I received the following quote yesterday from a dear friend: “Science flies us to the moon, religion flies us into buildings.” The friend in no way meant the quote as an insult to me as a minister. She knows I love to think about any such matters. I spend much of my time criticizing bad religion, so I gratefully received the gnome in the spirit it was sent- as something to think about. And think about it I have.
It is popular these days to pit religion against science as if we must now choose between them. And, certainly, if we use the word “religion” as a synonym for “superstition,” chose we must. Religion has certainly inflicted its scars upon human history. Those of us who identify as religious must not cherry pick only positive examples like Mahatma Gandhi and leave out negative ones like the inquisitors.
It seems equally true that those who attack religion also have a philosophical obligation not to lift up only the worst examples of religion. They must also demonstrate why the world is poorer for having Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King as well. And, they must face the abuses of science with the exact same scrutiny applied to religion. It will not do to present the best of one against the worst of the other. It is as invalid to hold science exempt from its historical monstrosities as to do so with religion.
I concede that religion without science has a sorry history. But, it seems to me, we live at a time when rudderless technology also threatens the very existence of humankind. To what part of the human experience can we appeal in order to step outside the neutrality of science, which must remain in some ways detached from questions of emotion or even value? The pursuit of scientific objectivity, while irreplaceably necessary, must be put in balance with some other measure that does recognizes the rest of our human experience. If we must appeal to science in questions of truth, we must refer to something else in questions of what is good or beautiful. So, what is our appeal beyond the world Dr. King described as having “guided missiles and misguided human beings?”
As much as I love to hear a valid criticism of religious belief and practice, I also wince at those who think themselves above such human frailties. Those who believe they have thrown off all metaphysics and now look down upon the world with unalloyed objectivity, may be standing not so much in the spirit of science, as that of the Opus Dei. It is indeed a gift to humankind to dispel the misty curtains of superstition, but from what deep animal fountainhead springs the cruel relish of humiliating others in the process of doing so? Is possible that the scorn of a brilliant atheist at his or her intellectual inferiors stems not only from a love of science, but also from the same primate tectonics that birthed the religious inquisition he or she condemns? What deep glandular spring turns a humanistic, non-theistic teacher into the anti-religious bully?
I have no wish to quibble over words. If someone wants to equate the words “religion” and “superstition,” I only ask that they not project that vocabulary onto me. I am delighted and grateful to have that conversation so long as the belief that all religion is bad is presented as a premise to be tested and not as a maxim to be assumed. -And so long as ridicule is not counted as refutation.
I personally understand the word “religion” in much the same sense Kant understood the word “metaphysics.” For Kant, the subject of metaphysics was not an arrogant assertion about a super-sensual realm, but a humble exploration of the categories of human perception. The stories of religion can bring to consciousness currents of nature and life that are primordial to human reason but serve as part of the backdrop of our complete human experience. I believe science deals with our objective experience and religion with our subjective experience of the same universe.
To claim that all religion is good or bad per se, is like saying all philosophy or ethics is good or bad, per se. Rather than pit science against religion, I prefer to consider what each can and cannot do.
When I use the word “religion” in its highest sense, I am speaking of the wonder behind scientific discovery, and of the faith that it takes to gives one’s life to the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness. To me, religion is the “faith” behind science, the “hope” behind our ethics and the “love” behind our art. Good religion balances our entire experience without making special claims in any of those realms. I do not ask an anti-religious person to adopt my vocabulary, only to understand that we may be using the same words in a different sense.
There is some deep intuitive part behind the eye of the scientist that recognizes his or her home in the stars, in the web of life, and in the pulsing quandaries of the quantum. It is that part of the scientist that briefly pauses in reverence at some new discovery that I would call humankind’s highest “worship.” When we read scientific words like “dark energy” or “fossilized light” a part of us trembles in the same way our forebears trembled at fire. Only science could lead us to such truths. But only something akin to religion can feel what those facts mean.
Even if we do not use the word “soul,” there is some deep part of a human that will leave behind the world of the known facts to stand on the threshold of the unknown. We seek to know the universe not as a collection of objects but as a mysterious lover and as our home. Science reminds us that all such speech is poetic. Art reminds science that a human does not live by facts alone. Religion, as I use the word, is the intuitive something that balances our art, ethics and science.
When science teaches that the universe was not made for us, and that it does not seem to even know we are even here, something deep inside says that we are its children none-the-less. When science teaches the truth that everything in the universe bends toward everything else, religion pictures the meaning of that fact as the loving arms of a parent. Science saves us from the tragedy of taking such images literally, religion from the tragedy of living in a world of truths with no meaning.
I personally believe a person is richer for having both science and religion in balance. The planes that crashed into the twin towers represent both religion gone mad, and the use of technology without conscience. Both threaten our survival as a species. As a person of faith I must never forget that religion includes not only the figures I love like Gandhi, but also those I shudder at, like Osama bin Laden. I freely admit that Hitler used religion to drive Germany to madness. Those who would attack religion bear a similar obligation to remember that Hitler, too, had his scientists.