certain something we all feel when that discovering the answers we seek, only to lead us to more complex and probing questions. Any four year old can quickly ask enough why questions to completely exhaust a parent. This flame of curiosity is never extinguished in the most spiritual or the most scientific among us. Astronomers and physicists are full of people who get a complete thrill from the mysteries of the universe, and are forever seeking a grand unifying theory of everything. With each answer, new theories are born and the science springs in new, unthought of directions.
My personal experience in medicine and biology can absolutely be described this way. When I learn about the fundamental unit of life, the cell, it has breathtaking complexity. It is full of replicating and instructions in the nucleus. There is a complex set of machinery, or organelles to fuel the cell, break down waste, communicate with other cells. there is a chemical sea of proteins, ions, sugars running in a tireless factory the very processes of life. But this is only the beginning. Cells are communicating with eachother to unfold in the miraculous pattern of development into an individual organism. Cells communicate, differentiate, and cooperate as tissues, tissues join into functional organs, which are then tied into systems, which comprise an individual. It is truly astounding. This same complexity is found with the brain as neurons link to eachother in complex networks to direct our body’s function and somehow eventually build the internal world that is the mind. Standing on the shoulders of scientists who went before us, we have unlocked a staggering amount of information about how this all works and yet we are nowhere near understanding consciousness and the mind. Which leads to the next observation.
Both require an open mind and freedom of ideas to thrive
Science may be about skepticism and evidence but it is also about possibilities. To really discover, make breakthroughs something entirely new has to be envisioned. Then with evidence the prejudice of the status quo gradually melts away. As much as science celebrates this ideal, the history of the breakthroughs shows that they are always met with great resistance and derision by the academy. It is only over time we start to incorporate the theory of relativity or dual nature of particles as waves. There is a reason the US is a hub of scientific inquiry. We are young and tend to be less afraid to unlock mysteries or to discover and there is a free exchange and diversity of ideas. Religion has also been at it’s best in history when faced with the big questions and trying the improve the status quo. The abolitionist movement, civil rights, the reformation were all religious movements. Religion has been kinder in the more cosmopolitan environments. The Ottoman Empire was a golden age for a welcoming and tolerant Islam, so different from the stereotype of today. Religion and spirituality are at their best in this kind of environment as well. For both, dogmatism stifles all that is good and powerful about the two disciplines as a walk through history will show.
Both science and religion are replete with paradox.
Can we ever build an internal understanding in our mind that comprehends our very selves? Can we ever know our inborn and unconscious drives? If so, are they still inborn and unconscious? Can we ever truly know where the universe came from or how it came about? So much that we discover through science leads to answers that are downright counterintuitive and strange to the uninitiated. We end up with descriptions of particles at the subnuclear level where all of our physics falls apart. Some of modern science’s biggest breakthroughs, such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or quantum theory. fundamentally are about the limits of what we can know.
It is fascinating to me that, as we follow some theories to their extreme, they distort our concept of existence. Basic neuroscience taken in extreme would state the pattern of thoughts that is “us” is a complete illusion and delusion, made through chemical reactions switching neurons on and off. Religion in extreme bunkers and doubles down when the world is seen as evil and the faith community pure. Their is no longer any flow of ideas or wisdom. There is no connection with the wider world. What keeps one in the community becomes more and more strict as purity of doctrine becomes sacrosanct. If we fall too deeply into either the scientific or the religious world, we can lose connection with “reality,” at least as defined by society and our own experience. Both can become very esoteric and abstract.
Religion as I experience it is in large part the art of learning to live with mystery and paradox. In some sense this is what faith is all about. It is learning to trust something outside ourselves, God, the unknown and to find meaning therein. Some will argue that I am describing a God of the gaps, and perhaps I am, but the bottom line is there will never be a shortage of gaps. We are simply mortals. We cannot know what it is we don’t know except as we wrestle and struggle with our reality. There will always be knowledge beyond our reach. This is where the God I know lives, until he reaches out and opens the eyes of our understanding through epiphany and revelation as we exercise faith and trust. Of necessity this must be done in our own cultural context and imagination. I imagine a God working little by little to give each culture and people of the Earth whatever truth or wisdom we can handle. Whether that truth is hard fought through experiments and reason or through faith, the eyes of our understanding are opened. I personally maintain faith that in the end, all truth collapses into one, and that God and science do eventually meet. I read somewhere that all truth can be inscribed into one great whole. That doctrine tastes good to me. To me, this is Mormonism.