Issues Magazine

Mixed Opinion: Where Science and Religion Meet

Polarised opinion is common when science and religion meet, as evident in debates about intelligent design and reproductive technologies. Six Australians from the scientific and religious communities offer some useful insights.

I find a star-lovely art, in a dark sod
Joy that is timeless; O heart that knows God.
(Patrick Kavanagh, Ploughman)

Albert Einstein warned that the splitting of the atom has changed everything except our ways of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled disaster. It is because of the inevitability of this drift that humankind needs both science and religion. The strident fundamentalists who drive a wedge between the two do an immense disservice to the world. Precisely because science offers increasingly awesome insights into the physical horizons and complexity of humanity and the world, there is an even greater need for religion, which is essentially the way humanity has always striven to be more fully human.

Two of the greatest figures in the history of humankind are Socrates and Confucius. Roughly contemporaries, they had incalculable influence on the development of thought, though neither, like Jesus and Mohammed, wrote anything down. The world would be the poorer without the tradition of analytical investigation of Socrates and the ethical values of Confucius. Science and religion are as body and soul. Neglect one at the peril of the other. If the wisdom traditions of religion are divorced from the empirical discoveries of science, there is a real danger that Einstein’s predicted drift may continue without our realising it.

Father Paul McCabe is parish priest at St Francis Xavier’s Catholic Church, Moree, NSW. (For a great website on the inter-relationship of science and religion, go to www.metanexus.net)

****Any useful dialogue must be based in mutual respect. The responsible religious and scientific communities have common cause when it comes to big issues like dangerous climate change, degradation of land and sea environments, starvation and conflict.

Scientists often approach religion from the experience of childhood and subsequent intellectual rejection or, increasingly in the secular west, from ignorance. Reading authors who, like Karen Armstrong, probe faith in a sympathetic but critical way can help to promote understanding.

At a minimum, it’s important to recognise that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and their various sub-groups balance evidence and belief (“revealed truth”) in different ways. It’s also worth keeping in mind that all the great religions emphasise the ideal of the good and decent life.

Much of the conflict between science and religion reflects that modern biology challenges the anthropocentric focus of the Abrahamic tradition. Those who regard themselves as the arbiters of ethics can, for instance, be deeply conflicted when forced to confront the social and environmental catastrophe that results from rapid, unrestricted population growth.

It’s best to focus on positive initiatives that can be moved forward and hope that other problems resolve with the passage of time.

Professor Peter C. Doherty is Nobel laureate professor at the School of Medicine, University of Melbourne.

****

Judaism has always encouraged the constructive pursuit of knowledge. The pure physical sciences responsible for the great technological advancements we have seen over the past few centuries have therefore not, in themselves, posed practical or philosophical dilemmas to the spiritual life or beliefs of the religious Jew. In fact such advancements are in full accord with the Jewish interpretation of one of the first Biblical commands to mankind: “Fill the earth and control (refine) it” (Genesis 1;28).

At times, however, scientific theory has posed dilemmas in faith, such as the clash between the scientist’s belief in the various theories of evolution and the religious person’s belief based on the Genesis account of creation. But these beliefs of the individual invariably remain in the realm of thought and discussion – basically having very little practical application or effect on the conduct of society in general.

Where there is much greater practical concern, from a Jewish religious perspective, is when the pursuit of scientific knowledge and advancement clashes with basic principles of ethics and morality that are the mainstay of a civilised society and are certainly part of a spiritual and religiously valid lifestyle. This is seen most of all today in the area of the biological sciences. In the clinical pursuit of knowledge and advancement in areas such as human fertility, cloning and stem cell research, the subjective, strictly scientific mind can easily dismiss concepts such as the sanctity of human life, the rights of the individual, equality and an acknowledgement and appreciation of a deeper meaning and purpose to life in general – with the resultant negative repercussions such dismissal must have on the quality and future of human existence.

Judaism believes in, and seeks to provide, all-encompassing, immutable lifestyle principles based on what it believes to be the Creator’s guidelines for human goodness and coexistence, as expressed in the Bible and other constructive religious teachings. It firmly promotes that such values should always take precedence over the subjective and often self-serving principles proposed or accepted by a detached and amoral scientist whose clinical, scientific mind can often have no place for an appreciation of the deeper, spiritual qualities of human existence. Often this attitude can even drown out the calling of the unempirical human conscience.

Judaism promotes the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the adoption of the resultant technological and other advancements, but not at the expense of sacrificing man’s soul and spiritual and moral welfare in the process or aftermath.

Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick is senior rabbi at Elwood Hebrew Congregation and president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia.

****

In the raging war between science and religion, we are all familiar with the scientist’s tired claim, “Science is rational, religion is not”. But scientists and creationists speak a different language. Stubbornness from both camps does much to harm how science is perceived by future scientists and the public. To convince the public that rationality should rule all aspects of life, the scientist’s only hope is to replace philosophy as a logical pillar of science. The idea is 2500 years old, from Ancient Greece. Plato, whose ideas fromed the foundation of western philosophy, Abrahamic religions and universities, asked, “How do we know what we know?” The question is scientific and spiritual. It is about both our world and beyond, linked by philosophy.

