The Myth of Science Versus Religion

Getting the Metaphor Right

It was the German writer Heinrich Heine who imagined a battle of Hebrews versus Hellenes. Soon it began to be imagined as Jerusalem versus Athens. Nowadays we endlessly tease at the science / religion chasm. Endlessly we ask: is it a chasm? A great divide? Is it reconcilable?

Heine was looking to the recent European past, the Age of Enlightenment, in which the chief theorists had seen themselves as purveyors of light to a world darkened by religion. Diderot. Voltaire. Hume. As Diderot put it, “We preach wisdom to the deaf, and we are still far indeed from the age of reason.”

The Enlightenment thinkers created a narrative in which the ancient world—by which they meant Classical Greece and Rome—had risen to great heights of human achievement that were dashed by the rise of Christianity. The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch first conceived of the Dark Ages that followed in the wake of Christian supremacy over Europe.

“Enlightenment” was the antidote. This time, Reason would not fail . . .

This narrative has continued. Heine himself is remembered as a Romantic, throwing off the shackles of Reason to get in touch again with the human heart. With the US version of Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson battled against the cold reason that had descended upon Unitarian thinking.

The first Humanist Manifesto of 1933 began explicitly: “The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes.”

And so the “battle” goes on. If in doubt, Google “science verses religion:” court cases; polemics; politicians; fuss and bother.

The “battle” is good for headlines and now “click bait,” but the battle of good and evil, light and darkness, that Petrarch and his grandchildren of the Enlightenment delineated is about politics, not philosophy or religion.

A Little Night Music IMG_3614

As a Humanist myself, I’m placed willy-nilly in a camp. I don’t think there are camps, however. For Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, a heresy trial and the gallows were real possibilities. In some parts of our planet, similar consequences still await. But, again, that’s politics, not religion and philosophy meeting in conversation.

In those places in the world where freedom of and from religion exists, most people choose to visit a physician. Most people go to auto mechanics rather than saying prayers over broken cars. We may chat with chaplains about suffering and death and dying, but we trust to physicians and psychologists when the rubber meets the road.

In that world, Humanism and a materialist world view do not stand in stark contrast or in opposition to religions, but as the non-metaphorical alternative, using “day language” as opposed to “night language,” as Michael Dowd, the evangelist for evolution, puts it. Yes, that’s still a light / dark metaphor, but not one of warfare. Merely the ebb and flow of human thinking on any given day.

The Enlightenment and its child, Humanism, were not discontinuous but part of the evolution of human thought. As a Humanist, I see religions of all stripes not as containers for truths but as interesting literature, and fascinating antique shops for wandering through, picking up the odd wool cards or cow bell. They are old interpretive systems that sought for answers that scholarship and science now answer in much more useful and effective ways. Still, late at night, there is that sudden noise . . .

As the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant put it: “We live not in an enlightened age but an Age of Enlightenment.” And so it goes.

(Still my favorite book on the Enlightenment is Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism.)

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