Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle.
– Albert Einstein
A spate of bestsellers—The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith by Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens—argues that religion, as we’ve known it, no longer serves the needs of our scientific, cosmopolitan world.
Books like these appeal to a public put off by science deniers, repulsed by clerical abuses, and alarmed by fundamentalist zealotry. Contemporary religious leaders, painfully aware of the relationship between public participation and institutional viability, know that empty pews, like empty theaters, herald obsolescence.
If religion is serious about restoring its public reputation, it could do so by partnering with science. I know that sounds naive, but hear me out. Religion heralds “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” Science gives us reason to think we can vanquish famine, disease, and poverty. What would it take for these venerable antagonists to emulate Rick and Louis in Casablanca and form a beautiful friendship?
By way of introducing my answer to this question, I’d like to acknowledge that, despite its current ill-repute in some quarters, religion has in fact gotten some very big things right.
A Few Things Religion Got Right
Any short list of religion’s greatest hits would include (1) the idea of god, (2) the golden rule, and (3) a vision of universal human dignity.
With the idea of god, early humans were imagining a being who understands things well enough to build them. If there’s a God who comprehends the world, and we’re made in His image, then we, too, might someday understand. As Stephen Hawking famously said, to comprehend the world is to “know the mind of God.”
Humans gain understanding, and hence a measure of control, by building models. A model is a representation of an object or phenomenon that simulates aspects of the real thing. Models take the form of theories that describe natural phenomena, stories or human beings themselves who show us how to behave, and spreadsheets that forecast how businesses will fare. By studying models we can anticipate the behaviors of the real world phenomena they mirror.
For most of human history, though religious models met a need for shared communal beliefs, they lacked explanatory power. Today, they’re often dismissed as mere myths, but it’s more fruitful to think of them as stepping stones to better models. We now understand some things far better than our ancestors, and other things not much better at all. Whether we’ll ever know God’s mind is an open question, but that our models of Nature are good enough to steal some of His thunder has been answered decisively with twentieth century technology. If E = mc2 is a jewel in crown of modern science, the golden rule, which embodies a symmetry reminiscent of those that shape physics models, is a gem in religious thought.
In addition to the world’s comprehensibility and the golden rule—which by themselves warrant a tip of the hat to religion—there is also the notion of universal dignity.
Theistic religions proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god—a “father” who loves all his “children” equally, according them equal dignity regardless of their status, rank, or role. The universality of dignity is not a description of life as we know it, but rather a prescription for life as it’s arguably becoming. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Though we should anticipate setbacks, the circle of dignity is slowly expanding. Explicit demands for dignity fuel recent protests in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and, in the form of the Occupy Movement, in North America.
Like good science models, the golden rule and the universality of dignity derive their power not from the zeal of true believers, but from the truths they encapsulate. The alternative to fundamentalism is not relativism, it’s ever more realistic models.
Ingredients of a Beautiful Friendship
Learning to see science models as provisional has resulted in unimaginable technological and economic gains. By taking a page from science, and embracing the improvability of personal beliefs and religious teachings, religion could foster parallel gains in personal growth, social harmony, and international cooperation.
The truth is we’ve been living without absolutes from the start. There really never were any, but until now we’ve needed to believe in them much as children fix on certain beliefs while they find their footing. With adolescence, we temper these beliefs, and with maturity we can let go of belief in belief itself.
That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by scientists. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it’s a theory. What else could it be? But it’s a rigorously tested theory and it makes sense to use it until we have something that’s superior.
When it comes to the discovery process, the differences between the eurekas of science and the revelations of religion are window-dressing. Yes, scientists wear lab coats and jeans, and we imagine prophets in tunics and loincloths, but investigators of every kind base their insights on meticulous observation and savor their “ah-ha” moments. The dysfunctional relationship that now exists between science or religion could be retired in favor of a beautiful friendship if both parties would acknowledge that:
- Both science and religion make use of educated guesses to identify new truth, devise rules, construct theories, and build models.
- Scientific and religious models that are found wanting must be revised or discarded.
- Human fallibility means revisions are the rule, not the exception. We’re well advised to “try, try again,” because one success, which may then spread via imitation, makes up for countless failures.
- Both scientific and religious precepts must be grounded in painstaking observation and are defended by reference to such evidence.
- The act of discovery—though it goes by the different names of eureka, epiphany, revelation, and enlightenment—is basically the same in all fields. An occasional ah-ha punctuates a lot of ho-hum.
- Science and religion reduce suffering in complementary ways: science by alleviating material wants and curing disease; religion by cultivating kindness and compassion.
- Both scientists and religious leaders have sometimes put their institutional interests above the public interest. Both science and religion have also produced leaders who have sacrificed themselves for truth, beauty, and justice.
The Peace Dividend
As dignity’s discoverer and its defender of last resort, a larger, revitalizing role for religion would emerge if it partnered with science. If they made peace, together they could usher in an epoch of universal dignity.
Religion could blunt accusations that it’s just another self-serving institution and regain its voice by:
- Sponsoring dialogues to clarify exactly what’s meant by “equal dignity for all.”
- Developing models that close the dignity gap that separates those who are regarded as somebodies from those who are taken for nobodies.
- Assisting organizations in aligning their cultures and practices with dignity-affirming values.
- Actively supporting the dignity movement.
- Critiquing the findings of neuroscience on the nature of mind, and helping us cope with advances in machine intelligence that may someday threaten our sense of selfhood.
- Designing dignity-preserving institutions of global governance.
- Ennobling the quest to achieve “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men.”
If science and religion cooperate to extend dignity, we could realize the promise of a fair, just, and peaceful world, not merely in our dreams, but here on Earth, not in the indefinite future, but before this century is out.
Indeed, there is reason to hope.
This article is a synopsis of my recent blog series “Religion & Science: A Beautiful Friendship?”. The complete series can be downloaded as a free eBook here, and it is also available as a print-on-demand edition.