Conflict Between Science and Religion

The Incredible Assumption

One hears on all sides that the conflict between science and religion is over. For four centuries the battle has raged: in astronomy over the earth's position in the universe; in geology over the earth's age; in biology over the evolutionary hypothesis; in psychology over Freud's right to "peep and botanize into man's soul." Bitter the struggle has been, and long.

Yet (so runs the tale) it has achieved its purpose. Resolution has been secured, concord established. Councils of bishops now speak of scientists as having a religious obligation to follow the truth wherever it leads, and scientists, rejecting the Comptean thesis that religion is to be superseded by science, are busy setting up institutes for religion in an age of science. Occasionally a Bible-belt college shows bad form by refusing to allow evolution to be taught, or a Jesuit priest writes an eyebrow-raising book on the phenomenon of man. But these are exceptions. Concord and good fellowship are the orders of the day. For is not truth one, and are not science and religion but two complementary approaches to it?

In the midst of so much agreement, a demur may sound jarring, but I think it has its place. Several years devoted to teaching religion at one of the leading scientific institutions of our day has led me to see the matter in a somewhat different light.

It's true, of course, that the former battles are drawing to a close. Copernicus, Darwin, Freud geology and Genesis are not today the war cries they used to be. But the fact that certain battles have run their course is no guarantee that a general armistice has been signed, let alone that a just and durable peace has been established. I, for one, suspect that we are still a long way from the day when lion and lamb shall lie down together, and sages sit, each under his own disciplinary vine and fig tree, in full accord.

Where Is Science Headed?

As I shall be saying some things about science in the minutes ahead, it is important that I interject a disclaimer. The fact that I happen to be in the employ of an institution polarized around science should be taken to mean no more than just that. A British statesman once confessed that his knowledge of mathematics stopped with a desperate finality just where the difficulties began. I could easily paraphrase that statement in present context; a college major in any of the sciences could step to the board and produce equations that would bring my thinking to instant halt. Still, it is impossible to teach at a place like M.I.T. without encountering certain winds of doctrine, and over the years a vision of the program on which science is embarked has come to take shape in my mind.

It has six parts:

First, we shall create life. Some assume that in a rudimentary way with the giant molecules, amino acids, and viruses this breakthrough has been achieved already.

Second, we shall create minds. At this point some of us are likely to suspect a gigantic finesse, but no matter: with cybernetics and artificial intelligence, the analogy between minds and thinking machines is being pressed to the hilt.


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Third, we shall create adjusted individuals via chemistry: tranquilizers and energizers, barbiturates and amphetamines, a complete pharmacopeia to control our moods and feelings.

Fourth, we shall create the good society via "behavioral engineering," a program of conditioning, liminal and subliminal, which through propaganda and hidden persuaders will induce men to behave in ways conducive to the common good.

Fifth, we shall create religious experiences by way of the psychedelics: LSD, mescalin, psilocybin, and their kin.

Sixth, we shall conquer death; achieve physical immortality by a combination of organ transplants and geriatrics that first arrest the aging process and then roll it back in rejuvenation. (See Robert Ettinger, The Prospect of Immortality.)

Walden Two: Behaviorally Engineered Utopia

I hasten to insert two qualifications. I have not heard any scientist list these six objectives as parts of a single program, and there are many who discount all of them. But the basic point stands. Each of the six parts of this emerging program commands not just the labors but the faith of some of our finest scientists. Several years ago I invited B. F. Skinner, dean of American experimental psychologists, to discuss with my students the behaviorally engineered utopia he had sketched in Walden Two. In introducing him I said that I wanted the students to have major purchase on his time, but I wanted to ask one question and I would ask it at the start.

A decade had passed since he wrote that book; had his thinking changed significantly in the interval? Frankly, I expected him to enter some qualifications, to confess that he had been a somewhat younger man then and that things were proving to be a bit more complicated than he had supposed. To my surprise his answer was the opposite. "My thoughts certainly have changed," he said, "This thing is coming faster than I had suspected would be possible."

Perhaps my theology has been inadequately demythologized, but I have difficulty squaring this sixfold program with religion. To the extent that it is taken seriously, God would seem indeed to be dead; to the extent that it is actualized, he will be buried. (See E.O. Wilson's Gods Funeral.) Instead of a thing of the past, the conflict between science and religion may be shaping up in proportions greater than any we have thus far known.

Science Provides Clues For Religion

I have no wish, however, to pursue this prospect further. Instead, I should like to reverse the drift I have followed up to this point. Having refused to cry peace where there is no peace, let me now ask whether science, whatever the conscious stance of its practitioners, does not in fact provide us with some clues as to what religion is essentially about.

What is the upshot of man's venture into reality by way of science? Brush aside the details of specific discoveries that are being reported at the rate of two million a year and come at once to the point. From the theoretical standpoint, the basic upshot of science is that it has disclosed a universe which in its factual nature is infinitely beyond anything we could have imagined while relying on our unaided senses.

A routine recall of two or three well-known facts will make this abundantly evident. Light travels at the rate of 186,000 miles per second. That's about seven times around the world each second. Now take the time-span that separates us from Christ and multiply it, not fifty times, but fifty thousand times, and you have the approximate time it takes a beam of light to move from one end of our galaxy to the other.

