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Friday, October 28, 2011

Are Science and Religion Compatible?

I was invited to speak in favour of this motion at Manchester University tonight.  This is the transcript of my initial contribution:-

I address you as an Orthodox Christian priest ... by which I mean I belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church as found today in Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but now also in the west. This is important because not all Christians take the same approach to theology; and in this regard we Orthodox Christians do not get involved in so called “proofs for the existence of God.” Tonight, however, I am addressing something quite different than proving the existence of God, but rather the question: Are science and religion compatible?

1. Let me begin by pointing out firmly that bad religion and bad science are not compatible. But what do I mean by “bad religion” and “bad science”? 

2. Bad religion seeks to challenge science in part or in whole as an alternative explanation for how the world works. Religion, however, has no competence to explain why the wind blows, why my eyes are blue or what happened at the moment of creation. These questions, these explanations, belong to science and science alone. The world is full of bad religion transgressing its limits, quite aside from the terror and violence of which it is sometimes capable. In creationist museums in the southern states of North America, for example, humans walk with dinosaurs in 6000 BC, whilst elsewhere some religious leaders, influenced by both “bad science” and “bad religion” continue their relentless efforts to infiltrate secular institutions in order to suppress scientific freedom. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is on the rise again, particularly in the west; and this is not good either for religion or for science.

3. Bad science, however, commits its own errors in turn. Bad science seeks to characterise all religion as “bad” - that is - superstitious, redundant, lazy, fundamentalist, obscurantist, unconcerned with evidence and meaningless in its information content. Now if ALL religion were like that then I would readily join forces with the atheists. Happily, however, not all religion is like this. 

4. Bad science goes on to declare anything that cannot be measured and theorised as infantile thumb sucking or incomprehensible gobble-dee-gook. Emboldened, it then breaches the limits of the scientific method by asserting its own faith statements, namely, that the Cosmos is without purpose and that human morality has little if no transcendent, universal grounding. Therefore, with bad science masquerading as religion, the most one can hope for in a pointless universe is merely the chance of an excess of happiness over misery; and if intractable misery is to be our lot then stoicism is the best option in the face of such suffering and unhappiness. One cannot and should not hope for anything more.

5. Now, let’s get more positive. What about good science and good religion? Good science does not trespass the boundary of its own sphere of operation - which is to account for the world as it is. With the understanding that good science brings, as it is constantly revised and refined in the face of new data and discoveries, human society becomes better adapted to its environment and the blessings of scientific progress become clear. There is, therefore, a certain evolutionary relevance of science in the remarkable development of the human species. Without good science we would all still be stuck in the proverbial cave, sacrificing our first born to appease the rain gods. Once we understand the importance of good science for all of humanity, perhaps some will not feel so threatened by science as a whole. 

6. Good religion produces holiness, compassion and justice through a relationship with the divine. Now I am definitely NOT saying that such transparent goodness ONLY comes from an explicit faith in God ... far from it. According to Judaeo-Christian-Islamic teaching we are ALL made in the image and likeness of God; and we should expect to see the goodness of God in ALL human life, irrespective of religion. But some of us, perhaps many of us, can only be transformed by goodness through a personal, loving relationship with God. Science can describe this search for goodness and this relationship with God in its evolutionary aspects in terms of human psychology and personal and community behaviour, including the striving for altruism and self-sacrifice. Good science can even explain goodness in naturalistic terms through neuro-chemical processes in our brains and the emergence of consciousness, but good science cannot judge one way or the other whether the God at the other end of this putative relationship exists or not. Neither can religion “prove” such a God or its insights into how to live in the world and relate to others as being eminently sound. However, what good religion can do is offer an invitation and an example, as the psalmist says, to:- “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

7. Now all of this has nothing to do with the disastrous attempt of bad religion to explain the world and its natural operations with revealed faith rather than scientific enquiry. Orthodox Christianity say against this:- “God does not explain anything. Things explain God.” What do I mean by this statement?

Orthodox Christians do not believe in God in order to satisfy their ignorance about the world; in short, to give them a comforting bogus alternative to the operations of science. We need to start the other way round, with the operations of science and seek to understand how thereby creation reveals God. One of our 7th century saints, Maximos the Confessor, put it like this:

“The Word conceals Himself mysteriously for our sakes within the rational principles of creatures and thus He reveals Himself accordingly through the visible things as through some written signatures as a whole in His fullness from the whole of nature .... the Invisible in the visible, the ungraspable in tangible things.” (Ambigua 33)

So whenever science discovers something about the natural world, that itself is a hymn of praise to the Creator, even if science itself must not put it in those terms.

