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.