Science and religion
Years ago I had breakfast with a well-known scientist, let’s call him Richard. Richard had just finished a book on science, creationism, and religion. That was pretty much all Richard talked about: it turns out he was not a big fan of creationism – neither am I, if you are curious – and also he was not a big fan of religion. Actually, I am understating it: he hated religion. He really really hated it. His opinion started me thinking. I was surprised by his vehemence, as it did not match my own recollection of my Roman Catholic upbringing. His anger seemed misplaced when I thought about those I knew who had become nuns or gone into the priesthood. Those people were touched deeply by something, a sense of wonder about the way of the world, they had a need to commit themselves to that mystery.
Around the same time, I had a conversation about science and religion with someone who is now a well-known politician. Let’s call him Justin. I don’t know how we got onto this, it somehow evolved from him “making small talk with a Dean of Science” to a point where the conversation drifted into creationism – again, I am not a big fan – and then religion. Justin’s opinion was that science and religion were separate things, unrelated, and that was why creationism made no sense, as it was make-believe science. Fair enough about creationism, and not far from my own opinion about religion – although even in a private conversation, it was a careful politician’s position. His opinion started me thinking as well – and despite my partial agreement, it did not jibe well with the excitement I see in in children’s eyes when they hear about and see science. Children know nothing of the scientific method, they are touched by something else, a sense of wonder. That sense of wonder, in some, leads them to become scientists.
I’ve written about what I like about science several times. The scientific method tests all hypotheses against experiment to see what is correct. We do this not only to convince ourselves, but also to convince others that we have created new knowledge. The method incorporates an implicit respect for others that anyone can be convinced by clear evidence; plus the implicit respect that anyone can create new knowledge this way, just follow the rules, regardless of your shoe size, hair color, or what have you. This is pretty clear-cut, powerful stuff. Like many scientists, I like the way science mixes a sense of wonder with a pretty-crisp take on what is real.
Religion is a different matter. I meet people of many religions, including those without one. Like most people, I figure people’s religious beliefs are their own business. Having said that, I remember some values of Catholicism from my childhood upbringing which I think everyone can get behind regardless of their personal beliefs: faith, hope, and charity – or – the importance of family and community, the necessity of responsibility, and the possibility of forgiveness. Not always so clear-cut perhaps, but to be a scientist, or any sort of person without these moral values is to be much the lesser.
It is powerful stuff to make the bold claim one knows the nature of the world, or even the nature of the human heart. Science and religion are not by their nature antagonists, or even complementary yin-yang forces, they are simply different. What they share is an engagement with the mystery and sense of wonder in the world around us all.