8. With the aphorism:- “God does not explain anything, things explain God” clearly understood, religion and science can then walk side by side and contribute each other’s truths (with a small “t”) to the one Truth of humanity (with a capital “T”) in all its diverse forms. That unifying Truth affirms the reality and the relevance of both good science and good religion. We can all be empowered to seek that fullness of Truth in our different paths without attacking each other but by listening and learning with humility and grace. 

9. Believers will say that the one composite Truth has its ultimate source in God. However, accepting that this ultimate source is in God is not necessary in order to discover some important aspects of the Truth by using all those diverse and complementary means that we have developed whether scientific, artistic, humanistic or religious. Truth is one and it must not be allowed in human terms to destroy itself from within through futile competition between its several parts. Good science and good religion, therefore, are indeed compatible. We each have personal responsibilities to advance that harmonious interaction by the way we live our lives. We each make our own personal choices, but I deeply believe that humans together can choose to advance both good science and good religion for the benefit of us all.


Anonymous said...

Bless Father, I believe I understand what you are saying and I agree mostly. However, I'm not sure I understand this point:

"Without good science we would all still be stuck in the proverbial cave, sacrificing our first born to appease the rain gods."

Could you elaborate please? Thank you.

Father Gregory said...

Certainly Daniel. Before humans understood the progress of the seasons and the weather in terms we understand today the best "science" they had at the time was a religious explanation. If crops failed through lack of rain, then the rain god (responsible for rain's operation, behaviour and regularity) must be annoyed, so to buy his good behaviour you obviously had to sacrifice something of your own to repay your indebtedness to him (or her). When monotheism came along and with it the ultimate transcendence of God to creation, the natural world was (literally) demystified of the gods, enabling human understanding to gain an accurate picture of the world. Many atheists suppose that even monotheism must now go because "it" still imperils science. This thinking was first set forth systematically by Auguste Compte, arguably the father of modern atheistic positivism.

David Milne said...

Gregory, I really am at loss as to how you can suggest that monotheism has led to the 'ultimate transcendence of God.' Given that all religions consist entirely of a faith position precisely because there is no evidence for the existence of (any) God! Hence 'faith.' After several thousand years of theological study, there is still NO evidence! The problem with all religions is that they are forced to pretend that they are seekers of 'truth' - by the somewhat dubious and irrational means of claiming that (their) God exists. Claiming God exists is not actually evidence for God! Consider: most animals - including ourselves - have 5 senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. By definition then, religion claims the existence of a 6th sense - with (again!) absolutely no evidence whatsoever! And therein lies the fundamental difference between the two: science depends upon evidence and uncertainty; religion attempts to provide certainty without evidence. QED

Father Gregory said...

My comment on the other thread about a one-to-one dialogue has not changed David so I won't be replying to this post. It's a personal encounter I want not grandstanding to an audience.

Syrian Fire said...

Father Gregory,

Can you say something about why you think us Orthodox tend to avoid the attempts to "prove" the existence of God, which is, at least in some quarters, a venerable tradition in the West and which, I am almost completely convinced, does oh so much more harm than good because it ultimately becomes like characters in a Shakespearean tragedy deliberating upon the existence of Shakespeare (and if Mr. Milne was a character in this tragedy he would insist that Shakespeare must be another character living in the world of the play). But why do you suppose the Orthodox have generally avoided these debates?

P.S.- I came across your talk on AFR about Science and God and found it very interesting and also a relief since you maintained integrity both in how you described science and the faith. I am afraid far too many clergy members who weigh in on this issue almost always are weak on one or the other.

Syrian Fire said...

I might add that science is simply powerless to inform the question "what is a good life" or even "what is the right thing to do in a particular situation." In other words, an atheist and a theist are on the exact same footing for all ontological presuppositions and the morality and meaning that flows out of those presuppositions. I owe this thought to philosopher Roy Clouser, who helped me to see that most atheist rhetoric has become a trick of confusing the way we find the boiling point of water (which they claim for all of life) and the way we figure out all those big "why" questions. Or, to put it the way Clouser does, there is no such thing as "religious" neutrality. And this hearkens back to the Biblical view that humans only either follow false gods or the one true God. There is no third neutral alternative in which a religious animal suddenly and magically ceases to be just because he claims it.

Nicholas said...

Father Gregory, I am only now seeing this blog post, and am certainly moved by it. Two lines stand out to me:

“God does not explain anything. Things explain God.”


“So whenever science discovers something about the natural world, that itself is a hymn of praise to the Creator, even if science itself must not put it in those terms.”

The first statement caused me to look at science/religion debate from a counter-intuitive viewpoint. When I did that, the argument about whether science and religion are at odds over explaining the natural world was no longer obvious.

The second brought to mind something I have experienced that I cannot fully explain. I am not a scientist, but I do read quite a lot of scientific literature, and there are times that while learning about a certain subject I will reach a transcendent understanding of the concept, and at that point, I am literally shaken to the core by the beauty logic of nature.

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