Science and Religion, is there anything still to be said?
Most recently the most widely accepted conclusion seems to be, let them both alone, let them just be. And just as we will probably end by accepting North Korea into the world’s nuclear power club without a fight so we ought to be plenty comfortable allowing equal time and importance in our lives to both religion and science.
Furthermore most of us would probably agree with Stephen Jay Gould who writes in his book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, that the ‘magisterium’ of science covers the empirical realm, that is, what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work the way it does (theory), while the ‘magisterium’ of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.
According to Gould a magisterium is a domain where the way of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, we debate and hold dialogue under a magisterium; meaning we fall into silent awe or imposed obedience as before a majesty. And these two magisteria, Gould says, do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry. Consider, for example, the magisteria of art and the beautiful. And music, of course.
Yet there are powerful voices among us who would not accept this state of affairs, who don’t go along with the don’t rock the boat people who claim that there are problems enough without our placing religion and science at each other’s throats. These powerful voices, the voices for example of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism belong to the authors Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) , Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. These four men have become famous for their steadfast rejection of any form of deity, for their willingness to confront and reject the world’s religions.
I’ve spent much of my adult life thinking about these things. Without going the whole nine yards and saying that the atheists are right I would say that Gould is wrong. This I felt very clearly while reading his book. Rocks of Ages. It’s probably true that no one has taken this work very seriously, unlike his splendid essays for Natural History Magazine, 300 of them, written between 1967 and 2002, the year of his death, and of which I was, and still am a long and faithful reader.
So what are we to say today about science and religion. Should we say anything? Let me preface this by saying that I am not an atheist, but rather, like Gould himself, an agnostic, the word being coined by T. H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876, and by it meaning an open-minded skepticism as being the only rational position possible because, for truly, we cannot know with certainty.
However I do come down on the side of the scientists, and regret enormously the election of our non scientist president and the fact that so few of my countrymen, his followers, the Republicans for the most part, by their yes pig- headedness, are undoing what we have of most value, including even the good things that may still be attributed to religion.
Why do I come down on the side of the scientists, well it’s not because I don’t love Jesus, because I don’t respect the Buddha, for I do, have always. My reason is very simple. It’s because (and Gould, I think, overlooks this) religion doesn’t allow man and woman to be completely free, to choose and to fashion their own lives, be it LGBT or anything else. Only science does this because nature, the object of the scientists’ study, reveals just how free we are, and just how important it is that we should never be subject to the brute force of the religious, ideological, or other majorities who are always out there, looking to enslave us, subjecting everyone to their own narrow vision of the meaning of “what’s it all about.”
For religion would take away our freedom, often by giving too much importance to a single tribe, such as the early Christians, the early Mohammedans, the Mormans, the Southern Baptists, the Evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the Fire Eaters, not to mention the while male who is even today seeking to carve out an all important place for himself from which to bully the rest of us. But I need not go into the all too well known failures of religion, the death and destruction that religion has wrought upon homo sapiens, yes upon us. This is all well known.
To see a present and visible example of the loss of freedom due to religion you need only look at the hundreds of Muslims turning up their bottoms into the air while praying on the city street, and praying to what, for what? Probably not for food and shelter, let alone good jobs and education, things even in their understanding not within the power of prayer. For what then? I’ve never asked them as they pray, have you? Is there anything that religion has accomplished by prayer that couldn’t have been better achieved by hard and honest work, say tilling the soil, say caring for the members of their families ?
But let me conclude with what I’ve been leading up to, the thought of Jacques Monod,
the bio-chemist and 1965 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology and Medicine. Monod was one of those who rejected religion. ALL BELIEF SYSTEMS THAT ARE FOUNDED ON A SPECIAL PLACE OR PURPOSE OF MAN IN NATURE ARE NO LONGER TENABLE, he believed, and I with him. Think Christianity, Islam, Communism, the myriad forms of Authoritariansim, …
For Monod, the philosophical consequences of molecular biology followed from the role of chance in the emergence of humans, and the challenge that presented to all traditional belief systems. As Monod explained, “In virtually all the mythic, religious or philosophic systems, Man’s existence receives its meaning from being supposed part of some general purpose which accounts for the whole of nature and creation. Whereas the scientific approach reveals to Man that he is an accident, almost a stranger in the universe, and reduces the ‘old alliance’ between him and the rest of creation to a tenuous and fragile thread.” But a thread, and one that needs his full attention.
On the other hand, Monod rejected the common perception that a scientist had any duty to contribute to human comfort and happiness. Rather, he thought that the most important contributions of science were what often made humans uncomfortable, in what challenged their perceptions of themselves. He told an interviewer for the BBC: “There’s always the tendency of the layman…of trying to strike from a fundamental scientist some statement about the applications of his work. This stems, I think, from a basic misconception as to the role of fundamental science, which exists in modern societies in particular: that the object of science is to be applied and create technology, when in fact technology and applications are by-products.
I feel, Monod went on to say, that the most important results of science have been to change the relationship of man to the universe, or the way he sees himself in the universe. Monod gave astronomy as an example: “The most unnecessary science of all, the one that off-hand you might think had absolutely no possible applications…is probably in one sense the most important of all sciences, in that it has taught more to men and modified their outlook more than any other science.”
Monod asserted, “If we still thought that we lived on a flat disc, created by some being living under the ground or up on a mountain, and that this was all the universe contained, we could not be what we are and we could not have evolved the societies which exist.”
My next post will be all about the thought and ideas of Monod.