Our sun rotates around the center of our galaxy at a speed of one hundred sixty miles per second. That's fast; how fast we can perhaps appreciate if we recall the difficulty we have had getting rockets to attain a speed of seven miles per second, the speed required for them to escape from our earth's atmosphere. The sun travels roughly twenty-two times as fast as this escape rate, at which speed it takes it approximately 224 million years to complete one revolution around our galaxy. If these figures sound astronomical, they are actually parochial, for they are confined to our own galaxy. Andromeda, our second closest neighbor, is one-and-a-half million light-years removed, beyond which the universe falls away abysmally, range after range, world after world, island universe after island universe. In other directions the figures are equally incomprehensible. Avogadro's number tells us that the number of molecules in four-and-a-half drams of water (roughly half an ounce) is 6.023 times 102', roughly 100,000 billion billion. It's enough to make one dizzy; enough to make the mind reel, and spin, and cry out for a stop. Nay, more. From the vantage of our ordinary senses the vision is incredible utterly, absolutely, completely incredible.

Only, of course, it's true.

Vast Universe Permeated by Love

Now along comes an Isaiah, a Christ, a Paul, a Saint Francis, a Buddha; along come men who are religiously the counterparts of Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Kepler, and they tell us something equally incredible about the universe in its value dimension. They tell us of depth upon depth of value falling away from this visible world and our ordinary perceptions. They tell us that this universe in all its vastness is permeated to its very core by love. And that's incredible. I look at the newspaper every morning and say to myself, "It cannot be!" Yet in my reflective moments I find myself adding, "Is it, after all, any more incredible does it any more exceed the limits of our normal human experience—than what my science colleagues are saying in their sphere?"

Of course, scientists have the advantage here, for they can prove their hypotheses, whereas values and meanings elude the devices of science like the sea slips through the nets of fishermen. But this only leads me to press the analogy between science and religion farther. The factual marvels of the physical universe are not evident to the naked eye. Who, relying only on his own gross, unaided vision, could suspect that electrons are circling their nuclei at the rate of a million million times a second? Such truths are disclosed to the scientists only through certain key perceptions, certain crucial experiments. The far-flung embroideries of science, and the entire scientific worldview, are based on a relatively small number of such experiments.

If this be true in science, why not in religion as well? If factual truth is disclosed not through routine perceptions but through key or crucial ones, might not this be the case with religious truth as well? The Lord appearing high and lifted up to Isaiah; the heavens opening to Christ at his baptism; the universe turning into a bouquet of flowers for Buddha beneath the Bo tree. John reporting, "I was on an island called Patmos, and I was in a trance." Saul struck blind on the Damascus road. For Augustine, it was the voice of a child saying, "Take, read"; for Saint Francis, a voice which seemed to come from the crucifix. It was while Saint Ignatius sat by a stream and watched the running water, and that curious old cobbler Jacob Boehme was looking at a pewter dish, that there came to each that news of another world which it is always religion's business to convey.

Purity of Heart and Ultimate Reality

A final step in the comparison is needed. If the universe of science is not evident to our ordinary senses but is elaborated from certain key perceptions, it is equally the case that these perceptions require their appropriate instruments: microscopes, Palomar telescopes, cloud chambers, and the like. Again, is there any reason why the same should not hold for religion? A few words by that late, shrewd lay theologian, Aldous Huxley, make the point well. "It is a fact, confirmed and reconfirmed by two or three thousand years of religious history," he wrote, "that Ultimate Reality is not clearly and immediately apprehended except by those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit." Perhaps such purity of heart is the indispensable instrument for disclosing the key perceptions on which religion's incredible assumption is grounded. With the unaided eye, a small faint smudge can be detected in the constellation of Orion and doubtless an imposing cosmological theory founded on this smudge. But no amount of theorizing, however ingenious, could ever tell us as much about the galactic and extra galactic nebulae as can direct acquaintance by means of a good telescope, camera, and spectrascope.

I don't know in what direction such thoughts drive your mind; mine they drive in the direction of God. But the word doesn't matter; it's the assumption itself that counts, or rather the reality to which it points. Just as science has found the power of the sun itself to be locked in the atom, so religion (by whatsoever name) proclaims the glory of the eternal to be reflected in the simplest elements of time: a leaf, a door, an unturned stone. And so, for this quasi-religious, quasi-secular age, these lines titled "White Heron" by John Ciardi:

What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare, a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky--then gone. 0 rare! Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise the white original burst that lights the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays, I sit by pond scums till the air recites
Its heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.


Beyond the Postmodern Mind by Huston Smith.

This article was excerpted with permission from the book:

Beyond the Postmodern Mind, ©2003,
by Huston Smith.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Quest Books/Theosophical Publishing House. www.questbooks.net

Info/Order this book.


Huston SmithAbout the Author

HUSTON SMITH, PH.D., is former Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Syracuse University. His many books include Why Religion Matters, winner of the 2001 Wilbur Award for excellence in communication of religious issues.

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