It was surprising to me to discover how difficult it seemed to write this sermon on a topic which I confess I have always thought peculiarly my own. With a bit of a mathematical background of my own - the queen of sciences - and brought up to respect and believe in a scientific world-view, the question of the relationship of religion and science has always been of interest to me. The historical conflict between them was a primary reason for my parents' rejection of organized religion, and my father still finds it difficult to be reconciled to the notion that I am a minister in one. His only consolation is that of all organized religions ours may be the most disorganized, and if not that, it is the one that seems most friendly to science. However, the different concepts of religion and science have become so inextricably tangled in our culture that it even becomes difficult to find a hymn in our own hymnal that does not confuse their different spheres.
It is not so much that science wishes to usurp the role of religion, although there are both scientists and religious people who misunderstand it so, as that where scientific knowledge is lacking, religion has long felt that it should fill the breach. The conflicts between religion and science mostly occur when religion makes pronouncements about scientific fact which, having the weight of religious doctrine, may not be questioned, but which may well be wrong. When scientists address religious issues, however scientific they are sounding, they are addressing them from the point of view of their religion. When religion addresses scientific ones it opens itself to scientific contradiction and the consequent loss of authority. It would be helpful if we all really understood the difference. It is necessary to disentangle them before we can really talk about how they are important to one another, and how all human experience needs the integration of mind and spirit, of science and religion.
We need to understand that science and religion are simply asking different questions - dealing with different issues. The title of the sermon is one way to formulate it. Science asks how things really are in this material universe in which we live. It deals with facts and evidence, with proof and theory. Religion asks questions of purpose and meaning. What is important? What are we here for? What is the meaning of my existence and of the existence of this material universe? Science deals with the material world (and in that I include energy, physical forces, all the things that make up the body of the universe and the physical laws that inform it). Religion deals with the transcendent and the holy.
In the early times of human existence, the world was an even more mysterious place than it seems to us now. Things happened, and no one knew why. When explanations were made that satisfied the insatiable human curiosity, the stories seemed to be enough. They were accepted and unquestioned, and attached to religious consciousness so that they could not ever be questioned. Knowledge of every kind was based on traditional authority, not just religious authority, but any authority that received the acceptance of the leading thinkers, and to question it was to rock the foundations of human culture. At the time when Roger Bacon was beginning his experiments, to question the authority of Aristotle was to be fined, and to continue the questions was to put yourself in danger. Then the scientific method was invented, and questions became the rule. The authorities had been right in trying to suppress science if their desire was to maintain their own authority. Questioning the traditional answers led to other answers and to doubt. When the answers endorsed by religion were found incorrect, the religion itself was in danger. Thus the quarrel between science and religion began in the efforts of religion to give answers to questions that really belonged to science.
We are still fighting the scientific question of the origins of the universe and this world upon which we live with those who feel that scientific answers deny their religious faith. Most modern religions have managed to integrate scientific discoveries with their ideas of creation - even Galileo has been forgiven for being right about the error of religion-endorsed science of his day - but the sects that seem to be growing in numbers and power at the moment are the ones that are still insisting on religious answers to scientific questions, and the fight comes when they want those answers taught as science. They even call it creation science, which can only mean that they have no idea what science is about. In the scientific world-view, the bottom line is what the evidence suggests, and that is what must be taught if you are teaching science, not, if it is taught properly, as unquestioned and unquestionable truth, but as the best answer we have discovered so far given the evidence available to us. When another answer is given based, not on evidence, but on religious authority, it is a conflict caused by a religion entering a field not its own - the field of science. As with my parents, this attempt to impose answers to questions that don't even belong to religion is probably one reason that the power of institutionalized religion weakens daily.
Another issue where science and religion are at open war is that of abortion. In this case there is a tendency for people to assume that scientists can answer what is essentially a religious question: What is human life? What makes it human and what priorities should we set when one life threatens the well-being of another? There is no question that the DNA of a human fetus would be human DNA. Does that make it a human being? So does the hair that I cut every six weeks or so contain human DNA, but no one would call it a human being. Scientists cannot answer the question. They can tell us about the process whereby a sperm and an egg become an embryo and then a fetus, and they can, with changing technology, change the age at which it can survive outside its mother's womb, but they cannot define a human being except in the most simplistic material terms - terms which cannot speak to questions of the worth and dignity of the individual. Those are religious questions, not because various religions demand that such questions remain in their purview, but because that is what religion is about. Science can't answer them, having neither the tools nor the framework, but these kinds of questions are the purpose of religion. They are questions not of material fact but of value, of purpose and meaning. What is a human being in the light of human dignity and the purpose of human life? What is its relationship, therefore, to what transcends the material world, its worth, its dignity, its purpose.
