As the title of this post perhaps implies, I do not think that the teachings of various religions around the world and the findings of science necessarily need to clash. I have written about this topic a few times, and if interested, here a couple of links: The Dogma of Science and Just A Little Bit Exaggerated: A Short Look on the “Clash” Between Science and Religion. I believe the apparent battle that rages on between science and religion is one of the most unnecessary intellectual conflicts out there, yet it has been widely ingrained into popular discourse across the Western world. Many atheists I have talked with in the past tend to reject belief in the divine partly because they think the findings of science have largely disproven or at the least haven’t found any evidence for the existence of God in some form or other. Consequently, many have adopted a materialist worldview, grounded in scientism as an ideological system holding that science will one day reveal the answers to all the questions in the universe.
This ideological system has become heavily entrenched in the scientific establishment across the world – in universities, in government bodies, in scientific journals and so on. And given the reputation and prestige of materialist scientists in the modern world and their positions of influence, it’s no wonder that their philosophical worldview has captured the minds of many in the general public. With such an explicit rejection of the existence of something more in the universe than just physical matter, it’s no wonder a perception of a clash between science and religion has emerged.
But it’s not entirely the fault of atheists and scientists. Fundamentalists of the world’s religions have pushed back against the tide of science, rejecting its findings rather than engaging with these discoveries. As is often covered in media, Biblical literalists will deny rather well established theories (in the scientific sense) such as evolution and the geological age of the earth. They take stories and poems from the Bible – many quite clearly intended to be myths, and well, poetical, rather than scientific accounts of the world – and create an alternative explanation for the universe far removed from reality. Dinosaurs living among people, a flat earth, the ridiculous life expectancy of our ancestors, just to name a few things people have conducted theories about based on sometimes obscure passages in the Bible.
In this sense, religion and science truly are at odds, and unfortunately the extremes are always the loudest, giving the impression that there is a monolithic clash, where you have to choose to wallow in the brainwashed ignorance of religion, or embrace the enlightening salvation of an atheistic worldview. Or, according to creationists, fall to the trickery and evils of Satan, or join the true believers of God.
But, as for most things, there is a more balanced middle way, whether or not you believe in God or follow a religion. It is by simply recognising that the clash is ultimately false in the sense that both religion and science express different truths about reality. Science and religion asks a different set of questions about the world and have entirely separate means of enquiry to find out the truth of matters. Though sometimes a portion of these questions overlap, for the most part, the questions religions ask are entirely different to those of scientists. Basically, they are seeking after two different types of truths – non-physical and physical, could be one way to put it.
So what are some of these questions and why are they two separate areas of truth? To sum it up, the questions that the sciences ask are purely about the material universe, from the quasars and galaxies, down to rocks, animals, molecules, and sub-atomic particles. Science asks questions about what we perceive directly through the senses (and technological extensions of the senses). The focus is almost entirely on the “how” side of things. How did consciousness emerge? How did the Big Bang happen? How did life on earth first appear? These are some of the more difficult big questions scientists ask themselves. “Why” all of these things happen is simply the matter of speculation for them, or of no interest at all. The empirical method is not designed to shed light on those. Answering “how” questions empirically is something that religion doesn’t do too well for the most part, since they base most of their truths on individual human experience via mythologised stories, established tradition and seeming divine revelations.
So religions, on the other hand, seek to find truths that have to do with meaning and morality – how to live a life with true purpose. Not too different to what philosophy attempts to do, really. A lot of “why” questions we ask ourselves from time to time. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is it to be good? Religions attempt to answer these questions, sometimes too confidently (admittedly), and over the millennia have come across some remarkable benefits for humanity. It’s inspired people to do and be better, allowing them to overcome trials against all odds (look at Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples). Religions have given us purposes in life, whether it’s to meet our creator at the end of it all, become enlightened, go to heaven, bring more justice to earth, and the like. Suffering, being such a permanent part of our existence in some form or other has found remedies in the teachings and practices of different religions. Science has done some of these things for us to an extent. But these are more the byproducts of technology rather than the actual belief in science as the only way to truth. You can still be cripplingly depressed and suicidal even though all the luxuries in the world provided by science are at your fingertips. We’ll always find a way to suffer even if all of us have enough genetically modified food and know ninety-nine to the thousandth percent exactly how the universe works.