Over the past 400 years, science cast philosophy adrift in the turbulent wake of research-geared specialisation. Revaluing philosophy must start immediately in primary, secondary and tertiary education – training grounds for tomorrow’s scientists. Through philosophy, science offers the public a tangible alternative to religion. It also gives both sides perspective.

Although questions about life’s meaning are too important for dogma, many people will still want simpler answers than philosophy can offer. But surely without philosophy we only ignorantly drive a deeper wedge between science and the world.

Dr Andrew Baker lectures in environmental science and ecology at the School of Natural Resource Sciences, Queensland University of Technology. He holds a PhD in vertebrate evolutionary genetics.

****

There are two extreme positions on science and religion – both intolerant. There is creationism intolerant to science, and scientism intolerant of religion.

Creationism in an extreme form would maintain that the first creation account in the book of Genesis is literally true. In addition, if one adheres to the Christian belief that God created the Universe, one must believe in the literal nature of this story. This belief fails on a number of accounts, especially because it is not the unique account of God the Creator. The second creation story in Genesis differs from the first creation account in a number of ways (see Table 1: click on it to zoom).

Surely if you take one literally you must take the other literally and end up in contradiction.

There is a third creation motif in the Jewish scriptures: God quelled the monsters of Chaos. Some Pagan stories had monsters such as Rahab and Leviathan pre-existing creation. The gods had to battle these monsters to achieve a creation. The battle was a real fight, severely taxing the powers of the gods. However, in the Psalms, Job and Isaiah God is described as effortlessly quelling the monsters, in opposition to the difficulty pagan gods had in this task. This is an affirmation of the supreme jurisdiction of God.

Clearly the Israelites did not know how God created, but were sure of the fact that God was the Creator. This insight sits well with the present scientific story: there was a beginning, the Universe did not have to be, and the Universe did not have to be like it is.

Scientism is the assertion that the only truths worthy of that name are those gained through the scientific method. All other beliefs and conclusions fail to reach truth because of the lack of strict empirical accountability. Thus religious beliefs, philosophic conclusions and assertions gained from other sources of knowledge are to be dismissed.

There is no doubt about the power of science. It has absolutely revolutionised our world – our knowledge of the cosmos, our daily life upheld in many ways by electricity, flying to the ends of the Earth in a day, communicating with each other and with endless sources of information by computer. But science cannot save the world. Any gadget can be used for good or for evil because the human soul remains free to do either.

Science can deliver a plethora of good things, such as plentiful food, antibiotics and other medicines, yet sharing of all its benefits has not occurred – curable diseases and malnourishment still ravage hundreds of millions of people. Science delivers on things and processes, but not on values, morality and purpose.

Many staunch proclaimers of scientism would declare that because science cannot deliver on purpose, there is no purpose. Scientism’s underlying assertion is a statement without proof, and it would need to be justified by the scientific method itself. But what experiment could show there is no truth but scientific truth?

In fact the whole scientific enterprise is underpinned by a number of philosophical assertions: reality is intelligible, and the laws of nature are constant. Also, as it depends on induction, all its theories are reformable, expendable. For example, Newton’s gravity has been replaced by general relativity, and Newton’s mechanics has given way to quantum theory. But these two remarkable theories are not the final answer as their findings and predictions conflict in certain situations.

Father Terry Kelly teaches science and religion at Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide.

****

You’d go a long way to find a chemist whose work was influenced by religion. A chemistry teacher might choose to teach in a religious school but the choice of employment would not be expected to influence the chemistry curriculum.

The important word here is “choice”. It might be a religious view that would lead a chemist to choose not to work on weapons, for example, but then again the driver might be humanitarian considerations rather than religion.

If we go beyond the Christian religion, it is possible to envisage a devout Hindu choosing not to work on the invention or the use of insecticides on the grounds that all life is sacred.

In either case, there would be enough chemists to push ahead with warfare – whether it be against people or insects – that a small number of abstainers would not make much difference to the outcome.

The scientific discipline of chemistry is probably an easy place to begin this discussion, but it gets more complicated if we move into biology, especially human biology. I should like to extend this principle of choice, and I’d be very wary of anyone who wanted to impose his or her choices on the rest of us. Advocacy is fine, compulsion is not. On many issues there would be broad agreement, whether or not the concordance has a religious basis, since ethical and humanitarian views are more widely held in the community than are strictly religious views.

We need to keep in mind, too, that community attitudes change over time, and generally in the direction of more liberality. When I was boy, and I was not a member of a deeply religious family, I was not allowed to play sport on Sunday. Church and state, however, presented inconsistent positions. Somehow the Catholics managed to run a football league without being struck down from above, but League Football – never!

The contemporary end point of this “choice” argument is creationism. I have no argument with beliefs outside the mainstream … provided they stay there. What I mean by this is that individuals and communities can and should be able to choose not to engage with contrived arguments advanced in support of particular religious positions. Once again, I opt for choice, not for compulsion.

Professor Ian D. Rae is president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.