Occasionally it is said that what constitutes religion is that which lies outside the realm of human knowledge. That would perhaps be true if we mean by knowledge both those things that we now know and those that are subject to examination of the evidence. Otherwise we are saying that religion is about the same kind of knowledge which science is, and will be changed with each new scientific discovery. It is about different things altogether, things of the spirit. This sort of thinking is what makes us tend to put everything we don't understand under the rubric of religion, just as our primitive ancestors did. Thus matters of magic, of the occult, are automatically seen as religious issues. Whether or not crystals can affect human well-being is a scientific question, not a religious one. (Science answers no, but crystal worshippers listen only to their own beliefs.) Nevertheless, it is a matter subject to investigation of the evidence, and is therefore a scientific matter.
It has occurred to me that certain questions that seem on their very face to be the heart and center of religious questioning are actually scientific questions instead. Is there a being who created the heavens and the earth? If a being exists or not is a question of fact, whether or not evidence for or against it can ever be discovered. The great religious geniuses of the world were far less concerned with the nature of god than they were with describing the life of faith that commitment to the holy, however understood, required. The Buddha and Confucius even refused to speculate on the nature of the gods of their cultures. There are some science fiction stories which posit a universe containing ours, a denizen of which creates our world for entertainment. Whether or not such a thing could be, it can make no difference to our sense of religious purpose, our desire for justice, our love of beauty, our experience of love, our honoring of wisdom. Only such transcendent values as these are worthy of our faith, and only as such a god should create and foster them for their own sakes would it be worthy of worship.
The question of life after death is another that is assumed to be religious and in itself is not. Religion, it is said, is what we do with the realization that we live and that we are going to die. It is true that an awareness of our finitude requires us to consider the meaning of our lives, but learning that they are eternal would make them no more meaningful. If they have meaning they have it whether our lives be short or long. If they do not, stretching life out to eternity cannot make it meaningful. It is the quest for meaning and our commitment to living faithfully, our relationship to what transcends the material and makes it holy that is the religious life. Questions of fact belong to science.
I was reading an essay some time ago about the development of analog computers - computers that can learn, behaving similarly to the human brain. Digital computers can merely crunch the data that is given them. The writer of the article suggested that since the human mind had been unable to succeed in its quest for ethical and moral existence, but instead creating weapons of destruction, allowing some of the members of the human race to starve while others rolled in riches, and falling periodically into the sins of war and bigotry, social and moral decisions should be turned over to such an incorruptible and infinitely wise mind - making a computer, in effect, the equivalent of god. Without commenting on the propriety of such a surrender of moral freedom, I would suggest that however well an analog computer could learn to think, it still could only do so on the basis of the development of its original program, the creation of its human creator. In such ideas does the entanglement of religion and science reach its height, when scientists feel that science should make the same mistake that religion often has, assuming it can answer the questions that belong quite clearly to the other.
Religion and science are simply separate disciplines. Each asks its own questions, different in kind as well as content. Science can expect to find answers given sufficient evidence and its discipline of proof. Religious answers are those of faith: loyalty to ideals of goodness and of beauty. These things may be incarnate in the physical world, but it is the spiritual understanding that recognizes their importance. That importance cannot be discovered or defined by science but rather recognized and practiced in the religious life. Having disentangled religion from science, it now behooves me to put them together again, since the integrity of human knowledge requires that there be no final separation between mind and spirit. We cannot split our lives between science in the world and religion in church without a kind of schizophrenia which must ultimately be pathological. Neither can or need we reject one to embrace the other. The teachings of religion must affect our science, and the findings of science inform our religion. The teachings of religion will often indicate the direction of research. Do we wish to discover something to help humankind? It is religion which provides this motivation. Science will only ask us to increase our store of factual knowledge. Do we discover a way to decrease freedom and wisdom? It is religion that tells us that such discoveries should never be used.
The discoveries of science can affect religious attitudes as well. It is possible to believe in the higher worth of one ethnic group of human beings over another until the findings of science teach us that all humans descended from one ancestor and our differences in looks, in language and in custom are later developments in our evolution, but that at bottom we are all one kindred. Religious teachings of justice can use that knowledge to make the concept of justice apply to every human soul.
It is often said that human technology has outstripped our moral development. The path of science is a far clearer one than that of religion. How is a far easier question to answer than how come, and the answer is recognized when it is found. There is no method comparable to the scientific method in the field of religion. How do we discover what is really important, to what we should dedicate our minds and hearts? What is the nature of the holy, the transcendent which infuses life with meaning? Traditional authority works no more in the religious field than in the scientific to the free mind. (Another gift of science to religion) A critical intelligence is as important in the life of the spirit and heart as in that of the mind and body. Yet it works not through laborious discovery but through recognition - a recognition of the holiness which touches us when we seek justice, when we feel compassion, when we witness beauty or create it, when all that is good and lovely seizes us and we know that the meaning and purpose of our lives is explained and justified.