Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Science and religion

A random passer-by contacted me off LJ to ask: Is it difficult to reconcile science and religion? The flippant answer is: in my world, they never really quarrelled. But I thought I might expand a bit on that, especially as a few people expressed interest in seeing my thoughts on the topic when I alluded to it.

I think asking this kind of question relies on certain (often unstated) assumptions about both science and religion. So let me have a go at defining why I am not religious in the sense that some random stranger probably assumes, and also why science is different from the conception of it I think the questioner holds.

I can't remember who it was that said we shouldn't assume that a certain strand of Fundamentalist American Protestantism represents all religion. (I also suspect that the media portrayal even of that sort of religion is an unfair caricature, but I'm no expert.) My religion, Reform Judaism, is closer to that assumed model than many; we're working from a similar founding principle of monotheism, and we have one major text, the Old Testament, more or less in common. So we're using some of the same metaphors. But I do think the differences between my religious approach and that stereotype is more profound than just, I'm nice and tolerant and emphatically non-proselytizing whereas they are mean old fundamentalists who hate gay people and want most of the world to go to Hell.

So what does religion mean to me? I will admit I am somewhat embarrassed about talking about my personal beliefs and religious understanding (you'll get a readier answer if you ask personal questions about, say, sexuality, for sure). But I'll have a go, and if you want to ask further questions, I'll do my best to answer them.

The starting point of my religion is monotheism: God is One, and almost everything else is up for grabs, but not that. God is so utterly unique that it is not possible to describe or define God, because God can not be compared to any material thing. There is some relationship between the nature of God and the nature of the universe and existence, which for a limited human understanding is partially approximated by talking of God as the Creator.

So far so deist; I suppose where religion comes in is that I believe that this God has, so to speak, chosen to enter into a relationship with human beings. Revelation, not creation, strikes me as the real miracle. By revelation I don't necessarily mean that a particular set of texts were dictated word for word by God, but that God has given people some means by which they can try to relate to the Divine, however paradoxical this may be for a God who is so utterly unique and undefinable. I'm sorry if this is couched in rather abstract terms, but that's the best I can manage for an explanation.

Claiming to know how revelation works would be like claiming to know how God works, which I emphatically don't (to me, that is essentially idolatry). But it seems to me that part of it is living within and exploring the system defined by centuries of religious thought. And part of it is looking for God within God's creation. Believing that God created everything we can observe (and probably a whole load of things beyond what we can observe too) doesn't at all seem incompatible with wanting to know exactly how the universe works. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my belief in a Divine Creator encourages me to study creation in as much detail as I am able.

Science, to put it very simply, seems like one of the best tools available for doing this. To me, science is definitely a tool, a method, not a collection of facts. I've discussed this a bit before (the bits of that post which are about sex point to a post that has unfortunately now been removed). The only way science can be seen as being in conflict with religion is if science makes one set of assertions which conflict with the assertions made by a particular religion. I don't think science is about making assertions anyway; it's about making deductions from experiments to construct falsifiable hypotheses. And my religion is not making the kinds of assertions that conflict with empirical evidence either; I don't hold it as an article of faith that the world was created in 7 days 6000 years ago. This isn't because I have rejected that belief in favour of scientifically derived facts about the history of the universe, but because my religion never asserted that in the first place.

I am aware that to certain people at certain times, science has meant rational positivism or dogmatic materialism. If science is seen as being atheist by definition, then it's pretty circular to point out that it is in conflict with theistic religions! But that's not what science means to me. Equally, I am aware that some religious people, including a minority of Jews, believe that the Bible is literally true and discusses actual historical facts. That belief does require one to deny some empirically derived models of things like cosmology, evolution, and what happened several thousand years ago. I don't think that denying those models is to reject science altogether, because science is not a dogma, but it is very likely to lead to rejecting science.

Anyway, that is not my attitude to the Bible; my religious tradition has a very creative relationship with sacred texts. They are spiritual and moral guides, and they give people an insight, as far as it is possible for finite human beings to have such insight (see above about the miracle of revelation) into the nature of God. My religion has no problem with telling God to butt out of discussions of Biblical interpretation, since God gave the text to us and our human perspective. And it has no problem with making interpretations such as from creating an imagined dialogue between Jonah and the whale about theology and eschatology, to creating an elaborate legal and practical system of separating meat products from dairy products based on the injunction not to boil a young animal in its mother's milk. So it's a long way from being a literalist tradition!

Science is a good tool for understanding how the material world works, and the latter is a religious duty for me personally, as I understand these things. Science is not a good tool for probing the question of whether there is anything out there which is metaphysical, whether God or anything else. Because by definition if metaphysical entities do exist, they are not susceptible to empirical analysis. God who can't be defined is also God who can't be measured or tested or analysed. Science is not a tool at all for defining moral values, because it isn't really even possible to frame the right questions in a scientific way. But science may well be a good tool for working out the practical consequences of moral values once defined.

So, primarily I see science as a religious value because as a scientist, I am devoting a great part of my life to studying an aspect of how God's creation works. It's also a religious value because using science to know more about how the world works helps people to create technology to improve the human condition. This is not an essay about technology and religion, but if you are curious, I am (from a religious standpoint) absolutely pro technology. My religion does not give value to leaving God's creation in its so-called "natural" state; we are specifically enjoined to have dominion over the earth, and later tradition has built on this to regard people as God's partners in creation. The world is not perfect; to regard it as such is pretty insulting. I don't claim to know why God decided to create an imperfect world, but I see it as a core religious value to try to improve and repair it.

As it happens I have ended up in a quasi-medical field. It's easy to justify that helping to find better cancer treatments is a good thing for a religious person to be doing, but I am very suspicious of the attitude that directly medical research is somehow worthier than any other kind. Primarily, I think what I do is morally good because it adds to human knowledge, and that's true of much less directly applied scientific research. I also think it's religiously good to try to maximize one's potential as a human being, and science is something that I happen to be good at so it seems morally right for me to put effort into that area.

So the only conflict I am left with is deciding whether I should use my science icon or my religion icon for this post...
Tags: essay

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