Science and Religion, Again

Three issues are guaranteed to bring zealots (on all sides) out of the woodwork: abortion, gay marriage, and evolution. This week’s “Texas Faith” question on the DMN Religion Blog is variation on the third. It asks “How would you make a case for mutual engagement between science and religion?”

The panelists gave mostly good answers, while the comments have quickly become polarized. Here’s part of my comment:

Religion and science both seek truth, but they approach it from different perspectives. Science seeks objective, verifiable, material truth. Religion seeks subjective, believable, spiritual truth. Science tells us “what” and “how,” religion tells us “why” and what it means. We need both. We need the knowledge and material benefits that comes from learning how the natural world works, and we need the inspiration and meaning that comes from our myths, rituals, and experience of wonder and awe.

Fundamentalists of both sides will never admit it, but there are limits to what we can truly know through either science or religion. None of us have the whole picture, and, I think, we never will.

“Mutual engagement,” then, begins with the acceptance that religion and science are two sides of the same coin, and the humility of both sides to admit it doesn’t have all the answers.

Last week, I wrote “maybe, the magic worked” – and I’m convinced it did. Not that my working caused the change, but that it affected the situation for the better. Magic doesn’t fix the odds, but it does improve the odds – I’m sure of it. Still, I have enough training in science to understand why most people can’t accept that it’s anything more than wishful thinking.

This, I think, is the challenge for believers and practitioners of all religions. We need to act as though our beliefs are completely true, even as we have the humility to admit we may be wrong, and the courage to change our beliefs if they’re shown to be wrong.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    Excellent post JeanFranc. I could say quite a bit in response to the various valid points you have made but will save it for later since I want to catch the sun while I can. . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12333184436301854794 Steve Caldwell

    JohnFranc wrote:
    -snip-
    "Religion and science both seek truth, but they approach it from different perspectives. Science seeks objective, verifiable, material truth. Religion seeks subjective, believable, spiritual truth. Science tells us “what” and “how,” religion tells us “why” and what it means. We need both. We need the knowledge and material benefits that comes from learning how the natural world works, and we need the inspiration and meaning that comes from our myths, rituals, and experience of wonder and awe.

    JohnFranc,

    The assumption here is that those who approach life as a naturalistic phenomenon don't feel wonder and awe.

    From my experience, that's not true.

    From what we now know about the universe we live in through the naturalistic exploration of the sciences, we now know that the objective reality of our universe is more wonderful, awe-inspiring, and mind-blowing than anything coming out of the limited imaginations of humans.

    There is a place for metaphor, ritual, and story in our world.

    But we need to remember that metaphor, ritual, and story are still just human-generated natural phenomena like bird songs, sunsets, earthquakes, the moon, and the stars.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 JohnFranc

    That's a fair observation, Steve, and I know more than a few people who are fairly strict "religious naturalists" who speak of wonder and awe in much the same way I do.

    My complaints are with Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, who seem to say that if religious myths aren't literally true then they're worthless.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12333184436301854794 Steve Caldwell

    JohnFranc wrote:
    -snip-
    "My complaints are with Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, who seem to say that if religious myths aren't literally true then they're worthless."

    I haven't read Hitchens but I have read Dawkins and Dennett. Their concern isn't that religion is worthless because it isn't literally true. And I know that Dennett says positive things for religion's role in the development of our culture.

    Their concern comes from their observation that religious believers engage in scriptural "cherry-picking" when they choose which bits are read literally and which bits are read allegorically.

    The creation story in Genesis is allegorical according to liberal religious schoalars and should not be taken literally. But God's existence should be taken literally? Why? Wouldn't it make sense to read all of it as allegorical with rich allegorical meaning but not literal?

    I will apologize here if you've read books like The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. However, it appears that many folks who have criticized the so-called "new atheist" writers for calling religion "worthless" are basing this on second-hand criticism and not what Dawkins et al. actually wrote.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 JohnFranc

    I haven't read any of the New Atheists' books, but I've read probably a dozen essays by Christopher Hitchens and maybe half that many by the others. My complaint is that they don't argue against real religion, they point to the worst of religion and ignore the rest. It's easy to pick on fundamentalists – it's much harder to dismiss the Texas Baptist Men's relief work (to name just one) and the faith that motivates it.

    My other complaint is with their certainty. Of course we can't prove that God or the Goddess exists, or even offer a preponderance of objective evidence (subjective evidence is another story). But there is much we don't know. We can project the history of the universe back to a fraction of a second before the Big Bang, but we have no idea what happened before that, or where the matter came from.

    I think the odds on all that coming from a God as proposed by Western monotheism are pretty slim – but it's possible. I think the odds that all that (and everything else, including us) are part of God/dess are stronger – strong enough that I arrange my life as though it were true, even as I freely admit I don't – and can't – know.

    And that's my point with the original post. Whatever your religion, have the faith to live like it's true, the humility to admit you might be wrong, and the openness to accept new evidence whenever it appears.


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