Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Science and religion

Are science and religion compatible? Science and religion are two different ways of acquiring an understanding of the universe we live in. Although the conclusions they reach at times contradict one another (as Galileo so famously discovered in Renaissance Europe[1], and as immunization clinic volunteers more recently discovered in Pakistan[2]), neither science nor religion is defined by its content, but rather by its methods. Hence the question: is it possible for both perspectives to be recognized as worthy human enterprises? Can an individual person be simultaneously engaged in both? I’ve encountered two reasonable answers.
The first, held by many intelligent friends of mine including several scientists, is that the two are “nonoverlapping magisteria[3]”, that is, they are tools for promoting understanding in entirely different domains of inquiry. One deals with the empirical, that which can be observed and quantified; the other deals with the spiritual, that which is so fundamental to the operation of physical reality that it cannot be examined by physical means. The neuronal membrane potential can be measured; G-d cannot.
The second view, favored mainly by those who prefer the term “atheist” to “agnostic”, is that religion is inherently flawed as a means of learning about the universe. Science is rigorous, self-correcting, open-minded, and perpetually skeptical, whereas religion is fuzzy, establishmentarian, dogmatic, and resistant to challenges. Truth is truth, they say, and one’s approach to ascertaining truth must make sense, in any domain. Religious faith, proponents of this view hold, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is intellectually primitive at best, lazy or even dishonest at worst.
Neither view is likely entirely correct. The first ignores the fact that science specifically precludes faith: if it can't be demonstrated, or conversely, falsified, it can't be asserted. The second ignores the fact that many highly intelligent, thoughtful people hold religious beliefs. Carl Sagan, posthumous champion of the modern-day atheist (a distinction he might abdicate, were he still alive), quotes an anonymous religious leader in his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World[4]:

“Honest religion, more familiar than its critics with the distortions and absurdities perpetrated in its name, has an active interest in encouraging a healthy skepticism for its own purposes… There is the possibility for religion and science to forge a potent partnership against pseudo-science. Strangely, I think it would soon be engaged also in opposing pseudo-religion.”

Does religion promote or discourage skepticism? If religious thinking does in fact permit questioning, doubt, and revision of cherished beliefs, then certainly a productive, progressive relationship with science is possible. But what form would that take? How does religious skepticism work? How does it resemble, and how does it differ from, the scientific method? I welcome any insights you might have.