There are simply some things that science cannot explain away sufficiently. And this isn’t some “god of the gaps” argument, there are just some areas in our human lives that are beyond science’s scope, which is what religion and more generally spirituality seeks to answer, or at least provide possibilities. And religions have had their own particular methods of pursuing these questions and truths that have evolved over thousands of years. Various individual practices such as yoga, meditation, prayer, contemplation, having mystical experiences are some ways of seeking and attaining these truths. Establishing a community with all its rituals and mannerisms, which religions do quite well, has been important for bringing harmony and people together, giving them a sense of who they are and their role in the world. They provide moral codes, some of which are meant for particular times, and others are universal and timeless moral lessons that have been drawn from across the world. Science can’t extract what and why something is truly ethically right and wrong by analysing our chemical make-up or looking at our behaviour. Science might be able to explain how morality developed, but has little to say on why we choose to be good in the first place as individuals, essentially why good is good.
So it is these sorts of truths that religions seek out. And it should be noted, to further the point, that it is not just matters of religion where science doesn’t have too much of a sway in. Art, nature, your loved ones, memories anything that evokes the conscious experience of emotions is not in the realm of science. Yes, neurologists can tell us how happy feelings are produced, how we might be depressed but science can’t tell us what that experience is like to be experienced. Neurological imaging can suggest the “level” of sadness in someone, but it doesn’t say anything on whether she’s sad because her cat died or that she lost her job. Knowing the properties of the brain doesn’t let you know what it’s like to be sad. One can’t explain why a painting is beautiful by breaking down the chemical composition of the materials used, or why a sunset can evoke such a raw feeling of awe purely by examining the rays hitting the eye and that being processed into a chemical reaction that creates an emotional response. Science really doesn’t have much to say on the individuals subjective experience beyond saying how the machine that hosts our individual consciousnesses work to get it running.
The stauncher advocates of a purely scientific worldview may point that all of these things I have mentioned don’t even exist, they are fictions that our mind has concocted as part of the process of evolution to help us deal with our survival. Meaning, right and wrong, and all of our values are the figments of an epiphenomenon of the brain which doesn’t really have any free will at all, even that’s an illusion. We’re basically nothing more than incredible bio-machines. But even if this is ultimately the truth, we don’t live like a machine, and we simply can’t live by what some of the conclusions which scientific findings suggest. We can’t function as though we don’t have free will. Society would crumble if people lived out the conclusion that right and wrong weren’t real. There could be an epidemic of nihilism if we acted truthfully in that the world was ultimately meaningless. I think it’s apt to say that we can’t live a life akin to what some ardent materialists suggest we actually are, i.e. pre-programmed robots.
Very few people would actually be willing to live out this truth, obviously. Even Sam Harris, who doesn’t accept free will, has said that he would not tell kids that they have no real control over their actions. People create their own meanings in an effort to give their lives a genuine purpose, it’s in our bones to crave meaning, even if it apparently doesn’t ultimately matter at the end of the day. Imagine a world where we acted as though any action was on a level playing field morally – murder is no better or worse than dedicating your life to charity. Few people really would want to take the risk of living and structuring a society that mirrors an ultimately indifferent universe.
This is exactly where religion and philosophy come in. They deal with the truths of not what is going on physically around us, but rather the truths of our subjective experience in consciousness, the truths of our lives. Whatever consciousness is and however it emerged, it for some reason or other has determined that it wants to be free, have meaning in life and seek after goodness, truth and the life well-lived. And this difference with science, whether you believe in God or not, is why religion shouldn’t be swept aside as though it is some archaic, outdated way of approaching the world.
It’s difficult to say if either set of truths, spiritual or scientific, is better or more valuable than the other for humanity overall, since they deal with entirely different matters. The subsequent consequences of both of these explorations of truth have their positives and negatives. Positively, the truths of religions can provide psychological and spiritual fulfilment for individuals and communities. And for science, it can bring us magical technological wonders taking us to places we never imagined. Negatively, religion can bring about fanatics willing to kill innocent people, whereas science can bring us the gas chambers and masses of people addicted to synthetic drugs. Given that they seem to compliment one another, neither is perfect, both science and religion (or spirituality), I believe, are ultimately necessary for human flourishing and our journey towards truth.